Systemic racism. It’s a concept we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, and while most Black folks believe it to be a persistent reality, many whites seem uncertain. Others flatly reject the idea, including key figures in the Trump administration who have denied its existence when asked about it in the wake of the current uprising.
If you find yourself in the skeptic camp, I have some questions for you, because I am curious as to your thought process.
We’ll start with an easy one.
Do you think systemic racism was ever a thing in America, such that it profoundly affected the opportunity structure, and skewed the distribution of economic resources in a way that generally favored whites and disfavored Blacks? Assuming you answered yes to that question — because if you said no, you need to re-take 8th-grade history, not spend your time here — then:
When did that stop being a thing? And what mechanism stopped it as an operative force in the lives of Black folks? Assuming you answered the 1960s, and specified the civil rights laws of that decade as the mechanism, then:
Since when does the passage of laws against hurtful behavior end that behavior? We have laws against murder, rape, robbery, assault, tax evasion, drunk driving, and all kinds of things, but millions of people still commit these crimes, even though such acts are punishable, often with serious jail time. So:
Why would anti-discrimination laws effectively end racial discrimination, when those who violate these laws (unlike those mentioned above) are not punished criminally but are merely subject to a civil lawsuit, presuming the victim can find and afford a lawyer to take their case? How much of a deterrent can such laws be when those who violate them aren’t likely to be caught, and even when they are, the most that typically happens to them is a relatively small financial penalty? If your answer has something to do with attitudinal change — in other words, people’s hearts and minds have also become less racist — OK, but:
Are people more opposed to being racists than being murderers, rapists, child molesters, or burglars? Because those things happen tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of times each year. Surely, people are not more opposed to racism than those behaviors, and yet those other things are far too common. So why would we assume racism wasn’t also prevalent?
Of course, the theory of systemic racism presumes that racially unjust systems can be created or maintained even in the absence of overt bigotry. Old boy’s networks for jobs — which research says are typically racially-exclusive — and standardized tests given to students who were exposed to unequal resources, perpetuate inequity even though persons in those networks or who rely on such tests may not be racists, per se.
Likewise, if police disproportionately stop Black motorists or pedestrians on suspicion of criminal behavior because aggregate crime rates are higher among Black folks than whites, they may not be acting with bigoted intent. They may be playing the odds. But those individuals singled out — most of whom will be innocent of any wrongdoing — will still have experienced a racially-disparate and humiliating injustice.
That is systemic racism: when policies and practices within institutions produce racial disparity in treatment and life outcomes, with or without intent.
Anyway, back to the questions.
If you recognize that systemic racism was a reality before civil rights laws, how do you explain that even before those laws, most whites insisted there was no real problem? Because according to Gallup polls in the early 1960s, between 62 and 85 percent of whites believed even then that Black people were treated equally and that Black children faced no systemic disadvantages when it came to education. What does it say that otherwise rational white people thought everything was fine, even when we can all now see how unjust America was? Might this suggest white folks are not the best judges of when racism is and is not present?
Even if we assume that civil rights laws somehow ended racism in the nation’s institutions, what about the residual effect of past systemic racism, which you already agreed was a problem in your answer to the first question? Do laws against discrimination wipe the slate clean on generations of unfairness? If you answered no, congratulations, you have uncovered another level of systemic racism: the intergenerational transmission of advantage and disadvantage due to past inequities that accumulate over time. If you said yes — if you believe these laws wipe the slate clean and create equal opportunity — then:
Please explain how that could be? If whites were historically advantaged and Blacks disadvantaged, by the time civil rights laws were passed, whites would have accumulated significant head starts in the labor market, education, housing, and wealth accumulation, relative to Black folks. What happens to those advantages and disadvantages? Do they disappear?
Imagine a marathon, where, for the first 20 miles, I made you run with ankle weights and jump hurdles. Now imagine that I finally decided this arrangement was unfair and agreed to remove the weights and hurdles. From that point forward, we would both be running under the same rules. But how could the remaining 6.2 miles be considered a fair race, even if I kept my word and never put a new obstacle in your way? Even if you ran just as fast as me — meaning you were just as talented and exerted the same effort — you would never catch up. How is that any different than what we’ve done with civil rights laws? I mean, except for the fact that rather than ankle weights and hurdles, the barriers were enslavement, lynching, forced segregation, and regular police brutality?
If you were from another galaxy and had come to investigate systemic racism in the U.S., what might you look for as circumstantial evidence of its existence? Might you start with Blacks and whites’ relative well-being with regard to things like wealth, occupational status differences, and earnings differentials? I realize you might say that gaps in these categories don’t prove racism — and I’ll come back to this — but at the very least, if there were systemic racism, we would expect to see those gaps, right?
If you answered yes but then insist there are non-racist reasons those gaps might exist, what are those? And how are these other variables independent of the history of racism that you have already stipulated was a thing? If you say — as some do — that income and wealth gaps are less about racism than different levels of work experience or education, explain how people’s work experience and education levels are independent variables unrelated to racism? Finally, explain why the typical white household headed by a high school dropout still has about 20 percent greater wealth than the typical Black household headed by a college graduate?
If you argue — as many do — that Black folks are worse off because there are more single-parent homes in the Black community, please explain why even Black kids in two-parent homes are 2.5 times as likely as similar white kids to be poor? And why is it that even the median white single parent has 2.2 times more wealth than the median Black two-parent household?
Do you think Black people are inherently inferior to white people, genetically, or because of some inherent cultural defect? If you answered yes, you are, by definition, a racist, and we have nothing else to discuss. If you said no, how do you explain these observable racial gaps in well-being? If they are not due to something wrong with Black people as Black people, what else other than racism — past, present, or a combination of the two — can explain them?
It is usually at this point that conservatives bring up the theories of Thomas Sowell, who argues there are cultural tendencies in the Black community that are not inherent to them but are maladaptations to the history of oppression. So it’s not that Black people are inherently inferior (which would be a racist argument), but in the face of oppression, they developed cultural norms regarding work ethic, family structure, education, government dependence, and violence, which are dysfunctional in the modern era.
Putting aside the accuracy of Sowell’s claims for now, please note that if these so-called cultural norms (which are actually not nearly as normative as many think), are adaptations to oppression, they still have their roots in oppression. Meaning they too are the residue of systemic racism. To act as if the larger society bears no responsibility for these things suggests that in the face of oppression, the victims are entirely responsible for fixing themselves. They must take personal responsibility for their actions in the face of injustice, but the dominant culture need not take any responsibility for the actions that created the injustices.
Why is personal responsibility something that applies to the targets of unjust policies and practices but not the perpetrators of those unfair policies and those who benefitted from them in relative terms?
If you believe this theory — that maladaptive cultural flaws beset the Black community and explain its position relative to whites more than racism — how could you (or anyone adhering to this view) be expected to treat Black people equitably? If an employer sees the Black community as a tangle of pathology, how can they evaluate black job applicants fairly? If a teacher views Black families this way, how can they be expected to treat Black students equally? If police buy into this mindset, how can they be trusted to protect and serve the black community equitably? Anyone who thinks Black people don’t face racism but lag behind whites because of cultural pathology will inevitably treat Black people worse than whites, perpetuating the very systemic racism their theory was intended to debunk.
Assuming none of this persuades you, what would you accept as proof of systemic racism? And if you answer that you would need evidence of Black and white people, with identical educations, from the same schools, with the same majors, who are the same age, with the same test scores and grades, being treated significantly differently in the job market, ask yourself:
Is this the same kind of rigid regression analysis you call for every time you hear a white person complain that their kid didn’t get into Yale because of affirmative action? Or when they say a Mexican took their job? Please show your work.
Why do you think it is so hard to find white and black people to compare who are precisely the same, as in the categories mentioned above? And what might that have to do with racism? You do realize that during segregation and slavery — which you already admitted made things unequal due to unfair treatment — there were also no such “exactly paired” whites or Blacks to contrast with one another, right? And this was because of racism, yes? So…
What is more logical: to believe that a nation in which white supremacy was deeply rooted for centuries, is still affected by that? Or that such a country has fundamentally changed and become an equal opportunity nation with no such obstacles? Which of these hypotheses is the more reasonable one? And finally:
Who should have the burden of proof in this matter? Should it be on those who insist inertia still operates as a principle, and that the thing that was a thing for 350 years (by everyone’s admission) is still a thing? Or should it be on those who would have us believe all of that has magically vanished and that Newton’s 1st Law of Motion doesn’t apply to the socio-economic universe?
Inquiring minds want to know.
’m an antiracism educator/author. Forthcoming: Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020). I post audio at patreon.com/speakoutwithtimwise