While most Black folks see systematic racism as a persistent reality, many Whites seem either uncertain or flatly deny its existence. I recently had the privilege of attending a three-evening course called, “A Long Talk about the Uncomfortable Truth.” One of the readings for that course was Tim Wise’s essay, “20 Questions for Those Who Deny Systemic Racism.”
I assume that those of you reading this newsletter acknowledge the existence of systemic racism as I do. Even though I don't deny it, some of Mr. Wise’s questions stimulated my thinking. I have extracted parts of his article, and offer these points as thought starters. Here is the link if you want to read his article in its entirety.
Tim Wise defines systemic racism as existing: when policies and practices within institutions produce racial disparity in treatment and life outcomes, with or without intent.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson calls systemic racism "systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantage African Americans."
Wikipedia defines the term as “the formalization of a set of institutional, historical, cultural and interpersonal practices within a society that more often than not puts one social or ethnic group in a better position to succeed, and at the same time disadvantages other groups in a consistent and constant manner that disparities develop between the groups over a period of time.”
When has the passage of laws against hurtful behavior ended that behavior? We have laws against murder, rape, robbery, assault, tax evasion, drunk driving, etc., but millions of people still commit these crimes, even though such acts are punishable, often with serious jail time. So why would we think that anti-discrimination laws would effectively end racial discrimination, when those who violate these laws 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?
One theory of systemic racism presumes that racially unjust systems can exist 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.
Are people more opposed to being racists than being murderers, rapists, child molesters, or burglars? Because those things happen thousands of times each year. Since people are not more opposed to racism than those recurring behaviors, why would we assume racism wasn’t also prevalent?
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.
Whites as judges of racism
Systemic racism was a reality before civil rights laws, yet even before those laws, most Whites insisted there was no real problem. 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 evidence showed how unjust America was? Maybe White folks are not the best judges of when racism is and is not present.
Nearly 40% of Whites, but only 9% of Blacks, say that Blacks are treated the same as Whites in our country. A majority of Blacks express pessimism about whether a solution to the problems of Black/White relations in the United States will ever be worked out. Indeed, Black Americans are as pessimistic as they have been since the question was first asked in 1993, with 66% claiming that race relations will always be a problem in this country. At the same time, White Americans express less pessimism about the future of Black/White relations than at any time since 1993. Currently, 45% of Whites say that race relations will always be a problem, and the 21 point gap between White and Black Americans’ expectations for the future of race relations is the largest that Gallup has recorded.
Past systemic racism
Even if some people assume that civil rights laws somehow ended racism in the nation’s institutions, what about the residual effect of past systemic racism? Do laws against discrimination wipe the slate clean on generations of unfairness? The answer is no. Another level of systemic racism is the intergenerational transmission of advantage and disadvantage due to past inequities that accumulate over time.
Since Whites were historically advantaged and Blacks disadvantaged by the time civil rights laws were passed, Whites 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? Except for the fact that rather than ankle weights and hurdles, the barriers were enslavement, lynching, forced segregation, and regular police brutality?
Wealth, occupational status, and earnings gaps
Some folks insist that there are non-racist reasons for gaps between Blacks and Whites with regard to things like wealth, occupational status differences and earnings differentials. Ask, then, how are these other variables independent of the history of racism? Some say that income and wealth gaps are less about racism than about different levels of work experience or education. Then how are people’s work experience and education levels unrelated to racism? How do we 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, then why is it than Black kids in two-parent homes are 2.5 times more likely than similar White kids to be poor? And why is it that the median White single parent has 2.2 times more wealth than the median Black two-parent household?
The median White household that includes a full-time worker has 7.6 times more wealth than the median Black household with a full-time worker.
A study by Dr. Christina Cross of Harvard University found that access to resources, more than family structure, effects Black kids’ success. Using over 30 years of national data, she found that family structure has a weaker relationship to the educational success of Black adolescents than of White adolescents. Black youths are more likely to be exposed to socioeconomically stressful environments than are White youths. Plus Black families tend to live closer to extended relatives than White families do and they exchange more emotional and practical support. This greater involvement in extended family networks may protect against some of the negative effects associated with parental absence from the home. Differences in access to socioeconomic resources accounted for nearly 50% of the gap in high school completion.
Some people believe that Black people are inherently inferior to White people, genetically, or because of some inherent cultural defect. If racial gaps in well-being 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?
Thomas Sowell, A Black American economist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, argues that 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 have developed cultural norms regarding work ethic, family structure, education, government dependence, and violence, which might seem dysfunctional in the modern era.
If these so-called cultural norms 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 — that 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.
How do we explain why personal responsibility applies to the targets of unjust policies and practices but not the perpetrators of those unfair policies?
A tangle of pathology
Many people believe the theory that maladaptive cultural flaws in the Black community explain its position relative to Whites more than racism. With this belief, how could anyone be expected to treat Black people equitably? If employers see the Black community as a tangle of pathology, how can they evaluate Black job applicants fairly? If teachers view 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.
Which of these hypotheses is the more logical one: to believe that a nation in which White supremacy was deeply rooted for centuries, is still affected by it? Or that our country has fundamentally changed and become an equal opportunity nation with no such obstacles?
White America has had the privilege of obliviousness, which is more significant than all the other privileges afforded Whites in this country because it is the one that keeps all the others in place, unseen and thus unchallenged by whatever remains of our collective conscience.
In the words of Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem, it is time to lift our gaze and step out of the shade . . . unafraid.