The invocation of “systemic racism” in political arguments is both a bluff and a bludgeon.
When a person says, for example, “over-representation of black Americans in prison in the United States is due to systemic racism,” he is daring the listener to say: “No. It’s really because there are so many blacks who are breaking the laws.” And who would risk responding that way these days? The phrase effectively bullies the listener into silence.
Users of the phrase seldom offer any evidence beyond citing a fact about racial disparity while asserting shadowy structural causes that are never fully specified. We are all simply supposed to know how “systemic racism,” abetted by “white privilege” and furthered by “white supremacy,” conspire to leave blacks lagging behind.
American history is rather more subtle and more interesting. Such disparities have multiple, interacting causes, ranging from culture to politics to economics and, yes, to nefarious doings of institutions and individuals who may well have been racist. But acknowledging this complexity is too much nuance for those alleging “systemic racism.”
They ignore the following truth: that America has basically achieved equal opportunity in terms of race. We have chased away the Jim Crow bugaboo, not just with laws but also by widespread social customs, practices, and norms. When Democrats call a Georgia voter integrity law a resurgence of Jim Crow, it is nothing more than a lie. Everybody knows there is no real Jim Crow to be found anywhere in America.
The phrase also does a grave disservice to blacks and to the country. Here we are now, well into the 21st century. (Have you heard of China?) Our lives are being remade every decade by technology, globalization, communication, and innovation, and yet all we seem to hear about is race.
My deep suspicion is that these charges of “systemic racism” have proliferated and grown so hysterical because black people — with full citizenship and equal opportunity in the most dynamic country on Earth — are failing to measure up. Violent crime is one dimension of this. The disorder and chaos in our family lives is another. Denouncing “systemic racism” and invoking “white supremacy,” and shouting “black lives matter,” while 8,000 black homicides a year go unmentioned — these are maneuvers of avoidance and blame-shifting.
The irony is that so many of us decry “systemic racism,” even as we simultaneously demand that this very same “system” deliver us.
Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He currently hosts a podcast called “The Glenn Show” on bloggingheads.tv.
Photo by artisteer/iStock