“Systemic Racism:” What it Is

As I mentioned in my previous piece, the idea of “systemic racism” (also known as “institutional racism”) arose due to the fact that actual racists are hard to find. And they’re essentially impossible to find among people in positions of power sufficient to produce the racial disparities we find in the U.S. So, if you’re determined to conclude that those disparities stem from racism and only racism, what’s to be done? The first thing is to pretend that actual racist human beings don’t matter to a racist system. Brittany Andrew-Amofah, senior policy and research analyst at the Broadbent Institute, a Canadian progressive and social democratic think tank, put the matter plainly:


“It’s very easy for individuals to be like, ‘I’m not racist,’ or ‘I have not done a racist thing, how could I be a part of the problem?’ [Talking about systemic racism] removes the individual from the conversation…


Indeed it does, that being the point all along. It does not, however, remove the fundamental question of how systems or institutions can be racist if they’re not operated by racists. It doesn’t because it can’t. Not to worry; here comes “systemic racism” riding to the rescue.


What is “systemic racism,” if allegedly racist systems are made up of non-racist human beings? I went in search of an answer and was gratified to see that former New York Times editor, Bari Weiss, had published a forum on the issue on her Substack page, Common Sense. (Imagine what Thomas Payne would say.) Interestingly, of the six forum contributors, not one of them specifically defined the term “systemic racism,” per se and only one of them, law professor Lara Bazelon, seems to believe it exists.


But podcaster Kmele Foster got to the heart of the matter:


If America’s laws and institutions tend to generate racially disparate outcomes, then, irrespective of intent, the country is “systemically racist.”


And that, as it turns out, is as close as we come to a definition of “systemic racism.” An institution is “systemically racist” if it “generates racially disparate outcomes.” (Foster wasn’t endorsing the concept, only describing it.) Plus, the Washington Post has used almost identical language to explain the term and this article expands on it.


Ignoring for the time the many problems with the definition that fairly scream from the page, let’s take the woke narrative on its own terms. The definition of “systemic racism” then, simply considers racially disparate outcomes to be racist, irrespective of everything else. Having dispensed with individuals, it goes on to remove the issue of intent from the process of deciding what is or isn’t racist. Institutions and the people who make them up can therefore act without a racist purpose, but still be racist if the outcomes of their actions are disproportionate to the percentages of blacks, whites, Asians, etc. in society. Those disparities then become the only way we can know whether an institution is racist.


So, for example, if prison populations are more than 13% black, then the criminal justice system is racist. Period. If black kids do worse on the SAT than whites or Asians, then the educational system that utilizes the SAT is racist. Period. Etc. No person has to be racist or act in a racist manner. All it takes is for the system to “produce” unequal outcomes.


But the woke narrative also adds the complaint that a given institution had its origin in white, Anglo-European culture at some point in the past. Our system of justice originated in Europe at a time when slavery was an accepted fact of life and, later, laws and courts gave a façade of legitimacy to slavery and racism in its various aspects. In its present form, that system of justice imprisons more blacks than just their share of the population would indicate. Therefore, today’s system of justice is racist. Q.E.D. Ms. Andrew-Amofah again:


“These systems are built with an already ingrained bias, a racist lens and embedded with a discriminatory lens that doesn’t provide or allow for equal or fair opportunities for racialized peoples to succeed within.”


Given that most institutions in this country were founded by whites with European backgrounds, it seems safe to say that even the fairly new among them qualify as “systemically racist,” as long as what they do impacts blacks and whites differently.


So, founded by whites + racially imbalanced outcomes today = systemically racist. The problem of the absence of actual human racists is, therefore, simply defined out of existence.


To those who adhere to the idea of “systemic racism,” facts cited by its countless critics are simply irrelevant to the issue. For example, regarding the criminal justice system - long a target of the “systemic racism” crowd - criminologist Michael Tonry concluded over 25 years ago that, “Racial differences in patterns of offending, not racial bias by police and other officials, are the principal reason that such greater proportions of blacks than whites are arrested, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned.” And a Department of Justice survey found that blacks actually have a lower likelihood of prosecution for a felony than do whites.


But, to the “systemic racism” crowd, because the criminal justice system has a higher percentage of black inmates than the percentage of blacks in the general population, it’s racist. What many, including me, regard as highly pertinent and important facts about that system, are so much dross to the woke. To them, there is but a single question: “Does the institution “produce” disparate outcomes among the races?” If the answer is “Yes,” the institution is racist.


The problems with that notion are many, varied and of sufficient power that they should long ago have entirely devastated the concept of “systemic racism.” Shaping public policy on the basis of “systemic racism” would be madness, but in many ways, that’s a process that’s already under way.


More on that next time.

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