CAN WE PLEASE DITCH THE TERM "SYSTEMIC RACISM"?
As a linguist I know we can't, but systemic racial inequities can almost never be undone by "getting rid of the racism."
The Elect are direly committed to teaching us the difference between personal racism and systemic racism. It is considered the fulcrum of true wokeness to understand that racism is systemic, with the idea that to understand this is to have achieved a maximal comprehension of sorts, a kind of pure, Kantian wisdom from which we can proceed to … well, celebrating one another for having achieved it, roasting those who seem not to have, and calling that “antiracism.”
But if the mantra is that what we need to do to solve black America’s problems is “get rid of systemic racism,” we’re in trouble. That analysis, be it explicit or tacit, is based on a third-grader’s understanding of how a society works. More importantly, that analysis does not help black people and often hurts us.
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First let’s review what systemic racism means. There are inequities between whites and blacks. The reason is not that blacks are inherently less capable than whites. This presumably means that the discrepancies are traceable to devaluation of black people of some kind at some point in the pathway. This devaluation, even if not conscious, is a kind of racism, and this means that the society “is racist.” Thus the way to get rid of this kind of discrepancy is to undo the racism in the system.
But note that if we take this as a succession of logical statements rather than as a musical sequence valuable primarily because the term racism is intoned within it, then we hit a snag. Just what do we do to undo “racism” that is bound up in a complex system, and especially given that the system has a past that is unreachable to us now, as well as a present?
Here, The Elect burn to insist that, well, systemic racism exists anyway! And you the reader may want to reiterate that systemic racism exists. It does. There are indeed such discrepancies. The question is not whether they exist, but what one does about them.
“Undoing the racism in the system,” in this light, is word magic, not an intelligent prescription for change in the real world. Grouchy? Not really – just grounded. Here’s an example.
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Black kids tend to underperform scholastically compared to white kids. We are to take it as higher wisdom that the reason for this underperformance is systemic racism. This argument fails, and we need to see why step by step.
1. The classic argument is that black kids go to lousy, underfunded schools. The classic text, having yielded a classic phrase, is Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. Now, it’s true that disproportionate numbers of black kids go to lousy schools. But it’s also true that this scholastic performance gap exists also in good schools. This is why, for example, selective universities have such a small pool of black applicants to choose from and have instituted racial preference policies to make sure enough of them attend.
2. Black kids lag behind white kids even in normal schools, then. The next explanation often given is that black parents, perhaps not having attended college and often working more than one job, do not have the “cultural capital” to shepherd their children into tip-top study habits. But this doesn’t work in view of how legions of hard-pressed, semi-educated immigrant families get their kids into top schools, including Caribbean and African ones.
There is a sub-argument often given here, that you can’t compare black kids to immigrants because immigrants are especially determined, self-directed people, and that it’s unfair to expect that kind of effort from native-born black people. There are many places to go with that, but for now, what we know is: Lack of “cultural capital” is not why black kids underperform in school, regardless of how cool that term sounds. We then move on.
3. We get closer to truth in examining what black kids’ attitudes toward school may have to do with the problem. A study in 1997 very neatly got at the issue. It found that among eighth and ninth graders, most white kids said they did schoolwork for their parents while most black kids said they did schoolwork for the teacher.
I know of no study that more elegantly gets across a subtle but determinative difference between how black and white kids tend to process the school thing. For the black kids, school is something “else,” something for “them,” beyond the comfort zone; for the white kids, it is part of the comfort zone. This is not something the kids would consciously be aware of, but being really good at school – and this would include tests – requires that it becomes a part of you. To hold it at half an arm’s remove all but guarantees that you will only ever be so good at it.
Now, because Clifton Casteel’s study wasn’t about racism, the usual suspects see it as their responsibility to argue away such work. But none of the grand old stratagems work here.
a) Note that our issue here is not assailing black kids for being lazy students.
b) We cannot fall back on the idea that the kids’ white teachers were “racisming” them, because the black kids said they did their work for the teacher, just not their parents.
c) Casteel was not a white Republican or anything close. He is a black man, having been a career educator among many things, deeply devoted to helping the black community.
Casteel’s study pointed up a quieter aspect of something richly documented nationwide – a sense among black teens that school is “white” and that real black kids don’t hit the books. Black academics and media people tend to dismiss this as a myth, but based solely on an impatience with addressing black problems as due to anything but racism. The facts are plain: the idea that “acting white” is a myth is, itself, a myth.
4. If much of the reason for black underperformance in school is due to a subtle attitudinal factor, then it won’t work to look at the numbers and say they are due to “racism,” “systemic” or not. It isn’t that the system devalues the kids, but that they either devalue, or perhaps even feel wary about, the system themselves.
This is not pretty. It is not fun to write about. But neither of those things mean it isn’t true.
Now, racism pure and simple did create this sense of remove, in the 1960s. When states started truly enforcing desegregation orders in schools then, after lagging for a while post Brown v. the Board of Education, black students met students and teachers who were clearly bigoted toward them. This naturally made school feel like “the white man’s game,” and it was here – not before or after – that the idea settled in among black teens that school was white. All should read this book on the subject. I have a letter from someone attesting exactly this, having not experienced it as a black teen in the early 1960s but seeing it happen to their siblings in the late 1960s. The meme was then passed on as an in-group marker, even as old-time racism receded. Hence black kids richly documented to be rejecting black kids as “white” for liking school decades later, and even attesting to it on camera in a documentary accompanying this study of the phenomenon.
But the racism that created this was now eons ago. You can’t go fix it now.
5. So, back to the idea that the way we address the discrepancy between black and white scholastic performance is to “get rid of the racism.” What would that mean here?
Where will it get us, beyond thrilling rhetoric, to pretend that with racism, the difference between past and present doesn’t matter? Most of us get that this is, in the present tense, “racism without racists.”
Yet here is where the fashionable response today becomes understandable. If our only approach must be to show that we aren’t racists by “eliminating the racism” embedded in societal procedures, then of course the new idea is that we should eliminate whatever it is that is challenging black students. Just tear it down.
But here is where we get whites smiling nervously and pretending to think that actually getting the answer is white, that being competitively tested is white (unless, I guess, it’s on a basketball court or in a rap battle?), that being expected to raise your hand and give an answer is white. And anyone who misses that this is exactly the way Strom Thurmond wanted it is all but working to be ignorant.
It would seem that our solution to the kind of thing Casteel identified is putting extra effort into training black kids for tests, getting the word out among them about the value of collaboration in studying (which blunts the idea that studying is not what “we” do), valuing black kids learning next to each other in solid charter schools over the idea that they are better off learning next to middle class white kids (despite some evidence of slightly better performance in such cases – priorities will differ), and other things.
But of all of our strategies, “get rid of the racism” is the goofiest, most unreasoning and ultimately most harmful.
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This is why the very term systemic racism is so awkward and unhelpful. All discrepancies between blacks and whites are not due to “racism” – or, the racism involved was so far in the past that battling “racism” now would be impossible. The word racism hits our brain centers where we process the personal, the offense – we bristle. The term systemic racism cannot help but fire up the same bundles of neurons – we think the society is “a racist” deserving the same treatment as the racist person. Not if we think about it consciously, of course – but so much of being human is subconscious. When someone stands before us and intones about “systemic racism” we think on a certain level of “a racist,” bigotry.
The Elect aren’t doing that on purpose, but apprised of it, think “Well, good!” But no – we have seen here how approaching a black problem as “racism” leads us to treat black kids as morons.
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Our racial “reckoning” could use a reckoning about the term systemic racism. It is often used with an implication, a resonance, a tacit assumption, that to question is unthinkable. Uttered by a certain kind of person, often with a hint of emphasis or an eyeroll, we are to assume that the argumentation behind it has been long accomplished; the heavy lifting was taken care of long ago and we can now just decide what we’re going to do about this “racism” so clearly in our faces.
The problem is that this heavy lifting has not occurred. This usage of systemic racism is more rhetorical bludgeon than a simple term of reference. For all of the pungent redolence of the word racism in general when uttered by a certain kind of person, complete with the inherent threat to whites that they are racists to have anything to say but Amen, we must learn to listen past this theatrical aspect of the word and think for ourselves.
When we do, we see that all discrepancies between white and black are not due to “racism” of any kind, and that in many cases it is therefore senseless, and likely anti-black, to seek to undo the discrepancy – i.e. force “equity” – by tearing down the tasks, rules, or expectations involved in whatever the inequality manifests itself in. We must get past the idea that where black Americans are concerned, sociology is applesauce-easy. Black history is as complex as any history, and not just in the complexities of racism. Black history has been just plain complex.
And as you might guess, I dwell here on but one example. I could go on – and have, and will.
This column actually just made me realize that CRT is on to something important, and that systemic racism is a perfectly good term, that goes a long way toward explaining the disparate outcomes between Black and White Americans.
In the American system, as McWhorter points out, many Black children today (and probably even many of their parents) believe that academic achievement is a "white thing". They grew up in a system in which it is common to believe that academic achievement is not for Black people like me. It's not cool. And the results of this attitude are devastating for Black Americans, where academic success is a prerequisite for economic success. That seems to be an excellent example of how our system is creating deep disparities between Black and White household wealth. This attitude developed over generations because it wasn't common to see Black teachers, professors, engineers, doctors, scientists, lawyers, etc.
And as further evidence that this is part of the American system, Black children from immigrant households don't have this attitude toward academic achievement. They don't see it as a "white thing". Immigrant parents would find such thinking absurd. They find it absurd BECAUSE they didn't grow up in the American system. They don't have generations of history in the American system.
And this is why it's helpful to see disparate outcomes as being the result of systemic racism. Now we know the problem. And knowing the problem, maybe we can do something concrete to solve it. We can start working hard to change this part of our system. We can dispel this destructive idea among Black students that academic achievement is "a white thing".
Where am I wrong?
Excellent piece of work and thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I think it will be important to continue to highlight more granular evidence of factors that contribute to the disparities that are observed. One of the greatest challenges is that of human psychological factors. People tend to gravitate toward easier explanations and that is well documented. We must also contend with other factors such as confirmation bias, belief perseverance, and fundamental attribution errors which are common but often of less interest to people in general.