I recently had the good fortune to attend a conference that included a small group session purposed to discuss issues of systemic racism. Despite an atmosphere of (and explicit call to) collegiality, it was – shall we say – a rather passionate discussion.
The discussion subject was not whether America is “systemically racist,” a question that seems uniquely designed to provoke dysfunction, but of course this became the conversation’s focus. The substance of the discussion itself turns out not to matter, and I mean that quite literally. No clarity was achieved, although one participant passionately – as we’re agreeing to say – marched out in the middle.
The points that one might think are pertinent here, like that the first people to opine in the group (who happened to be black) both expressed that they themselves did not perceive having experienced racism in any significant way, are irrelevant. Within minutes, the dialogue fell to arguing over whether or not the United States is “systematically racist” or not—and that’s not a thing. “Systematic racism” isn’t a thing even in the Critical Theories of race, which have nevertheless managed to define an entire pantheon of species of racism that American people of color, and especially blacks, allegedly face in an “ordinary and routine” fashion.
Something jumps out here, then. Since at least half of the people weighing in on the problem were discussing it with a term that doesn’t exist, we should conclude that no one in the group had a clear enough idea of the relevant subject to discuss it with the clarity, depth, and nuance necessary to navigate such a sensitive topic. I think this is emblematic of part of the disconnect in the current national and international conversation about race: everyone cares a lot, and people have a lot of skin in the game (or they’re putting it in there), but they don’t have the foggiest idea what they’re really arguing over. Critical Race Theory is making this worse, not better.
It would be easy to believe that arguing over “systematic racism” instead of the similar-sounding “systemic racism” was a simple matter of ignorance or confusion. Maybe it is, but my sole contribution to this group discussion was to try to address that problem by asking one straightforward question: “Can anyone in this group, aside from myself, distinguish clearly between systemic racism, structural racism, and institutional racism?” The reply was swift and implied a finality to my commentary that I contentedly agreed to with a wry grin: “No!”
So there was some measure of self-awareness in the group, then — just not of the fact that knowing what one is talking about in a conversation full of emotional landmines is something close to square one. Yet this lack of clarity at the heart of discussing “systemic racism” isn’t a bug – it’s a feature. The now-famous “anti-racist” activist-historian Ibram X. Kendi has even bailed on the term in favor of the stand-in “policy,” which he uses in the broadest possible way (just as postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault famously did with terms like “politics” and “government” to mean roughly everything that governs people and their affairs, including themselves). The term — and the concept the term hopes to describe — is just a bad one.
Systemic racism is “racism” that’s built into and applied by “the system.” What system? Well, everything, essentially. Some features of “the system” in which systemic racism haunts our friends and neighbors of color are sometimes named explicitly: language, knowledge, norms, expectations, assumptions, law, law enforcement, criminal justice, culture, environment, history and its legacies, and endlessly so on. Systemic racism exists anywhere someone has enough will to find it. Other features of this omnipresent bigotry are far vaguer. They’re the products of “socialization,” which occurs, we must presume, in mysterious ways. Suffice it to say, nobody knows what “systemic racism” is at all except everyone who is ardently impassioned about arguing that they’ve experienced it, for whom it is everything that might make their point.
This conviction rightly implies that something that people “know when they see it” constitutes “systemic racism.” It’s a lack of equity, often coupled with a perception that some unfairness is at the bottom of the “the system’s” failure to produce equal outcomes (that’s what equity means, after all). Well, certainly, there isn’t equity in the sense that the various racial demographics statistically show equal outcomes, regardless of any inputs that might be called independent variables.
Further, sometimes there are legitimate claims upon unfairness: discrimination isn’t wholly over, can be subtle, and so on, and there are certainly statistical “racial” differences in starting places for many people that are the direct result of patently unjust — in fact, horrific — events in history. There are also the inertial hangovers of those historical injustices, many of which are barely a generation removed and exist quite poignantly in living memory. There are some reasons to believe that they also generate a set of perpetuating factors that can, in turn, seem (or be) legitimately unjust.
Not many people doubt any of this, though. The statistics are easy to read, even if they’re hard to explain, and we’re all aware that there are genuine issues of discrimination that occur at least sometimes in ways that, in aggregate, can be consequential. The question, though, is whether either of the terms “systemic” or “racism” rightly apply to this state of affairs.
Given that the implications are enormous if the answers are “yes” and that no one seems to know what systemic racism is clearly enough to even use the right word while discussing it, a more prudent answer would be “probably not.” “Systemic racism” is probably no better a way to describe the collection of circumstances and phenomena that certain activists want to associate with statistics about racial inequities than is “systematic racism,” which isn’t a thing at all—because it doesn’t happen anymore. “The system” is just too vague a locus for such an important question, and “racism” is necessarily too much a matter of intention and belief to seem to qualify for the word that already exists to describe it: disenfranchisement.
Statistically speaking, racial inequities exist, and this demands more clarity, not less, about the relevant issues. “Systemic racism,” as a concept, takes us directly away from this clarity and any possibility of a solution (as fundamentally remaking “the system” is a really bad plan of action and doing so by centering race is a clear move in the opposite direction from what we should want). Maybe, then, rather than getting lost in hot-button questions about vague concepts like “is America systemically racist?”, we’d be better off taking a step back to realize that it’s the wrong question. The idea itself doesn’t mean very much and means nothing that can lead us in the direction of solving any of the problems that bring it up in the first place.
An American-born author, mathematician, and political commentator, Dr. James Lindsay has written six books spanning a range of subjects including religion, the philosophy of science and postmodern theory. He is the founder of New Discourses and currently promoting his new book “How to have impossible conversations”.