What does “systemic racism” mean?

Black Republican Senator Tim Scott said America is not a racist country. I used to agree, seeing our few remaining racists as backward people who didn’t count for much. If anything, anti-racist affirmative action now held sway. And then we elected a nonwhite president.

However, that actually intensified racial antagonism, by newly threatening the caste dominance some whites saw as their birthright. And the next president played those racial anxieties like a fiddle. Now Republicans harp on academic “critical race theory” as a bugbear somehow threatening whites; and even “replacement theory,” a supposed conspiracy to swap them out for nonwhites.

Yet most Americans are not actually racist. It’s still only a small minority, and they’re still not our society’s movers and shakers. They’re losers. That itself partly accounts for their attitudes.

So why all the talk of “systemic racism?” Can you have systemic racism without (many) racists?

The answer is yes. “Systemic racism” does not mean whites are systematically racist. Instead it refers to societal structures that incorporate the lasting effects of ancient discrimination.

Our local Times-Union recently reported on past “redlining” in Albany. A 1938 Map with literal red lines around areas warned banks that mortgage loans there would be risky. Not necessarily targeting Black neighborhoods as such — rather, economically problematic ones. In fact, that map’s redlined zones were populated mostly by poor white immigrants. Only later did Blacks move in; mainly because of affordability, while being unwelcome in most white neighborhoods. And redlining did deny mortgages to Blacks. Such maps have been gone for decades, but their effects on where people live persist.

Then take education. For a long time “separate but equal” really meant separate and very unequal, by design. The Supreme Court outlawed that in 1954, yet separate and unequal is still widely the reality. The separateness is partly due to factors explained above. That’s hard to undo. The inequality manifests in rotten schools compared to white neighborhoods.

That should be more fixable. Yet the system is very resistant to such reform. So instead of ameliorating the disadvantage with which many minority kids start life, the education system actually worsens it, perpetuating the impact of past bias.

All this exemplifies what is meant by “systemic racism.” It doesn’t require anyone today actually being racist. It’s in the system.

Then there’s policing and criminal justice. Some say Blacks on average just get in trouble more. That has to be acknowledged. But (contrary to racist stereotypes) trouble is not in their biological DNA. Instead it comes with their social and cultural territory — not dictated by DNA either. It’s left behind when Blacks live in better neighborhoods. But for those who don’t, their environment is another lasting reverberation of a past landscape full of disadvantage.

And they get treated even worse by police and the criminal justice system than the foregoing might predict. Can’t say there’s no outright racism at play, but it’s more a matter of unconscious assumptions about people. Without being consciously racist, many have negative gut reactions toward Black faces, culturally implanted in ways often too subtle even to pinpoint. But when tested for it in the lab, even many Blacks themselves show it.

It’s very hard to overcome. I don’t consider myself some enlightened higher being, but nowadays, in most contexts, encountering Blackness gives me a positive rather than a negative vibe. Partly this is a reaction against their nemeses on the racist right. And I admire most Blacks for being good people despite all they’ve endured. Yet occasionally an opposite unconscious response is detectable.

I keep coming back to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of one’s conscious mind as a rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. We think the rider is steering, but it’s really the elephant in charge. Our challenge is to get control of that beast.

4 Responses to “What does “systemic racism” mean?”

  1. Lee Says:

    In addition to your elephant metaphor I like the disease metaphor. The racism in our institutions and, alas, in ourselves is a disease. We should sympathize with those who are sick — us — and work to get healthy. Figuring out how we got sick in the first place is useful because it gives perspective and can highlight ongoing problems that keep people sick. Even more important is to focus on the present and future, with the primary goal being to cure the disease.

  2. Don Bronkema Says:

    The conscious ‘mind’ is a 20-khz sweeper-wave artifact of neural nets & nodes–a beast that rumbles, staggers & stumbles where it will, strewing havoc [respondent’s 90-year path of destruction is so improbable no publisher will touch it]. Meanwhile, how do we keep H. unsapiens from bringing the Earth-temple down upon his own head? Recall Thayler-nudging, as demo’d on Tokyo rail platforms. Visual hints & robo opt-ins can compel wise choices & proper behavior. Rig environs so doing wrong or being stupid takes substantial effort. Appeals to civic virtue are feckless unless rewarded in situ. To dispatch racism make tolerance pay off. Lower rents for whites who welcome blacks in their apartments or naborhoods [& some say eggheads are owdatuch].

  3. Don Bronkema Says:

    Lee: moral high-ground is comfy but subdynamic from a Thayler perspective. We must fix it so being honorable is easier than doing wrong. Cognitive-behavioral dissonance works. Homiletics is just feel-good assonance [once beyond the nave, congregants continue sinning].

  4. wethecommoners blog Says:

    Great post!

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