Bari Weiss has a round table on the meaning of “systemic racism”

April 28, 2021 • 12:00 pm

I’ve always thought of “systemic racism” as meaning “racism that is formally ingrained and codified within a system”, like a college or a governmental department. . That is, there are policies or laws that are racist in such organizations. Now, though, I see that the term seems to be used as a substitute for pervasive or endemic racism. In other words, “systemic racism” now seems to have become a synonym for “racism,” with the “systemic” apparently adding no information except a highfalutin tone. Sometimes, though, as in the first contributor below, it’s taken to mean “unwritten practices by a group that have the effect of being racist.”

Over at her Substack site, Common Sense, Bari Weiss has a round-table column in which six people, whose names appear in the title below, try to explain what “systemic racism” means, at least to them.  I like this kind of post, as you get to see different points of view. The people she collects, while generally on the “anti-woke” side of things, are not all like that.

Click on the screenshot to read it. First, there’s an intro by Weiss:

One bit of [academic] jargon — much like “equity” and “social justice” — is the phrase “systemic racism.”

All of a sudden, it was everywhere. We were supposed to say it. We were supposed to root it out. But what did it actually mean?

Is systemic racism merely legal discrimination? Or does it capture the legacy of slavery and segregation? Is it meant to describe ill-conceived policies, like the response to the crack epidemic? Or is it something far more expansive, sweeping up any kind of racial disparity as evidence of its existence?

We are talking past one another. Perhaps that’s because people are scared to admit ignorance. Perhaps that’s because those who use the phrase mean for it to be elastic. Mostly I suspect it’s because no one wants to seem like they are in anyway denying racism’s evil by asking any questions about it at all.

It seems to me that these are exactly the reasons why we need to discuss this morally freighted and confusing phrase.

So today I invited a group of writers I admire and who challenge me to weigh in on the question: What is systemic racism?

It turns out that it means different things to these six people, but only one meaning adhering to how I construed the term.

To Lara Bazelon, a professor of law at the University of San Francisco and head of the criminal and racial justice clinics, it is not anything enshrined in law, but a practice used consistently by the criminal-justice system in Louisiana, which allows a judge to double the maximum sentence of anyone convicted of a felony if they have a prior felony conviction. This got one of her clients, apparently innocent, 60 years without parole (his original felony, at 17, was for a drug sale). This invocation of the “double-time” law is used “overwhelmingly against Black people, many of them teenagers”. I believe her; the only question I have is whether, because blacks may well constitute most of those convicted, they are subject to the law on a per capita basis more often than whites. I suspect they are.

To Bazelon, then, “systemic racism” is not enshrined in law, but a common practice by an institution that is unfair towards black people.

Kmele Foster is co-host of the podcast “The Fifth Column, sees “system racism” as a blanket term for anything that results in inequity (outcomes disproportionately leaving out minority groups).  And, like others in the group (see below), he notes that one cannot truly say that inequality of outcomes reflects existing racism:

When invoked by activists or academics, the concept is deceptively matter-of-fact. If America’s laws and institutions tend to generate racially disparate outcomes, then, irrespective of intent, the country is “systemically racist.” This definition makes it easy to fold everything from the impact of Covid-19 to police-involved killings to standardized testing into the same politically charged and counterproductive framework.

Each of these issues has been contaminated by racial politics, but perhaps none more so than education.

In New York and San Francisco, concerns over “systemic racism” have led lawmakers to largely abandon their responsibility to actually fix chronically failing schools. What have they done instead? Degraded admissions standards for their best-performing magnet programs because there were too many Asian and white students. Launched campaigns to rename schools deemed to have offensive names. And, most disturbing of all, they’ve committed themselves to making public school campuses ideological battlegrounds —condemning the very idea of merit and insisting that black students should not be held to the same standards as their white peers.

It’s a perverse ratcheting down of expectations and a reflection of an ideological program more concerned with racial parity than meaningful progress.

Linguist John McWhorter again raises the clear fact that inequities of outcome do not necessarily reflect current racial progress. He agrees with Foster about how “systemic racism” is used: as an untested way to explain inequalities of outcome:

The idea behind the phrase is that inequities between whites and blacks on the societal level, such as in scholastic achievement, wages, wealth, quality of housing and health outcomes, are due to racist bias of some kind, exercising its influence in abstract but decisive ways. As such, the existence of these inequities represent a sort of “racism” that must be battled with the same urgency and even indignation that personal “prejudice” requires.

The problem is that sociology and social history are more complex than this interpretation of “systemic racism” allows.

. . . I find the term “systemic racism” to be the most nettlesome term in the English language at present.

As you might expect, McWhorter’s pal and fellow discussant Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown, agrees: “systemic racism” is a spectre invoked to explain inequities. But he goes further, making the controversial statement that equality of opportunity has already been attained by African Americans:

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.

. . . 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.

That will not win him any friends among blacks! And is there really equality of opportunity if you’re behind in the race from the day you’re born?

Kenny Xu is identified as “the author of “An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy,” forthcoming in July.”  Xu’s take on systemic racism is pretty much a hybrid of Bazolon’s and McWhorter + Loury’s: a habitual form of racial discrimination that results in inequity of outcomes and is not part of written policy. His example, however, is Harvard’s policy of discriminating against Asian-Americans, which, based on their scores, should constitute about 40% of Harvard’s undergraduate population when it actually constitutes less than half that. Although Harvard was found not guilty in court of discriminating against Asian students by lowering their “personality scores,” this case is going to a higher court, and I think it has merit. There is some rationale for affirmative action that might lower the Asian-American population at Harvard below that stemming from their academic credentials alone, but a more-than-50% cut seems grossly unfair.

Chloé Valery is identified as “the founder oTheory of Enchantment”, a “compassionate antiracism program” based on the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.  She takes “systemic racism” as I understood it, using as an example the Jim Crow laws of the post-bellum South as well as slavery.  She argues that racism reflected the “spiritual desiccation” of whites who compensated for their emptiness by grossly mistreating blacks. You can hear the echo of Dr. King in her words, which seem curiously disconnected from the question at hand, but are still eloquent:

Spiritual desiccation had taken over American life and this poverty drove white citizens to overcompensate by beating and murdering those who were different from them.

Perhaps for this reason alone, it is worth considering the limitations in using the metaphor of a mechanical “system” to describe racism, since racism becomes more likely when we are cold and mechanical, machine-like, numb to the conundrum of our own lives and those around us. If we want to combat the scourge of prejudice, we ought to commit to reversing this process, and take responsibility for the beauty of our own lives, both its tragedies and its joys.

My conclusion: we should completely ditch the term “systemic racism” because it is confusing and means different things to different people. You can always apply more accurate adjectives to be more specific, like “ingrained racism” for the Louisiana case. Or, not use “racism” at all in cases in which it’s a convenient but untested excuse for inequity of representation. I myself don’t use the term “systemic racism” because it is imprecise and can be understood in diverse ways.

14 thoughts on “Bari Weiss has a round table on the meaning of “systemic racism”

  1. This is slightly off-topic, but Frank Furedi (at Spiked) is reporting that Sheffield U may be planning to discredit Isaac Newton as a “beneficiary of colonialism”, and the museum dedicated to Jane Austen seems to be moving in a similar direction. The insanity of “wokeness” shows no sign of abating.

    1. The piece I read concerning Austen made it pretty clear that the museum was going to begin painting a clearer picture of her, as her father directly benefited.

  2. Let’s maybe try another change in words. We have been using racism and attached it to just about everything. Sometimes it fits, sometimes it does not. From a government and political view let’s use different words depending on specifically what the subject is. A term like equality will keep people in their seats and not cause all the twisting and offense taking. So when ever possible dump racism and work on equality. There is plenty of that to be had and it causes less disruption in people.

  3. Loury writes:

    “They ignore the following truth: that America has basically achieved equal opportunity in terms of race.”

    Yet, as Pew Research and other outlets report, the black-white income gap has remained steady since 1970. How would Loury reconcile this? If equal opportunity exists for blacks, why haven’t they achieved income parity with whites? I can think of only two possible explanations or a combination thereof that Loury can offer. The first is that black culture is so dysfunctional that it can’t take advantage of equal opportunity and black people refuse to do anything about that. The second is that blacks lack the “smarts” to compete with other races. As Loury puts it: blacks are failing to “measure up.” Either way, it seems to me that Loury is exhibiting racism against his own race. I believe such a phenomenon is possible. In reality, when a black child is raised in poverty and goes to poor schools, there is no equal opportunity. Since Reconstruction, this situation has existed without solution. Certainly, white racism is one major factor as to why this has been. When people are lifted out of poverty and receive a good education, culture will change.

    1. I suspect that Loury would respond that black culture is dysfunctional, and part of it is the result of past racism, and part of it is, well, a culture that disdains what’s needed to succeed in America in general. I don’t think that either of these constitute “racism” as most people think of it; the last point, which McWhorter also makes, is at least arguable and can be addressed with data.

    2. Another contribution to explaining the income gap could be that (as a result of history) a larger fraction of blacks start off at a lower level.

      If so, then it would still be true that “America has basically achieved equal opportunity in terms of race” provided that a black kid had the same chances as a white kid of the same economic/class background. The inequality of opportunity would then be a matter of wealth/class, not race. The difference there is actually quite important.

    3. I suggest the idea of “systemic racism” may well have been invented to avoid asking those particular questions.
      Of course, in an atmosphere where these sorts of things can be explored objectively, we are much more likely to come up with realistic and working solutions.
      One of the primary points of the ethos shared by most contributors here is that we look carefully at natural laws and observed facts to determine why something is the way it seems to be, rather than falling back on explaining it as “Gods will”. However, we are faced with people who see oppression as the spring that propels the universe.
      I had heard that “systemic” or “institutional” in these cases was shorthand for “not”. We can’t really identify a particular source of racism causing the inequity we are fretting over, so it must be “systemic”. Also, there is an advantage that it is not specific enough that anyone can really do anything about it. This is not an advantage for the kids who might benefit from those hard questions being asked, but for those who profit from the racism industry.
      Kendi or Sharpton don’t want to find themselves in a Women’s Suffrage type situation, where someone might pass the 19th amendment and all those revenue streams might dissolve.

    4. PS, I agree with our host that we should take seriously the idea that cultural factors are hugely important, and can explain differences in outcomes, and that a culture can be dysfunctional. (For example, I would ascribe the lack of scientific, technological and economic development in many countries worldwide to the dysfunction caused by their culture being infused with Islam, which positively stifles progress.) I don’t think we should try to disallow such explanations by calling them “racist”.

      (Anyhow, I’m old-fashioned, I consider that the term “racism” only applies to claims about genetic differences, not cultural ones. OK, I know I’m in a small minority still clinging to that usage.)

  4. Richard Carrier defines systemic racism this way: “racists rig the system to enact their racist will (by lying about their real motives).” He gives the example of the drug wars, which included greater sentences for drugs that blacks were more likely to use (crack vs cocaine powder). Systemic racism, in that example, means that the police and prosecutors and judges may not have been racist as individuals, but their actions and decision within the system produced racist results. “It’s in many cases about systems engineered to enforce racism even if no one sustaining that system is themselves racist.”

  5. I like metaphors. My metaphor for systemic racism is that if you don’t think that systemic racism is real, then you probably don’t think a river’s current is real or that the magnetic field surrounding the planet Earth is a thing.

    1. I can measure water flow in a river and the strength of a magnetic field. What do I measure to detect the presence and quantity of systemic racism?

  6. To Bazelon, then, “systemic racism” is not enshrined in law, but a common practice by an institution that is unfair towards black people.

    The same could be said about much of Jim Crow. To the extent it was codified as law, such laws could be struck down by SCOTUS under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause (and the Warren Court stood ready to do so whenever such laws were challenged before it).

    Yet it was precisely because so much of Jim Crow was not compelled by state law, but arose as a matter of custom and practice, that it took an act of congress (exercising its powers under the US constitution’s Commerce Clause) — i.e., the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — to outlaw private discrimination in places of public accommodation. After all, it was corporate policy, not state law, that kept the lunch-counters at Woolworth’s, and establishments like the Heart of Atlanta Motel, segregated. And the Equal Protection Clause, like the rights set out in the constitution’s first 10 amendments, reaches only state action, not private discrimination.

  7. I’ve said it before but it might be worth saying again. As far as I understand CRT it seems as if they are misapplying legitimate concepts in social theory. Words like “System”, “Structure”, have somewhat different uses in social theory, but they are valid and useful concepts. Social Institutions don’t just drop out of the sky and they are more than just the aggregation of individual action and rational choices. Patterns of behavior and ways of thinking can survive and persist, even as social institutions evolve. Unconscious bias is a real thing. We need more open debate about CRT, but we need better debate as well. A lot of criticism of CRT that I read, elsewhere, as well as on this blog reads as if even raising the prospect that there are such things as structures and systems is an argument made in bad faith.

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