McWhorter: What is “systemic racism”?

May 11, 2021 • 10:30 am

I’ve often beefed over the pervasive use of the term “systemic racism” as a synonym for “racism”. In my view, “systemic” racism is racism that is built into a system—formalized discrimination. So, for example, to say that the lack of minority representation in STEM fields, while it may reflect racism in the past, is the product of ongoing “systemic racism” in science, is simply wrong.

McWhorter is a bit more charitable than I, for while we both agree on the uselessness of the term, and think it should be ditched, McWhorter admits that “systemic racism exists”, though he doesn’t explain. I’d be glad to admit that, too, for cases like those of more police stops of African Americans than whites, though it’s a widespread practice and not one formalized in some regulations.

At any rate, McWhorter’s column this week is again one that only a black man could get away with writing, and I’m not familiar with the literature he cites. Because some of you may be, I’ll just summarize his argument. Click on the screenshot to read his piece.

Here’s McWhorter’s definition and assertion that fixing it by “undoing the racism” is useless. He refers in particular to the black-white achievement gap in schools:

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.

His example is the underperformance of black kids in school compared to white ones. He says it cannot be attributed to “lousy, underfunded schools” as the gap appears within good schools, nor can it be attributed to the deficit of “cultural capital” of black families given that immigrant black families do better than ones already here.

McWhorter’s answer is twofold. First, drawing on the work of Clifton Casteel, he argues two things:

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.

[Second,] 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.

Now McWhorter does attribute this cultural difference to racism: the racism met by black students when Brown v. Board of Education eliminated segregation and black kids in integrated schools faced blatant racism from teachers and fellow students. But he adds, “the racism that created this was now eons ago. You can’t go fix it now.”

How do we fix it, then, for surely it’s our duty to fix it! The worst way, argues McWhorter, is to “get rid of the [systemic] racism.” The fact is, there isn’t much. What is needed is a cultural change, despite Ibram Kendi’s claim that there’s either no cultural difference or what difference exists is fine. Different groups, he argues, just have different ways of excelling.

In my view, what schools are doing to eliminate the gap is to eliminate the metrics that quantify the gap. Get rid of standardized testing, calculus, AP courses, SATs for colleges, and anything that smacks of a meritocracy. Yes, that produces a level playing field, but one on which everyone is equally mediocre. This is what I think McWhorter means when he ends his piece:

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.

27 thoughts on “McWhorter: What is “systemic racism”?

  1. The distinguished economist Thomas Sowell has forcefully argued that the term “systemic racism” (often called “structural racism” or “institutional racism”) is a concept without meaning, belonging instead to the realm of propaganda. The principal issue in such discussions seems always to be that of disparities in outcome between “whites” and “blacks” considered collectively, but few seem to understand that disparity need not imply discrimination any more than correlation necessarily implies causation.

    1. If there’s disparity of outcome between two groups that we can’t explain and is undesirable, it needs to be studied. Correlation doesn’t imply correlation but also doesn’t imply that it should be ignored.

  2. It’s painful to now hear the term “systemic racism” every five minutes in the media these days. Be it a single event of a native being shot for the minor infraction of grabbing a loaded gun and coming at a police officer and ignoring commands to stop, or some fantastically small number of non-thinking idiots who villainize Asians because of Covid-19, all of a sudden the ranks of victimhood culture jump on the bandwagon of manufactured offence and phony grief mongering. It’s so pathetic.

  3. I think CRT is defining “systemic racism” to be the racism left once you remove personal racism. We can all be non-racists (in the traditional, non-CRT sense) but racism will still exist as it is embedded in the system. As McWhorter acknowledges, this is quite likely to be the case. The problem is how to deal with it.

    The CRT folk want to deal with systemic racism by eliminating systems wholesale. Throw them out and start over. This is lazy and isn’t going to work. Instead, this will destroy valuable systems and create resentment and division. it’s likely to make racism worse.

    Instead, we have to deal with systemic racism by doing research (the Casteel study sounds like a good example) to uncover individual problems, try out various solutions to solve those problems, and hope that some will work. This is bound to be slow going, as it has been historically, though it seems like the only way that will work without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    1. I think many people, possibly including McWhorter, fail to see that the goal is to destroy the existing system. Systematic Racism is only the latest tool. When the head of BLM brags about being a Marxist, you have to wonder if she is legitimately interested in black people, except as Black People, in the same way Lenin and Stalin were not interested in workers, but in the Proletariat. Reformism is a bad word to a Marxist. If the system is racist, the system has to go. There are a lot of eggs to be broken.

      1. I see that in wokeism. And perhaps because of that, the verbiage “systemic racism” needs to be rejected as merely a label used by left-wing extremists to destroy systems they dislike.

        However, I agree with Paul that there is an idea under the label which is important, and which is related to how our systems often work rather than being a result of individuals acting in a racist manner. So even if we ditch the term as being nothing more than a hammer of the woke, we’ll need some other term or way to talk about problems with those characteristics.

      2. I’m curious as to why you consistently use “systematic racism” rather than “systemic racism” in every reply regarding the subject, which I don’t recollect seeing anywhere else in any context. An honest question, no judgment implied. I simply don’t understand.

  4. In my view, “systemic” racism is racism that is built into a system—formalized discrimination

    That seems very narrow; under such a definition, it practically doesn’t exist.

    What would you call racism that is largely prevalent because of either the way the system is designed (even if no intentional racism occurs), or because of historical inequalities in resource distribution, rather than being due to the acts or opinions of individuals? Take for example a case where a tech company is researching facial recognition. For early testing, they call for volunteers from their workforce to serve as guinea pigs. But because their workforce is 90% asian and white, their software becomes really good at matching asian and white faces, and lousy at matching black faces. Nobody in this example tried to be racist. But because there are many fewer blacks in programming and sys admin, and thus many fewer blacks working at this tech company (for historical reasons of poverty, education, and possibly racism within colleges and universities), the resulting algorithm systematically does a better job of matching white and asian faces than black ones. And if the police buy this facial recognition software, the end result will be more false positives in matching black faces to pictures of people at crime scenes, and more innocent black people charged with crimes.

    A similar sample bias problem may exist in medicine, for studies that get many more white volunteers than black in cases where genetics matter.

    Or how about the pipeline problem? Poverty -> bad schools (and maybe some actual individual racism) -> poorer education -> worse chance of getting into and succeeding in a good University -> fewer minority folk in higher education.

    These sorts of examples wouldn’t qualify as “systemic racism” under your narrow definition. But they also can’t be laid at the feet of individual people being racist – they can occur even when every person in the system is trying their best to be fair. So they seem much more of a “system” problem than an “individuals being racist” problem. So what do we call them, if not systemic racism?

  5. McWhorter’s is a good outline of the problem. I don’t know what a solution would look like. How do you get black kids to study for the sake of their parents (and the teachers), and take learning in as a part of their being? How do you get them to think of learning as not just a white thing? Tough challenge.

    1. Yes, it’s a hard problem but isn’t fixing it the only practical way forward?

      “How do you get them to think of learning as not just a white thing?”

      I don’t know how effective it is but the raising up of successful Black people as role models is one way that’s being tried. Based on anecdotal evidence, it seems to work. Whether it works well enough is a harder question. Perhaps they need to target the parents more.

    2. McWhorter’s two suggestions are that black students be encouraged to form study groups and that those who are able attend selective, primarily black charter schools (as opposed to striving to get a seat in similar quality, but almost exclusively white, schools).

      As proposed solutions go, those seem like fairly weak tea, but then McWhorter’s a linguist and a “race man,” not a public-education expert.

      1. “… McWhorter’s a linguist and a “race man,” not a public-education expert.“

        But how precisely would one know a United States public education expert? McWhorter has kids in I presume public school – surely he has some say in the matter, like all such parents?

        1. I’m all for every US citizen having some say in the matter, especially educated and thoughtful citizens like John McWhorter. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t expect him to propose some ultimate solution to such a difficult problem (and I believe he’d be the first to concede that he doesn’t see it as within his remit to do so. In the instant piece he’s merely ventured a pair of suggestions, and credit to him for doing that much.)

  6. One important consideration for development of the best preschool-12 education in the United States has to be examining the differences between how the U.S. and other countries are doing more with less. This trend is shown in this general audience book which documents a number of different students from the United States experiencing school abroad :

    The Smartest Kids in the World – And How They Got That Way
    Amanda Ripley
    Simon & Schuster
    July 29, 2014

    Maybe helpful links :

    1. I’ve not taken a look at that link yet so I’ve no idea if this is relevant to it, but kids + school + abroad brought to mind my opinion that kids going to live and go to school in other countries can be very beneficial. I’d love to see exchange student programs become much more prevalent in the US.

      1. There’s a few U.S. students who go to e.g. Korea for a short time.

        But they don’t actually complete grade requirements as far as I understood. It was to explore, journalistically. I found it fascinating.

  7. My own group, the Peoples Liberation Front for Anti-Visionism (PLFfAV), campaigns against systemic visionism, i.e., the differential treatment of people because of their eyesight. We insist on the abolition of vision tests for drivers’ licenses at the Department of Licensing, and for pilot’s licenses by the Flight Standards district offices. Abolition of these tests will end the bias against people who have a different way of seeing, and thus bring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to the streets, highways, and air routes.

  8. As is often the case an issue with opposing views about whether or not “structural racism” or “systemic racism” is real is that different people have different views about what it means. Even what the 2 individual terms mean. What does “structural” or “systemic” mean? And then of course there are lots of people that have never taken the time to think about what they think the term means, they have only a vague idea at best, but they know it is bad on the one hand or obviously untrue on the other.

    Personally I think McWhorter has nailed it, but that’s likely as much because we are in agreement as anything else. It has always seemed pretty clear to me that a major factor in differences in outcome in education, and other achievement metrics, between black people and white people is cultural differences that were largely engendered by generations of slavery and racism. As McWhorter says the slavery and racism are, mostly, in the past and can not be fixed, but nevertheless they had a lasting impact on black culture. Regardless of what one thinks about whether or not living white people should bear any responsibility for our white ancestors’ guilt, us white people need to help with this problem. Not just because it is the right thing to do ethically, though it most certainly is, but also because it is the pragmatic thing to do. (No, that is not a pro-Woke view, it is a good old fashioned liberal view.)

  9. I can agree with some of McWhorten’s ideas but certainly not all of them. If we could step away from education for a second or two there is plenty of racism out there and some will call it systematic. Segregation is not exactly dead in the country either. We know where most of the poorer class Blacks live and that does put them into the overcrowded and underfunded schools. Even the white class has separate educational systems for their kids with the rich mostly going to private schools and the rest to public. What would we call the fact that 45 or more states are right now doing their best to suppress the vote of a certain type of voter. And why is it nearly impossible to get a proper voter rights bill passed at the federal level. Is all of this not about race? If it is about something else, be sure and let me know. There are many things about race that cannot be legislated and we have been learning this since the civil war. In a so-called democracy equality will never be gained if you do not remove racism from voting. McWhorten should talk more about these things and get out of the classroom more.

  10. “In my view, “systemic” racism is racism that is built into a system—formalized discrimination.” – J. Coyne

    Right, the systems in question are social institutions or organizations; so systemic (or structural) racism is racism which is part of the normative (teleological, ideological) constitution of an institution or organization. A paradigmatic example is Hitler’s Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP).

  11. “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.”

    What this valuable insight articulates is essentially a class-based cultural difference in attitudes to education that has arisen in both the US and UK: broadly speaking, the middle class values education as a means of personal fulfilment, financial success, and social advance, while that outlook — which used to characterize the aspirational working class too — has been virtually eliminated from working class culture over the past fifty years, i.e. since the collapse of mass unskilled employment in advanced economies led to the collapse of the working class institutions that it supported. Instead, we’re left with a working class that has almost completely lost sight of any sense of broad social advance and whose view has been narrowed down to one of purely personal success, measured in purely material terms and gained purely through non-scholastic means: becoming a sportsman, becoming a musician, winning the lottery, drug-dealing etc. There are racial and national inflections to these goals — hip-hopper v. guitarist, basketball player v. footballer etc. — but the rejection of academic achievement as a route to the good life is common to all of them, and across all racial groups. Only strong-willed individual parents able to inspire their children to work hard at school, or rare individual children with the talent and force of personality to buck the expectations of their peer culture, are able to break out of this cycle, now that the wider and easier paths to the middle class that used to exist within working-class culture have evaporated.

  12. In the UK, the term “institutional racism” first came to prominence when it was used by Sir William Macpherson to describe the London Metropolitan Police in his 1999 report into the force’s investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Macpherson defined it as:

    The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour that amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

    1. Yes, I remember that vital time in the early investigation was wasted by the officers’ implicit assumption that Lawrence and Duwayne Brooks were themselves criminals and gang members rather than victims of the attack. I do remember thinking at the time of Macpherson’s report that the idea of “institutional racism” captured an important insight into what had happened.

  13. The main “systemic racism” I’ve understood and encountered in the courtrooms of NYC has been the cocaine/crack disparity. And it is real, and dreadful.
    But then the entire War on Drugs/citizens is entirely unjust to everybody, just worse to black people.

    Re racism though: Of education and other systems… I know little to nothing.

  14. “Systemic racism” is a religious concept for these people. It is an unfalsifiable, invisible, spectral force residing in unspecified and unanalyzable “systems” and “structures”. It is an omnipresent force casting a malign influence over the world, comparable to sin or the devil. It manifests itself in the world much like a demonic possession either as acts of racism or racial disparities. No attempt is ever made to look at causes or mechanisms, just as one would not attempt to understand weather systems when blaming the devil for crop failures.

    It is frustrating to see otherwise smart people try to salvage the concept of “systemic racism”, redefining it to mean something not intended by the people who use it. They are being played by deeply cynical people with a very different epistemology derived from postmodernism.

  15. I’m not that old but I’m old enough to remember the 90s and the 2000s before 2008. It was said that once we got a black President, it would mean that systemic racism is a thing of the past. We are now 5 years past a black President who served 2 terms and there is still talk of systemic racism.

    The truth is, nothing would ever disprove systemic racism. It’s an unfalsifiable hypothesis. You can only ever present FOR systemic racism. Never AGAINST systemic racism.

    So a black President would not be evidence against systemic racism. But no black President is evidence FOR systemic racism.

  16. Great posting! When I was reading it, something struck me. The article discusses the family “culture” differences between whites/blacks (black teens saw school as something they were subjected to, whereas the white kids saw it as part of their comfort zone.) For years it’s been known that as you go from northern latitudes to more equatorial ones, school performance gets worse. The ideas are that in southern latitudes, weather makes it more conducive to spending time outdoors and partying or doing other things, whereas in the north, where it gets cold, people spend more time indoors studying.

    I haven’t seen any numbers on whether this is cross race effect, but let’s assume that it is, for discussion. It’s known that the majority of the blacks in the USA actually live in southern latitudes. I’m wondering if there is an effect based on this? In addition, southern states tend to be poor, and both whites and blacks in many areas are known to have lower academic performance. Now while I definitely think that only a part of the difference might be environmentally and family “culture” induced, it’s probably worth looking into.

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