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.