Jesse Singal has a nice piece on racial disparities on his Substack site, and you can read it for free (do subscribe if you read often). I had to read it twice to grasp his point, for the title is a bit confusing. Now, however, not only do I see where he’s coming from, but in the main I agree with him. Our only disagreement seems to be semantic: about what “structural racism” means. But that semantic difference is important. I’ll get to that shortly.
I recommend reading it, which you can do by clicking on the screenshot below.
I’ll summarize what I think is his point. He sees structural racism not as present-day features of institutions that mandate or facilitate discrimination, but simply as racism that has persisted through American society since slavery (he counts “blacks” in his discussion as American descendants of slaves, not including immigrants from Nigeria or the Caribbean). “Structural racism,” though waning, persists because, due to racism as recently as his grandparents’ time, there’s been a persistent inequality of wealth and resources between whites and blacks. This leads to an inequality of resources available to blacks and whites—resources that help people get jobs and attain the diverse measures of success. This disparity of resources means that entry to prestigious or lucrative jobs is more limited for blacks than for whites, leading to the present “inequities” that are so visible—the subject of a lot of worry. In other words, blacks have a narrower entrance to the pipeline that leads to success.
In this way, the “structural racism”—racism beginning early in America and persisting up to our era—leads to unequal outcomes, and that’s through a restricted entry of blacks into the “pipeline” of opportunity. To Singal, it’s a matter of wealth, the lack of which limits opportunity. Ergo, if you accept “structural racism”, then you have to also accept “pipeline problems.”
If you see “structural racism” in this way, then I agree with him. My only disagreement with Singal—and it’s an important one—is that “structural racism” is usually construed as institutionalized forms of discrimination: laws, rules, or codified practices that discriminate against people of color. This construal is important (and Singal alludes to it) because it implies that present inequities reflect present-day racism, and leads to the view that we can fix inequities simply by either ferreting out the structural biases, or lowering the bar by lessening the degree of meritocracy. Singal sees this form of “structural racism” as different from his. But in the end, Singal’s solution would seem to be mine as well: assure equal opportunity for everyone from birth.
The problem is that if “equal opportunity” reflects, as it surely does, inequality of wealth, then how do you assure it without making everyone equally wealthy, or at least wealthy enough get what you need to compete for good jo? His solution to inequity, then, seems to be to drastically reduce income inequality. And that’s a tough row to hoe.
But a lot of what Singal says makes sense. I’ll give a few quotes:
First, his definition of a “pipeline problem”:
Before I unlocked this article, my copy editor pointed out that I failed to define pipeline problems, assuming readers would be familiar with the phrase. A pipeline problem is a situation where disparities in workplace or academic settings might partially reflect disparities in the pool of qualified applicantsfor these positions rather than discrimination in hiring. To take an extreme and hopefully uncontroversial example, imagine Company X lacks any Lithuanian American employees. It could be because the company’s hiring process is biased against Lithuanian Americans, but it could also be because it received few or no competitive applications from this relatively small group.
Fair enough. I think we all agree that such issues are the primary explanation for the absence of racial diversity, at least in academia.
And his construal of structural racism (or so I think):
But whatever you think of the precise way race continues to shape things today, and how much it can be fully separated from class, race has obviously shaped the transmission of wealth and opportunity across generations. Again, we’re talking just two generations ago. There is no wild conspiracy theorizing going on here. It’s just not credible to deny this. So the tl;dr version of all this can be boiled down to: “I am successful in part because my grandparents were able to accumulate wealth on an uneven playing field, and millions of other white people can say the same thing.” This is not a knock on the grandparents in question, who really did work hard. But, again, everyone knows that a lot of people work hard. People travel tens of thousands of miles, on foot, just for a chance at a slightly better backbreaking job. “Well, they worked hard!” is a cop-out that doesn’t really explain who gets what.
You’re telling me that this stuff doesn’t matter and that it can’t help explain things like the racial wealth gap?
If you think of “structural racism” as inequality of opportunity caused by racism that was pervasive as recently as our grandparents’ generation, then you plunge yourself into a convoluted argument that that (Singalian) structural racism is the main problem rather than entry into the pipeline. (Singal sees them as pretty much equivalent). His quote:
If you believe in structural racism but don’t believe that white people are better positioned than black people to produce competitive job applications, on average, think about what you’re saying:
1) White people have, over the generations and on average, been endowed with opportunities black people have been robbed of
2) This extends well past K–12 education and into the elite corners of higher education, which white people have much more realistic access to than black people, on average — and degrees from top-tier schools are much more advantageous than degrees from middling ones
3) White people are also, relative to black people, endowed with more of every conceivable sort of training, tutoring, career guidance, access to young professional networks, and other benefits associated with successful job-searching, on average
4) Despite all this, white people and black people produce about equally competitive job applications.
I don’t know how anyone in their right mind could believe this sequence of claims. To do so, you have to think that all the stuff you were (rightfully!) yelling about 30 seconds ago — the vastly unfair and discriminatory apportionment of wealth and opportunity in America over the generations — just doesn’t matter when it comes to job applications.
Ergo, if you believe in “structural racism”, you must believe in pipeline problems, for the former (again, construed as Singal does) causes the latter. And you can’t rectify the latter simply by making a few tweaks in the structure of corporations, universities, or, indeed, society. DEI initiatives won’t work: we need a fundamental shake-up of American society.
The reason that people prefer the “pipeline argument” to the “structural racism” argument is that the former absolves them not only of blame, but also pretends there is an easy fix to inequality. A couple of quotes:
And [the pipeline explanation] very beneficial to privileged people, because it draws attention away from that privilege, away from how much they have and how much other people lack, and toward the idea that whoops, some bias infected some people’s brains (coulda happened to anyone), and once we banish it, diversity will bloom within our selective institutions.
By “discrimination” below, I don’t think he means simple racism, but discrimination among those of unequal qualifications—i.e. a meritocratic approach to hiring:
. . . One more time: It is comforting to think that discrimination is what’s leading to the outcomes we don’t like. It suggests relatively easy, nearby fixes. No one wants to be discriminatory.
And this—the fact that we’re nowhere near equality of opportunity, which correlates with equality of income—is the reason why people think that weak or even virtue-flaunting solutions are going to do anything about unequal representation. Again, by “discrimination”, I think he means “discrimination based on qualifications”, not race:
What people do want — or what the sorts of people in a position to shape how companies look want, at least — is to win the meritocracy game. They want that for themselves and for their kids. That’s why the conversation will grind to a halt if you press people on the actual depth of their desire for racial and socioeconomic justice. As in, if the results you see around you aren’t generated by discrimination, but rather by a big, complicated machine, are you still going to be enthusiastic about trying to change things? What about when you reflect on the fact that this big, complicated machine has generated excellent outcomes for you and your family?
Below is his case for diversity, which I agree with. I suppose that, in the end, this is the reason I favor some forms of affirmative action (I go back and forth between the diversity-is-inherently good justification, which was the basis of the Bakke decision, and the diversity-as-a-form-of-reparations argument):
Forced to choose between the two, I do certainly prefer a meritocracy with diverse faces at the top than a meritocracy dominated by white people. I think that all else being equal, diversity is a very good thing. I know it sounds like I’m reciting a mantra, but I’m a city boy and Jewish and so much of the culture, food, and literature that has meant the most to me has been the result of different groups colliding, mixing, and creating new things. America was always built to be a diverse place — it really is in our DNA, to borrow a phrase — and we’re at our strongest when it’s a cacophonous throng of voices from different backgrounds. So I don’t want to paint too dire a picture for those simply seeking to hire more diverse workers.
But this puts him in a bind, for as I see it Singal still views the meritocracy as inevitable (I don’t know if he approves of it), and holding that view will automatically create inequities.
What is the solution? In the final section, called “The Good News (Sort Of)”: Singal has some good news and some bad news.
The good news is that things are getting better: inequalty and inequity are lessening as racism wanes. (Only someone who’s blind can deny that.)
The bad news is that not only is it nearly impossible to create a level playing field, but people don’t even want to talk about the needed fixes, much less the problem. Those fixes require too much work and too much money for those of us in a position to help, and to discuss the problem leads to accusations of racism:
What it comes down to is that if we can’t openly and honestly talk about what the problems are, they will be impossible to solve. And part of me thinks that’s the point. For a lot of powerful people, the system we have is working great for them and their kids, minus a pesky lack of diversity where they work or where their kids go to school. If they can just tweak that — and it’s certainly getting easier to do given the aforementioned burgeoning middle class of talented non-white Americans — then their world will look pretty good, pretty just. And they can get there without ever having to really question, let alone act contrary to, their own material self-interest.
Were I to grade the piece, I’d say that it’s about 40% too long. But it’s well worth reading anyway.