The Vanishing of Personalized Racism
Not long ago, in my lifetime, racism in America consisted of tangible actions against members of a given physically recognizable group motivated by their belonging to that group. The actions could be individual, such as slurs proffered by a stranger in the street, or variously collective like a company’s deliberate refusal to hire members of a race, or the informal exclusion of members of a race by labor unions, or democratically produced legislation barring members of a race from specified public places, or even from some occupations. One major expression of racism was the separation of children in different and unequal schools according to race.
All these situations have one thing in common: someone, or an identifiable corporate entity is doing the racist act they describe. (I am leaving out racist feelings and racist attitudes and ideas on purpose both because I believe they matter little in the end and because I can deal with only one controversy at a time. Yes, there are attitudinal racists in the USA.) This fact, the identifiable presence of racially motivated actors as consequences for remediation of racism: Any doer of a racist action may possibly be caused to desist, through punishment, intimidation, or even education. The doers of racism in all these cases constitute clear targets for attempted social change.
The USA spent much of the second half of the 20th century eradicating the familiar forms of racism I exemplify above. Then, and in the absence of the traditional and familiar causal evidence, ideologists devised the concept of “systemic” racism. I think it means racism without racists. The absence of a defined evildoer and the replacement of conventionally defined racism by “systemic racism” was bound to produce a bifurcated response. On the one hand, some would shrug and think that if there is no evildoer, there is probably no evil. On the other hand, others will equally say, evil is pervasive; it can’t be pinned down precisely because it’s everywhere. It seems to me that the second position requires a suspension of critical judgment. This suspension in turn is well served by poorly defined emotions, such as diffuse collective guilt, and by wholesale ignorance of facts. I mean deliberate, strategic ignorance as well as honest ignorance.