Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 5 of 9)

Finding Systemic Racism in Employment, Housing, Education, Access to Government.

It seems to me that systemic racism should (almost by definition or lack of it) bear upon all aspects of life, with four having special importance. First, I see employment, which affects often profoundly, the quality of one’s life. Second, I would consider housing, same thing more or less, plus it’s a normal way to accumulate a nest egg for many or most of those who are not born rich in America. The third area where systemic racism should have many and far-reaching negative effects is education. Unequal access to the government might be the fourth large area where systemic racism manifest itself. Finally, the hypothesized systemic racism if the words have any meaning, should be operational the delivery of justice and of police services. These sectors are important because of their direct potential to to take away one’s freedom and even one’s life. I give this last area of concern a separate treatment.

I offer my superficial contribution as an observant citizen to the first four areas. I think that is all that should be expected of me if systemic racism is truly widespread. If it were as common and as general in its applications as is being currently alleged as I write (June-July 2020), I should see it without much effort once it’s been pointed out to me. (It’s being pointed out practically every minute of the day by radio and by television, and even by the moderate WSJ for the past three or four weeks, even by Fox News.) I should even be able to stumble upon it without a conventional study. It seems to me that if I have to move furniture and lift every carpet to find traces of systemic racism, it’s just not that important, or, it does not exist at all.

If systemic racism is both said to be pervasive and it’s impossible to detect, it’s just another fairy tale in reverse, or fetishism. Or it’s a deliberately fallacious concept designed to affirm a social fact while avoiding the empirical burden of demonstrating its existence. This is true although it’s obvious that, as a white person, I cannot be made aware of any kind of racism the easiest way possible, by becoming its target. But this most obvious path to awareness is also the most subject to error, of course. The anger that accompanies being a target of presumed injustice induces a subjectivity inimical to sound judgment. The anger must impair or destroy the capacity to think rationally. These statements, together, imply that a dozen infamous and well documented cases of what might be racially inspired possible police crimes against African Americans spread over five or six years stops short of establishing the case for the existence of systemic racism. “It happens” does not mean the same as “it’s everywhere.” Incidentally, by making these self-evident statements, I feel as if I were ringing a bell to wake my fellow citizens from their stupor.

Employment

Racial discrimination in employment used to be pervasive. So many laws have been passed to eliminate it that one is tempted to believe that it hardly exists anymore. At least, gross racial discrimination in employment is a risky legal game for large companies, those with deep pockets. The nature of the anti- discrimination suits showing up in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) nearly every day makes it difficult for me to believe that much of a problem remains in this area. The suits sound almost all frivolous, capricious, and arbitrary. This is not a judgment on the sincerity of those filing the suit. They may truly believe they are the victims of discrimination. Yet, belief is not evidence of anything. It’s possible nevertheless that real racial discrimination in employment persist in companies too small to be worth suing.

What I know personally about work and race corresponds well with most of the news I obtain from the media in general (including National Public Radio to which I listen – less than religiously – every weekend). Affirmative action, or positive discrimination in favor of African Americans, or negative discrimination against Asians and whites, seems to be the rule in every employment locale of which I am aware. I am especially aware of academia, of course. The last time I was involved in hiring in my university, for example, the new 30-year old hire came in at a salary equal to mine after 24 years and a respectable academic career. The recruit was a woman, and perhaps, just probably, a person of color of some kind. (My chairman, a man with a Spanish surname, asked me confidentially my opinion about whether she was black or Hispanic. I couldn’t make this story up up!) I hasten to say that the recruit in question was more than qualified enough for my department (like me, in fact). This is merely an anecdote, of course. I think though that it’s just as valid as anyone’s anecdote. Still in academia, it would be possible but difficult to find a French person (from France) hired by a Department of French in an American university in the past twenty years. The new hires are overwhelmingly “people of color,” or almost, from former French colonies or from Zaire (a former Belgian colony). Such uniformity in hiring obviously does not happen by chance. I would almost call it “systemic.” (Incidentally, as a native French speaker, I have nothing against the different varieties of French used outside of France.)

So, at this point, as a keen observer but as someone who has not conducted a real study of the topic, I am not persuaded that there exists any discrimination against African Americans in employment in the US that is not an isolated, willful act and thus, not systemic racism. It’s self-evident however that there exists in many economic areas discrimination in hiring against whites and Asians and that this discrimination is systemic. That is, it’s not the result of any specific individual or corporate action directed against whites or Asians but baked in. Note that I did not say anything about the possible historical, ethical justification of this kind of discrimination.

Some will object that, in fact, in spite of affirmative action programs, African Americans have on the average, worse jobs than white Americans. Here is a good point to re-iterate a principle that should not even have to be mentioned: The widespread (and unfortunately judicially validated) practice of establishing proof by outcome is deeply illogical: If I go hunting with my friend and he bags five rabbits to my one, it may be because my rabbits were faster than his or better at zig-zaging, or that my gun barrel is curved (as I may claim), or it may be because he is a good shot and I am not. Similarly, the vast numerical preponderance of African Americans in those powerful millionaire-making machines that are professional football and basketball does not establish the existence of systemic racism against whites and others in those sports.

Housing

The practice of redlining included informal and sometimes formal discrimination against members of racial minorities. It used to be widespread everywhere in the US, including in the northern states. One of the practical consequences was to deny African Americans the ability to purchase housing in certain areas and even in whole towns. This was hostile treatment in its own right. Redlining also had negative implications for education because in most of the US the public schools are district schools. Children attend the schools tied to their residential neighborhood. Poor neighborhoods are thus often associated with inferior schools The very detailed Fair Housing Act of 1968 tried to put an end to the most egregious redlining practices. Violations of the Act carry heavy penalties.

I don’t know to what extent the prohibited practices have been extinguished nor if they have been replaced by other nefarious practices with similar consequences. I would not be surprised if redlining did subsist but on a small scale, between small local banks, for example, and small, equally local real estate firms, both situated far from the limelight. I suspect the research exists to answer these questions. Remaining or renewed redlining would be fair candidates for systemic racism. I regret that I cannot look for the relevant material. I hope others will.

Education

Affirmative action to the benefit of African Americans is the rule in admission to American universities. Even in universities where racial preferences were formally eliminated, as was the case at the vast University of California about fifteen years ago, the prevalent political forces are working to re-establish them. That is, of course, systemic racism. Affirmative action for black unavoidably works to the detriment of white and Asian students. That’s absent any racial animus against the latter. No surprise there, it’s expected to do so. (There was a famous lawsuit against Harvard University by a coalition of Asian-American groups in 2016-2019 for discriminating in admission against applicants of Asian extraction. The suit was eventually dismissed in spite of what looked like strong evidence of discrimination, based on SAT scores among others.)

As far a K-12 is concerned, unequal education for African American children used to be the rule and it was supported by law – that is, by the armed power of the State- in much of the country. This fact mattered in its own right but also because of its consequences on employment. Education is a precursor to employment and a partial predictor of its quality; it determines the width of employment choices available. Formal obstacles to a good education for African Americans have been eliminated by multiple court actions and the painful remedy of busing, practiced for many years with and then, without federal subsidies. Yet, it’s likely that African American children still attend schools that are, on the average, less well funded than the schools of average white children because of the largely local funding of American schools in general. (This may be a fact of “institutional racism,” a close cousin to “systemic racism.”) Notably though, where African American students happen to attend schools that are richer than the average school in America, as is the case in Washington D.C., good educational results don’t measurably ensue.

One thing that has been shown to improve strongly black children’s educational performance, controlling for income and living address, is charter schools. The opposition of teachers unions is the only significant obstacle to enrolling more children and, by logical implication, more black children in charter schools. No one believes that this opposition is dues to the racial motivations of either individual teachers or of their unions. It looks like a good example of pure systemic racism against African Americans. It seems to me that there is no other such example in the area of education. For a measured approach to this form of systemic racism by a respected African American conservative, see Thomas Sowell’s “Charter Schools’Enemies Block Black Success” (WSJ 6/19/20).

Access to government

I have little to say about systemic racism as it may affect access to government, for two reasons. First, it seems obvious that African Americans have met with great success in achieving elective office, going from about zero in 1960 to tens of thousands in 2020. (During the Floyd crisis, black elected officials intervened everywhere in the media, including on conservative Fox News.) I think also that the Congressional Black Caucus exerts power much beyond its numbers. This is true when the Democratic Party dominates. I suspect I think it’s almost as true with a Republican Congress. Its influence corresponds to the same seniority rules that gave any white elected southern Congress people disproportionate power for many years. Black congresspersons keep getting re-elected, acquiring both experience and seniority which multiplies their effectiveness.

Separately, I often wonder why black voters do not more often provide the swing vote in nation-wide primary elections as they apparently did in the 2019 Democratic primaries. It seems to me that they could if they would and thus, exert an influence out of proportion to their numbers. But they would have to be seen looking outside the Democratic Party to become credible. (On a personal level, I have little sympathy toward opportunities not seized.)

Secondly, I am persuaded that the power-wielding jobs in the federal bureaucracy are afforded to black applicants at least fairly, and probably preferentially, given equal (and often mysterious) formal qualifications. I have no hard evidence to present in support of this impression. The relevant research may exist and I don’t know about it. I am less sure about local bureaucracies’ openness, but I never read anything about unfairness in connection with black employment in local government. It’s true that I may not be well positioned to perceive it if it exists. I may be in the wrong part of the wrong region of the country.

A shortage of African Americans in the bureaucratic apparatus of local and state government could itself be a source of systemic racism. It could be enough to account for government neglect of what happens to be issues affecting African Americans preferentially. I am open to learning on this point.

[Editor’s note: you can find Part 4 here, or read the whole essay here.]

Please keep it civil

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