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


Systemic racism is hard to find. Its most obvious and most widespread instance seems to me to be affirmative action in all its forms. It’s a device that discriminates against many to the benefit of others, based on ascribed, unchangeable characteristics such as sex and race. It was originally designed to favor African Americans and it still does, in a proximate fashion. It may be “systemic’ in the sense that it’s largely on automatic except for the details of its application in a particular place and at a particular time. Indeed, much of affirmative action is mandated by law. As I write, the California Assembly just passed a bill re-instating racial preferences that had been eliminated 16 years earlier regarding state employment and admissions to the state’s vast university system. (“A Vote for Discrimination” WSJ, editorial page, 6/26/20). This set of restorative policies has consequences for black lives that are not well understood, I think. It’s not obvious that they do more good than harm to the beneficiaries themselves. It serves to give some white citizens a clear conscience. It stimulates racial resentment in others.

Differential and financially unequal treatment of black children is built into our national system of elementary and secondary education which favors local schools. Perhaps, that is an example of systemic racism. I noted with interest that many years of the wildly unpopular busing children in an attempt to equalize educational resources seem to have accomplished little in this respect.

I pointed out that another force that could be classified as systemic racism impeding the progress of African American children in education. I mean the teachers’ unions unrelenting opposition to charter schools which seem to benefit black students disproportionately.

Briefly and superficially, I looked at possible systemic racism in housing and in employment. Although affirmative action in favor of African Americans is quite common in employment, I allowed how small entities not worth suing might still practice racial discrimination discreetly. The legal barriers to racial discrimination in all phases of housing seem to me to be formidable. My impression may just be naive and fed by ignorance. Also, small entities, towns, banks and real estate companies little worth noticing may still be engaging in redlining under the radar. It would be worth looking for real studies on the subject that, I am fairly sure, must exist.

I looked briefly at access to government. At the federal level, the most visible, I have trouble imagining large scale discrimination against African Americans. I imagine that all kinds of idiosyncratic but relevant behaviors could be observed at the local level starring what elected official think are their crucial voter bases. These behaviors would probably include favoring African Americans as well as treating them shabbily, depending on the place and time. It wouldn’t be surprising if these behaviors included old fashioned racial discrimination in smaller entities also far from the limelight. I stay away from commenting on the practice of racial gerrymandering because I am convinced that Democrats – who represent black voters in most of this country – are as enthusiastic about it as Republicans, whenever they get a chance.

I realize that the American justice system(s) might treat black citizens in ways that differ systematically from the ways they treat white citizens. They might charge, convict, and sentence differently blacks and whites. I chose not to wade in what I suspect is a large empirical literature on the topics. I hope someone else will, looking for systemic racism specifically. I pointed out that justice systems might treat black citizens more leniently than they do white citizens. If they do, and as paradoxical as it seems, this might be a case of systemic racism against blacks because African Americans are the main victims of African American lawlessness. Minimizing the damage done to blacks is racism if it’s done as a matter of course, naturally. It may be even be called “systemic.”

I spent significant time and energy examining the possibility that there exists systemic racism around the issue that triggered both protests and riots in May-June 2020: the killing of black citizens by police. To this effect, I examined what empirical evidence was readily available at the time. I pointed out that if racism is systemic, evidence of its existence should be easy to find. I marveled at my inability to locate serious studies supporting the widespread narrative that police wantonly kill African Americans on a large scale.

I concluded that police probably stop blacks more often than they stop whites and probably treat them more brutally. Police nevertheless do not kill black suspects more readily than they kill white suspects. Also, I noted that black officers kill African Americans as readily as do their white colleagues. I speculated that the differential treatment of black and white citizens may be a rational and competent police response to the fact that blacks are viewed – with reason – as less law abiding or more dangerous overall than whites. Such customs are undoubtedly unfair to the many black citizens who are neither dangerous nor inclined to break the law. Others will see in this unfairness evidence of systemic racism.

I speculated further about a possible cause for the contrast between widely expressed popular beliefs on black deaths at the hands of police and the facts available to all on the topic. I expressed the idea that diffuse and well founded white guilt about the evils of slavery and those of segregation encourages many to confuse the present with the past. I offered a reparative solution to this problem of confusion based on rational analysis and on conservative principles. Briefly, I discounted or mostly discounted the relevance of personal experience.

I offer no solution here to the very real issue of police disproportionate killing of African Americans. We have to remember, perhaps heartlessly, that it’s quite small in the bigger picture. Conservative commentator Heather McDonald pointed out that in 2019 that unarmed black victims of police represented one in one thousand of all African American meeting a violent death. (“The Myth of Systemic Police Racism” WSJ 6/3/20).

Though I offer no solution here, I am astonished by those currently offered on the left, consisting in various degrees of incapacitating of police departments nation-wide. The nefarious results of such measures would be absurdly predictable. Relieved from police pressure, black street gangs would increase their activities and kill even more of one another and of their close neighbors, most of them African Americans. Second, with police response less certain, more citizens, white and black, would arm themselves for self-defense. Many would do so with or without the blessing of local governments eager to undermine the Second Amendment and side-step arms training. As the possession of weapons became more common its combination with lack of preparedness and skill would grow. Criminals and suspected criminals would die in large numbers at the hands of civilians. Many would be black. In short, the remedies being proposed are worse than the ills they are supposed to cure. They are as if designed to raise then number of African Americans dying violently.

As I conclude this essay, I think that systemic racism is largely a deliberate myth constructed to bypass rational inquiry. Many white citizens have accepted the myth because of unresolved collective guilt about America’s offensive racial past. I pointed out myself areas where systemic racism might nevertheless be found by a more thorough inquiry than mine. As I said several times in this essay, a single good study or even a simple reading of existing studies I am not aware of, on social topics I treated superficially, could prove wrong my skeptical perception of systemic racism.

[Editor’s note: you can find Part 8 here, or you can read the whole essay here.]

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