by Jacques Delacroix
This is a freewheeling and personal essay on the term “systemic racism.” It’s not an empirical study but it’s mindful of facts. It blends my observations as a rationalist with my frankly conservative leanings. I am a religiously indifferent conservative of the constitutionalist, small government breed. I judge representative government the very best we can do right now. As a conservative, I believe that only individuals matter and that they all have equal rights. The most important phrase for me in the American founding documents is “…and the pursuit of happiness.” It means that everyone can do whatever he damn well please, including things that I dislike. I distrust all systems.
I am a white immigrant from Europe. I have lived in the US for fifty- seven years, longer than most of the native-born. Thus, I saw – briefly – the last vestiges of legal racial segregation. I was in this country during most of the Civil Rights movement but too new to become involved. Later, I was an active opponent to American participation in the Vietnam War. My immediate family is composed of people of color for some purposes but not for most, including with respect to federal minority protection. I live in a part of California where there are few African Americans. I am pretty sure there is no local tradition of oppression of African Americans, no heritage of either slavery or of black racial segregation. This fact may induce a degree of blindness. In my area, something like 30 to 40% of the population is of Mexican origin. I would guess that most of those are recognizable as such. The rarity of demeaning jokes about Hispanics tells me there is next to nothing locally by way of ethnic tensions between Anglos and Hispanic.
I am a sociologist by trade, with a doctorate from a good university. I have a decent scholarly track record, as a sociologist, precisely. (See vita. The vita linked there is unusually thorough.) In spite of such credentials, I find the concept of systemic racism difficult to comprehend. Or perhaps, it’s because of those good credentials. Yet, as I have said, this little essay is not a work of sociology. It’s a rational but personal attempt to frame an issue – systemic racism – that is both salient and recurrent. Sorry: I had to introduce myself at some length for the benefit of those who believe there is no such thing as objective truth.
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.
What could induce enough guilt in numerous enough Americans to lead to an acceptance of the belief of racism without racists? I have in mind here, specifically, white Americans. For this relative outsider (again, I am an immigrant), the answer is obvious: white America has never really digested, assimilated the true story of the two and half centuries of unrelenting atrocities that was slavery. (Many conservatives demonstrate daily on talk radio that they have not.)
Evidence in support lies in areas where interest should exist but does not. So, for example, outside of professional historians’ circles, there is no discussion of the interesting fact that most black Americans are considerably lighter skinned than the African populations whence they originate. There is no discussion either of the related fact that the freeing of slaves on the owner’s death was so common in the antebellum South that several southern states made laws seeking to restrict and contain the practice as a public danger. One major reason that manumission was common was that it was how white owners could protect their slave children from beyond the grave. Stop and ask yourself what simple behavior might explain both facts. (Incidentally, some fiction readings have led me to believe that there exists some consciousness of the same facts in small southern towns. There, white people kind of know who are their distant black cousins.) I am referring to a long history of rape, of course. (I assume that property cannot give sexual consent.) Many white Americans know of slavery without really knowing much about it. I only spent one year in an American high school, long ago, but I remember that the one American history class I took had little to say about slavery. It was like painted over.
American public opinion of the left has largely adopted the systemic racism narrative since about the nineteen-seventies. It has been taught in nearly all universities since that time. Much progress in racial integration has also meant that many more whites now than then actually know some African Americans personally. This may prevent them from treating blacks in general with the indifference reserved for abstractions. Be it as it may this adoption of the systemic racism idea by whites on the current left is surprising because the adopters mostly vote Democrat and, historically, the Democratic Party is the party of both slavery and legal segregation. (Even more surprising, of course is the fact that African Americans themselves overwhelmingly vote for the same party with a charged racial past.)
Finally, and subjectively, the word “systemic” has a nice ring to it. It sounds sort of technical, or even scientific. Its very use is vaguely status-enhancing (I suspect some liberals are proud that they don’t confuse it with the more common, low-brow “systematic” but, that’s just me.) In the end, the word is intended to convey the abstract concept that racist actions take place even if no one is explicitly acting racist. That’s a valuable idea politically because it spares those who use it the exacting burden of demonstrating the existence of a guilty party and also the burden of convicting him or it.
A Public Torture-Killing
What directly prompted this essay (actually, several years in gestation) is a barbarous act that took place on May 25th 2020 in Minneapolis, that was thoroughly filmed by bystanders, and that triggered several weeks of peaceful protest nation-wide, but also of arson, of looting, and of other acts of rioting. Here is a brief account of the event.
A white police officer, wantonly and unnecessarily smothers with his knee over eight minutes a black suspect who is already handcuffed. Three other officers – including two members of racial minorities – stand by or lend a hand. The victim is a man with one conviction elsewhere for a violent crime. He has illegal drugs in his system when he is stopped by the police. (The family-ordered autopsy did not negate this information.)
The officer has accumulated seventeen or eighteen misconduct investigations, one of which gave rise to a notice of suspension. (I don’t know whether he was actually suspended.) One non-police source well situated to know describes him as habitually using questionable force (choke-holds) He has been married to an Asian woman. (“George Floyd’s Life and His Killer’s” by Jennifer Levitz, Erin Allworth, and Tawnell d. Hobbs – WSJ 6/22/20.)
The murdering officer’s supervisor is the black chief of police of the city. The chief’s own supervisor is the mayor of the city, a white leftist Democrat. The state governor is a Democrat.
Although, the employer denies they did, it’s difficult to believe that the police officer and the victim did not know each other because they both worked security part-time for the same nightclub for several years. (What often takes place in and outside nightclubs unavoidably rises to my mind, of course.) I am asserting here that it’s not obvious to me that the crime is racially motivated, just because the perpetrator is white and the victim black. It may well be but the fact has to be established separately.
Within days, the officer who did the killing is arrested and charged with second degree murder. The other three officers are also arrested shortly and charged as something like being accessories to the alleged crime. The state prosecutor is a black deputy state attorney general. The federal Justice Department is conducting its own investigation that may result in separate charges and in separate convictions.
Federally mandated rules are such a that in both state juries and in an eventual federal jury, racial representation will reflect the relevant city’s racial composition. For my overseas readers who are addicted to 1960s American movies about racism in America, it means that there is zero chance that the officers will be tried by all-white juries, either state or federal, zero.
Two weeks later, a white Atlanta police officer shoots in the back a black suspect originally stopped for drunkenness who is both fleeing and pointing a weapon at him. This event adds fuel to the nation-wide fire of popular indignation, of course.
There were immediately protest demonstration against the first killing in Minneapolis that quickly spread to the whole country. A leading rallying cry in all was a demand for “justice.” This can be interpreted in different ways. Since the police officers involved were quickly charged and arrested, it must not be justice for George Floyd, the Minneapolis victim, specifically, that was demanded because everything our justice system allows was done promptly. What else can anyone want, Chinese Communist justice? (Charged in the morning, tried in the afternoon, executed the same evening.)
A partial but solid answer to the question, “justice for whom?” is that many claim that Mr Floyd’s death is a symbol, also a sample, of widespread societal violence against African Americans in general. The underlying implication is that in many cases – unlike in the killing of Mr Floyd – this violence is inflicted by parties unknown and probably unknowable (hence, the “systemic” qualifier) but specifically on the basis of race. This is like treating this horrible incident as the tip of an iceberg. Such treatment of course calls for an answer to the question: How big is the rest of the iceberg?
I need to detour here to remind the reader of what this essay is not about. It’s not about police brutality but about the possible victimization of African Americans by all, including the police. The USA has a serious problem of police brutality. I don’t mean the federal government, I mean states, counties and cities. So, in this country and proportionately, about ten times more people are killed by police every year than in France, for example. And, the French police is not especially pacific (as compared to the exemplary English police, for instance), and it frequently faces well armed gangsters, as well as terrorists. (An in-depth investigation of unpunished French police brutality aired by Envoyé Spécial on TV5 5/25/20 indicates that a parlous situation exists in France in that respect.)
Incidentally, most of the police practice reforms proposed by Pres. Trump in June 2020 make sense to me although I don’t understand how any of this is constitutionally any of the federal government’s business. I would wish in addition for an experimental temporary moratorium on the police use of choke-holds and a partial elimination of the qualified immunity police enjoy in most places in the US. In brief, I think that even when police brutality is self-evident -as I think is the case with the Floyd killing – a racial dimension must be demonstrated separately. I will show below with figures how necessary this injunction is.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Justice System; Police Brutality
I will mostly bypass now the important issue of possible systemic racism in the in administration of justice itself. I mean charging, convicting and sentencing, which may or may not each involve a systematic (systematic) racial component. Here again, I think the relevant research exists and it has not caught my attention. (But, I have to wonder why.) It’s possible that black suspects are more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted and sentenced more heavily that whites suspected of similar trespasses.
If I were to look actively into the matter, however, I would explore the possibility that black suspects are less likely to be charged and convicted than whites, and also receive lighter sentences for equivalent crimes. This hunch is based on the recognition that most black crime is probably black on black. In this scenario lies a possible form of systemic discrimination because it treats crimes against black citizens as less severe or less significant than crimes against whites.
Finally, if I were initiating a research project about this today, I would pay special attention to the formal obstacles, including union rules, that may interfere with the prosecution of police officers suspected of lawbreaking, including homicide. If these obstacles were shown to be erected especially to impede action against white officers, I would consider them instances of systemic racism. If they were not, I would still pay attention because black men (specifically) are more likely than whites to die at the hands of police. Over a lifetime, according to a study recently published in the serious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than are white men in the course of their lifetime. (Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito “Risk of Being Killed by Police Use of Force in the United States, by Age, Race, Ethnicity and Sex” 2019.) The denial of justice implicit in the reluctance to prosecute law breaking members of the police could (could) be an important form of systemic racism.
Racism in Policing
First, a reminder: As I stated above, I believe there exists a high degree of police brutality in America. But, it’s not my topic here. The only questions on my mind now are these: What’s the racial component? Is it “systemic”? If there is no racial component, it’s not likely systemic racism is at work. If there is racism and it’s personal, there is no reason to call is “systemic” racism except falsely and presumptuously to sound scientific.
In May-June 2020, protesters echoed the media (or vice-versa) to give the impression that police shootings of black Americans of holocaust dimensions was taking place. The view seemed to have been widely shared based on (the same) media reports, including interviews of protesters. Some quantitative frameworking is in order here.
Frequency of homicide in general, of African Americans, particularly Homicide is in fact a fairly rare cause of death in America contrary to a widespread impression. In 2018, 14,000 Americans died of homicide. (Number of murder victims in the United States in 2018, by race/ethnicity and gender.) Applied to the whole American population, that’s a death rate so small many phone calculators can hardly handle it. Of 1,000 people who did die in the United States in 2018, only about five died of any kind of homicide. Contrary to a widespread impression, being killed by anyone, for any reason is rare today. This probability has been in decline for fifty years. The decline may be owed to demographics – an aging population – or to more effective policing, or to both. This is all to put any classification of homicides in perspective.
Of these rare homicide deaths, a little over half were of African Americans in 2018. But African Americans make up only about 13 to 16% of the population, maximum (“The Black Alone Population of the US: 2019.” – US Bureau of the Census). Like everyone else, black Americans seldom die of homicide but they die of it disproportionately, about three times more than average.
Who is Killing Black Americans?
There were 8836 homicides in 2016 where race of both first victim and perpetrator were known (This is a smaller number than used above because it’s less inclusive. No big drop in homicides is denoted here) About half were killings of blacks by blacks; about 18 % were killings of whites also by blacks. Whites killed about 80% of white victims. Black victims of white killers accounted for 4% of all homicide victims, and less than 10% of all black victims. Of course, the latter number must include all black victims of white police officers, including legally legitimate homicides. (I am assuming that black victims of black police officers are a small enough number to be ignored here for the moment.) This gives us a first outer limit of police killings of African Americans.
A widespread narrative exists nevertheless that claims an unceasing massacre of black citizens by white policemen. A close relative of the victim George Floyd thus declared on PBS radio on 6/17/20, that there is an “open season killing of black people…” It seems that he meant police killing of black people.
The reality is different. However unpopular in some quarters, however contrary to the visual pseudo-reality on our screens, the answer to the question “Who is killing black Americans?” is: “black Americans.” In 2016, about 90% of black homicide victims where race was known were killed by blacks. If there is a wholesale massacre of African American citizens on our streets, it’s akin to a collective self- massacre. It dwarfs all police killings of African Americans, of course. Anecdotal evidence seldom contradicts this assertion. Thus, black columnist Jason Riley reported in the WSJ of 6/10/20 that there were 492 homicides in Chicago last year (of all by all) of which only three involved police. That last figure did not distinguish between unjustified killings and legally otherwise justified killings.
Such small numbers do not detract from the idea that any police killing of civilians is especially disturbing and worrisome. There is a special reason to be concerned when those who carry the legitimate state monopoly of violence kill those they are sworn to protect. But, again, my topic is not police brutality but systemic racism. In this specific connection, the comparative rarity of police killings does not properly address the possibility that police disproportionately, or preferentially kill African Americans. I deal with this issue below. (Figures from the last four paragraphs except if otherwise specified are from: Easy Access to the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports: 1980-2016.)
Are blacks more likely to be shot dead during a police encounter than whites?
The evidence, including a systematic survey by a black Harvard economist as well as a one-city Justice Department study is that police are no more likely to shoot black suspects than white suspects. (Both cited by Heather MacDonald in the WSJ of 6/3/20; those are not controversial studies. For a more recent account, see: Fryer, Roland G. Jr: “What the Data Say About Police.” WSJ, 6/23/20 ) This narrative is contrary to current popular wisdom – or un-wisdom – but it’s the best evidence we have. Everything else is fiction or downright bad reasoning. (“Police hate blacks. Those who kill blacks do so because they hate them. Police must kill blacks more than they kill others.”) Note that it would take only one good study to overturn the assertion that police are not more likely to kill blacks than they are to kill whites. The absence of such a study is evidence of sorts given the interest this question raises in much of the population and in academia. Some argue however that this apparent equality of deadly treatment is the result of a sort of numerical visual illusion. I take up this matter below.
Do blacks have more police encounters than whites?
In 2015, the percentages of whites and blacks who experiences police initiated encounters with the police were equal, a little over 10% each. (Bureau of Justice Statistics.) These rates seem to debunk a popular alternative narrative appearing in the Boston Globe, among other liberal sources, that claims that blacks get killed more often by police than they should (see below) because they have more police encounters, including some prompted by racial profiling. There is also evidence from the Stanford Open Policing Project that police in various places stop black drivers at a higher rate than they do white or Hispanic drivers. The Prison Policy Initiative (a liberal organization) also asserts that African Americans share on average more contacts with police than whites and are stopped proportionately more often than whites, both on foot and in automobile traffic.
This disagreement is important for the following reason: Suppose that the probability of being killed by police depends completely and impartially on the probability of being stopped by police, say, in traffic. Think of a sort of deadly lottery: If you are stopped by police, there is a constant and equal probability of ending up dead. In this case, if police are more likely to stop black citizens than white citizens then, they are automatically more likely to kill black citizens, even for frivolous reasons or, in some other way, unfairly. Imagine further that black citizens are mostly stopped in traffic for having a missing taillight on their car and such, while white citizens are only stopped for such egregious conduct as going through a stoplight at 65 miles an hour. In that hypothetical situation, the killing of black drivers could easily be a result of police animus against them. Remember that this would be true although police would be just as likely to kill the whites as the blacks they stopped.
In the same situation, the killings of whites citizens by police would be more likely to be justified. In the hypothetical situation I describe, some black victims of police would be indirect victims of racism though black and whites would be stopped the ones as often as the others. In this scenario, the possibility of police hostility against African Americans could even remain in a situation where more whites than blacks are killed by police after a traffic stop. An extreme formulation of this perspective would go like this: Police kill whites they encounter as frequently as they kill blacks that they encounter, but all the blacks they kill are completely innocent while all the whites they kill are all guilty of some serious or violent legal trespass.
So, I ask, are there reasons other than racial animus, legitimate reasons, why police would stop black citizens more frequently than they do white citizens? This is a hard thing to figure out but it’s worth trying because the answer contains a potential explanation beyond the simple findings that police kill the whites they stop as much as the blacks they stop.
Is there any reason other than racial prejudice or animus why police would stop African Americans more than they do whites?
Ideally, a detailed study of police stops at every level of seriousness of suspected offense would answer this question. I think such a study does not exist. (I hope it will, soon.) So, I will use a trustworthy proxy for all forms of lawbreaking: murder convictions.
The assumption I make here is that there exists a continuity between such offenses as homicide, armed robbery, DUI, running stoplights, and driving with a broken taillight. Underlying this continuity would be a propensity to break the law. If no such continuity, no such propensity exist, my conclusions at the end of this section are correspondingly in doubt. I already know that my choice of indicator is imperfect in one respect: There is probably no continuity between crimes of passion and other transgressions. However, those are a small number of the total. This scheme also leaves aside whole categories of serious crimes that are almost certainly preponderantly white crimes, such as financial transgressions – because they seldom give rise to impromptu encounters with police.
I choose homicide as a substitute for all lacking measures of lesser categories of law breaking for several reasons. First, homicide is almost always an unambiguous act – as opposed to jumping stop signs, for example. Second homicides are more likely to be scrutinized than other forms of law breaking. Third, the race of homicide perpetrators is more likely to be known than the race of other crime perpetrators. Fourth, homicide is not as likely to be charged frivolously, without reason, as lesser offenses such as jumping stop signs may be.
Tech note: Below, I am dealing in broad orders of magnitude rather than is specific quantities. I mean that if I cut any figure I proffer by one third, the associated reasoning would remain intact.
African Americans regularly account at least for 40% and up of all homicides (“Race, Ethnicity and Sex ….” 2016 Crime in the United States, Table 3, already cited above.). The real situation is worse than this. It turns our that females in general commit ten times fewer homicides than males. So, it would be closer to the truth to state that something like the 6 to 8% of Americans, who are black and male, commit around 70% or more of the homicides in the United States. It matters to my reasoning that this is a long-standing situation. In 1976, a black male was 12 times more likely than a white male to commit homicide; in 2005 however, he was only 9 times more likely ( James Alan Fox, Northeastern University and Marianne W. Zawitz, BJS Statistician; BJS: Bureau of Justice Statistics Homicide Trends in the U.S. 2010.)
Why then would police stop African Americans preferentially? The seemingly ingrained current, as well as traditional answer is “racism.” One major objection to this view is that, as we have seen, the same supposedly racist police then and against expectations, are no more likely to kill the blacks they stop than the whites when given the opportunity.
The inference I make above may explain this paradox. Police, being well aware of a higher black propensity to break the law, stop African Americans more frequently that they stop whites. They would do so, perhaps, because stopping black offers a better yield than stopping whites. For the same reason (a speculation), they treat them more brutally, irrespective of degree of compliance (Fryer, Roland G. Jr: “What the Data Say About Police.” WSJ, 6/23/20, already cited). If racism guided their actions rather than a harsh but but basically rational realism, they would also kill the African Americans they stop more often than whites. The fact is that they do not.
Are black police officers as likely to kill black suspects as are white officers? If white officers preferentially killed blacks and black officers did not, or any attenuated version of this divergence would contribute to establish the thesis of systemic racism. So, what are the known facts on this? A 2018 Rutgers University study by Charles E. Menifield, Geiguen Shin, and Logan Strother, based on 2014- 2015 nation-wide data about all police killings answers a with a clear “Yes.”
If black officers kill black suspects as readily as do white officers, it’s unlikely that white officers’ killings of African Americans are generally expressions of any racism while the equal propensity of black officers to do the same is not. It’s more reasonable to suppose that the equal probability of black and white officers to kill blacks is the expression of, or is associated with something other than racism.
While I wish that we had a bigger study covering more years than the study cited above, it is the only systematic treatment of the data we have. For the moment, I would rather go with it rather than with a dozen well documented, dramatic, lamentable episodes spread over five or six years. A principled new study covering more years showing that white officers are more likely than black to kill African Americans could undermine my provisional conclusion below any time. Incidentally, and here again, I am surprised that the many supporters of the thesis of systemic racism in academia have not yet produced such as study. Or, have they?
I am well aware of the adage that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” but it’s only partially correct. If you said that a presumptive wolf got into your house every other night and stole one of your children, and if you did not proceed to study wolves, I would quickly suspect that something was amiss. I would believe in a short time that your narrative is all askew. Or, I would even judge that your lack of due diligence conceals something important
Disposing of a slightly risky inference If the inference I make above about a kind of continuity of lawlessness from homicide to other, milder forms of law breaking is not credible, it can be replaced with the following more basic formulation: Police officers are likely to be aware of the high black homicide rate. As a consequence, they consider black people in general more dangerous than white people. This knowledge is the basis for their stopping black citizens more frequently than white and also for their rougher treatment of black citizens than of white.
In this scenario, police officers are acting in a rational way although it may be objectionable. Again, African American police officers kill blacks as often as white police officers do.
Perhaps these practices amount to systemic racism. I think the case has to be made explicitly and clearly. It should affirm that police officers should not act differently with those they consider dangerous than with those they do not. The explanation should also include an evocation of how police should act differently based on the information available to them.
Here is a detour, an obviously necessary detour. The analysis above does not seem to me to support the concept of systemic racism but it leaves plenty of room for charges of racial unfairness. The legions of African Americans who think of rolling through a stop sign as significant lawbreaking would be, according to the same analysis, possibly, just possibly, at greater risk of being killed by police than their white fellow-citizens just because of some African physical features. The unfairness resides mostly in the fact that such features could not be erased or masked would they wish to do so. (I don’t suggest they would or should.) Yet, differential treatments based on such or similar ascribed characteristics are common in other phases of real life and normally seen only as regrettable but unavoidable facts.
There is a large category of Americans who are systematically required to pay 20% higher premiums for life insurance than the majority of the population, the category of reference. This category is “Men.” It’s unfair because, in general, as a rule, men cannot stop being men. Insurance companies routinely advance the justification that, at every age, men are more likely to die than women thus creating a higher risk of disbursement for the company. Men are also known generally, on the average, to engage in more risky behavior than women. Yet, the premium surcharge imposed on all men is obviously unfair to some male human beings like me who never touch alcohol or any other drug, don’t smoke, exercise two hours of every day, and eat only tofu and kale. It’s even unfair to the probably many less saintly men who do not lead riskier lives than do women in general. Do you see the parallel?
If the police tendency to stop blacks more than whites based on general numbers and an ascribed characteristic constitutes systemic racism, isn’t it true that the absolute preferential treatment insurance companies afford women is “systemic sexism”?
I must add this: African Americans have allowed themselves to be treated as members of a “community” for at least fifty years or more (perhaps, since the Civil Rights Movement.) This makes it difficult to advance claims based on individual traits, like this: “I don’t smoke and I don’t even roll through stop signs.”
Putting all the numbers together, this higher risk for African Americans to die at the hands of the police is compatible with the idea that they are stopped more frequently than are whites although, once stopped – as we have seen – they suffer no greater risk of being killed. Though these figures indicate that African Americans are more likely to die from police action than others, they don’t demonstrate systemic racism in law enforcement. They may be compatible with that concept through some other path I have not discovered. Perhaps, more research is needed. I have trouble believing this. I think that if it were possible, it would have been done by one of the several organizations dedicated to the welfare of black Americans, or by any one team of American liberal academics.
Confusing Yesterday and Today
One must ask why much of the general public, helped by the largely left-leaning media seems to accept a narrative starkly negated by available figures. It seems to me that the explanation resides in a massive confusion in the mind of that fraction of the general public that is intellectually honest about racism.
The confusion concerns the passive collective inheritance of slavery. Those whose ancestors came here in chains and against their will (instead of being highly self-selected like all other immigrants. See my “Why Immigrants are Superior.”), those descendants of slaves who received a systematically inferior education or none at all, those whose grandparents were limited in their occupational choices by legal segregation, such members of American society will do less well economically and socially than those whose antecedents suffered no such limitations on their talent and character. Throw in thousands of lynchings and the occasional deadly race riot and you have a societal design for the failure of some.
If you could conduct an experiment replicating those conditions with people selected at random, marked with a blue tattoo on their left hand, and made to breed among themselves you would certainly observe in them below average rewards of life on any conceivable indicator. This would happen in the absence of any current (current) mistreatment of their descendants. The now vague factor of “racism” would not have to be investigated. The historical explanations above would suffice.
To my mind, the inheritance of slavery, segregation, and other forms of discrimination against African-Americans means that something is owed to the descendants of slaves irrespective of the current reality or existence of “systemic racism.” All emotions carefully kept aside, refusing to subscribe to present-day irrationality, I am persuaded that if I looked into the matter, I would find a material debt. I mean that once you have accounted for the real costs of maintaining slaves and deducting that amount from what free labor would have cost to perform the same tasks at the same level, I would find a certain quantity of unpaid wages. As a conservative, I believe that unpaid wages should be paid, and paid with interest. A very good book published in the seventies pretty much did the work I describe in commendable detail: Robert Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman: Time on the Cross.
Specialized economists and actuarians – whose job it is – could arrive at a rough but good approximation of the amount owed to descendants of slaves because of unpaid wages. The approximation would, of course, take into account some reasonable rate of growth for the debt and the likelihood that some of the slaves and some of their descendants would have simply lost or wasted early some of their unpaid wages had they been paid in good time. Computing the amount due would be a complex task and subject to disputation but doable and healthy on the whole as a collective memory aid. It would be about a reasonably objective reality. Again, I think that not paying one’s debt will trouble one’s conscience, and in the end, cloud one’s judgment.
Such a limited program of reparations would be more easily accepted by conservatives if it were seen as an overall and final settlement of this well defined debt – the debt concerning unpaid wages only – and as the beginning of the phasing out of government imposed affirmative action programs. The form this compensation should take could be open for discussion. Obvious collective forms such as massive subsidies to African American education come to mind. Yet, the possibility of individual grants to all who could prove slave ancestry should not be summarily eliminated from consideration. (I intuit that collective reparations would not make many individual descendants of slaves feel whole.) There have actually been recent conversations among conservatives about the topic of compensation. Walter Russel Mead’s “The Work of Atonement,” a critique of book From Here to Equality by William A. Darity and A. Kristen Mullen, in WSJ 6/18/20, is a good place to start thinking about the issue that is free of hysteria.
Note that I am not proposing anything resembling compensation for pain and suffering, or punitive damages – another discussion, a problematic one, one posing vastly different issues on which honest people can differ – but just the settlement of a tangible conventional business debt, something again, fairly objective and naturally limited.
Ethical Issues about Limited Compensation
Any reparation proposal will raise what looks like other ethical issues. Why should I, for example, be taxed to compensate victims of old American racist policies since my ancestors where digging potatoes in eastern France when all the abuse took place? Why should the vast majority of northerners, of descendants of northerners and of post Civil War immigrants be held accountable for the failure of others to pay wages? The answer is that by living in the US (especially, by choice, in my case and that of other immigrants, and of their children, etc.), we benefit from the existence of the same polity that did quite a bit to shore up and support the first abuse – slavery – before it finally acted decisively to end it. It’s the same polity that later contemplated with equanimity and passively supported the unequal treatment of the freed slaves and of their descendants on some of its territory. I refer to the United States of America, the federal entity of course.
All this being said, the passive economic heritage of slavery does not logically exclude current racial discrimination, with its own disastrous consequences, separate from the economic inheritance of slavery and segregation. On the contrary, it would make sense to argue, negative discrimination tends to be a bad habit if it’s not forcefully interrupted: We discriminate against Peter today because we did so against his father Paul yesterday. Yet, it’s important to distinguish between the consequences of (possible) current discrimination and the rather certain collective fallout of past ill treatment.
Two reasons to try to keep this distinction: First, if we don’t, we risk assuming that the ill treatment continues even if it ceased long ago. This places us, collectively in an impossible situation: How to stop something that does not exist? It will cause its own bitterness. It will lead to twisted pseudo-remedies. It will prompt those who think themselves as victims of the putative current ill-treatment to fight against the wrong forces and to commit trespasses of their own in the process. Second, the remedies for the results of past bad treatment – including the slave trade, American slavery, racial segregation, official racial discrimination – those remedies are different from the kinds of redress that would apply to currently oppressive behavior: “Fix it” and “Stop it” imply different strategies.
Of course, reparations will not stop police from thinking of African American citizens as prone to breaking the law or as especially dangerous. Reparations would thus not restrain the police from stopping blacks and thus killing them, disproportionately. Reparations for lost wages would, I think, help the white majority to think more clearly about racial issues in general. Indirectly, this would help devise more rational policies regarding perceived racial injustice. Reparations would go a long way toward undermining the dogma of systemic racism. It would boost the influence of those African American leaders who prefer accommodation to intransigence.
How about Personal Experience?
While I try to rely on numbers, no part of this essay is meant to disparage the relevance of all personal experience nor even of all subjectivity. As we know from novels, subjectivity both acts as a blinder and it opens eyes. Yet, much of it is useless and worse.
An old friend of mine is on record on Facebook asserting that the Floyd killing was obviously racially motivated because the killer was white and the victim black. A logical implication of this view is that if a white policeman killed a black criminal about to behead a black child, the shooting would be a racial crime. My friend earned his doctorate from the same program, in the same university as I did, also in sociology, at about the same time. He has a respectable academic career behind him. He is African American.
When the still respected and still-staid WSJ decides to do its bit and contributes personal experience stories form black executives, it does it in the soft part of its weekend edition, of course. It turns into a maudlin fiasco, I think. (“Black executives Break Their Silence” by Khadeeja Safdar and Keach Hagey, Weekend edition, 6/27-28/2020.) Two executives interviewed by WSJ have to wander off to China and to apartheid South Africa to come up with something worth re-telling. One goes straight to fiction, I believe, and he recycles an urban story about being stopped and terrified by a mean racist cop as a young teenager. Several fall back to the common narratives of being followed and humiliated by store personnel who suspect them of trying to shoplift. Everyone, including the interviewers, is too polite to ask why black customers may be singled out in that specific manner. No one thinks either of wondering what other category – not based on race – store personnel single out for special attention on similar grounds. (I am thinking of little old white ladies carrying large purses.)
The habitual silly brandishing of numbers underscores the absence of ordinary criticality presiding over the WSJ subjectivist story. “Only 3,2% of senior executive positions are held by black people.” How in the world is this calculated ? If it’s true, what does it mean? What is it proof of? Repeating myself: About 60% of players in the NBA, that millionaires factory, are African American, which demonstrates what? And I would bet that African Americans are over-represented in federal government employment, which also would show what (except the effectiveness of government affirmative action programs)?
Personal experience wrapped in story telling talent may be important nevertheless, some of the time. I am fairly sure reading Richard Wright, James Baldwin a long time ago, and Toni Morrison more recently, opened my mind without persuading me of anything. Perhaps, reading good fiction by black authors taught me to look. That’s not nothing. On 6/20/20 I heard the talented young writer Aezi Dungee speak of her experience as a black actress playing a slave at Mount Vernon during the summers. (“Moth Radio Hour” on PBS). It caused me to feel her pain and her rage infinitely more than any objective figures ever would, it’s true. Yet, her rage is her rage. I am not ethically bound to espouse it. The best I can do is act according to principles that we share. Many of those are clearly established in the founding documents of this great nation. Other relevant principles I derive directly from a classical conservative stance. Ms Dungee is entitled to justice for now and to reparation for harm done long ago and that still trammels her life today. I cannot do more without betraying justice itself and undermining the foundations of both of our lives, of my present liberty and of hers.
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.
© Jacques Delacroix 2020