Claims of systemic racism ignore historical realities

It is wrong to equate individual prejudice with state-sponsored discrimination

This is part 7 in our series The Victim Cult

The following is an excerpt from The Victim Cult: How The Grievance Culture Hurts Everyone And Wrecks Civilizations by Mark Milke. In this excerpt, Milke details how the “new” definition of racism from Ibram X. Kendi and others hollow out hard facts and reasoned analyses when a monocausal explanation – racism – is offered up for all observed disparities between cohorts.

Mark MilkeAmerica in the third decade of the 21st century is beset by a belief that has become almost unchallengeable. From the White House to corporate America and from primary school lessons to the self-referencing professorial class, a surety exists: institutional, systemic racism is omnipresent and is responsible for disparities between black Americans and everyone else.

A modest problem: Few popularizers of this claim define systemic racism. If they did, it would be apparent that some of the most prominent voices which assert that America is institutionally racist conflate that concept with personal prejudice. Or they offer vague assertions not connected to the changes in court judgments, laws, and policies in the last 70 years. Over seven decades, actual entrenched institutional discrimination was properly, relentlessly attacked by civil rights activists and uprooted through a series of judicial and legal reforms in the 1950s and 1960s.

Progress against systemic racism included Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the segregation of children based on colour was unconstitutional; the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibited employment discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, and national origin; and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that further eradicated institutional discrimination by outlawing literacy tests often used by southern states to disenfranchise black voters. Those reforms were followed by the 1972 Equal Employment Opportunity Act, which applied the 1964 law to state and local governments and small businesses.

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Public attitudes in America also changed and were part of the reason for the just-noted reforms. By 1963, opposition to racial discrimination in employment rose to 83 per cent, or about double 1944’s 42 per cent; support for school integ

ration and integrated public transportation was 62 per cent and 79 per cent respectively in 1963 compared with 30 per cent and 44 per cent in 1942; and the proportion of Americans favouring integrated neighbourhoods rose to 64 per cent by 1963 from 35 per cent 19 years previous.

As academics Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom noted about such statistics and in response to the claim that “federal civil rights legislation in the 1960s was responsible for the huge shift of white racial attitudes … that puts the cart before the horse. Deep attitudinal changes created the political pressures responsible for the enactment of new law.” More recently, consider voter turnout as another indicator of progress. As author Jason Riley writes, “In the 1960s, black people risked life and limb to cast a ballot. In 2012, [the proportion of] black voter turnout exceeded white turnout.”

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Such concrete, positive progress against actual racist systems are what Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter, Walter Williams, Glenn Loury, Shelby Steele and other black intellectuals – call them the “classic” antiracists – have pointed out, in some cases, for decades. It is obvious that personal racism still exists; any scan of online comments will reveal that, as will descriptions of odious behaviour from anyone who encounters a xenophobe.

However, individual prejudice is not equivalent to state-sponsored discrimination of the sort embedded in laws and policies across America before the modern civil rights movement. Prior to such reforms, black soldiers returning from the Second World War were treated as third-class citizens, and this after they risked their lives to defend the United States. And all black Americans faced lunch counters, bus seats, motel rooms, schools, and entire neighbourhoods off-limits depending on the whims of white racists, and with little recourse.

That and much more was institutionalized racism.

And it was evil.

Concrete, systemic racism was once real and rampant. Its progressive eradication might be why those classic black voices who are specific about what constitutes systemic racism – literal legal and policy barriers to exercising civil rights based on colour – argue that generic, present-day assertions ignore historical progress and contemporary realities.

Thus, Brown University’s Glenn Loury writes how the “invocation of ‘systemic racism’ in political arguments is both a bluff and a bludgeon.” It allows those who use the term to invoke “shadowy structural causes that are never fully specified” and ignores how “disparities have multiple, interacting causes, ranging from culture to politics to economics.” Loury, a professor of social sciences and economics, also stakes out this claim: those who use the term systemic racism “ignore the following truth: that America has basically achieved equal opportunity in terms of race. We have chased away the Jim Crow bugaboo, not just with laws but also by widespread social customs, practices, and norms.”

This desire for specifics is why entrepreneur Kmele Foster labels the charge of systemic racism as a “reflection of an ideological program” and “deceptively matter-of-fact.” Foster argues that those who use the term do so to avoid dealing with real issues, including actually fixing “chronically failing schools.”

Similarly, John McWhorter, an English professor and linguist at Columbia University, writes of how he finds “the term ‘systemic racism’ to be the most nettlesome term in the English language at present.” McWhorter argues the phrase and the charge assumes that “inequities between whites and blacks on the societal level, such as in scholastic achievement, wages, wealth, quality of housing and health outcomes, are due to racist bias of some kind, exercising its influence in abstract but decisive ways.” This, McWhorter opines, is problematic: “The problem is that sociology and social history are more complex than this interpretation of ‘systemic racism’ allows. All race-based inequities are not due to ‘prejudice.’”

The societal and political consequence of this anti-intellectualism is why South Carolina Senator Tim Scott took dead aim at the concept in his April 2021 response to U.S. President Joe Biden’s address to Congress. In his speech, the president said it was time to make “real progress” on racial issues and to “root out systemic racism” in the criminal justice system. In response, Scott was frank: while he had encountered personal prejudice, he refused to conflate that with a characterization of America as systemically racist. “Hear me clearly,” said Scott, “America is not a racist country.”

Mark Milke, Ph.D., is a public policy analyst, keynote speaker, author, and columnist with six books and dozens of studies published across Canada and internationally in the last two decades. Visit www.victimcult.com for more information.

Mark is a Troy Media Thought Leader. For interview requests, click here.


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