Debunking Charlie Kirk on institutional racism

On March 7, Charlie Kirk, founder and CEO of Turning Point USA, tweeted this [I’m going to mark his line breaks with a slash]: “A common talking point used by left-wing academics is that black communities are mostly poor due to “institutional racism” / In 1960 20% of black kids were born out of wedlock / Now that number is 72% / Is America really more racist today than it was in 1960?/ Of course not”

There is a lot going on in this tweet. So it deserves some attention. There are several facts to check to begin with:

Is this a common talking point by “left-wing academics?”

It’s hard to know who Kirk is referring to as he doesn’t refer to any one person but a vague group called “left-wing academics.” So how do we check this claim?

I used Google to look for uses of “institutional racism” hosted on .edu sites. I got 31,000 hits. A search for “institutional racism” and poverty got 12,500 hits. That doesn’t say much.

But here are some examples.

On a University of Michigan page entitled “Economic Consequences of Segregation” the writer argues “the model below shows that, while hardly the only factor, racial segregation is a major cause of systematic economic disadvantage for blacks.”

Another example, from a journal article on an Arizona State website. Gregory Jordan writes: “My thesis is that cultural and/or behavioral variables are only relevant to the degree that historical structural factors condition the environment in which groups of varying economic and social advantage operate in and react to.”

Jordan adds: “These two perspectives should not be viewed as dichotomous, but interrelated and more or less relatively valid depending on the context.”

And his data leads him to conclude that “only annual changes in the structural variables were found to have any significant correlation with change in poverty.”

Kirk is correct, if these examples are exemplary of the other links. Though of course no one knows what are the politics or ideologies of these two writers.

But let’s be clear: Kirk denies institutional racism exists. Kirk is not denying its presence directly here but that is his implication. He does this by associating its presence with “left-wing academics,” automatically dismissing it. Second, he denies it by the logic that is generated from the stats.

What is Kirk’s answer to why black poverty persists? We just don’t know from this tweet. I will take a guess from reading a lot of his words: the other side of the complex debate, personal behavior.

But his tweet can also imply he is merely switching the paradigm and therefore leaving room for institutional racism being a factor. He is not positively affirming that, but it is a valid conclusion.

With that in mind, are “left-wing academics” the only people who talk about this so commonly?


And who are the others? Some white Christians.

Consider the statement by Greg Boyd, a theologian who is white and part of group working toward racial reconciliation in the Twin Cities: White people’s “awareness [of racism] is stunted because our life experience tends to blind us to racism as a subversive structural issue.”

He describes the stunting in detail in terms of effects that lead to poverty: “All of this means that, among other things, whites can move around freely and not bump into the walls that increasingly box people in the lower one goes down the pyramid. And this is why, all other things being equal, whites have trouble ‘getting it.’ We simply aren’t aware of the walls. Indeed, many of us deny there’s even a pyramid that we’re at the top of. This is, after all, the land of equal opportunity. By virtue of the racialized structure we benefit from, we are, on a structural level, protected from the walls of racism. For all our sincere intentions, we are sheltered from a whole world of experience that non-whites, in varying degrees, are forced to live in. It is therefore hard, if not impossible, for many of us white folks to grasp with any depth the extent of (for example) racial profiling, red-lining, and job discrimination that non-whites experience. It’s simply not on our radar screen.”

Or consider the white conservative evangelical pastor John Piper, who in 2016, wrote a post on his much-read Desiring God website titled “Structural Racism.” His first line is blunt: “My aim in this article is to reduce the instinctive, white, evangelical reaction against the idea of structural racism or systemic racism.”

And Piper is clear from his theological viewpoint that “it would be inconceivable and utterly astonishing if there were no such thing as structural racism. In this world of sin and Satan and a decadent world system, it is incomprehensible that one sin would be privileged to escape systemic expression.”

As an aside, Kirk claims to be a conservative Christian.

Two, what is institutional racism and its link to black poverty?

This leads us to try to give some definition to institutional racism. Piper defines it as “the cumulative effect of racist feelings, beliefs, and practices that become embodied and expressed in the policies, rules, regulations, procedures, expectations, norms, assumptions, guidelines, plans, strategies, objectives, practices, values, standards, narratives, histories, records, and the like, which accordingly disadvantage the devalued race and privilege the valued race.”

This cumulative effect is the effect Kirk denies in giving more credence to individual behavior and choices. I will assume he admits there once was racism, even perhaps institutional racism. And today he says that using the term “white privilege” is itself racist and that “America is the least racist country in the world.” These two lines admit racism exists in America.

Because it is not merely a collection of individuals but practices, policies, and power applied to resources that make the “institutional” part, Kirk seems to ignore it.

And it is not that the institutions themselves are corrupt (a claim Kirk might agree with) or even that most or all working in those institutions are racist (Kirk might apply this to colleges), but that policies and practices overtly and covertly aid whites more than blacks and other minority races. This is the gist of white privilege both de jure and de facto.

This is why in 2015 Jeff Nesbit, a journalist but also a former Obama and Bush National Science Foundation aide and former spokesman for Dan Quayle when he was vice president, wrote that institutional racism is “our way of life.” The k-12 school system, the justice system, the higher ed system all “point to quite clearly that institutional racism exists in nearly ever corner of American society today…”

Several sociologists make a deeper argument here and offer ways to end this.

As another aside, there was a thoughtful discussion of this topic in 2014 between two “liberals,” Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait “over whether cultural forces within the black community are to blame for its enduring poverty.”

This debate is summed up well in The Atlantic. Its conclusion is this: “America was born with sin and keeps sinning. No matter how fervent your belief in the perfection of the American ideal, you’ve certainly met enough Americans to know that the ideal may not always be met. Racism is the simplest answer [to the question of black poverty] and racism, of all theories, is the one with a robust evidentiary trail.”

Why does Kirk insist on negating the institutional or structural part? Would not admitting this give Kirk more ammo to say the government (and its institutions) need severe limitations, need to be smaller? This would contradict with his strong nationalism. America can’t be great if its institutions are racist. Even if Americans are “the less racist” but the government is, limiting the racist institutions doesn’t explain the racism he admits. It still puts whites at the center of the debate about racism.

Three, are the wedlock stats accurate?

Let’s repeat Kirk’s stats: In 1960 20% of black kids were born out of wedlock / Now that number is 72%.

These are not new numbers.

The first figure is slightly off, but accurate. Politifact put it at 22%.

The second figure is almost accurate. Politifact in 2013 reported federal data put it at 73.

And let me note that the Politifact links above show each of these stats was used by prominent black leaders: first, President Obama said something similar to the first stat in 2008 and second, CNN anchor Don Lemon noted the other in 2013.

Lemon suggests that absent fathers is a key entry point to the school-to-prison pipeline. Obama suggested the same thing. Both created a context for the interrelationship between poverty, other factors, and their stat. Kirk did not.

Lemon took extreme heat for what some identified as his individualistic look at the problems of black poverty. For example a Washington Post writer argued that “of all the things that African Americans have to be tired about — surely — constantly being told that individual, everyday choices can undo centuries of oppression and unjust social stratification is one of them.”

Obama was highlighting the lack of fathers, an issue he has personal connections to. But he didn’t limit the problem to blacks.

Four, how does Kirk use this stat?

Kirk is suggesting of course that it is not institutional racism that has blacks in poverty, but the rise in births to unwed black mothers.

But as Kirk is wont to do, he lays the blame at the feet of one piece of data.

In that Politifact check on Obama, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist with Harvard Medical School, said other factors beside “absent fathers… such as poverty, education level and the age of parents also correlate with single motherhood and adolescent problems.”

And of course “unwed” does not mean absent father. It just means the parents not getting married.

Politifact adds this: “Rebecca Blank, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies social and economic policy, wrote in an e-mail that it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of the social problems Obama mentions because they’re so interrelated.”

This focus on one stat is why Coates says with ire: “I’ll live for the day when all these social conservatives who think that the 70 percent figure is the cause of all that’s wrong in black America, start hectoring married black people to have more kids.”

Coates notes that “the birth rate for unmarried black women is — and has been — declining. In 1970 the birth rate for unmarried black women was 96 per 1,000. In 1980, it was 87.9. In 2005 it was 60.6. There is a huge spike in the late 1980s, but the overall trend is clear — the birth rate for unmarried black women has been declining for almost 40 years.” So while births to unwed black mother is rising, the number of kids unmarried black women are having is declining.

And there is the racial animus in Kirk’s focus on this number. As Clarence Page wrote in 2005 about this same stat: “White out-of-wedlock births have increased to a rate higher than the one in four that black births reached 40 years ago. I have yet to hear anyone talk about a tangle of white pathology.”

“Tangle” and “pathology” are references to phrases used in the 60s that are the basis for the stats Kirk and others base these ideas on. They come from a 1965 Department of Labor report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” This report according to one history of it “went much further than merely overthrowing familiar explanations about the cause of poverty.” Through “pages of disquieting charts and graphs, the emergence of a ‘tangle of pathology,’ including delinquency, joblessness, school failure, crime, and fatherlessness that characterized ghetto — or what would come to be called underclass — behavior.”

Kirk may be implying some “underclass” pathology within black people keeps blacks in poverty.

It is important to point out Kirk offers no explanation for the rise in out-of-wedlock births. He only suggests it can’t be because of racism.

And because he does not state but lets his audience conclude the reason(s) why, Kirk is using these stats unethically. These facts do not ‘speak for themselves’ and Kirk won’t say what they ‘say.’ And used without context they are part of his non-transparent reasoning.

Coates has heard this story before. This is why he says that “stigmatizing lifestyles is a strategy for neanderthals, why it’s always sinful to look past the weeds in your lawn in order to lecture your neighbor.”

Four, are we are less racist today?

It is incredibly difficult to fact-check this claim from Kirk. And he makes these types of abstract claims in many forums. How would one quantify or qualify racism and how might we compare such to decades ago?

There just are no sufficient standards.

But we do know that whites and blacks today see the problem of racism very differently. According to CNN, an overwhelming 87% of black Americans say black people face a lot of discrimination in the United States, but only 49% of white Americans say the same thing, according to a February 2017 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute.

But that doesn’t answer the comparison question.

How about this, also from that Public Religion study: Six in 10 Americans (61%) said racism against blacks is widespread in the United States in a Gallup poll last August — up from just 51% at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term in 2009. But that includes a broad racial split: 82% of blacks vs. just 56% of whites.

If we all can agree that racism was widespread in the 60s (and it is important to note that many whites then didn’t see racism happening), then the fact that 60% see it as widespread now is important.

Or consider Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University social psychologist, who told The Washington Post: “Yes, there have been gains in policy like allowing interracial marriage and discrimination laws, but when it comes to our interpersonal biases, it’s simply not true that we just need to wait for the few old racist men left in the South to die off and then we’ll be fine. The rhetoric for racism is still in place. The environment for racism is still there. Unless we change that, we can’t lessen racism.”

Then of course there is the clear reality of the racism of President Trump. While we certainly have had racists in the White House before, that the US elected a racist after electing its first black president does not give credence to the idea that we are less racist or becoming less racist.

But even in its weak state, Kirk bases his claim on this premise. If we are less racist, then the rise of unwed black births can’t be because of racism. Without that ground, his entire argument fails, despite the correct stats. This is why using data ethically by creating a sustainable context is key. Kirk’s tweet would not be assessed highly in my class.