How to Talk About Systemic Racism (Like an Adult)

Cody Libolt
Jun 4, 2020 · 7 min read

The term systemic racism could refer to many ideas.

Is there systemic racism in the United States? Surely so. But which policies/trends fall under this term? More specifically, which policies/trends are an injustice?

This article explores some of the categories people have in mind as they apply the term systemic racism. My goal is to work toward more productive discussion.

What Is Systemic Racism?

Systemic racism would, in some people’s minds, refer to something like Jim Crow laws or to a college not admitting someone because of the color of his skin. On this view, the institution of chattel slavery would be a case of systemic racism. Another example of systemic racism would be zoning laws that historically required black people in a given city to live in a given area. Any legal policy or institutional policy that explicitly treats people differently based on the color of their skin would be an example of systemic racism. This is the concept of systemic racism that anyone should be able to affirm.

But the term racism itself can be used for a variety of ideas. Those who disagree about the meaning of racism will have difficulty agreeing about the meaning of systemic racism.

Partiality

I take racism to mean partiality due to race — treating people with special favoritism or distain based on the biological fact of their skin color or their ancestry. This would clearly be a sin, according to the Bible (Leviticus 19:15, James 2:1).

If the sin of partiality is present within a company or a school, it will likely be hiding. It is not the kind of sin people would document in a business’s bylaws or a school’s handbook. It would happen piecemeal. Suppose the boss or principal chose never to hire any black person because he has a negative conception of all black people, for whatever reason. This would be prejudice (in thought) and partiality (in action).

Prejudice

There is also a possibility of prejudice in the form of judging people by how they speak, how they carry themselves, and how they dress. This is fairly likely to come into play in companies and schools. We all judge people all the time. We judge skill-level in fitting in. We judge a person’s ability to discuss topics relevant to the setting. People (of whatever color or background) who are more fluent in using the terms and modes of expression for a given setting will have an advantage in that setting. Is it systemic racism to hire those who best conform to expectations, if those expectations are rational? Not on my view.

Egalitarianism

One idea of systemic racism comes about when people mistakenly assume that everyone in a society should have equal starting advantages. On this assumption, perceived unequal starting advantages for one specific racial group will be treated as an injustice as such. Disparities in outcomes will also be treated as proof of an injustice. Here are some particularly illogical examples, courtesy of those paragons of woke virtue, the ice cream company, Ben and Jerry’s: 7 Ways We Know Systemic Racism Is Real and Why We Must Dismantle White Supremacy.

On this unreasonable theory, even statistical disparities in wealth or other outcomes between one group of people and another can be treated as proof an injustice as such.

Social Determinism and Collectivism

If a man embraces social determinism and collectivism, he might conclude that there is no way for one racial group in a large society to raise its relative level of success in society — because what each man becomes is tied to where he came from.

On this theory, if a man started life with relative disadvantages, then he will necessarily go through life with relative disadvantages. This way of thinking leads to ideas about “collective solutions,” usually made possible by the force of law.

Mixed-Economy Confusion

While there is no excusing such confusion on matters of principle, there are things about life in a mixed-economy that make such notions seem at least plausible. There are some factors holding back many young black people from achieving the same success as their lighter-toned peers.

For an example, consider affirmation action, by official policy or by ethos. Affirmation action has the effect of making all people expect that black people will be promoted to positions they might not have earned entirely on their merits.

Or consider the example of minimum wage laws. These laws negatively affect poor young people, and in 2020 there are many relatively poor young black people in America who are being affected.

Some communities also put peer pressure on young people not to rise too high. A young man may be told not to go beyond his station. A less-educated subculture (of any color) might rightly sense that those who pursue education or a good career would be in danger leaving their subculture behind.

Toward Solutions

To each of these considerations, I would simply ask: What solutions do those who are so vocal about systemic racism want to propose?

We agree that changes are needed. What changes?

Here’s where I would start:

Public policy: End affirmative action policies. End minimum wage laws. End all welfare programs. Sell the public schools and end the state funding of education.

Private policy: Morally good people should be rational in judging others as individuals rather than as stereotypes, and they should stigmatize and even boycott anyone who does otherwise.

But somehow I don’t think this is what the woke crowd is after.

If they want to claim that there are wide-scale problems facing black people, that is surely true. I can hear them out. I can agree in many ways.

At some point the conversation has to go to the question:

What policies do you want to enact?

If you just want white people to listen to black people and believe them about the challenges they face, well then, of course.

That is what a friend would do. I do not even have to agree with your whole view of the situation to grant that your experiences are real and significant.

If we are friends, then of course I will listen to you.

Are you asking me to listen because we are friends?

Are you wanting me to understand you as a person? Or are you also you wanting me to make some change in the world? If you are asking for a tangible change, then you are going to have to be the one to name it.

Beyond listening to your troubles, how, specifically, am I going to help you? What is your ideal future that you are working toward? What change do you want from me, long term?

An Important Question:

Some people have been talking about state-imposed, race-based money transfers. Is that what you are thinking about? Or affirmation action? Or other ways to “level the playing field”?

Are you in favor of laws being equal from this day forward? Or do you call advocate partiality and call it “social justice”?

What do you think the laws should be like, long-term? What is your vision for how society should be organized long-term? What principles undergird the ideas you have about these things?

How to Know If You Are Being Played

When people are willing to talk openly about the kinds of questions I listed above, we can work toward greater understanding.

But when I ask those kinds of questions and someone does not want to offer an answer, that is a problem.

I rightly begin to suspect some things.

Perhaps, what I have been experiencing is not a dialogue at all, but something else entirely.

Jacob Brunton said it well:

“We can have a constructive dialogue about racism, but not until after you swear off all the deceptive and manipulative language of the Woke movement.”

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