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Against the Concept Creep Of “Racism”

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“This is why I was dismayed by a recent essay published at Arc Digital (on June 9th) by Akiva M. Cohen, entitled ‘Systemic Racism Is Real. We Need To Fight It, Not Deny It.'”

In the wake of the terrible police killing of George Floyd—and the unprecedented wave of protests against racism and police violence that have swelled across the globe—the conversation about racial inequality is on the tip of everyone’s tongues. Having these conversations be as productive and expansive as possible means airing a multitude of perspectives and remaining open to good faith critiques of prevailing narratives, despite the attendant moral discomfort.

This is why I was dismayed by a recent essay published (on June 9th) at Arc Digital by Akiva M. Cohen, entitled “Systemic Racism Is Real. We Need To Fight It, Not Deny It.” Cohen argues that the concept of systemic racism is both easy to understand and readily supported by the relevant data. Unfortunately, he does not address the higher grade arguments against the concept, and he also fails to consider the anti-racist framework in which it is ensconced, leaving much to be desired in his analysis.

Based on a series of bite-sized videos from the organization Race Forward, Cohen defines and explains structural racism as “the accretion of individual choices and policies” that “produce widespread effects across the system as a whole,” manifesting as racial disparities in outcome. Cohen goes on to cite inequalities in wealth, health, education, and criminal justice outcomes between black and white Americans as evidence, as well as the differential treatment in pain relief offered by medical professionals to blacks and whites respectively. Those who decry systemic racism argue that even if overt racism has been in precipitous and measurable decline since the 1960’s, more subtle and pernicious forms of systemic bias continue to churn out unequal results and make life harder for non-white people in the United States.

Yet the logic underlying this position is fundamentally flawed. As the conservative economist Thomas Sowell has spent an entire career explicating in his writings on different societies (and ethnic groups) across the world, disparities in outcome are the norm rather than the exception. As he writes in his 2005 book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, these disparities exist “with and without discrimination, with and without invasion, with and without slavery.” The writer Coleman Hughes refers to this in his 2018 essay “The Racism Treadmill” as the disparity fallacy, which “holds that unequal outcomes between two groups must be caused primarily by discrimination, whether overt or systemic.” 

If we extrapolated this line of reasoning to its natural conclusion, we would find all sorts of strange disparities that we would never reflexively attribute to racism.

What is strange about this logic is how it is only applied in cases where black Americans are behind white Americans and other groups. If we extrapolated this line of reasoning to its natural conclusion, we would find all sorts of strange disparities that we would never reflexively attribute to racism. It would never be assumed, for instance, that black women graduate at higher rates than white men and out-earn white women (conditional on parental income) because of systemic racism against whites. Moreover, it would never be assumed that Asian Americans out-earn whites en masse by almost $20,000 per year on average because the system is rigged against whites in favor of Asian Americans. The fact that Native Americans of the Chickasaw tribe make double what Native Americans of the Apache tribe earn per year does not suggest that society is biased against the Apache in a way it is not against the Chickasaw. The fact that black immigrants from the West Indies substantially eclipse the national average income—and are vastly overrepresented among black individuals at elite universities—does not suggest that black immigrants from the Caribbean experience less discrimination than black Americans descended from slaves.

Not every inequality is the consequence of some deep-seated injustice, and there is no shortage of minority groups who achieved relative success despite how the majority group felt about them in their hearts. Frankly, the view that black Americans can only go as far as white Americans will allow them to is wildly condescending. 

All of this suggests to me that the specific historical weight of anti-black racial oppression in America—the sense of intergenerational collective white guilt for past sins and the need for retributive intertemporal justice to account for them—determines how we broach these issues in ways that would seem strange under different circumstances. 

Later in his Arc Digital piece, Cohen commits to what is known as the motte-and-bailey fallacy, in which an easily defensible argument is conflated with a much more controversial one. He argues that addressing systemic racism implies “a clear-eyed recognition that the societal impact of centuries of racism and de jure and de facto discrimination didn’t magically evaporate the moment the majority of us decided that such things were wrong after all.” But this is a strawman. The idea that the historical momentum of centuries of black oppression impacts outcomes today is hardly disputed. The more controversial argument involved in the notion of systemic racism is that it is being actively perpetuated by present biases—and that eliminating the bias will, in turn, put an end to the inequalities. But that must be shown, not simply asserted. 

This gets to the heart of the issue with the systemic racism concept and explains why many people are reluctant to accept its premise. Racial inequality, which is to say the fact that a given group is behind on a given socio-economic metric, is an entirely different phenomenon than individual racism, which refers to irrational discrimination based on nothing more than how someone looks. But these concepts are equated in media and academic circles in ways that erase the line between an attitude or belief a person holds and the complex socio-economic phenomena of group disparities. We are meant to believe that racism necessarily equals racial inequality, but, as the disparity fallacy makes clear, this is simply not the case. More, this misguided belief compels us to draw some counterintuitive conclusions. Why, for example, should an off-color racial joke someone made in passing be immediately perceived in the context of black suffering writ large, as though a bigoted remark made by an insensitive white person is responsible in some cosmic way for these much broader issues? It is tantamount to taking someone’s impious comment as a perpetuation of sin itself. 

Further, proponents of the systemic racism concept want to eat their cake while having it too. In response to some of the points made here, anti-racists will likely argue that it is more important to focus on systems than individuals, as well as that systemic or structural racism is a more accurate and interesting framework to understand racial inequality than traditional formulations of interpersonal racism. Yet that presumes that individual people going about their day can readily distinguish between the two. 

Expanding the notion of racism necessarily expands the definition of who and what a racist is, up to and including conservatism itself. For instance, over 90% of white Clinton voters with a postgraduate degree reported that it was racist for a white person to want less immigration—an entirely banal conservative position. This inflames racial and political polarization. 

So if the argument is that structural racism has less to do with blaming individuals and is more about making sense of complex systemic inequalities, why is it that the racist epithet is now applied more broadly than ever? The tendency to anthropomorphize—to attribute human characteristics to complicated phenomena—is too strong to be contained by progressive opinion-brokers. In the American context, racism is tantamount to evil, so perhaps a bit of restraint ought to be encouraged to avoid devolving into an atmosphere of mind-reading accusationalism and moralizing distrust. 

The systemic racism concept is not simply alluding to the obvious truth that the United States’ brutal history of black subjugation has present consequences. It also asserts that we live in a society permeated by anti-black sentiment, in which the historic privilege of whites is perpetuated by deep unconscious biases that, in turn, form an invisible wall or glass ceiling that prevents black Americans for meeting their potential. Moreover, until whites “come to terms” with the scope of their racism, our society will never be truly free and equal.

What purveyors of this information usually omit—or more likely do not even think to consider—is the fact that replications of this study found similar results for Asian-sounding names, a group that is not lagging behind on any front.

But this formulation confines itself to a black/white binary that neglects the roles of other minority groups. This is an increasingly unsustainable framework that will only become more archaic as white Americans steadily become a minority in the country. As one example of the limitation in this way of thinking, consider an oft-cited data point that purports to uncover institutional discrimination in employment, in which black-sounding names received fewer callbacks than whites. What purveyors of this information usually omit—or more likely do not even think to consider—is the fact that replications of this study found similar results for Asian-sounding names, a group that is not lagging behind on any front. Moreover, Asian and Hispanic job recruiters have also been shown to discriminate against blacks, while black police officers are just as likely to shoot black suspects as white officers. This is all to say that white privilege, to the extent that it exists, is more accurately described as the result of a complex interaction between groups of various ethnicities than the archetypal mental image that is conditioned into us by our culture of whites oppressing blacks. 

What modern anti-racism ideology is missing is the willingness to look at bottom-up (behavioral/intercultural) explanations for present racial inequalities as well as top-down (political/institutional) explanations. This is perhaps out of fear of potentially blaming the victim and looking like a racist. For instance, in light of George Floyd’s murder at the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, much has been made of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Although there is substantial evidence of bias in law enforcement, things get more complicated when accounting for the disproportionate volume of encounters young black men have with police officers, as I have discussed in other recent essays. This fact simply cannot be dissociated from higher rates of violent crime among this demographic, and this is true however discomfiting it is to admit as much. 

On an encounter by encounter basis, black Americans are no more likely to be shot by a police officer than white Americans. This provokes the question of why black Americans are so much more likely to encounter police. The answer could certainly be implicit bias, with officers presuming the criminality of blacks and proceeding accordingly. Or it could be a rational response to violence in certain segments of the black community, as the number one preventable cause of death of young black men under 44 is homicide by other black men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most probably the truth lies somewhere in between, with both factors contributing to a climate of distrust and hostility between black Americans and police. As such, this may require a different set of solutions than either anti-bias training or more aggressive policing. But most everyone in this highly tense and politicized moment has conclusively decided the answer is exclusively racism, and they ask no further questions—no matter how many lives might be saved if we ventured further. 

A deep problem with the conversation about race in America is that black inequality is always imagined to either be attributable to racism or black inadequacy, which is to say we either blame white society or blame black people. This is a false dichotomy. There is a third way that transcends the notion of blame altogether, seeing each and every one of us as being on some level responsible for the suffering that exists in our society. But the paradigm of white complicity and black victimization does not allow for collective responsibility. Recognizing each other as citizens beyond the confines of our particular identities means letting go of the entrenched moral identity that forever defines itself as against historical injustice. As James Baldwin wrote in his 1955 book Notes Of A Native Son, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” 

In sum, the concept creep of racism does more harm than good. In that vein, Merriam-Webster has recently changed its definition of racism to include “a political or social system founded on racism” on top of overt discrimination and prejudice, as though it were entirely obvious what a system founded on racism is or what a system not founded on racism would look like. That should be ringing some alarm bells.

Sam Kronen is an autodidact interested in the intersection of politics and culture. He can be reached on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.

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