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In Reply to Tim Wise: America’s Past on Race Should Not Be Oversimplified

(Jon Chase)

The toxic consequences of drawing a crude line between America’s past and the state of our modern institutions cannot be understated.”

In a blog post this past summer on Medium, progressive activist Tim Wise compared the supposedly self-evident existence of systemic racism in the United States to Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion, which asserts that “every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force.” Wise suggests that since “historical events and patterns leave legacies,” the United States’ legacy of racism has a sort of “inertia” of its own. 

Unfortunately for those such as Wise, the dubious notion that modern racial inequalities are intrinsically tied to a larger historical narrative of endless racism turns out to be at odds with reality. 

Of course, the clearest error in thinking is apparent from the very beginning: Why would anyone believe that systemic racism behaves in the same way as a law of physics? Not only is the social reality of American life more complex (and infused with endlessly more variables) than a cosmic principle, there is also extensive evidence to suggest that a variety of institutions have taken steps to eradicate racial bias. Some examples include: 

  • The establishment of federally funded grants for minority-owned businesses.  
  • The institutional push for anti-bias training in police forces.
  • The creation of the Batson Challenge, which allows for a possible retrial in court if evidence surfaces that a jury was selected in a racially biased manner.

I could go on; however, the main point is crystal clear: Why would a system designed to threaten the well-being of racial minorities also take such concrete and extensive steps to help them? 

Furthermore, what is to be said about racial disparities in which black individuals outpace their white counterparts, such as when black applicants for medical schools are accepted at higher rates than white applicants? Does this serve as evidence that such systems were designed to be unfair to whites? Just as it would be absurd to make that claim, it is equally preposterous to deduce that every system in the United States is racist simply because of a. the existence of disparities and b. various historical facts about the country.  

When all is said and done, taking time to research the actual particulars of American history reveals something much more profound than a simple story of malignant design.

On the subject of history, a detailed examination of various American systems and their origins might be of use to those who assert that racism’s “inertia” continues to metastasize in our current institutions. Perhaps the most easily identifiable example is the founding of the United States itself, which, according to many on the Left, ingrained systemic racism into the very fabric of our society. While it should come as no shock that there are explicitly racist clauses within many of our country’s early documents, various other texts were written to prevent the spread of racist practices. Take, for example, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which was purposefully designed to stop the spread of slavery to western territories. As Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen explain in their book, A Patriot’s History of the United States:

“When the individual initiative [to free enslaved people] did not suffice, Northerners employed the law. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the first large-scale prohibition of slavery by a major nation in history, would forbid slavery above the Ohio River…virtually all these men [the founders] believed that slavery would some day end…”

A preponderance of historical evidence suggests that the very men who designed allegedly racist systems in the United States eventually established policies that gave way to the end of slavery, despite living at a time in which slavery was commonly practiced around the world. The fact that the Founders laid the foundation for future abolitionists such as President Abraham Lincoln speaks volumes about the competing intentions of the United States’ founding. Such facts fly in the face of the racist “inertia” argument. The origins of America’s institutions are simply too complex to have moved in a singular “direction,” with such quantifiable and longitudinal consequences. 

Additionally, claiming that entire institutions are sinister by design disincentivizes people from using those same institutions to their advantage. This becomes clear when examining the history of relations between ethnic minorities and the police, an institution often accused of being forever inextricably linked to its allegedly racist roots. As Thomas Sowell notes in his book Ethnic America, many ethnic minorities did not make sizable gains until they cooperated with police to lower crime in their towns and neighborhoods. Regarding Chinese Americans in the early 1900s and their interactions with the criminal group known as the tongs, Sowell writes:

“The…[c]ompanies ordered their member merchants to refuse to pay more protection money to the tongs. Chinatown residents began to cooperate with police in apprehending and prosecuting criminals…Chinese festivals and parades received police protection and became civic events attracting large crowds of non-Chinese.”  

Sowell goes on to explain that the protection of Chinese communities by the police led to greater investments in education, which, in turn, increased the net worth of these individuals in the years that followed. Simply put, if the racist origins of American policing carried some sort of “inertia” with it, why did low-income Chinese immigrants with little educational background benefit so overwhelmingly from police presence in their communities? 

The toxic consequences of drawing a crude line between America’s past and the state of our modern institutions cannot be understated. It is precisely this kind of pseudo-historical logic that legitimizes radical ideas such as the “head start” myth, which claims that all white people are the beneficiaries of historical privilege, invoking the image of an unfair foot race between black and white people to make the point. Similar to the “inertia” argument, this myth falls apart once one realizes just how complex our nation’s history (or any nation’s) truly is. To be clear, many white “privileges” failed to benefit said people and often only exacerbated poverty. A prime example is the Homestead Act of 1862, a land grant that resulted in thousands of white farmers losing intergenerational wealth after failing to produce crops in the West. 

When all is said and done, taking time to research the actual particulars of American history reveals something much more profound than a simple story of malignant design. The United States’ history tells the story of a nation’s struggle to uphold its own exceptional ideals, while, along the way, confronting evil institutions such as slavery, black codes, and Jim Crow laws. It should be abundantly clear that the burden of proof belongs to those making the claim that the United States is systemically racist—and not to those arguing that American history is far too complex to make such broad generalizations.

J. Edward Britton is a composer and essayist. He is a graduate of Oberlin College.

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