"Systemic Racism" vs. "Racial Inequities"
with John McWhorter
I’ve spent a lot of time here at TGS pushing back against the idea that something called “systemic racism” is the primary cause of racial disparities in the US. Not only is this idea overly simplistic and ahistorical, it’s often invoked by so-called antiracist activists in order to cow their opponents into silence. If you question the idea that systemic racism is responsible for black academic underperformance, black poverty, or black crime, you’re denying the the existence of the problem, and so you’re part of the problem, and so you’re likely a racist yourself. Or so the argument goes.
Of course, I don’t deny there’s a problem. To the contrary, I think there are huge problems facing black communities in this country. Moreover, I don’t deny that systemic racism has existed in many forms for much of this country’s history: slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, the list goes on. The effects of these historical forms of truly systemic racism are still palpable in some ways. But they don’t come close to explaining the kind of disparities we see today.
In the excerpt below, John McWhorter and I delve into why both the idea of systemic racism and the phrase itself are insufficient to explain what they purport to explain. As always, I’m curious to know what you think. Let me know in the comments!
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JOHN MCWHORTER: You know, over the past year, the term “systemic racism” has become part of the national conversation in a way that it never was before. The new thing is that you either understand or you don't understand that there is systemic racism, and if you deny it, you're bad. So there's a higher wisdom that apparently you and I don't get. And I don't think that's accurate.
But maybe we want to plumb this idea that we as "contrarians" think there's no systemic racism. Because both of us have written about it quite a bit. Neither one of us ever say, "There's no such thing as systemic racism." But a lot of sane people seem to think that that's what we're saying. I remember actually once, Abby Thernstrom asked me directly—and I remember thinking, what an interesting, challenging question—she said, "John, do you think there's a such thing as systemic racism?" And I answered, yes. What would you have answered?
GLENN LOURY: Well, what year did she ask you that?
This in what would have been ... it was 2007.
So my answer would be yes, there is such a thing as systemic racism. Or here I can give you an account of something that could plausibly be called systemic racism that I think is coherent and consistent with American history. But no, I don't think there's systemic racism in the spirit with which people so quickly invoke systemic racism nowadays.
So for example, just to make this latter point, my university, Brown, had empaneled an ad hoc committee of faculty, students, and staff to inquire into the question of the anti-black racism at Brown University, a version of systemic racism focused on the institution where I work. The panel produced a report and the president has received the report and communicated to the community her intention—this is President Christina Paxson of Brown University—to act in an affirmative way on the recommendations of the report.
Now, I don't want to go into all the details about the report. That's not my point. My point is, the idea that Brown University is an institution that is besotted with institutional racism seems absurd to me. It seems absurd. Anti-blackness at Brown makes no sense to me whatsoever. I don't exactly know what they're talking about. This is just me. I seem to be the only one of this disposition, or at least the only one who's willing to say so in public. And I don't believe in that kind of systemic racism.
I don't believe that, for example, the mortality disparity associated with the COVID-19 pandemic that shows a higher mortality rate for people of color is an instance of anything that I'm prepared to call systemic racism. I don't believe that the disparity of mass incarceration, in which the incarceration rates of African Americans are higher, is ipso facto, just in virtue of the fact of the disparity, an indictment of the society for being systemically racist. I don't believe that the achievement gap in higher education or in K-12 test score differences or the under-representation of African Americans in certain venues can be coherently accounted for, except as a tautology.
You know, as Kendi would put it—this is a paraphrase, not a quote—but, it's racist because it's racist. I mean, except in that sense, I don't believe it's very useful to think about it in terms of systemic racism. So I would say the way that people are talking about it here this last couple of years, no.
I think it's a bluff and a bludgeon, is the way that I've put it. A bluff in that people say “systemic racism” and they're daring you to give any alternative account of the phenomenon that is that question. In the incarceration case, they're daring you to say there are too many black criminals, that's why there are too many blacks in prison. In the achievement gap case, they're daring you to either say something like Charles Murray might say: “Well, the tests are different because we think there is a heritability issue in their populations,” and whatnot. Or they're daring you to say there's a cultural phenomenon going on within these racially distinct populations that bears on the reason why there's so many Asians seeking PhDs in the stem fields and so few blacks. They're daring you to say that. So systemic racism becomes a kind of rhetorical weapon to try to get the moral high ground in a debate about racial disparity. I don't believe in it in that sense.
On the other hand, I think if I were a historian trying to tell the story about race and racial disparities coming out of the period of slavery on through the last 175 years, it'd be hard to tell the story without an invocation of the way in which the structure of the society, of the polity, of the economy, of the culture was suffused with racial stereotypes, racial stigma, racial prejudice, racial discrimination. That history has a long tail. You know, it echoes down, it cascades down through the generations.
The way that space is organized in American cities, who lives where, of course, didn't happen yesterday or the day before. And even if I were to assert that there are cultural differences, those differences, to the extent that they exist, would have to be understood historically as having evolved out of a context which was suffused with racial unfairness and things of this kind. So trying to narrate the story of American social structure would have me in the business of pointing to race, racism, racial exclusion, racist ideologies, et cetera, et cetera. I'm sure that the essays that make up the 1619 Project compendium, you know, all those essays about different aspects of American society, have a point when they say traffic patterns have something to do with racism because people were running away from the cities and the interstate highway system got built so as to make it easy for whites to be in the suburbs, not have to rub shoulders. I'm sure that the war on drugs played out in part the way it did under the influence of racist sentiments. We heard all we've heard about redlining and whatnot and et cetera, et cetera.
So what did I say? I said I don't want to use systemic racism as a rhetorical weapon in the contemporary disputation about racial disparities, because I think it's really a kind of power move to try to get the upper hand in a conversation and to avoid dealing with some unpleasant aspects of the problem. On the other hand, if I pick up a book like Khalil Muhammad's The Condemnation of Blackness, which is a history of how American political and intellectual elites dealt with crime in the last part of the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century in American cities, which were receiving large numbers of migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, but also were receiving "migrants" from the South of the United States, black migrants moving off of the land, off of agriculture, and into the cities, first in the South, and then in the Midwest and the East Coast.
He just wants to point out that racial presumptions about the capacity of African Americans to effectively integrate ourselves into the burgeoning, industrializing American economic system less than two generations from slavery caused these elites to see in a very different light the African American criminals and lawbreakers and whatnot than they saw the European immigrants. The European immigrants were the subjects of settlement house outreach. They were criminal because they were poor. The blacks were criminal because they were intrinsically criminal. This kind of idea. This is what Muhammad develops in this book. Very nice book, Harvard University Press 2012, something like that. He's got a point! We could produce other examples of this kind. So I don't know. Did I try to take both sides of that question?
When you unpack it all, a lot of it is that all of those things about the operations of racism in the past, and not always the deep past, are true. And you can document them. If you look, you can find more and more evidence of those things. And they do need to be known. But beyond a certain point, the question is why.
There were all of these things that happened before that lead to the way things are now. That must be known. And what a lot of people are thinking is—and we talked about this before—it's the business of, “It's not our fault.” It's not our fault. It's not because we're inferior, it's because the cards were stacked against us in the past. And I think for a lot of people, the reason that that has to be understood is because they feel that if white people think that it was our fault, they're less likely to institute policies to change these things.
I guess an eternal disagreement that I'm going to have is, beyond a certain point, I don't care whether white people know that it wasn't our fault. I'm not sure how exquisitely educated a society we're expecting. I think that a lot of people's desperation to have white people know it's not our fault is based on a kind of spiritual racial insecurity. And I'm sorry for that. I'm glad that for some reason I seem to have been spared it, but it means that I can see from the outside that this business of saying it's not our fault goes from history lesson to obsession.
It's a matter of degree. Because maybe white people understanding this and reading certain books will put a wind under the sails of progressive legislation. But what really worries me is just the awkwardness of the term. And as a linguist, I'm supposed to say that that's just how language goes and that it's always inexact, but wow. “Systemic racism” is a tough one, because I would prefer, if I could wave a magic wand, it would be something like “racial inequities.” And that's not perfect, but the idea would be to say, yes, there are discrepancies between white people and black people in terms of access to certain things, in terms of ability to compete in certain ways. Those things are there. Usually the reasons for that are traceable in kind of a Rube Goldberg mousetrap fashion to some kind of racism in the past.
But when you call it “systemic racism,” it leads to a mental habit of thinking that what needs to be combated is racism of some kind. And I think anybody who thinks about it knows that it's not necessarily about making people have less racist sentiments. That's the Robin DiAngelo idea. I think people are thinking, though, that the reasons that these things happened is because people don't think enough of black people and that needs to be changed in terms of, one, psychology, and, two, policy in some way.
The problem is that very often with social history, the way out is not the reverse of the way in. So for example, you know, standardized tests. Black kids tend not to be as good at them. Now, the reasons for that can be traced to racism. I think also, as you say, it's about cultural aspects of things which are positive in some ways about black people, about humanity, but that make you not especially good at doing things like taking standardized tests.
For a lot of people, you look at that result and you say, well, it's systemic racism, because the kids don't do as well on the test. The testing is a racist practice because of the discrepancy. So we have to get rid of something that is underestimating or unduly belaboring black people. So that leads to the solution of yank the test. Right now, you probably know what's going on in Boston, where with the top schools that you have to take a test to get into, now only 20% of the admits are going to be brought in on the basis of test scores. 80% it's now just about zip codes, and it's transparently a way of lessening the number of Asians and increasing the number of black kids who get into the school. The idea being, get rid of the test because it's racist.
But the argument that racism is the reason that kids here in the present tense don't do well on the test doesn't hold up to scrutiny, including the idea that other kids sail on these tests because of test prep and that test prep is not available to black kids. That's not true in any city that I'm aware of. Yet there's no room in the conversation for saying—I mean, there is room because nobody's keeping us from saying what we're saying—but it's considered unusual to say the reason that these kids aren't doing well on the test is not something that can be gracefully called racism. Maybe it's traceable to something racist in the past, but we live in the present.
So that's what worries me about the term, because it always implies that that animus you have against bigotry is the same feeling you should have when black people aren't as good at something as white people for some reason. You're supposed to have your lower lip poked out and you're supposed to have that same feeling that it's racism. But usually that's a simplistic solution that doesn't end up helping anybody. It's a very elementary way of looking at how human beings operate in time and space. So the term makes me uncomfortable. If somebody says, “Is there systemic racism?” and they mean, “Are there these inequities?” Yes. Are these inequities due to racism in the past? Yes. By the past, do I mean only in black and white in 1914? No. I know about redlining, and it goes even beyond that.
But is the solution to problems due to this thing we're calling systemic racism to undo the racism? And it seems to me that that leads us down some paths that no civil rights leader, even 50 years ago, would have seen any sense in. It is my least favorite expression in the English language at this point.
Systemic racism. It's so distracting, I think.