There are a cacophony of voices talking from every direction about systemic racism right now, and there are those who say our society is nothing but racism, others who say it doesn’t exist. Identifying and defining it is challenging.
President elect Biden announcing that one of his major focuses is combatting systemic racism has raised the topic to the forefront.
A lot of what is said is far from compelling. Michelle Obama talking about being in a store and having other customers cut in front of her in line, attributing it to her race. Black people are invisible, she says.
Yet I am a rather large white man and people do that to me all the time. I was just telling my wife that being in the grocery store, people are constantly acting like I am not there. The other day, I waited in the aisle while a couple looked at items on the shelf while blocking the aisle with themselves and their cart, and I was just looking at them like, hello, can you move your cart over? They seemed oblivious.
Things like that happen constantly to everyone.
I am not saying that is not example of racism, but it demonstrates the difficulty in clearly identifying racism. A lot of it is subjective.
Another thing that happens is a statistical analysis that is said to show racism based on numbers. For instance, with Covid, saying that blacks and POC are harder hit due to systemic racism, based on statistics.
But what about climate change policy then? In California, which has the highest number of minorities by percentage than anywhere in the US, electricity is at least 50 percent more expensive due mainly to regulations. Are climate change regulations the result of systemic racism too? Using a statistical analysis similar to that being done to proclaim racism on health care issues would indicate climate change regulations are the result of racism as well, which is obviously absurd.
It will take more than correlative statistics to prove systemic racism.
This article explores a few of my personal experiences dealing with race, and goes on to attempt to define what systemic racism is and the problems with confronting it. It then looks at possible answers to systemic racism.
As a child, I grew up in a city that was part white, part black, a city that had a lot of racial issues. There seemed to be a tinge of frightening violence around all the time. We were poor, and I had some sense of it but not really. As an adult I looked back and realized that we were a lot poorer than I realized.
My parents were divorced when I was four and my mother got a two bedroom duplex. Three kids, and my mother’s sister quit high school to come and live with us to help baby sit. Both of them got minimum wage jobs, my mother as a nursing assistant on the night shift at a hospital, my aunt a file clerk. They still couldn’t pay the rent so they started having women friends of theirs move in and sleep on the couches. We had up to five different young women all working minimum wage jobs just so we could make it. The rent was $71 a month.
But the black kids I went to school with were even poorer than we were. They had nothing, and even as a small kid I recognized it. Compared to a lot of people we were around, we were better off. Black kids who came to school with dirty torn up clothes, torn shoes, when you saw them you knew right away how poor they were. And almost all of them were like this, except for the occasional one.
Well, maybe just one. There was a little black girl who was in my elementary school class whose Dad was a doctor, and she had nice pretty dresses and bright colored plastic hair accessories in her hair. She was super nice all the time.
She was the only black kid I ever saw who had money.
I played basketball and was pretty good at it. Always got picked. I have spent many a day playing basketball with me as the one white guy and nine black guys. In seventh grade, the black guys were the best basketball players but I got picked to play with them in gym class. There was one black kid that I must have liked, I noticed him and he was dirt poor, torn shoes, the whole nine yards. Even then I could feel the intense humiliation of that. I admired him because he was such a good basketball player and a nice guy.
I used to ride my bike everywhere, miles and miles, and one day I happened upon where the black neighborhood was. It was shocking. It had a sense of being a sealed off area, plus instead of having paved roads like everywhere else there were dirt roads. Houses were dilapidated shacks, falling apart. I stopped at the entrance to the neighborhood and just stared in, knowing somehow that I should not go in. I was about 12 years old.
I have no idea whatever happened to my friend, because of the black/white thing I couldn’t really be friends with him, couldn’t really even talk to him. When I think of him now I feel pain. They were in so much pain, and it is so painful to me to remember. I hope he is ok. I hope he did well.
Through the fifties and sixties virtually all the black people were that poor that I saw. $100 cars that broke down all the time. Hiding in the shadows of town. Trapped in “colored towns” like the one in my city. Those colored towns, as they used to call them, are still around in places. Some of them now have paved roads, but are just as poor and often violent.
Fast forward to the seventies, after all the civil rights upheavals of the fifties and sixties. I was living in Atlanta, and all of a sudden there were black people with money. New cars. Owning businesses. It was like a miracle had happened. I was stunned to see it at first. The world had changed, hallelujah! It changed because people cared and fought to make it happen.
The first four months I was in Georgia I lived in a small town 40 miles west of Atlanta. As a grad student, the only housing I could find was little more than a hovel built on to the side of a house. In the house lived two older guys, one with his wife.
They invited me over for beers. It was a typical male chauvinist scene. The men talking in the living room, the wife staying in the kitchen except to bring us beers on command.
Pretty soon, the conversation veered around to the unmarried guy telling the married guy that he should not hate n….ers. The n word. They went back and forth for a while, and I could see that the one guy who was blatantly racist was not going to get off it. Plus it was tiresome. So I finally intervened and said “he can hate n…..ers if he wants to.” That shocked him, and he said in that strong southern accent “well gol ol leee the first person who ever understood me in my life, and he’s a god damn yankee!” He just kept saying that over and over. Ga ah ah lee! Ga ah ah lee! a god damn yankee!
I had realized that brow beating him was not going to help, it just put him deeper into his defensiveness. So I just accepted him, and then asked him, so why? What have they done to you? He couldn’t come up with much, he searched for something then came up with, they steal things. Ok right.
I think my response affected him to think more. His buddy would surely keep working on him, his buddies point was that his attitudes were the past that had to be let go of. We can’t be that way any more, he said. And honestly, I didn’t spend any more time there as it wasn’t my idea of a good time. But there was movement, people talking to each other, white people criticizing each others racism. That was good. It was 1976.
I finished psychology graduate school, and began working in the admissions office of a large state mental hospital in Atlanta doing psychiatric evaluations. After several years there, to my surprise, I got promoted to be the Director of the whole unit. A new CEO came in and in one memo fired my boss and promoted me to take her place. I hadn’t even met the guy. I was 26 years old.
Suddenly, I was the supervisor for a large staff of professional health care workers, a lot of nurses, etc, almost all of whom were older and more experienced than I. And, half of them or so were black.
Being the woke liberal that I was at the time, one of the first things that I did was call a meeting of myself and all the black employees alone, to tell them I was on their side and wanted to do whatever I could to fight racism against black people. They all just kind of stood there and looked at me, dazed.
Finally one of the younger ones, a guy named Leroy, looked at me and said “we’re not black, we’re brown.” Then they all left.
I took that to mean that they felt patronized by me. Lesson learned. How much could I really understand about their lives? But what happened after that was that I noticed that they all seemed to trust me more. They came and thanked me for all the work I was doing, several of them made a point. Leroy and I became best friends, working closely together and I depended on him. Yes, I was their boss, but I know it was heartfelt.
I concluded that even though I was clumsy and patronizing, they recognized that I was trying and my heart was in the right place. Due to my youth and inexperience I was so far in over my head, and thank God I didn’t realize that and just charged forth and got things done. I learned a lot that way.
One of the reasons I am talking about my experiences with race relations is to make the point that white and black have been working on this a long time. To be clear, it has all been spurred by black rebellion then joined by whites. What I am describing here all happened by the 70’s, almost a half century ago. Huge progress has been made, so when I see people talking as if nothing has changed, that racism is worse than ever, I sort of have to shake my head and feel like they know little of our history. It hardly means there is no racism, no of course not, but it does mean we are part way there.
One of the problems I have with critical race theory, the supposed solution being offered now to our race problems, is that it is absolute, whites are racists, blacks are oppressed, nothing has or ever will change no matter what we do. That is absolutely false, and moronic when you see how much things have changed already.
Then on the other hand, we have people saying there is no systemic racism, the problem has been solved and what disparities are left are primarily due to black culture, ie, it’s their own fault if they have problems.
An important part of it is recognizing the ambiguity of the reality we live in. Not yet post racial, not totally immersed in it as we once were. Due to the ambiguity, plenty of room is available for disagreement and controversy. Often seemingly opposing views are both true. The rest of this article is looking at that ambiguity through several examples and seeing how that clouds the discussion and then leads into extremism. We need to pull back from that and accept the ambivalence of the current situation and recognize the genuine issues and move forward on those.
We need to understand as clearly as we can what racism is happening now, today. Although history matters, what matters more is what do we need to do now? We need an objective assessment of systemic racism as it stands at the moment.
The hot issue is policing, and treatment of blacks by police. That seems to be the forefront of concern at the moment. When you look at the statistics, it is not abundantly clear that blacks are treated more violently by police. Liberals tout such statements regularly, for instance, that blacks are killed at four times the rate as whites by police. They always leave off the part where blacks commit crime at much higher rates than whites. If we are going to be proportional, you have to take both numbers into account. Police go where the crime happens.
The Washington Post started keeping track of police violence and murders in 2015, and in 2019 they reported that 13 unarmed blacks and 24 whites were murdered by police. There are 350 million calls for service from the police a year. Considering how many calls for service, and how much violence the police encounter, that is actually not very many in any case, black or white.
People will continue to debate this, blacks get stopped more, true, but there is more crime where they get stopped, true, on and on back and forth it goes. One argument that has merit is that the quality of the data is not good, that a lot is not reported, and we haven’t been tracking it very well. Also true, although it is improving.
One thing that is for certain is that the black community by and large feel that the police are hostile toward them and that they are not treated well by the police, regardless of statistics. Police are often seen as the enemy, not as protectors in the black community. The opposite is true in the white community, generally speaking. That means something.
Inhumane treatment by the police is the problem, not the statistics.
In looking at the argument that more crime is committed by blacks, that is true, but it is also true that the vast majority of black people are not criminals and do not commit crime.
Looking at FBI tables for 2016, about 26% of arrests were black people. Assuming that at least some of them were arrested more than once, at most you could say 20% of black people committed crimes that year. The point here is that 80%, probably a lot less, of blacks are NOT committing crimes.
Traditionally police are trained to take command and control of a situation when they make a stop. There is no real way to know statistically how controlling and confrontive each individual stop has been, but from individual reports it is pretty clear that blacks are treated in a much more rough manner by police, in part because police naturally believe that they are more likely to be guilty. It is also assumed that there is a racist element, the idea that blacks are lesser and are open game to be abused by police and whoever else it is that is racist. That racism is in someone’s head and would be very difficult to quantify statistically.
Black people in turn resent it, and over time this aggressive behavior on the part of the police results in many black people being aggressive back, and the whole thing has turned into a war, especially in lower class black communities. Not 100%, but it is far more likely to happen than in white communities, and it is not something that is going to be easily found in statistics.
For the vast majority of black people who do not commit crimes, they get subjected to the same treatment as if they were criminals, the stories are legion, and resentments have built over time. In terms of the statistical analysis of blacks and police, even though statistically blacks commit more crime, and therefore statistically the police may be justified in pulling them over more often, if you are one of the vast majority of black citizens who don’t commit crimes it can seem like there is a war on blacks against you that is unjustified.
What needs to happen, and what has already happened in many cities, is the police need to be retrained away from the aggressive command and control model of policing, and toward an approach that encourages de-escalation of violence. Unions have to be changed to allow for those police who exhibit obvious racial discrimination or aggressiveness to be fired.
We do not need to defund the police or let everyone out of jail, as many Black Lives Matter advocates call for. That is totally unworkable.
The point here is that regardless of what statistics may or may not show, there is clearly a big problem in black and police relationships and is the result of systemic racism that over time has resulted in the current problems. It’s a perfect example for demonstrating what systemic racism is.
Systemic racism is the racism that happens out of the very structure of society regardless of the good or bad intentions of the people who are living in it. It is in the “system”. A person may be the most honorable person in the world, and go to work as a policeman, and get caught up in it, like it or not.
The qualifier is that despite it being systemic, people still need to be treated as individuals and each case must be decided on its own merits. Also, each police department must be treated as an individual police department and be evaluated on its own merits. The greater part of wisdom is to be able to see the details as well as the bigger picture simultaneously.
A black person that grows up in a deprived neighborhood that has been poor for decades and decades is going to get hit with it and internalize it to some extent, until they can work it out of their own heads. Not only will they tend to blame the system, they will experience it as something wrong with them, individually, until they can exorcise it from themselves.
The currently popular social justice advocates like Robin DiAngelo say that racism is inherent in whites, oppression from racism inherent in blacks. Not true or we would never get over it, which of course people do and have done, and some people have never been subject to it. The system in systemic is everything and everywhere to critical race theorists like her. Not so.
Racism is part of the structure and system of society in the areas in which it appears, but that is not all we are. We also love and care, and the loving and caring over time has healed a lot of racism and has resulted in major changes. We have systemic love too. Racism has been in the process of being dismantled since the civil war or arguably before then, and it proceeds apace. That is easy to prove.
Here is an article by Booker T. Washington about the creation of “colored towns” by what was then called Negros in 1903:
Washington’s article is interesting because it shows how much progress was already being made after the civil war by 1903. There was a corresponding backlash by white racists, and progress has been back and forth ever since, with times of repression, and times of advancement. Jim Crow, then a rebellion against that.
A friend of mine frustrated with the racism still in our society, after watching the movie “Mississippi Burning” asked rhetorically has anything changed since 1964, the time of that story? Right then I looked up and saw a rather lame dating show on TV, a rather pretty white woman was getting to choose among an assortment of men to date, and one of the men was black, and they flashed on the screen “CEO Wealth Management” in identifying him. You would not have seen that on TV in 1964. On top of that, they had her parents sitting off premises watching her date via camera, they nodded approvingly of this man. You for sure would not have seen that in 1964.
During the recent protests/riots, at one point CNN said let’s hear from some big city Mayors on the racism that has led to these protests. The next segment came on and it was four black women Mayors! Racism in their cities! you sure would not have seen that in 1964, and both these examples show how far we have come in reducing and eliminating racism.
For the record, it was Laurie Lightfoot, Chicago, London Breed, San Francisco, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta, and Muriel Bowser, Washington DC.
The second area where there is even worse long term systemic racism is in many cities where there still remains impoverished black neighborhoods. Similar to the neighborhood in my home town that I witnessed as a child, I have seen the same thing in several cities in recent years, and I am sure there are more. For those who say, but there are poor white neighborhoods, there are, but they are not there as the result of racism like the black neighborhoods, but for other reasons. As if stuck in a time warp, the impoverished conditions persist. The only possible explanation is systemic racism.
This article examines some of the data around this issue, and shows the difference between poor white neighborhoods and black, and the differences are stark.
There are confounding factors here, which is what makes it difficult to understand and respond to. Part of the reason for these neighborhoods are the internalized attitudes of the residents. They have a “poverty consciousness” and get stuck in believing life is hopeless. They learn a certain self image and self worth from their parents and surroundings. They see fathers, mothers, who struggled with poverty and drugs and develop beliefs that they could never get anywhere themselves. There is truth to that. Once they are like that, however, there are plenty of disparaging elements in society that help to keep them stuck there.
The third thing to highlight that is the most nebulous of the three is that certain people just have an attitude of racism, of needing to lord over other people and look down on them, to have someone beneath them to prop up their own weak ego’s. There is an element in society that goes along with that.
Unless you see someone actually acting like that it is difficult to spot, but it goes on and it is one of the main reasons that there are so many protests. You feel it in the police at times, you see it indirectly in the world, and many people have just had it with that type of abusive racist energy. There are men who treat women like that, fathers who treat sons that way, people putting people down just because they can and are in some kind of position of power over them.
Some people literally enjoy the feeling of power that comes from putting someone down, making them hurt, getting off on feeling superior.
As far as an actionable problem that one can outline the cure for, it is very nebulous, but it may be the worse problem and all else proceeds out of it. It enrages people who encounter it, whether as subject or witness. This is the energy that people react to when they see a policeman abusing a black person. This is the attitude of the officer with his knee on the neck of a black man, and it really doesn’t matter how many statistics you can quote, the energy there is palpable.
It’s important to realize that that is there, recognize it when it happens, but to also realize that most people do not do that and object to it. Look at the protests. Most people do not support systemic racism. Although the violence, looting and rioting associated with the protests is a negative, the passion of the protests has created a terrific energy to move forward on ending racist attitudes. The gain will be in the change in people’s attitudes that is not easily quantifiable, but will be realized over time.
So, how do we respond to this, how do we fight systemic racism? To fight systemic racism we need to follow the principles that we have been following all along and that on the whole have been quite successful. Those principles are called liberalism, or enlightenment values.
Equal treatment under the law, free speech, the rule of law, the ability to speak out against injustice, equality of opportunity enforced by law, these values are the reason we have gotten as far as we have over the last 65 years and they can carry us the rest of the way if we allow it. Authoritarian demands, silencing speech we don’t like, and social engineering, always backfire.
American society, truthfully, has been healing itself of the damaging impacts of slavery since slavery ended in 1865. It’s been a long, slow, but steady train of progress. It’s a train that has a very long journey, as the pain and damage runs unbelievably deep. The further that train runs, the more healing has taken place and the focus shifts more and more from changing societal impacts to blacks standing up and changing themselves. Liberals may not like hearing that, but from personal psychology it is clear that you have to heal yourself, in the end no matter what others have done to you, or how unfair, you are going to be the one that has to deal with it.
Others can help you but in the end it is your personal responsibility. No one can change you but you. The history of black liberation in this country is one driven by black people themselves standing up and saying No and fighting back. If they hadn’t, nothing would have likely changed.
The key point is that free expression, open debate, and allowing a process to occur over time is critical. There are those out of frustration that want to clamp down on debate, not allow protests on one side, deplatform some from speaking on the other side. Mandating speech, denigrating opponents, taking that to an extreme leads to an autocratic and censoring society which is a step backwards.
In his book, “Kindly Inquisitors”, Johnathan Rauch pointed out that in the years before the civil war, “year after year, critics demanded a reason natural rights or equality should extend only to men who looked like “us”: one reason after another was shot down, and eventually the moral legitimacy of slavery and racism collapsed. “
What really causes change is people speaking out. Laws eventually change as the result of that, but only after long open debates about the issues. And what really happens is all that dialogue changes people’s minds, which is by far the most important thing, and indicates real change.