At the end of 2020, I began to see the requisite social media posts asking what we’re tired of hearing or seeing in the news, and which words or terms we hope never to hear again. Not surprisingly, several people cited “systemic racism” (or, for that matter, systemic anything).
Throughout the previous year, pundits on the left (i.e., centrist liberals) and the right posted responses to what they see as the overuse of the term systemic racism. Disingenuous conservatives warned that blaming the system for generating racist ideas and exclusionary behavior would tend to absolve individuals for moral failings.
On the surface, they may seem to have a point. If the system causes people to behave the way they do, then how can we blame anyone? You may recognize this sort of argument when, for example, centrists and conservatives reflexively point toward the sin of greed rather than the underlying system that rewards or even requires it. They redirect our attention to failing people so that we don’t look too closely at the failing structure that nurtures and supports them. By focusing our attention on the actions of individuals they hope to prevent meaningful change.
Before continuing, we need to be absolutely clear about what we mean by “systemic.” In the mainstream press, we frequently see references to ideas, policies, and behavior that pervade the system. However, they focus our attention on the people who hold those ideas, promote those policies, and engage in that behavior. And where the right sees only bad actors, centrist liberals see bad actors working in a system that needs to be reformed. Neither view is particularly helpful; however, the notion that the politico-economic framework is a neutral playing field that just needs a fairer rulebook and better referees is comforting, but seriously wrongheaded. Continue reading “What the Left Means by “Systemic””