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.
When we on the left say that problems like racism are systemic, we don’t mean to imply that the system is riddled with it. Nor do we mean that the system merely tolerates or encourages it. Nor even do we mean that there is some nebulous symbiotic relationship among bad actors and certain facets of the system. No, we mean to say that they arise from it. The business cycle is a product of capitalism. Monopolies are products of capitalism. And American racism is a product of the American expression of capitalism, which sustains itself by drawing sharp racial, religious, and class distinctions — and by pitting those factions against one another in the struggle to acquire artificially scarce resources.
Careful, left-of-center, “sensible” liberals may use the term systemic racism, but they’re actually referring to institutional racism. While no one can deny that our institutions continue to nourish, maintain, and defend the status quo, we leftists remain skeptical that education and legislation will fix the problem.
We would, naturally, never stand in the way of these piecemeal attempts, since any progress at all is welcome. However, we should, at the same time, keep in mind that the underlying system will keep generating its products the way a cracked die continues to stamp out defective parts. Moreover, as our population changes and we become a minority-majority society, we will see even greater racial tensions. With that in mind, I encourage the continued use of the term systemic racism, in the hopes that it may slowly dawn on people that fundamental problems require a fundamental solution.
[Note: This post does not necessarily represent the opinions of Neil Godfrey. –Tim]
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