Is America A Racist Country?
Steve QJ asks “Who Cares If America Is A Racist Country?” It’s a good question. Clearly many people do, however, since as a nation we’re in the midst of a post-Floyd discussion about race and racism.
He goes on to say this:
It used to be easy to define racism. It was the notion that one race was superior to another. It was hatred and fear and bigotry. It was the belief that the colour of a person’s skin was more important than the content of their character.
Times have changed.
In part, this is because change was necessary. Thinking of racism only as individual prejudice made it harder to address gaps in education outcomes and employment rates for example. It obscured the impact of wealth inequality and a lack of social mobility. It made issues like workplace diversity and unconscious bias difficult to understand.
Well, count me as one who wants to keep this old definition of racism. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo decries racism as being something bad. Ditto Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in Racism Without Racists. It’s an unfortunate outgrowth of Critical Race Theory that racism is viewed as a system instead of a belief. Yet, if racism is a system of oppression, individuals aren’t racist. Moreover, the degree individuals help perpetuate that system isn’t dependent on their race. The black police officer is more a champion of maintaining systemic racism in America than the white child. He has more agency by virtue of being an adult and his position, after all.
Elsewhere, I’ve seen it asserted that non-whites can’t be racist because they lack power. This seems at odds with modern reality, with non-white Mayors, Chiefs of police, judges, and many other officials who are persons of color in America. They all have power. They are all, in part, helping to perpetuate the racism Critical Race Theorists and those with similar views argue pervade America.
But they aren’t entirely wrong. I think they’re just failing to recognize the value in keeping racism as a belief individuals can hold and distinguishing it from systemic racism, which is the effects of centuries of our history of white supremacy. In America, black and brown people help perpetuate the systems of inequity and inequality which disadvantage black and brown people.
For illustration, consider our criminal justice system and sentencing guidelines. Assume a polity with all black judges, prosecutors, and police. All of the defense attorneys are black, too. We have 1,000 defendants, half of whom are white and half black all charged with identical crimes. Five hundred of each. If this hypothetical system works as our current one does, the 500 blacks will be more likely to get convicted and will get longer sentences than the 500 whites. None of the actors in the system, excluding the defendants, is racist against blacks, but the system will still produce disparate outcomes. The sentencing guidelines include factors which favour whites. They’ll get more downward departures and blacks will get more upward departures. Higher black unemployment works against them in the sentencing guidelines. They’re more likely to live in “high crime” areas, and therefore more likely to have contact with police. Even without an arrest, a pre-sentencing report is more likely to show lower education, no employment, and negative interactions with police. The structure of the welfare state, with its disincentives against intact families, means they’re less likely to have a similar background, and along with having higher unemployment they’re less likely, as a result, to have character witnesses the court will credit in making its sentencing determinations.
Racism? Or systemic racism? The fact those officials involved in the above are all people of color themselves argues against a belief in the inherent criminality of people of color. Yet in more than a few of America’s jurisdictions this plays out daily, albeit without the racial equality in the number of defendants.
If racism doesn’t require racists, we need a different term, and systemic racism works as well, if not better, then repurposing racism.
What is systemic racism, then? I’m glad you asked. To me, it’s the accumulation of continuing effects of de jure and de facto white supremacy in America. Blacks have ten times less wealth than whites, for example. Higher rates of being stopped, searched, and arrested even after weighting for crimes committed by each group. Where we live is often a result of decades, if not centuries, of overt and covert racism in keeping us separate and segregated. Finding data on the disparate experiences of people of color compared to whites when it comes to living our lives isn’t hard. That it’s harder to live as an American of color than as a white American is systemic racism.
One of the better advances in our history was racism becoming a Bad Thing and racists Bad People. It’s a good thing that few, white or otherwise, want to be viewed as a racist. Abandoning that advancement in pursuit of a race-based view of the world, albeit one which casts America as a whole as irredeemably racist, is a mistake.
So, in answer to Steve QJ’s excellent question, I’d answer many seem to care, and it’s a good thing we do. In answer to the question of whether America is a racist nation, my answer is no. We have been a racist nation. We are a nation which has racists among us. But we have rejected racism and are now grappling, however imperfectly, with how to acknowledge, address, mitigate, and remedy our past.
Wish us luck.