A very well thought and written analysis and argument against the “prevailing winds”. mrossol
WSJ. 9/18/2020 By
Systemic racism, also known as institutional or structural racism, is a new phrase for a new situation. We live in a society where racism is not, and cannot be, openly professed. To do so not only is frowned upon but will get you into serious trouble, if not yet jail, in America. Yet even though this is impossible to miss and known to all, “systemic racism” supposedly persists. The phrase describes a society that is so little racist that no one can respectably advocate racism, yet so much racist that every part of it is soaked with racism. We live with the paradox of a racist society without racists.
Systemic racism is unavowed and mostly unconscious, racist despite itself. Those who use the phrase, mostly whites, are consciously accusing their unconscious selves. To get a sense of what they mean, think of African-Americans as they are, freed of slavery and segregation but still somehow consigned to an inferior social position. Everywhere they look, they see black faces on show but white faces in charge. This is true even where they generally excel and surpass whites, as in sports and entertainment, and still more in business and academia, where they are fewer. White supremacy seems to be true in effect if not in intent. Look around and you will see it.
It is strange to describe an unconscious effect as racism, for an ism is an opinion, a doctrine, not a mere condition. A doctrine has adherents who articulate it; it cannot be held unconsciously as can a prejudice. Racist doctrine says that blacks are a naturally and inherently inferior race. To criticize the character or behavior of blacks, individually or even on average, is not racism. Criticism implies that blacks are not living up to their potential, hence that they are capable of behaving well. Criticism implies an essential equality between critics and whomever they criticize. This is contrary to racism.
Racist doctrine is not really blame of an inferior race but implies a sort of excuse. If you are innately inferior, there’s nothing you can do about it—so no blame is reasonable. Nor, from the standpoint of racism, is it reasonable for the inferior race to resent being treated as inferior; that’s all it is entitled to. It’s better to resign oneself to one’s fate, whether one is superior or inferior. That is racism, and it is contrary to the American principle that all human beings are created equal.
The idea of systemic racism proclaims that racism is unjust but exists nonetheless despite ourselves. How could this happen? It is the bad result of the behavior we regard as good. The good behavior of conscientiously striving to better oneself is joined to the bad behavior of always preferring oneself. Thus any privilege one earns and deserves is tied to undeserved privilege: A successful life if you are white comes out as white supremacy. Despite your verbal rejection of that result, the system behind your intentions brings it about.
The notion of systemic racism is designed to make you feel guilty about this if you are white. But why should you? The system did it, not you. You can’t change the system; that’s what “systemic” means. All your good intentions have existed since America began, but they are always tainted by bad consequences. The movement against systemic racism must fail. How could it succeed where Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. couldn’t? Systemic racism exists despite our intentions; so it can’t be cured by changing our intentions—as by protesting.
If, on the other hand, we are all responsible, then we should all behave better. If that is possible, then we don’t live in the thrall of a system. We somehow control our lives but don’t do a good job of it. We should turn a bad job into a good job. To behave responsibly, it doesn’t help to assume a systemic racism that acts against our intentions.
Yet “systemic racism” is used as an accusation, not as mere description. As accusation, though, it is no longer a system in the required sense of being beneath our awareness. It is joined to the demand for antiracism. If antiracism is possible, then all of us, whites as well as blacks, are no longer mere victims of a system.
In fact, all of us are aware of the racial question, even those who are not woke. Both sides of this matter are awake, but we differ. Our compassionate intentions run up against our fear of running other peoples’ lives, together with legitimate concern for our own well-being and our children’s, and we resolve the conflict differently, usually by partisan choice. Instead of submitting to fate, we argue our differences over justice. This is what we do and what we should be aware of doing.
Systemic racism has disadvantages as a way of thinking that outweigh the specious advantage of not having to argue about justice. It tells blacks that they are quite OK, and that it is entirely up to whites to change their thinking and their behavior. This means that blacks must allow whites to hold their future for them.
We recently mourned the passing of John Lewis, an activist for civil rights. Civil rights come from America, and to demand them is to imply that America would be OK if only it would assure for blacks what it gives to whites. But if America is tainted by systemic racism even to the principles of its founding, blacks will have to depend on the goodwill of whites and can’t call on our common patriotism. That is the implication of the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” The civil-rights movement was led by blacks, and its accomplishments were theirs, in cooperation with the governing white majority.
Systemic racism ignores the agency of black citizens, leaving them nothing to do except to protest in the streets or cheer from the sidelines. Meanwhile whites are told by the same idea that all their past efforts against white supremacy have been in vain. Nothing they have done has worked or could have worked. All along our history, the Constitution and the Rights of Man we thought we practiced and defended were nothing but the power of white men. All the heroes of both races and their sacrifices were defeated by systemic racism and went for naught. What we might do now differently from what we have done in the past is left totally unclear. More affirmative action and more subsidies—what can they do that will now help instead of hurt? Call them “reparations”—will that do any good?
Another disadvantage of the idea of systemic racism is to deny the value of prudence in politics. A democracy can react quickly if attacked, but for a transformation out of white supremacy, you have to have the support of a majority; you have to go by stages. First, assert the goal to be achieved, the principle of human equality, as was done in the Declaration of Independence. Then make a constitution so that a free country can govern itself effectively. To ratify the Constitution, it was necessary to gain the assent of the slave states.
The American founding couldn’t be perfect from the start; it had to progress toward its goal. Prudence is the faculty that deals with imperfection in order to form, as the Preamble put it, a “more perfect union.” To make progress effectively and democratically, prudence seeks and finds necessary accommodations in compromise. Not all compromises are successful, but the successful ones deserve to be accepted, and those who had the prudence to make them should be honored—not merely tolerated, let alone dishonored or canceled.
The cancel culture is a malignant growth from the idea of systemic racism. Those who cancel stop accusing themselves; they step outside of the system they denounce. After asserting the guilt of all whites, these whites give themselves a pass.
“Systemic racism” is a bogus description that issues in an accusation made in doubtful faith that contradicts itself. But it is held by many fellow Americans, so let’s not dismiss it. It’s better to treat it respectfully as a disputable opinion.
Mr. Mansfield is a professor of government at Harvard.