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The dubious narrative about systemic racism | Column
Viewing racism through the lens of individual intent rather than institutional effects is limiting for those eager to make bold advances in the war for social justice, writes columnist Mac Stipanovich.
A protester holds a sign outside a building as the Noblesville school board meets inside in May. The protesters said they didn't want the schools to teach critical race theory, a concept that examines systemic racism as a part of American life.
A protester holds a sign outside a building as the Noblesville school board meets inside in May. The protesters said they didn't want the schools to teach critical race theory, a concept that examines systemic racism as a part of American life.
Published Jun. 30

It is undeniable that there are significant racial disparities in America, but the question is whether those disparities are manifestations of systemic racism or are, for the most part, the sum of the legacies of former racist practices and the cumulative effects of current racial prejudice. This is not a matter of semantics. The answer to this question has important policy implications.

Mac Stipanovich
Mac Stipanovich [ Mac Stipanovich ]

Viewing racism through the lens of individual intent rather than institutional effects is limiting for those eager to make bold advances in the war for social justice. It individualizes guilt that is difficult to establish, and it narrows the range of ameliorative options, leaving one in the factually suspect and politically unprofitable position of having to assert that the country is chock-a-block with white racists, a malady for which no cure can be easily legislated or quickly decreed by presidential executive order. This way lies the long, hard slog to racial equity.

The concept of systemic racism is more congenial to liberal activists. It does not depend on individual white guilt, but it imposes collective white responsibility. It is ubiquitous by definition, impersonal in its presentation and lends itself to multiple means of remediation. And, as a bonus, systemic racism absolves its victims of accountability for any personal failings: individual innocence is a by-product of collective victimization. It is win-win.

But the utility of framing racism in America as systemic is impaired in many if not most cases by being in obvious conflict with reality. Consider our much vilified criminal justice system. There are certainly some aspects of it in which racial prejudice is indeed inherent, the differences in penalties for offenses involving crack cocaine on the one hand and powdered cocaine or opioids on the other hand being an example.

But what about the often cited racial disparities in prosecutions, convictions and sentences for similar crimes, particularly capital cases? If compared to white defendants prosecutors overcharge Black defendants, jurors convict them more often and judges sentence them more harshly, does that mean that the system of trial by jury is inherently racist, or does it mean that too many prosecutors, jurors and judges harbor personal racial biases of which they may or may not be aware? Surely the latter explanation is the case.

Then there are the patterns of racial segregation in urban housing and, consequently, in public schools. These are artifacts of the Jim Crow era, which included such overtly racist practices as redlining. These patterns are perpetuated and exacerbated today by a complex of interrelated factors, but they almost all involve individual choices, however blameworthy, not unavoidable responses to systemic imperatives.

Even Latin and Greek are now tools of white supremacy. Princeton University’s Classics department had until recently required degree seeking majors to demonstrate proficiency in one of those languages. This long standing requirement, which pre-dated any significant number of Black students at Princeton, initially discriminated only against the academically unprepared.

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But in today’s world this language requirement had a second order effect of adversely impacting Black students who are, it seems, overrepresented among the academically unprepared in terms of competence in Latin or Greek. So to promote “inclusivity” the language requirement has been dropped, which, like affirmative action admissions, is a reparative response to perceived systemic racism.

Systemic racism is in fact an indispensable premise in the argument for reparations. Uneven playing fields resulting from inherent institutional racism must be leveled by dispensing rewards and punishments on the basis of caste and class if justice is to prevail.

Thus the civil rights era goal of a color blind society in which everyone is judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin, rising or falling on their individual merits, is abandoned. Instead we are offered a new goal of equitable outcomes in which merit, at least as traditionally measured in what is pejoratively characterized as a white-centric culture, is incidental if not irrelevant. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need, as someone famously said.

This is a vision of a future America that many will not find appealing. But if that is the future that we as a people ultimately choose, then we should do so with our eyes open rather than stumbling into it by virtue of the unexamined logic of a dubious narrative about systemic racism.

Mac Stipanovich was chief of staff to former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and a longtime Republican strategist who is currently registered No Party Affiliation.