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‘Racism’ Without Racists

I had a feeling that the piece I wrote last week, on the question of whether the terms “systemic,” “structural” and “institutional” racism were genuinely useful, might ruffle feathers. It did not disappoint, and the responses highlighted a major reason the race debate in this country seems so often in a holding pattern.

I argued that terms such as “systemic racism” seem to imply that systems (or structures or institutions) can harbor bigotry or hold a position in the same way that a human being can.

Bigotry clearly often played a profound role in the inequities between Black and other people in the past. But the idea of “systemic racism” as a present-tense phenomenon has for decades now been cited frequently, especially among left-of-center groups. However, I argued that, as indisputable today’s inequities may be, to refer to them as “racism” is a rather athletic way of using that word, and it fosters an idea that solving today’s problems will require battling a new version of the same bigotry that reigned in the old days, just “systemic” rather than existing in individual hearts and minds.

This can distract us from more effective, if less dramatic, solutions applicable to conditions in our present day. The Stanford Law School professor Richard Thompson Ford (who is Black) was useful on this point in his 2008 book, “The Race Card,” in which he explored “racism without racists.”

But questions as to whether what is arguably systemic should be called “racism” just don’t work for many people, and much of the reason is something running throughout reactions to views like mine: a particular commitment to demonstrating that Black people’s problems are not our fault. The term “systemic racism,” even if requiring tutelage to get used to, is supposedly valuable in calling attention to the fact that racism, not inadequacy, is what indicts Black people like myself. Maybe the racism was in the past; maybe we can still identify some of it now. But we must stress the racism above all.

It is central to the mission of quite a few scholars, journalists, activists and fellow travelers to impart this mantra, which can form the fulcrum of entire careers, fields of study, mind-sets and even spirits. An example is this article in Scientific American about what is termed environmental racism and the role that public opinion about Black culpability purportedly plays in its persistence.

It is beyond question that Black people’s problems are not “our fault.” There is always a genuine sociohistorical explanation for what continues to ail us, and racism in the past is usually the culprit. But I want to pose a question: What exactly is the goal of treating this message as central to any legitimate future statements and opinions about race? That is: Why are we supposed to care so much whether they — meaning non-Black people — know it isn’t our fault?

For readers who can bear with me past that point, let me break it down:

A) We know that oppressed groups can show that their problems are not their fault without a society-wide awareness that their problems are not their fault. The Irish in America “became white,” as Noel Ignatiev famously had it, in the wake of the pitiless contempt they were viewed through for ages, without America having developed any especially widespread revelation that their problems were due to factors beyond their control. Jewish people have followed a similar narrative. No widespread teach-ins about root causes were necessary to enable their emergence into the American middle-class mainstream.

B) A common response is that it’s different for Black people because the contempt for us runs deeper than it did for these white groups. Now, one might object that both the Irish and Jews were seen as different “races” way back when, and that it’s risky to claim that there is not serious and even sometimes homicidal contempt afoot today against Jewish people. Yet many will still think of the old mantra, “If you’re white, you’re all right, if you’re brown, stick around, if you’re Black, get back.”

The rhyming is clever, but rhyming isn’t reality. There has recently been significant, nay, seismic political progress in the kind of contempt for Black people that would prevent our succeeding. How many members of Congress, of either major party, are openly opposed to Black success, or even show any sign of wanting Black people to “stay in their place”? Republican attempts to suppress the Black vote may be grotesque, but they speak for themselves: a nauseatingly pragmatic attempt to suppress Democratic votes, based on a calculus that Black people almost all vote Democratic. That attitude did not, for instance, prevent the G.O.P. from nominating a spectacularly ill-qualified Black man, Herschel Walker, for Senate. It was an appallingly coldhearted, disgraceful choice, but not one based on some larger commitment to curbing Black people’s influence in society.

Put it this way: Even if we wish America were doing more to help Black people — including those who seek reparations for slavery — there is no evidence that what’s holding such efforts back is a consensus that Black people’s problems are simply Black people’s fault. For example, the environmental racism article I referred to claims that such perceptions hinder serious efforts to lessen the likelihood of Black people having to live amid toxic pollution. However, it offers little proof, and it’s a shaky claim. The needle of opinion on the poor and personal responsibility has moved considerably since the Dickensian 19th century.

Notions about white supremacy phrased as “what whites want,” as if they are an indistinguishable mass with a sinister agenda, are messy talk, not analysis. If you really think anti-Black sentiment today is stronger than what anti-Irish and anti-Jewish sentiment was 100 years ago, you’d better bring your A game.

And with that I move to

C) It is also unclear that this “It’s Not Our Fault” message will ever seal the deal. Smart people have been brandishing it for several decades now, and yet it’s many of the same people who insist that America “doesn’t want to talk about race.” America actually talks about race rather obsessively. But apparently not in the way these people would want — and the question is: What’s the game plan for making that better?

It is problems like A, B and C that leave me so faintly committed to instructing whites about the fact that racism, usually in the past, is the reason for the inequities we struggle to get past today. There is a certain satisfaction in imparting this mantra. You know you have Done The Right Thing on a basic level. But it is a rather blinkered approach to making life better for Black people. If we are a strong people, there is no reason to be so focused on whether whites know whether or not it’s not our fault.

The way I see it, if three things happened, Black America would be a new world.

First, the War on Drugs should end. It encourages a Black market in drugs that understandably tempts underserved people of color away from legal work, and it fosters encounters between Black people and the cops that, short of this utterly failed “war,” would have no reason to occur.

Second, especially in schools for less-advantaged kids, reading should be taught via phonics-based instruction, because it has consistently proven to be the best method for kids not from book-lined homes, of all races.

Third, market-targeted vocational education must be available at little or no cost to all who want it, and our post-World War II American sense that getting a college degree is the normal life trajectory of all respectable people must end.

I believe that if all three of these things happened, after a single generation of Black Americans grew up under the new regime, our crabbed, contradiction-laden conversation on race and racism would gradually recede into a blissfully antique curiosity that future scholars would have to work to understand.

And amid that great new day, neither Black people nor those alongside us would care a whit about whether people understood that our problems hadn’t been our fault. We’d be too busy just living.

To many, what I just wrote is, nevertheless, somehow anti-Black, or white supremacist, or something comparably awful. That only makes sense from a central assumption that to leave out the It’s Not Our Fault mantra is to fail the Black race. I disagree.

That obsessive focus is less strength than weakness, more preaching than pragmatism. The idea that undoing inequities between Black and other people requires that the nation truly madly and deeply understand that Black people’s problems are not our fault is elevated as a kind of wisdom. But it’s actually a kind of utopianism, and people in need deserve better.

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism.”

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