This is where I have come to have serious problems with the category of systemic racism—at least as the term is defined in Critical Race Theory (CRT).1 My church’s confession teaches me to treat racism as sin. CRT teaches that racism of the systemic sort need not involve any moral agency at all. This clash confuses people as to what their duties are and what righteousness requires. This isn’t just a Southern Baptist problem. Lots of people want to do the right thing, but how does one do the right thing when no moral agency is required to be complicit in systemic racism? For example, are the white students who go to college in the little town in Nebraska somehow morally responsible for racism because they went to college at a greater rate than black students? Are they morally obligated to opt out of college until all disparate outcomes are eliminated? Most fair-minded people sense the absurdity of such a proposal.
I’ve been watching the misadventures of Matthew Franck’s insightful article criticizing the concept of systemic racism. It originally appeared for two hours yesterday morning at Newsweek online. Apparently the opinion editor fought to have it posted, but the editor-in-chief swooped in to remove it without explanation. Franck explains the behind-the-scenes chicanery at The Public Discourse where the full article is now posted. It’s not encouraging. Is the concept of systemic racism so brittle that it can’t be scrutinized? Or are Newsweek editors too afraid to allow a thoughtful piece questioning the new orthodoxy? Who knows?
In any case, it’s a shame that Newsweek would not stand by Franck’s column because he is highlighting something very important and under-considered in our national upheaval over race issues. Franck questions the utility of systemic racism as a category. He writes:
The “system”—a college, or a profession, or the nation as a whole—is said to be suffused with racism, and asking for the identity of the culprits is supposed to be a sure sign of the inquirer’s naïveté. The fault for systemic racism is no one’s in particular, and everyone’s in general. Or at least everyone not belonging to the aggrieved class of its victims.
This unique feature of systemic-racism theory is indicated by its very name. As Bryan Garner observes in Garner’s Modern English Usage, there is a substantial difference between the words “systematic” and “systemic.” Something systematic has been “carried out according to an organized plan,” or represents a “habitual, deliberate” pattern of behavior. American chattel slavery was systematic racism. So was Jim Crow. So, in a softer and less obvious way, say its critics, is affirmative action.
But a thing is systemic if it affects or is a feature (Garner again) “of an entire system; systemwide.” Notice that no personal agency is required, or indeed is any part, of a systemic phenomenon. And there’s the beauty of systemic-racism theory: “who’s to blame” is never answered with any particularity that will fix responsibility on known persons, for the answer is “why, everyone!” What could be more impervious to contrary evidence than a wholly impersonal conspiracy theory about human behavior?
We can sensibly talk about individual, or legal, or even institutional racism. All these can be blamed on someone. Perhaps someone in the past set certain racist policies in place; even so, if the policies are still in effect, someone today is perpetuating them and could change them. But while an apparently disparate racial impact of a policy may raise initial suspicions that the policy itself is racist, it is no proof of the matter, for disparate outcomes can have multiple causes, some blameless, others blameworthy.
Franck puts his finger on the crucial point. In common parlance, racism is a moral term. The common usage in the American Heritage Dictionary, for example, defines racism as “discrimination or prejudice based on race.” It involves human agency and implies moral accountability. But no human agency or moral responsibility need be present for a person to be involved with systemic racism. Nevertheless, critical race theorists accuse those involved with systemic racism of being involved in culpable racism. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic are a case in point. They write,
Many critical race theorists and social scientists hold that racism is pervasive, systemic, and deeply ingrained. If we take this perspective, then no white member of society seems quite so innocent (Critical Race Theory, p. 91).