Is America Systemically Racist?
I have heard many these past few days call for the ending of systemic racism in America, but have not heard much discussion as to what it means. If we are to end systemic racism, it would be helpful to first know what it is.
The term systemic is strongly related to the word system. To say something is systemic is to say that it arises out of or defines a system; things are the way they are because of the nature of the system. They are not incidental to the system; they are intrinsic to it.
To ask, then, whether “America is systemically racist” is problematic. America is not a “system,” but rather a loose conglomeration of countless systems, each of which is unique and warrants separate evaluation. The highest system, even, the federal government, is not one system, but a collection of agencies, departments, bureaus, and committees, each of which is comprised of different types of people (attorneys, scientists, law enforcement officials, politicians) of every size, shape, and color. It obviously will not do to treat all these people nor the many systems they comprise as identical. Below the federal government are the 50 states, each with similarly bloated and inscrutable bureaucracies. Below them are counties and cities, many of which, thankfully, are close and small enough to be understood.
It will not do to lump all states together and certainly will not do to lump all cities together. Even within cities, each business, committee, organization and, finally, each person deserves to be heard and understood as a unique entity to be judged on their own merits.
Even individual people defy simplistic classification. Who has not experienced a conflict of passion in their own hearts? Who has not felt utterly selfish and utterly loathing of one’s selfishness? A good many people whom the Zeitgeist would classify as “racist” are probably of this type. I myself have experienced such internal conflicts. This does not make me a bad human. It makes me a human (an identity which already carries with it a host of dark connotations without the modifier “bad”) .
Obviously, no one person or group of people (especially one appointed by the government) can judge every system or person in these United States, and, even more, could not change them if they found them to be racist.
There is a difficult task, then, ahead of the man who would abolish racist policies and intentions throughout America, and not just because of the grievousness of the wound, but because of the incredible complexity and dexterity with which it must be bound up.
How can we evaluate a system’s racism?
Once we have seen that every system is comprised of many parts, we can appreciate the difficulty this question poses. Nevertheless, it is one that must be rigorously asked.
The most obvious way to evaluate a system racism is to see what it says about itself. It is not difficult to determine that the KKK or the New Black Panther Party are racist organizations. Unfortunately, most systems are not so forthwith with their intentions as these two.
The next best way to evaluate a system is to evaluate its public policies. If these policies intrinsically target people of a certain race, we can fairly categorize them as racist. Jim Crow laws were intrinsically racist because written into the laws themselves were provisions which called for the inequitable treatment of people based solely on their race. We can easily categorize a policy which requires blacks to move to the back of the bus when whites enter as intrinsically racist.
It is important to remember that a policy can be racially disproportionate in its effects and not be intrinsically racist. Recent policies that target gun owners, for instance, disproportionately impact white males, not because those who enacted these policies have something against white men, but because they have something against the possession and sale of certain firearms, which white men happen to participate in more than any other group.
Of course, it is quite possible that such “accidentally” racially disproportionate policies were put into place by people who secretly intended the policies to discriminate against a particular race. There are some who claim America’s “War on Drugs” was nothing but a veiled war against the black communities of America’s inner cities. This article from the ACLU makes such an argument.
Such accusations are less material than accusations of intrinsic racism because they rely on conclusions about the intent behind a policy, where accusations of intrinsic racism are grounded on publicly known facts. Nevertheless, we must hear and investigate them as best as we can, for, in a society such as ours where racism is widely decried (not to mention illegal), it would be overwhelmingly likely that any systemic racism would be covertly, not publicly, codified into policy.
America’s Police Forces
It is important to remember the potential for selection bias when evaluating the effects of a policy. Take, for instance, America’s evaluation of “The Police.” When operating, like most Americans, with very limited knowledge, there is a danger that our idea of their operations could be skewed. If what one knows of “The Police” is what they hear of it on the news, then one does not know the police. What they know of it are a few stories which have been selected by the news media as deserving of national attention. One does not have to posit malice on the part of media men to suppose that the picture they portray is inaccurate.
Most obviously, media outlets have reason to prioritize the most sensational story of the hour (for in media, as in all television, Nielsen Ratings are king). They will not report on the day-to-day, humble, and good work that officers regularly achieve, and, if they do, it will be quickly forgotten. Furthermore, there exists the possibility of confirmation bias among members of the media. A media man who believed that “The Police” were racist would be more attracted by a story of excessive force against a black man than a story of excessive force against a white man. He would also tend to focus on the violence exerted by white cops. This is not because the media man is a liar or a bad man. It is because he is a man, and, like all men, he sifts through what he hears and sees and focuses on what he believes important.
Knowledge of “The Police” garnered from the media is most suspect, though, for this reason: there is no singular entity known as “The Police.” Rather, there are 50 separate state police forces, 3,000 sheriff’s offices, 12,000 city police forces, and sundry federal law-enforcement agencies. Do the actions of an officer (or even a whole department) in Minneapolis reflect upon the character of the police in Roswell, New Mexico or Sacramento, California? It seems to me that the complexity of the situation defies any such simplifications as “The Police are systemically racist.” Which ones? And where? Every officer? Every force?
Unless there exists a list of which forces have publicly made it their policy to target black and brown males, I’m afraid the only way we will be able to judge “The Police” is on a force by force, community by community basis. This means that, for most of us, we will not be able to effectively judge more than our local forces, and that the work of reform will have to be done step-wise and slow, as most real work is accomplished. It will have to be accomplished intimately, by people who really know the police force they would like to reform. If every system is different, then the reform to be worked upon them must be tailored to their particular injustices. One may even find that there are systems not in need of racial justice reform.
All of this is not to say that there is not a need for reform among America’s police forces. There certainly are forces (and perhaps a great many) that must be reformed. The task of reform is one that must be taken up by citizens and not left to the police to do themselves, for, though the police know themselves better than anyone, there are some things which they, by virtue of their proximity, cannot see; they cannot see the forest for the trees. No man knows the forest like the woods-men, and yet the woods-men needs to hear what people outside of his forest have to say to understand the place of his forest. The trope of the old man that refused to leave his mountain cabin despite the geologist’s warning that the mountain was about to blow is an instructive parable. Like the woodsmen, our police forces are incapable of understanding their place in their communities without hearing from the community.
Thus, though uniform and universal reform is impossible, a few things can generally be said about a path forward for our nation’s police departments. First, they must be knowable. Police departments across the country must not be separated from their community. Programs that give platform for community engagement with individual police officers and police departments as a whole may go a long way to repair the distrust the public has for the police and the lack of understanding and care some police officers and departments have for their community. Second, where such engagement is already currently possible, citizens must view it as their duty to participate. They must meet the departments in their efforts. Further, a custom already widespread among America’s sheriff’s offices may go a long way if adopted in city and state forces: the right of the people to elect those people who’s job it is to protect them.
In short, the solution to this divide is not some complicated, top-down plan written by a bureaucrat who thinks he understands the whole of the country (there is no person with so little knowledge as such a one). You cannot mandate community, trust, and love into being. The solution must grow out of the soil of our cities and counties. It must be tended by police officers and citizens together. It must be nurtured by a shared love for the place both call home. It must find room in shared, humane activities, like the drinking of coffee on Monday mornings or the sharing of food at an annual picnic. In the shared desire and decision to protect and serve our communities, and, where possible, their participating together in it.
The division between our police departments and the public does not comprise all of the racial division in this country, but I think many of the same things could be said about most instances of it. No single man can bind up the wound that racism has left on our country. It is far too grievous and large a sore. In some places, it seems, it has begun to scar. Where it has not, it must be healed by the people who have the proximity to know it and the proximity to love the ones affected by it.