U.S.

‘Systemic Racism’ Is Not What Ails Black America

Opponents of a white nationalist-led rally hold a Black Lives Matter flag in downtown Washington, D.C., August 12, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
The patronizing claim that America is systemically racist robs the black community of any sense of agency.

It goes without saying that the death of George Floyd was shameful and wrong. However, the rhetoric in response to Mr. Floyd’s death by otherwise decent people has been no less shameful and wrong. It’s encouraging that so many Americans are finding common cause with black Americans on the issue of police brutality, but they are wrong to have accepted uncritically the claim that systemic racism against blacks infects nearly all aspects of America and its institutions. This corrosive claim has now been embraced by titans of the tech and financial industries like Facebook, Google, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America. Establishment political figures on the right such as Mitt Romney have also endorsed the systemic racism claim espoused by Black Lives Matter.

The Left has often peddled the patronizing claim that America is irredeemably racist and that blacks should have no interest in its well-being until it is radically reformed or dismantled, and some white liberals have bought into that view. One notable historical example of this type of patronizing dynamic is the split between the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in the mid 19th century over Garrison’s position that the U.S. Constitution was proslavery. Douglass came to accept the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as antislavery because he recognized that the founding documents of the United States, especially the Declaration of Independence, provided the moral and political framework for black Americans’ fight for equality. As Douglass so clearly emphasizes in his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, no race of people can achieve equality if they lack agency. The claim of systemic racism is shameful because it robs the black community of any sense of agency and, thus, accountability.

Peaceful protests in reaction to Mr. Floyd’s death and against police brutality in general are completely justified. But why is there no vocal outrage, no call to action, in the black community over the fact that only 30.8 percent of black children, according to the latest dataset in the 2018 American Community Survey, live in a married, two-parent household? The vast majority of black children are raised in single, female-headed households. Despite the valiant effort that single black mothers show in raising their children, they can’t be both good mothers and good fathers, and they shouldn’t have to be. As W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, has documented, the negative psychological and social effects of fatherlessness on black boys have been devastating. The psychological toll can manifest in many destructive ways. Research shows that young black boys have more behavioral problems in the early school years and more delinquency or criminal behavior as adolescents and adults. Unfortunately, BLM teaches through its writings and conferences on race that the idea of a two-parent home, the need for both fathers and mothers, is a racist construct produced by a powerful white majority. But would the young black son wishing for his father to show up agree?

If anything is systemic, it is the failure within the black community to see that the breakdown of the black family is the root cause of so many of the social ills that confront the community, and black males in particular. The sad fact is that, while the diverse group of Millennials who marched in the streets with blacks were united by a common cause, many of those same Millennials, unlike their black counterparts, went home to intact families and will return soon to their selective colleges.

Income, health, and education inequality will persist until black families are made whole mostly by their own efforts and are able to give their children all the psychological tools needed to be happy and successful. Success is a cumulative process, and the once widely agreed-on cultural precepts still hold: that you should, for example, get an education, get married before you have children, and obey the law. Community activists and academics who contort themselves to justify ever-new iterations of family formation are only hurting the people they think they’re helping.

Let’s be clear: There are vestiges of bias and negative assumptions about black Americans. This bias is wrong, but the incidence of such attitudes does not amount to systemic racism in the United States. Addressing the issue of police brutality is a legitimate issue to expend energy on; efforts to address a vaguely defined systemic racism will only squander the energy and accountability needed to make much-needed cultural changes in the black community.

Andre M. Archie — Mr. Archie is an associate professor of ancient Greek philosophy at Colorado State University and the author of Politics in Socrates’ Alcibiades: A Philosophical Account of Plato’s Dialogue Alcibiades Major.

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