Politics & Policy

The Problem with ‘Systemic Racism’

President Joe Biden speaks about his administration’s plans to respond to the economic crisis at the White House, January 22, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
President Biden’s argument that racial animus is an omnipresent force in American life only sows discord and makes positive reforms harder to achieve.

‘The fact is systemic racism touches every facet of American life,” says President Biden, who offers no further explanation for this sweeping declaration about the country he serves as commander-in-chief.

Every facet? Really? I facetiously asked Twitter if Biden’s statement applied to every trip to the grocery store, every school field trip to an apple orchard, and the existence of the child tax credit. One follower of mine responded that yes, in fact, it does, and provided me with links meant to prove as much. Unwittingly, he provided me with near-perfect examples of why the president’s assertion is preposterous.

To progressives, systemic racism remains a sinister but amorphous force infecting every aspect of American life. Many conservatives deny its existence altogether. Lost somewhere in the fights that inevitably ensue is what the phrase really means. As defined by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, systemic racism is “an infrastructure of rulings, ordinances or statutes promulgated by a sovereign government or authoritative entity, whereas such ordinances and statutes entitles one ethnic group in a society certain rights and privileges, while denying other groups in that society these same rights and privileges because of long-established cultural prejudices, religious prejudices, fears, myths, and Xenophobias held by the entitled group.” In short, it’s the use of state power to advantage one ethnic group over another. In the United States, systemic racism has taken the form of Jim Crow, “redlining,” and, of course, most glaringly, chattel slavery.

Now, let’s see if systemic racism is really to blame in the examples my Twitter follower cited when I mocked Biden’s pronouncement.

The first is a piece from Johns Hopkins Magazine. It begins:

“Food deserts” — areas in which residents are hard-pressed to find affordable, healthy food—are part of the landscape of poor, urban neighborhoods across the United States. With few supermarkets or farmers markets, it’s easier to find a Slurpee than a smoothie, cheaper to get the Big Mac meal than grab dinner at a salad bar.

It goes on to explain that:

According to new research by Kelly Bower, an assistant professor at the School of Nursing, a neighborhood’s income isn’t the only barrier to obtaining healthy food. When comparing communities with similar poverty rates, she discovered that black and Hispanic neighborhoods have fewer large supermarkets and more small grocery stores than their white counterparts. Bursting with junk-food options, these smaller establishments rarely offer the healthy whole-grain foods, dairy products, or fresh fruits and veggies that a supermarket would provide. When it comes to having healthy food options, says Bower, “the poverty level of a neighborhood certainly matters, but even beyond poverty, the racial composition matters.”

I have no doubt that this is true. Supermarkets are more common in suburban and rural areas, where space is abundant and cars are residents’ primary method of travel. Urban landscapes, on the other hand, are dominated by smaller convenience stores — 7/11 and CVS as well as myriad mom-and-pop outfits — that are better suited to city life. But this has nothing to do with race, much less racism. White Americans in lower-income urban areas are subject to the same challenges as black Americans in such areas. Black suburbanites have the same access to supermarkets as white suburbanites. That doesn’t mean that public-policy solutions that would increase the availability of affordable, healthy food in urban areas should not be explored; they surely should. It just means that the issue is not one of systemic racism.

Next up was an article from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) meant to demonstrate that the tax code was systemically racist. The problem with this piece is that it treats any part of the tax code that benefits a higher proportion of white Americans than black Americans as racist, even if it benefits qualifying black Americans and does nothing to harm non-qualifying ones. Take the following passage:

Tax provisions, such as the deductions for mortgage interest and college savings plans, are “upside-down”: they go overwhelmingly to higher-income — and disproportionately white — households who least need help and likely would do what the tax break is designed to encourage (such as buying a house or going to college) even without the incentive. These provisions can exacerbate racial income and wealth inequality and reinforce discrimination and other barriers that households of color face. In addition, as this report explains, those barriers mean that even when households of color have similar income and wealth levels as white households, they often are less likely to benefit as much from these tax breaks.

We are meant to believe that the very existence of the mortgage-interest deduction and 529 education-savings plans are systemic racism in action because more white people buy homes and attend college. But these aspects of the tax code actually make it easier for African-American citizens to buy homes (the black-homeownership rate is 44 percent) and enroll at universities (where black Americans already compose roughly “12% of the student population at 4-year public institutions, 13% of the student population at 4-year private nonprofit institutions, and 29% of the student population at 4-year private for-profit institutions” while representing roughly 13 percent of the total population). Ironically, Biden recently expressed regret that “We’ve bought the view that America is a zero-sum game. . . . If you succeed, I fail. If you get ahead, I fall behind. . . . Maybe worse [sic] of all, if I hold you down, I lift myself up.” He and I agree on this count. But I have a feeling we’d point to very different culprits if asked to identify the source of the problem.

Last comes a 2015 article in The Atlantic about school funding, based on a study of Pennsylvania that shows that, with some exceptions, majority-minority school districts are underfunded as compared to majority-white ones, even when one controls for poverty levels. Most everyone can see and would want to come up with a solution for this disparity, and indeed there has been a bipartisan effort in the state to do so. But again the problem cannot be attributed to “systemic racism” or any purposeful effort to hold down black students. Rather, as the study’s author acknowledges, it is the result of a well-intentioned formula meant to provide “extra funds to small districts (impoverished rural districts that are almost all white are generally sparsely populated), supplements for being geographically spread out, and the practice of ‘holding harmless,’ which means that if a district declines in enrollment it doesn’t get less money as a result.”

I’m sure most progressives would read this last quote and see what they call systemic racism, since the formula favored low-income rural districts, which are disproportionately white. In fact, that’s an excellent demonstration of why the term, now deployed at will on the left, is such an ineffective and needless lightning rod: It attributes to racist malice problems that can be more accurately attributed to human error of a sort that is, yes, often systemic. (In Pennsylvania’s case, once the error was identified, it was agreed upon by all involved that action needed to be taken to correct it.)

Using systemic racism as a catch-all phrase to describe racial disparities, and, worse, stating as “fact” that it infects every facet of American life is both wrong and counterproductive. It sows racial and partisan discord, obscures real problems, and makes their solutions less obvious. President Biden has talked a lot in the opening days of his administration about being a unifying figure. If in truth, buzzword politics and red meat for his base are all he’s after, then he can continue on his current path. But if he’s serious about healing our divisions and making progress on the many reforms the nation needs, he should retire the systemic-racism canard.


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