Magazine July 27, 2020, Issue

On Systemic Racism

Downtown New York City, June 30, 2020 (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
A useful concept misapplied

For several decades now, America has struggled with a new development in race relations: Jim Crow is gone, and the great majority of whites have abandoned openly racist attitudes, and yet severe racial inequality has persisted. Where it was once obvious why blacks lagged whites on numerous measures of thriving, today the explanation is more complicated, involving the prejudice that indisputably still exists, the legacy of past discrimination reflected in the environments that blacks experience, and cultural and behavioral differences between the two groups. This is one reason the term “systemic racism” has caught on with the Left: It ties all of this together, places the blame on a white-dominated power structure, and through the word “racism” links the situation today with the earlier one whose brutality roused voters to take action.

The point of this article is not to debunk or endorse the notion of systemic racism, or indeed to get bogged down in the semantics of the term at all. (In the broadest uses it can refer to any social process that results in racial disparities, in which case it’s more of a catch-all concept than a testable claim.) It is, instead, to briefly explain the racial dynamics at the center of the current problem — including how they’ve changed and what causes them — and to chart a path forward rooted in conservative principles.

The clearest positive development is that white Americans have overwhelmingly, though not entirely, abandoned the explicit racism many of them proudly professed half a century ago. In 1972, a quarter of whites told the General Social Survey they would refuse to vote for a black president; in 2010, fewer than one in 20 did. As recently as 1990, two-thirds of whites said they would oppose or strongly oppose it if a close family member married a black person, a number that fell below 15 percent in 2018 — and to half that among those under 40.

Concrete results have mostly improved too, though different measures find improvement at different paces and at different times, and it isn’t impossible to find indicators that remain stagnant. By one measure, the black poverty rate fell from 47 percent to 25 percent between 1970 and 2014, while the white poverty rate dropped only from 17 percent to 11 percent. The earnings gap between white male and black male workers has shrunk from 43 percent to 33 percent since 1950 — though if you include nonworkers with no earnings, such as those incarcerated or out of the labor force, the number has actually remained flat at 49 percent. Standardized-test scores have converged as well, though this trend slowed to a crawl after about 1990. Even incarceration, which skyrocketed in the 1980s and 1990s as legislators toughened policies in response to high crime, is on its way down — with the black rate declining much faster than the white one.

Americans are mixing socially with people of different races much more frequently as well. According to work by the demographer William Frey, to completely integrate neighborhoods in 1970, you’d have had to move more than 70 percent of the black population to new places; by 2010, that had fallen below 50 percent. And according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, only 4 percent of white newlyweds had a spouse of a different race in 1980, compared with 11 percent in 2015; blacks’ rate of intermarriage rose from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same period.

Of course, this is slow progress. Almost 15 percent of whites still have a problem with interracial marriage, and fully integrated neighborhoods would look a lot different from the neighborhoods we actually have. It is also clear that discrimination in the job market persists: If you send a white person and a black person with identical résumés out to apply for low-skill jobs, the white person will get significantly more callbacks. (Of course, sending them to apply to college or a high-level position at a big corporation might well give the opposite result, owing to affirmative action, an odd way in which the most help is given to the most well-off.)

However, as racial disparities have declined and white attitudes have simultaneously improved, the former have become less of a function of the latter — and deeper issues, including racial differences in wealth, neighborhoods, schools, skills, culture, and personal behavior, have risen in importance. In one recent study, the demographer John Iceland took the black–white poverty gap and “decomposed” it into factors such as education, family structure, and age. In 1959, these “observable” characteristics explained only half of the gap. (The unexplained portion of the gap cannot be interpreted purely as the effect of discrimination, but it indicates that blacks and whites fared differently even when they had the same measured characteristics.) By 2015, these traits explained two-thirds, with family structure especially gaining in importance: It explained 12 percent of the gap at the beginning of the time period but a third at the end.

A limit of Iceland’s study is that his data include only a level of education, with no more-precise numbers on skills. (Two people with high-school degrees can have very different skill levels, and B.A.s from different schools can mean very different things.) By contrast, a 2014 study by Bhashkar Mazumder on upward mobility included the result of a cognitive test taken in adolescence and, like some previous work, found this to be very important: “The black–white gap in moving out of the bottom [income] quintile is only 5.2 percentage points for those with median [scores on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test], compared with the unconditional gap of 27 percentage points.” This suggests the educational-achievement gap is the root of much else.

Criminal-justice disparities are similar. There are countless studies, some of them well conducted, finding bias at various stages of the process — from police-deployment patterns to prison sentences — but there can be no denying that racial differences in crime rates play a major role. The black homicide rate is roughly seven times the white one, for example; and there are significant if smaller disparities for lesser offenses as well, even if we rely on surveys of crime victims, rather than arrests (which may result from biased policing), to estimate offending rates. Differences in offending, by themselves, likely explain most of the incarceration gap, though studies disagree as to the exact proportion.

Studies of police use of force paint the same picture: There’s bias — perhaps a lot of bias, depending on which measures one prefers — but even perfect cops, deployed to neighborhoods purely on the basis of crime and not race, wouldn’t find themselves needing to use force against all racial groups equally. Blacks are actually a higher percentage of people who kill cops than of people killed by cops, so obviously suspects of different races attack cops at different rates.

These problems are far more difficult to address than the ones we faced in 1960, when lunch counters were segregated, businesses could (and did) openly refuse to hire blacks, and interracial marriage was illegal. White racism may ultimately have caused today’s problems, but eliminating white racism, at least in the conventional sense of that term, can only mitigate them somewhat. And the racism that’s still around is usually much less blatant, and therefore harder to identify and stamp out. These days it’s tricky to demonstrate bias at the statistical level, let alone prove it was at work in any specific case absent a smoking gun.

The modern Left’s response to this state of affairs has been multifaceted, but always racially divisive in a way likely to stoke backlash, and often in denial of the fact that behavioral gaps are a part of the problem. One new tactic from the realm of corporate consulting is to browbeat whites into admitting their subtle complicity in racism and then accuse them of “white fragility” when they get defensive. There have also been the usual race-based policy proposals, from affirmative action to reparations for slavery. The practical, political, and constitutional problems with these approaches are obvious enough to any conservative, and I won’t repeat them here.

What the Left gets right, though, is to look at the question of race relations in a broader way, moving beyond yesterday’s de jure segregation and open racism and encouraging whites to reflect on what they can do to improve things. The Right can do this as well without joining in the drive to label everyone and everything “racist” and enact explicitly race-based policies in the name of antiracism.

Public policy can improve black outcomes and speed integration in a way that advances conservative principles. And thus we as conservatives can do more than highlight differences in behavior — as real and important as those differences may be — and then say the solutions can come only from the black community itself.

This is not the place to outline a full platform, but here are a few examples of policies that might help. Education reform has long been a strong suit of the Right, with even many deep-blue cities having come around to seeing the virtues of charter schools and other forms of school choice. The Right, always wary of government abuses, can also sign on to moderate policing and incarceration reforms: Cops and prisons are both important for cutting crime, but that isn’t to deny that cops should be held accountable when they do wrong or to say that no U.S. jurisdiction could stand to incarcerate less. (Senator Tim Scott’s policing bill and the FIRST STEP Act are both good examples.) Perhaps most important for long-term integration, which is the surest way of breaking down racial barriers, a war on local zoning regulations would shrink the scope of government and make it easier for poor families to live in thriving neighborhoods.

All of these policies would help to address racial inequities and speed up our agonizingly slow pace of integration, both of which deserve to be conservative priorities.

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In This Issue

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