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The Problem With “Systemic Racism”
The term obscures rather than elucidates the mechanisms by which inequalities persist.
In “The Imaginary Invalid,” a play written by the French satirist Molière, a doctor is asked why opium makes people fall asleep. The doctor replies that “there is a dormitive virtue in it, whose nature it is to make the senses drowsy.” In other words, opium makes people fall asleep because it has the power to make people fall asleep. That joke has since become a favorite among philosophers and historians of science because it is a wonderful example of an explanation that doesn’t explain. Rather than provide an understanding of why opium causes sleepiness, it’s a tautology dressed up in jargon.
These days, in discussions of race, the term “systemic racism” is everywhere. In the bad old days, the theory goes, racism was personal, a matter of individual racial animus. Personal racism was easy to identify and, thus, easy to stamp out, or at least to drive underground. Why, then, do racial inequalities persist? Believers in systemic racism would say that disparities today are not primarily caused by the racism of people, but by the racism of systems. We have a society that is racist, even if the people in it are not personally racist.
But what is systemic racism? NAACP President Derrick Johnson defines it as “systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantages [sic] African Americans.” Other definitions are similar: systemic racism is the collective structural features of society that give rise to racial inequalities. But the claim that racial disparities are caused by systemic racism is another tautology dressed up in jargon. What is it about society that creates racial disadvantages? There’s systemic racism in it, whose nature is to make society racially unequal. It’s an explanation that only Molière’s doctor could love.
This is not to say that systemic racism doesn’t exist. There are persistent racial disparities in society; those disparities have a cause; therefore, there is systemic racism. But the ease of that proof shows that the concept of “systemic racism” is not a particularly useful analytic concept. It is not entirely useless—the idea that disparate outcomes can result even if no one feels personal racial animus is true and important.
But the claim that disparate outcomes are explained by systemic racism provides only a facile illusion of understanding the causes of disparate outcomes. Advocates would claim that focusing on systemic racism can help end racial inequalities. But because the concept of “systemic racism” obscures rather than elucidates the mechanisms by which inequalities persist, a conceptual framework centered on “systemic racism” impedes efforts to dismantle those mechanisms.
There is a better way forward. One of the most incisive pieces of journalism to come out of the racial unrest of the last seven years or so was an article on policing practices in Ferguson, Missouri, by Radley Balko at The Washington Post. Balko showed that the St. Louis suburbs had an abnormal municipal structure, as the area around St. Louis was divided into an unusually large number of small towns. This created a massive bureaucratic overhead, as each small town needed to maintain its own set of services, including its own local police department.
Some of these towns, like Ferguson, encompassed mostly low-income areas, which meant that there wasn’t a wealthy tax base from which to draw. So the town, and the police department, funded itself by fining its citizens for even the most minor infractions. This exacerbated the impoverished conditions among the predominantly black citizens of Ferguson. It also strained the relationship between the people of Ferguson and the police force, which mostly lived in other, wealthier towns. That fraught dynamic explains, in part, why Ferguson exploded in righteous fury after the 2014 shooting of an 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown. (Despite initial reports, the shooting was not cut and dry, and the Obama Department of Justice declined, after an investigation, to prosecute the officer involved).
This story documents an instance of systemic racism. And it illustrates a pattern of oppression that isn’t confined to Ferguson: poor towns can’t raise enough money through taxes and have to find ways to extract it from their citizens by other means, exacerbating the cycle of poverty and damaging the relationship between police and citizens. Let’s give that pattern a snappy name and campaign against it: End municipal funding exploitation! Ok, that doesn’t have the same snap as “end systemic racism”—branding isn’t my strong suit. But, as a concept, municipal funding exploitation identifies one of the myriad mechanisms by which racial inequalities endure. Talking about it, and campaigning against it, is likely to do much more good than any campaign to “end systemic racism.”
Is there anything to be said for the kind of circular explanation that Molière’s doctor provides? In his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argues that the doctor in Molière’s play is simply the victim of a paradigm shift. The scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries posited a world where all that exists is atoms in a void, whose interactions are governed by causal laws. According to this paradigm, scientific understanding consists of mechanistic, causal explanations of how those atoms interact to produce all the phenomena around us. This replaced an earlier, Aristotelian scientific paradigm where everything was supposed to have a telos—a goal or purpose built into its essence. For Aristotle, you could explain why something acted the way it did by appealing to its telos.
Why do our eyes give us sight? An Aristotelian would answer: because eyes allow the organism to navigate the world. Eyes do what they do because that’s what they are for. From this perspective, Molière’s doctor is giving a perfectly intelligible answer. Opium makes people go to sleep because that’s what opium is for. Molière uses his doctor to lampoon an Aristotelian paradigm from the new perspective afforded by the scientific revolution.
Teleological analysis has been out of favor for over a century—it held on stubbornly in biology until Darwinism supplanted it—but the idea of function and purpose still seems intuitive to most people, and we’re apt to try to explain the world in those terms. This instinct, I think, is why so many have found the idea that systemic racism explains racial inequalities to be useful and edifying. It’s a teleological explanation, not a mechanistic one: Black people are disadvantaged in American society because disadvantaging black people is what American society is for. The goal of racial oppression is built into the essence of America. This is arguably the thesis of The New York Times’ 1619 Project.
But teleological explanations—whether they appear in physics, biology, or sociology—are no good. Things don’t behave the way they do because they have a purpose built into their essence. They behave the way they do because of underlying mechanisms, the relations between individual atoms that add up to make a system. Of course, in demanding that phenomena be given mechanistic explanations rather than teleological explanations, I’m just endorsing the modern scientific paradigm. But that’s a good paradigm!
Scientific progress leaped forward once we embraced the mechanistic paradigm and abandoned the teleological one. Similarly, progress on racial equality can only advance once we’ve abandoned the outmoded teleological paradigm that’s come to dominate contemporary discussions of race. To dismantle the mechanisms that propagate racial disparities, it is not enough to know that they work, we must understand how they work. The concept of “systemic racism” impedes that vital work.
Matt Lutz is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wuhan University.