Have you stopped beating your wife? Yes or No? This is the classic question that condemns you as a wife beater, regardless of your answer. Now, welcome to the new world of “systemic racism.” Are you still benefiting from your “white privilege” oppression of others? Yes or No. Either reply unmasks you as a past or present racist. You are now branded with the letter “R” forever more.
Systemic racism has become the catchphrase under which all the evils of the world are now collected. It does not matter that slavery in America ended over 150 years ago. Nor that the post-Civil War segregation laws of the South were removed from the statute books well over half a century ago. Nor that social, educational and employment opportunities for many members of the black community in America have never been greater. Racism, it is asserted, continues to rule.
History Leaves Its Mark on Society
Of course, this does not mean that the legacies of history do not leave their trace on people and societies, sometimes long after a series of events or institutional arrangements of the past. The failure of the Turkish siege of the Habsburg capital of Vienna in 1683 halted the extension of Islam deeper into the center of Europe. But a continuing presence of Turkish control over large parts of the Balkans in southeastern Europe until the eve of the First World War left a legacy of differences among peoples in the region that helped ignite the civil wars of the 1990s following the political disintegration of Yugoslavia.
From the late 12th century to 1922, Ireland was ruled as a part of Great Britain, with resulting resentments, angers, and sometimes rebellions on the part of the Irish against British rule, and contempt, arrogance, and racial prejudices against the Irish by many in England. This was compounded by the division between a majority of Catholics and a minority of Protestants, the latter especially clustered in the northern part of Ireland and loyal to the British crown. Yet, in spite of Irish independence in the larger southern portion of the island nearly a century ago, “the troubles” in Northern Ireland have persisted over the last 100 years, sometimes in extremely violent and deadly forms, and all more than 800 years after the Norman invasion of Ireland.
The Japanese Empire ruled over Korea for half a century from 1895 to 1945, with the Koreans contemptuously and sometimes brutally treated by their Japanese masters. Over that half century Korean immigrants came to Japan, and today their descendants number over 700,000. Yet, in spite of all the generations separating the original arrival of those Koreans and their descendants today, many in Japanese society still do not view or treat them as “really” Japanese because of their ethnic classification.
It should not be surprising, therefore, if after almost 250 years of slavery in colonial and then independent America up to the Civil War, and then nearly a century more of Jim Crow in the Southern states and various discriminatory attitudes and actions in the North, that racist biases and tacit behaviors have persisted among some people as a legacy of that long period of United States history. History leaves its residues, whether we always fully realize it or care about it.
America’s Progress Out of a Racist Past
But the present is not a carbon copy of the past, since history is made by human actions, and people’s attitudes, beliefs and values have and do change over time. Orlando Patterson, professor of sociology at Harvard University and recognized scholar on the history and impact of slavery in America, has recently explained in articles and interviews the serious problems that he still sees in race relations in the United States. But even with all of these, he made the point of emphasizing how far America has come in the last half century, when looking at the actions and attitudes of white Americans toward their fellow citizens.
In a recent feature article on “The Long Reach of Racism in the U.S.” in The Wall Street Journal (June 05, 2020), Professor Patterson said:
“The despair of so many Americans in this moment of naked exposure of racism’s persistence in the U.S. should not lead us to deny the successes of the civil rights revolution. Black Americans are now included in the public domain of the nation. They form an integral part of its political life and an important component of its military, and they play an outsize role in its intellectual and cultural life. The black middle class is real, however tenuous its economic base and downwardly mobile its male children. The majority of white Americans have also undergone a radical transformation in their racial views, especially the young, who are arguably the most racially liberal group of whites anywhere in the world.”
In an interview with The Harvard Gazette (June 4, 2020), when asked about the recent protests and demonstrations in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis, Professor Patterson expressed his many worrying concerns about persistent racism in America, but he made a point of also stating:
“I’ve argued in my writings that there has been extraordinary progress in the changing attitudes of white Americans toward blacks and other minorities. As late as the early ’60s, a majority of whites openly said they saw blacks as inferior, and now there is an acceptance of equality, at least in their views. I’ve always said that this may be the great majority, but there’s still 20, 25 percent of whites who still embrace white supremacist views.
“I don’t want to use the term ‘white people’ in general terms because as I said before, what is special about these recent protests is the participation of whites in it, many of them young. But I also see middle-aged and some people my age. I want to emphasize that I think white Americans have gone through quite radical changes in their attitudes, and that we’re talking about a more likely 25 percent of Americans who are hardcore racist, but I think most Americans have quite decent views about race.”
(Due to the peculiar times in which we presently live, it seems necessary to observe that Professor Patterson is black, because of the possible response by some of the more uninformed who might immediately conclude that this must be the rationalizations of a white racist.)
Attitudes Have Changed for the Better in One Lifetime
Some attitudes stand out about how people of one ethnic or racial group feel about those in another group. One such attitude, surely, concerns interracial marriage. In a 1969 Gallup poll, only 17 percent of white Americans approved of interracial marriages between whites and blacks. However, 50 years later, according to a Pew Research Center poll in 2017, 91 percent of whites responded positively, saying either it does not matter (52 percent) or it was a good thing (39 percent).
Half a century ago, 52 percent of black Americans approved of interracial marriages, while in 2017 that number had increased to 82 percent, with 46 percent saying it did not make a difference and 36 percent replying it was a good thing. In that 2017 Pew Research poll, 95 percent of Hispanics expressed approval of interracial marriages, with 60 percent saying it did not matter and 35 percent saying it was a good thing.
Between 1980 and 2015, again according to the Pew Research Center, the number of black Americans in interracial marriages increased from 5 percent to 18 percent. For whites, the number in interracial marriages between those same years rose from 4 percent to 11 percent. In 2015, 27 percent of Hispanics had entered interracial marriages, and for Asian-Americans, that number stood at 29 percent.
Not too surprisingly, matching this has been the number of interracial babies in two-parent households. The Pew Research Center found that that number had increased from 5 percent of babies in 1980 to 14 percent in 2015. The largest number of such small children in 2015 was between whites and Hispanics, representing 42 percent of that 14 percent total. There were 10 percent with white and black parents, and 14 percent with white and Asian parents. Babies with multiracial parents made up 22 percent of that 14 percent out of the total baby population in the country.
Racial Differentials Often a Product of Government Policies
Critics insist that this is all “on the surface,” that serious disparities still exist and persist among whites and blacks in terms of income, education, employment, and a variety of other life opportunities. It would be absurd to categorically deny this situation in these and other facets of life.
For decades, for instance, black youth unemployment has been especially far higher than that of white youths, for instance. The finger is pointed, with the immediate accusation of racism behind the failure of young blacks to find gainful employment. It should be noted that white youth unemployment rates have long been above that of adult unemployment rates, as well.
The reason for this, as many economics studies have explained, is primarily due to minimum wage laws. The young have fewer skills, less on-the-job work experience, and are often with lower levels of education as a starting point for entry-level employment. This means that the productive value of the young, in general and on average, is less than older members of the workforce with more time on the job.
As a result, if someone in this category is worth, say, $5 or $6 an hour in terms of their value to an private employer’s efforts to produce a good or supply a service consumers will be willing to pay for, it should not be surprising that mandating a legal minimum wage of $7.50 or $15 an hour has the effect of pricing many of such young hopefuls out of the chance for a job.
But why does this impact young blacks more than whites? May it partly be due to remaining racial biases in American society? Of course, it might. But it is also the case that far too many young black men and women live in neighborhoods with public schools that too frequently pass them on to the next grade with fewer of the necessary writing, reading, speaking, or math skills to qualify for starting employment.
It is not as if government spending on schooling has been suffering from a severe “austerity.” Tax-funded per-pupil expenditures have increased over the last 50 years by nearly 300 percent, from $4,720 in 1966 to more than $13,847 in 2016 (in constant 2018 dollars). They have increased by 32 percent just since the beginning of the 21st century, from $10,458 (in constant 2018 dollars) in 2000, to that of $13,847 in 2016 (again in constant 2018 dollars).
Due to federal educational funding, studies have shown that disparities in school spending per pupil is more or less fairly equalized in many cases, regardless of local property and other revenue levels for public schools. In fact, in Baltimore, Maryland, for instance, with a black majority population of over 61 percent, per-pupil spending in the school system was $15,161 in 2016, or 9 percent above the national average.
What is lacking is not the funding, but the pedagogy and the content of what is taught. If the right knowledge is not being conveyed and presented in attractive ways to inspire learning; if too many students end up dropping out before high school graduation; and if educational competition in the form of private or charter schools is fought by teachers’ unions and public school administrators who are afraid of rivalry in the pursuit of teaching excellence, don’t expect those entering the workforce to do so with the essential skills to obtain a job, especially when, at the same time, they’re being priced out of the labor market by minimum wage laws. (See my article, “Freedom and the Minimum Wage”.)
Some Universals of Human Betterment
But besides teaching methods and content, there is the social environment in which too many American blacks still grow up. That is, are education, learning, and making sacrifices in the present for noticeable gains and benefits in the future sufficiently emphasized within families and among friends? However, even to raise such questions is considered to show one’s implicit racism; that is, to judge blacks and black society in America by “white” standards.
I grew up mostly with my mother’s side of the family. Her parents, my grandparents, had come from the Russian Empire as small children in the first decade of the 20th century, escaping from the frequent pogroms against Jewish villages and communities. When they arrived in America, they did not know the language; their origins were mostly from rural areas in Jewish parts of Ukraine and they had to adapt to urban life in New York City in those years before the First World War.
They faced anti-Semitic prejudices and discriminations. Some professional and occupational doors were difficult to get through due to biases against Jews. Careers sometimes had to be the second or third best. My mother’s father wanted to go to medical school and had the grades, but there were implicit quotas for Jewish applications in many places at that time. So, instead, he went to pharmacy school and ended up owning his own neighborhood small drugstore in Brooklyn. My mother told me about want ads in New York City newspapers in the late 1930s, when she was looking for her first job, that still had phrases to the effect that Jews need not apply.
I grew up with my grandmother drumming two things into my head, over-and-over again: First, get an education, and then you have a skill to get ahead, and if it is a skill that the gentiles may need, you have a better chance they won’t kill you! The other one was, the world doesn’t owe you a living; you were on your own, and you needed to be both a free and responsible individual making his way. Yes, be charitable, and think of others and empathize with their misfortunes, because your Jewish ancestors have known enough of those. But you shouldn’t expect a handout, and you should think it an embarrassment to put your hand out for one.
So, is self-responsibility and self-control good and right for some ethnic and cultural groups, but not for others? Is pursuing an education and planning for the future in reasonable and disciplined ways cultural attributes that might be the right thing for one segment of the society, but not another? Taking family seriously, and trying to be good role models for your children is right and proper among some, but would be a misguided and inappropriate “cultural appropriation” by another part of society?
Essential Keys: Education, Planning for the Future, and Self-Control
We are all human beings – or have we reached a point with the new “progressive” identity politics racism that is a misplaced and wrong presumption? – and, as such, there are universal truths and verities that we all share in common. They are not the “white man’s” truth or verities; they are the discoverable insights for all human beings to understand and follow, if we are interested in certain types of improvements in the general human condition.
If you don’t think about tomorrow; if you are unwilling to make a variety of “sacrifices” in the present for desirable gains in the future; if the value and importance of an education – “book learning” – is not cultivated and fostered within the family and the household; if certain fundamental truths about ethical behavior are not highlighted and insisted upon when growing up. If these practices and rules of life are not taught, learned and followed, then no one should be overly surprised when those brought up in such social environments do less well than others who are raised in families and communities that have emphasized and insisted upon them.
Have we really “outgrown” the practical and universal educational wisdom that Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) shared with the young incoming black students to his Tuskegee Institute more than a hundred year ago, such as the following:
“I do not believe it is possible for a student to accomplish very much, certainly not the most, while he is in school, unless he learns to be happy in all his relations in school life . . . The Bible teaches over and over again that freedom, without which happiness is impossible, is self-imposed restraint, that to be really free we must live within the law. He who lives outside the law is a slave. The freeman is the man who lives within the law, whether that law be the physical or the divine. All life is governed by law, and the student must acquire freedom by obedience to law.
“The ability to do hard methodical work is one of the prizes which every school worthy of the name offers to its students. The years at school not infrequently give bent to the whole life. The student who does slipshod work at school is more than likely to lack direction in his subsequent career . . . No one gets much out of life who does not make his education a real, vital part of himself.
“The student who leaves undone immediate duties because of bodily laziness is leaving happiness far behind him. Sins of commission and sins of omission alike tend to weakness. Our ability to make the world better depends entirely upon our ability to use every opportunity to make ourselves better. A largeness of life, a variety of interests and breadth of view axe among the prizes which a school offers to its students. These qualities the ignorant man does not possess. Largeness of life and breadth of vision give faith in the future; that largeness makes one person take the long view when the other is taking the short view; that largeness lifts the educated person far above the temptation to gossip about little things, above the temptation to get down into the mud and slime with which weaker individuals are smeared.(From: Booker T. Washington, Putting the Most into Life , pp. 5-8)
Systemic Racism Insists Upon Tearing “the System” Down
No, this all seems to be passé, because the disparities between whites and blacks are caused by and reducible to “systemic racism,” and nothing or little to do with attitudes, values and personal actions. But what is systemic racism? It is the claim that it does not matter what individual human beings think, believe, or try to do; they are all perpetrators or victims of racial injustices and oppressions due to the nature of the socio-economic and political system in which they live.
In other words, white racism is embedded into society, and the implication is that it has always been so and will remain so unless and until the very structural design of the social order is radically transformed. What are some of the manifestations of such systematic and institutional racism?
We are told that it shows itself in disparities in earned incomes between whites and blacks, qualities of schools in predominantly differing racial neighborhoods, the qualities of the food offered in local stores, the availability of medical facilities and care within different racial communities, and differential treatments within the legal system.
So “the system” is rotten, and what makes it worse and difficult to change is that the people “in” the system often do not even know or understand that they are participants in its workings, receiving its benefits or its burdens. But how can this be said when there are whites who are in the lower income brackets, who live in far less than middle class neighborhoods, and who are not “invited” into the “better” social networks for advancement. In other words, how can you say that “poor, white trash” are not victims of that system?
Supposed “White Privilege” and a Mental Experiment