writing » Briefly: Systemic Racism

19 Mar 2021

No claim to new ideas but I feel this proof is an easy logical demonstration of the end to an argument I am tired of seeing play out. People should know better.

Thesis: One can either admit that systemic racism exists or be racist.

Premise 1: People with more capital have access to more than just better commodities in the commonsense understanding (cars, houses, clothes, etc.) because in late capitalist society markets are not limited to consumer goods. People with capital have superior access: to political offices, lobbying, and thus policymaking; to the law whether that be freedom from prosecution or prosecution of others; and to their own wellbeing e.g. as mediated by the American healthcare system. This list is partial but illustrative. Capital distribution is not a mere nicety but is pivotal to equality.

We perform a proof by negation: we assume systematic racism does not exist. Yet different socioeconomic groups have greatly varied access to resources. White families have ten times the average net worth of Black families (Brookings Institute, $171,000 versus $17,150). This extends differentially to resource accumulation i.e. the gap is widening and not decreasing. The gap is not just Black-White but multidimensional. Most people will be familiar with the wage/asset gap between women and men, a gap which worsens at its intersections for women of color. This vein of analysis tends to underestimate true inequity because it is framed as “X group is paid less than equally qualified white men” but equality is universal, it is not the equality of people who happen to have the same qualifications, we must also ask why almost all groups happen to have inarguably fewer of these “qualifications” than white men, why there are proportionately fewer Black CEOs, etc. Comparing only like jobs overlooks the fact that white people have greater access to better jobs.

Without systemic racism, we expect a relatively normal resource distribution (since it mirrors capability) with some variance due to random accidents, not a massively inequal distribution along racial lines. So now the problem reduces to: how can one explain resource gaps between socioeconomic groups given that systemic racism does not exist? Only one explanation remains: the groups with less resources are inferior (less capable) i.e. racism. Black people own less because they are less. Accepting the brutal, economic fact of inequality yet denying the existence of systemic racism is identical with a racist worldview. There is no separation.

“But present inequity is a holdover from historic inequity!” Ah, I see! That Black labor was not compensated for centuries must be the reason why we have present-day inequity, not the existence of present-day racists. Congratulations, you admitted that systemic racism exists. If access to resources did not matter there may be some delusional way to construe this as a counterargument, but because of Premise 1 one it is instead a proof. Furthermore, the argument from history is always proffered by people with no real interest in reparations. If you believe racial inequality is A) bad and B) reducible to historical inequality, then you should support slavery reparations and indigenous land reclamation. That you do not demonstrates that this argument is a sophism and not a conviction. “But reparations are unfair to present-day white people!” But systemic racism is unfair and unjust and yet white people benefit from it. These two unfairnesses are in no way commensurate. Reparations would at least be just. The road to salvage capitalism, i.e. retain Premise 1, and eliminate systemic racism only runs through reparations and land reclamation, policies that actual capitalists are loathe to endorse because, of course, those capitalists tend to be white colonizers.

Corollary A: systemic racism exists independent of racist people. If we assume the idealistic abstraction that no one holds prejudiced views—putting aside for the moment that there are many (warning: anti-semitism, racism) self-professed racists in America so this is indeed abstract—then it does not disrupt our conclusions. Actual, material inequality remains regardless of the ideologies of actors. And this doesn’t even touch concepts of subconscious or “inadvertent” (sic, ignorant is more apt) racism.

As a closing aside, these observations indicate why I believe anti-racist struggle must necessarily be anti-capitalist. It is not because capitalism is somehow a more fundamental or larger problem but because it is intertwined in the very fabric of racism—"systemic racism" is precisely the name of this knot.