Is “Systemic Racism” real, and does it matter?

Semantic debates aside, we have a real problem. And it’s ok to acknowledge.

What do liberals mean by “systemic racism,” and is it legitimately a problem? 

Most conversations never get off the ground because someone reacts to the word and says something aggressive to shut it down

The other day President Biden gave an off the cuff speech about the Chauvin conviction for murdering George Floyd. I felt it was empathetic, heartfelt, and conciliatory to both law enforcement and minority groups. Not many friends agree, but few can really explain why. Their reality is shaped by their experience with the system; how it’s applied can be radically different. 

Call it bias. Call it racism. Call it inequity. Call it whatever triggers you less, but there is something there. 

SHHHHH, LISTEN

Every time the topic of “systemic racism” comes up, countless reactions fly across the spectrum. Shouts from “hell yeah!” to “That’s BS!” ring out on the extremes, some accusing us of “living on stolen land” and others claiming “racism is dead.” Do you accept either extreme? Does it have to be one way or the other?

Legally, racism is dead. Hundreds of explicitly racist laws across America were invalidated, beginning in 1954 (Brown v Board of Education) and almost entirely by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and its subsequent amendments. But since those legal and legislative changes, new barriers have been put up like qualified immunity, civil asset forfeiture, cash bail, and the drug war. Look at the incarceration rates since then. The resulting structures of criminal justice, drug laws, and the enforcement of various ordinances have had a disproportionate effect on minorities. They’re not purely racist in the overly-simplistic sense, but the effect is similar. Jim Crow only ended when our parents were children, so it not a leap to see that many effects are still woven into the fabric of our system. Many of these laws had to be veiled in how they were designed, but were known to target minority and poorer classes. Decades later, they still do. 

TWO DEFINITIONS, SAME PROBLEM

So what is “systemic racism” to the academic left? It may depend on how radical a source you talk to, but I prefer observing the consensus, not extremes. It seems to me the left anything that indicates disparity with white people amounts to racism. However I feel this is intellectually lazy. Results can’t be racist. But the causes do have a racially unequal effect, and that is worthy of looking into. Our friends on the left often point to incarceration rates, and say “see?!” But our friends on the right will say “it’s because they’re committing the crimes.”

Both are wrong - they’re both pointing at the result and claim it’s proof. Who’s asking “why are they disproportionately affecting minorities?”

As a hiring manager for several years I came across hundreds of applicants I could not hire because of a single THC conviction or even misdemeanors on their record. This status pushes some to the fringes of society, and occasionally crime. Just as a broken tail light gives a cop a reason to pull someone over, a single conviction gives the system a reason to punish someone into perpetual failure.

Have you ever lost your license, car m, or registration for some reason and been too poor to fix the problem? Now what if you have a child at home, or abusive family, or no bud line nearby? It’s ridiculously difficult to get one foot in front of you. Multiply this by millions of convictions, then among those even poorer than you, and this has a massive detrimental effect on society. For what reason? 

There are a multitude of similar laws and arguments of how even fair application of laws can have a net-negative effect. Their misapplication is much harder to quantify or prove, but it’s a reality if you’re poor, or black or brown. Some are trying to right the wrongs, like Alabama mayor Randall Woodfin.

Words matter, but I’m not as concerned about the syntax or terminology of the left as much as the problem that exists. While we’re breathlessly sharing articles online that support our bubble-view of the topic, the problem persists. I’d like to get beyond the semantic debate, but regardless I’ll start from my own definition for the sake of clarity - “systemic inequity.” So what is systemic inequity to me?

To start:

  • Our “criminal justice” framework. Marijuana laws (and beyond), crack vs powder cocaine, asset forfeiture, cash bail rules, pull over quotas, court management, minimum sentencing, qualified immunity, warrant laws, and others have had a far disproportionate effect on black and brown Americans. 

  • Next there are *voting laws* beyond basic free photo ID and transparency that are a form of over-regulation designed to lower participation. I wrote about it at length. I can’t accept this “oh shucks, it’s about integrity” line. It’s about lowering participation. And those affected are overWHELMINGLY minority classes. 

  • Interestingly, *Zoning laws* are some that far too often tell Americans where they can and can’t live or build a business. As an elected local official I was shocked at how much power of discrimination we had. 

  • Finally, *occupational laws* have a history of being passed with the rationalization of serving the public good but their enforcement and costs overwhelmingly effect minority classes. 

As I said, these are not simplistic answers, but the proof is in the pudding. Civilized societies have never truly been fully equal. But the poor have consistently been micromanaged by a system that often perpetuates their condition. It is irresponsible to disregard or diminish the fact that white people disproportionately avoid these challenges. And it is wrong to ignore that minority races suffer beneath them more than any other race. This isn’t a coincidence. It doesn’t mean it’s your fault, or that you’re racist. It just means it’s wrong, and it’s ok to say so. 

Conservatives like me inherently believe that government is inefficient, and too much government screws things up so where is our conservatism in how we approach criminal justice and our legal system?

To change things I would start with criminal justice reforms, but clearly it goes far beyond that. Economic, cultural, and feet-on-the-street law enforcement needs adjustment as well. Unintentional or not, the system is not equal. Sure, the term “systemic racism” is too broad and lacks nuance. But ultimately I don’t think it’s productive for white folks to insist on setting the parameters of discussion or declaring ownership over the language we use. You can’t say “I’m not racist” and “I’m all for equality,” then angrily shut down the discussion when it gets into details. Let it go. Recognize the problems. Empathize with their realities. Propose conservative-minded changes. Be part of the solution.

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