#31: What Is Systemic Racism?

In the last post, which attempted a definition of racism, I addressed the origin and ideology of racism. But there is a difference between thinking and doing, between ideology and practice. The accumulated history of thinking in difference – whether it is on categories of ethnicity, skin color (“race”), class, sex, gender, age, or any other divider that has been utilized to differentiate between people – has affected structures in society, government and culture.

The reason these structures exist is that they either were or continue to be seen as useful to structure society in a specific way. Human beings do think in differences and stereotypes, for various evolutionary reasons. We perceive all kinds of differences, but not all of them have historically been relevant. Contemporary racism exists because discriminating according to “race” was considered useful for the slave trade by Arab and European slave traders.

Slavery typically exists as the result of war, in which captives are made that are then sold as labor. This has not always happened according to skin color, but typically according to ethnicity – because that’s how war has typically worked. Rome used Germans, Slavs, Thracians, Africans, and many others as slaves. Slavery in antiquity, however, also permitted for manumission, and some slaves ended up becoming citizens. Serfdom, a version of slavery that means you do not belong to a master directly but to the land, which then belonged to the landlord, was a development that began in the late Roman Empire and lasted till the early 19th century in most of Europe. One of the few achievements of Napoleon that actually did answer some demands of the French Revolution was the ending of serfdom. Universal freedom for all people is the absolute exception in human history, and even in Europe it was only achieved starting in the 19th century.

The reason for the victory of freedom was the realization that utilizing all of a nation’s workforce, and giving them the freedom to maximize their potential, was one of the demands of increased capitalist production. Ideally, capitalism means freedom. Well-paid free workers are best motivated, best customers, best citizens. But at any point when the economic system can be cheated by introducing even cheaper labor, this will be done. Globalization after the end of the Cold War unleashed a new availability of cheap labor; and slavery – while it may not exist directly in the West anymore – continues to exist in practice when societies rely on the availability of cheap, expendable, desperate workers that have no choice but to work under otherwise unacceptable conditions. This may or may not be tied to “racial” or ethnic considerations, but it can be.

While “race” as a category may not be real, racism and the experience thereof very much is a reality. It is most visible not by examining people’s attitudes but by looking at structural effects of racism. Specifically, this means that there exist a major gap for most “racial” or ethnic minorities with regards to pay, inter-generational wealth, individual and inter-generational education, global perspectives and outlook, the assumption of innocence when confronted by police and the justice system, likelihood of incarceration, availability of a healthy diet, prevalence of drugs in communities, availability of good housing in safe neighborhoods, etc. It is a long list that we all have known about for quite a while, and have been slow if not reluctant to act upon.

In the United States, racism has of course been worse in the past. But it is still an issue that is a very real experience for non-white people. This should not be surprising. The Civil War, which ended slavery by 1865, was followed by another 100 years of sabotaging reconstruction efforts. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s started a process of improvement of race relations. Native Americans gained citizenship in 1924, but the status of reservations is still continually under threat, and full religious freedom for indigenous peoples was only granted in 1978. Migrant workers, whether from Mexico, South and Central America, China, India, Pakistan and other countries, have experienced discrimination at several times in history, just as even European immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Germany have experienced in the past to some degree; none, however, as bad as slavery or genocide. All these historical events have had lasting efforts, which continued for generations. While for some groups (mostly Europeans), such structural discrimination has ended, it continues for many if not most non-white groups.

Just imagine, if you wanted to be born in the United States today, and had a Rawlsian choice of which group and which location to be born into, which group would you choose to belong to, and which would you hesitate about? Which skin color would you want your child to have? I think you know. As long as we have to think about these matters, the structures we have been trying to overcome for a long time still have too much power on all of us.