^ justice for Black Americans remains to be fully assured. But how to assure it ?
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We’ve heard the phrase “:systemic racism” a lot in the past eight days. Sometimes it comes in the form of a Philippic, such as this one sent to me by a friend :
“Systematic racism is the deep rooted intersectionality of a system of laws, culture, institutions and ways of thinking that have created a degraded, otherness for Black people in the USA. The country was built on the blood of indigenous people, Black slaves, and free women’s labor. It is a system of privilege, maintained by violence, hate and fear. It is about extracting labor, maintaining power, and using capital to divide and conquer, while keeping a knee on the back of Black people. It has created a wealth divide and resulted in numerous systematic disparities. “
My friend certainly expresses the condemnation we all feel about seeing fellow Americans being downgraded for a vicarious reason. Yet I think analysis works better here than Philippic. In the phrase “systemic racism” are two words : “racism’ and “systemic.” Since most of us prefer system, to anarchy, the critique must focus upon the other word : racism. What is it ?
I would define racism as the notion that the skin color of a person is a measure of his character, his rights, his place in the society. Yet the definition fall short of the word’s custom. In America, racism is a judgment that is made of African-Americans specifically. People of Nigerian origin are also dark-skinned, darker than African-Americans. same is true of Caribbean-origin people, Indians and Pakistanis, etc. Yet in my experience, the minute that people hear the accents of such persons speaking, the reaction is different than what racism might suggest. These dark-skinned people are often reacted to as immigrants — foreigners — and so a thing different from African-Americans. Of course I have generalized, many accent-English people with dark skin have experienced racism, and still do; but hear me out; we are far from finished with highlighting the peculiarities of racism in practice.
Why has the custom of degrading African-Americans by skin color persisted, 150 years after our nation granted them full citizenship as enshrined in our Constitution, and after 500,000 of us died to secure those rights to all African-Americans ? Why has social custom, and until 1964-65 legal authority, not been changed by the Constitution we all swear oaths to ? The answer to this question brings us to the systemic part of that phrase, systemic racism.
System was needed by those who would not accept the settlements of 1865-75, and in a democracy with universal suffrage, being defeated, even crushed, by war is no bar to the continuation of opinion; indeed, defeat may aggravate the opinions of the defeated, who, like all human beings, dislike being forced at gunpoint to change their ways; and, in elections pursuant to the great Constitutional settlements, those whose minds were of the same opinion still were able to vote, and thus able to vote against those settlements. It is very hard, I think, to accept seeing most of one’s neighbors elevated to equality with you only at gunpoint or by dint of Federal Courts’ enforceable orders. One wants to accept one’s neighbors, by one’s own, unforced act of the heart, not have them shoved down the throat. So much for the fate of civil rights in the post-Civil War South. I will return to the South later.
What of the North ? Why did racism custom persist in the States whose sons died in large numbers to secure full civil rights to Black Americans ? I think we have to accept that, despite the mythology, the vast majority of Northerners fought to defend the Union against rebellion, not to enfranchise Blacks. And Northerners who did fight to end slavery did so because they viewed slavery as a human wrong, which it is, and not therefore to enact Negro Equality. None of the great 1865-75 Constitutional enactments changed much in the North. They were primarily punishment for the South. In the North, it is true that the Amendments enfranchised Blacks legally. Black men could now vote, sit on juries, run for public office, and the like : yet in many Northern States they could do that already, before the War and without it. Thus the sting factor in the great enactments scarcely pinged any Northern community. The social disqualifications, prevalent almost everywhere, thus continued, there being no pressure at all to abate them. Just the opposite : when, in the decades from 1880 through 1920 a flood of European immigrants came to the North, they were met almost universally with disqualifications similar to, or even harsher than, those imposed on Blacks living in this region. Again, we see here the application of “system.”
In much of the North, the degradations put upon newly enfranchised Blacks might have faded away with time, there being so few Blacks resident in the region. (We see this today in Maine and Vermont, where Blacks amount to less than two percent of the population and social degradation is almost non existent.) Starting in the 1900s, however, the Great Migration brought millions of Southern blacks into the North; these brought with them social and linguistic customs jarringly different from those prevalent in Northern cities, and they aalso found themselves sort of lumped in with the immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, at a time of maximum dislike thereof, and so degraded by native Northerners even as immigrants, too, feared the Black newcomers as job competitors. that cleavage has persisted even to today.
The above paragraph describes the reactions of millions of individual people. In a democracy, with universal suffrage, the customs of millions of individual people become system.
We are now ready to discuss the term “systemic racism” without accusation, pearl clutching, and the like.
Given the views of many, there has been, these past 100 years or so, continuous under investment in schools serving Black-majority neighborhoods; equally large under investment in health care for persons living in such neighborhoods; much relegation of Black persons to low-paying jobs, which has kept many living in under-served and under-valued neighborhoods. There has also been a perception that Blacks are to be feared, a perception not unlikely given the conditions — well publicized by the news at its most sensationalistic — in which so many Black Americans live. All of these conditions reinforce one another, a kind of vicious circle of exclusion and deprivation of public expenditure. This is the system part of “systemic racism.”
Into this already complex social map comes the housing question. Where people choose to live — assuming they have a choice — is a very individual decision. It is not made collectively. In this, everyone’s residence is twin to universal suffrage. Unfortunately, Americans in most places have chosen to live racially apart from each other. as I see it, this separation is almost entirely perceptual, at least outside the South. If all you know about people racially different from you is what you see in a sensational television newscast — because a crime incident sticks in the mind far more readily than good news, and far too often the news about Black people is of a crime event — then it’s just common sense to live away. Is there any doubt that this junction of perception and publicity underlies our nation’s segregated housing patterns ? What other reasons could there be for it, I have no idea.
Residential segregation leads to social segregation, and social segregation reinforces residential apartness. If people of different races, or skin colors, do not get to know one another, in large numbers, how is this apartness ever to change ? I am at a loss….
What, then, of the South ? There, Black people and white people have lived close, with lives inextricably intertwined, since slavery days. Southerners know each other. I might even say that Southerners of both races interact on all levels, these days, more intimately and constantly than anywhere in the North that I know of. I have seen it in action. Yet the distrust between them runs very very deep. Everywhere in America, Blacks vote differently from white voters, but in the South, the two races vote almost entirely in opposition to each other. (This may be changing. More white Southerners are voting Democratic now than at any time since the Civil Rights Acts were enforced. Look at recent statewide votes in Alabama and Georgia.) Even so, every Southern legislature contains a higher percentage of Black members than any legislature in the North.
I do not live in the South. I am in no position to offer solutions to the racial inequalities that prevail in Southern states. My impression,. in any case, is that such injustices are far worse in today’s North than in the South, at least in part because we of the North refuse to admit them, much less try to alleviate them. Take the housing situation again : right now, and since 2018, Governor baker has laid a zoning reform bill upon the legislative table. It is a very small tweak, that would allow zoning boards to modify zoning restrictions by a majority vote rather than a two-thirds vote. The purpose of his bill is to allow the construction of transit-oriented and workforce housing in communities around Boston and thereby loosen the tight housing market here that has seen prices double and triple in the past decade. His bill has gone nowhere. Why ? Almost every affected town or city has objected, passionately. It is hard not to ascribe this intense objection to race fears.
I do not know how this zoning freeze can be unfrozen. If a reader of this article has a workable suggestion, in would love to hear it.
To sum up :
If we are ever to alleviate the system part of our nation’s racism, we must find ways to relieve the individual opinion part. In a democracy, with universal suffrage, everyone’s individual opinion equals everyone’s individual vote. Our Constitution also protects rights of the minority — it isn’t majoritarian rule. The reason why we do this is crucial : it is because we believe that no policy is completely correct, no opinion always right; we know only too well from history that the minority view is sometimes the correct one, and by our settlements we ensure that it will always have power to affect. Our polity arises from skepticism as much as from idealism, and wisely so.
Thus the focus is on the individual, as it must be. “Changing society, one mind at a time’ isn’t merely a slogan; it is the ONLY way that worthwhile change can be made permanent, beyond the upheavals arising from minds not persuaded. There is no system, in our democracy, without individuals amassed to make it. “Systemic racism” is the wrong way to phrase what we see as an obstacle. Better to call it “policy by minds not persuaded.”
We can, of course, enact some reforms thanks to the resolve and idealism of so many (and I am on board as well), and we probably will enact such reforms. But they won’t stick unless the majority deciders they are wise, and they won’t change minds unless minds observe the reforms working well to everyone’s benefit. We shall see.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere