The only alternative to systemic racism

The facts are simply too overwhelming to ignore. In practically every metric available for measuring quality of life and achievement in the United States, White people fare better than Black people, better than Latinos, better than people of color (POC) generally. A few examples:

Black student achievement in secondary education is significantly lower than that of their White peers.

College attainment is significantly lower for Black Americans than Whites, across a span of more than 50 years.

Black and Latinos comprise a disproportionate ratio of the US prison population

Per capita income for Black Americans is only 57% of that of Whites

People of color have experienced much higher rates of death than Whites during the COVID-19 pandemic

White households, on average, hold significantly greater-than-average wealth, while Black households are significantly lower than average

This statistical evidence renders moot any anecdotal evidence attributing White success solely to individual effort, or even cultural differences, particularly when we consider categories of analysis for which such explanations beggar belief. Do Black newborns die at a rate more than twice that of their White counterparts because they just don’t have enough “grit”? Do Black families earning equal incomes live in worse neighborhoods than Whites because they don’t value hard work?

And so, the question becomes, how do we explain these overwhelming differences within American society?

One answer would be that there are systems built into the fabric of American society which, in both past and present, have privileged White people as a social group. This would include factors like racial inequity in criminal justice sentencing, racist practices in the real estate and banking industries that have historically created and maintained housing segregation, and massive inequalities in school district funding. This is the argument made by academic disciplines such as critical race theory, that much-debated but little-understood “hot topic” of contemporary American culture wars.

The systemic answer, however, has been widely denounced in recent public debate by conservatives as “Marxism,” flippantly caricatured as faddish “wokeism,” and attacked as an attempt to “demonize” White people and “divide us as a society.” In reply to assertions of historical and contemporary racial inequality, these critics emphasize the opportunities afforded by capitalism and America’s founding ideals. They often point to examples such as the 2008 election of Barack Obama to the Presidency as proof that racial inequity is a thing of the past.

Let us note that these claims are deployed to reject a proposed answer to the question, but they leave the question unanswered. And so it remains: if we reject systemic inequities as an explanation for dramatically different outcomes among Whites and POC in the U.S., how do we then explain their existence?

Those who reject assertions of systemic racism do not have an answer for this question, for one simple reason: in the face of such massive data on racial inequities, the only alternative to the systemic explanation is a biological one. If you refuse to acknowledge that legal, economic, and political structures have played a major role in shaping these drastically different outcomes, what other explanation is there to turn to? Your conclusion would have to be that there is something inherently inferior in people of color as a group that leads to lower educational achievement, less wealth, shorter life expectancy, and all the other metrics.

Those who wish to blithely and disdainfully dismiss assertions of systemic racism should pause to consider if they then believe the only other “logical” alternative. I would certainly hope they’d reject that alternative, and reconsider systemic explanations. If they embrace it, perhaps it’s better for everyone that they at least be publicly forthright about where they stand.