One of my favorite writers is David French, more so for his exceptional prose than his insight much of the time. Some people just write really well, and I, for one, envy their skill. So when French took on the burden of explaining why “structural racism” isn’t wokeness, or to be more direct, the religious right case against systemic racism, it seems that maybe, just maybe, I would finally find some answers to my question, “what the hell are they talking about.”
Enforcing the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and passing the Civil Rights Act was (and is) necessary to end overt, legal discrimination, but it was hardly sufficient to ameliorate the effects of slavery and Jim Crow. These effects are so embedded in our system that powerful people often perpetuate those structures even when they lack any racist intent at all.
While it’s good that he raised the Equal Protection Clause and the Civil Rights Act, even if he left a few other very important ameliorative laws off the list, to say their only purpose was to “end overt, legal discrimination” misses their point. The purpose was to not merely to end discrimination, but to expose people to each other, to allow them to meet, to see, to befriend, to interact and to engage with each other so that we recognize our shared humanity.
But from there, French went down the rabbit hole of the “effects of slavery and Jim Crow.” He throws out the words “system” and “structures” as if they’re a given that need no definition, no meaning, none of the hard work of thinking necessary to explain what it is he’s talking about or why these laws weren’t sufficient “to ameliorate the effects of slavery and Jim Crow” and what those effects are.
This isn’t to say that racism doesn’t exist or happen anymore. I see it and I believe it does, but I can tell you where and why I think it happens. I don’t hide behind vagaries like systemic and structural, but prefer to take the cold, hard look at what we do and why we do it, and what needs to be changed to face it and fix it. I would like to believe that my realism perspective is because I don’t want to talk about it, hug about it or cry about it, but I want to fix it and save actual human lives from suffering it.
Rather than make any further effort to give meaning to these pop vagaries, French turns to examples.
To illustrate this reality, I’ll turn to perhaps the most commonly cited example (because it’s so significant) of how racism can be truly “structural” or “systemic” and thus linger for years even when the surrounding society over time loses much of its malign intent.
Residential segregation, through redlining and other means—especially when combined with profound employment discrimination and educational disparities—resulted in the creation of large communities of dramatically disadvantaged Americans. Because of centuries of systematic, de jure (by law) oppression, they possessed fewer resources and less education than those who didn’t suffer equivalent discrimination.
He’s obviously not wrong about how black people were segregated, that we’ve since passed laws to ensure they can live wherever they choose, and yet these racial enclaves (we used to call them ghettos, but no longer do because it’s pejorative even as we demean these enclaves as communities of “dramatically disadvantaged Americans” because the more words, the less offensive) persist. Why? There are schools, yet there are educational disparities. Why? There are jobs, yet there are “profound” employment disparities. Why?
French tries to connect the dots by using housing as an example.
While the passing of the Civil Rights Act meant that black Americans had the right to live elsewhere, they often lacked the resources to purchase homes or rent apartments in wealthier neighborhoods with better schools. Indeed, to this day, the median net worth of a black family ($17,150) is roughly one-tenth the median net worth of a white family ($171,000). That means less money for down payments, less money for security deposits, and overall fewer resources that enable social mobility.
Median income and worth may be all the data we have available, but they tell us little. Contrary to what some kind-hearted folks want to belief, there are black people who have gained material success, moved on up to the east side or the suburbs. There are white people who have not. Within the group of white people are the offspring of WASPs whose ancestors stepped on Plymouth Rock as well as the Jews fleeing the Nazi with nothing but a change of clothing, They may share a similar skin color, but they hardly share the same legacy.
One of the solutions to this problem is permitting more multi-family housing in wealthier communities. But that’s exactly when NIMBYism rears its head. Even if every member of a local zoning and planning commission isn’t racist, there are multiple non-racist reasons for them to resist greater population density. There’s traffic congestion. There’s school overcrowding. There’s the potential consequence to property values. There are environmental objections. There are a host of related infrastructure concerns.
While conceding that each of these positions is sound, reasonable and unrelated to race, these are the “structures” of which French apparently speaks. They apply with equal force to anyone who can’t afford a single family house regardless of race. They benefit homeowners of all races equally. They reflect a lifestyle that provides the incentive to work harder, to sacrifice, to save, to achieve, regardless of race.
Time and again, there are non-racist reasons for wanting to maintain the structures racists created.
We can, and must, remove the impediments, the burdens racism puts on black people to keep them from moving out to the country, but we can’t make them move to the country. We can build schools, but can’t make students learn. We can offer jobs, but can’t make people take advantage of them. That providing opportunity has not produced the outcomes the woke would expect doesn’t show the problem is “systemic,” but that there are reasons beyond burdens, and at some point, we have to cut the woke gibberish and face that disparate outcomes happen and racism isn’t necessarily the reason.
Does Ibram Kendi think Olympic medals should be distributed proportionate to national population? According to his formulation, there is no non-bias explanation for disproportionate or disparate outcomes.
— Zaid Jilani (@ZaidJilani) July 24, 2021
There was a terrible history of de jure racism in America, and laws have been enacted to address that and attitudes have changed for many. Still, racism is far from over in America and where it continues to fester, demands solutions. But outcomes don’t answer the critical question “why?”, and wrapping them up in vagaries like “systemic” or “structural” tell us nothing about the problems or what needs to be fixed to make it better. Does French really think that when black people move into single-family houses, they don’t want to enjoy the suburban lifestyle and would rather turn it back into the place they just worked so hard to leave? Does French not know any actual black people?
The more we hide behind woke vagaries, the less we do anything useful to fix real problems. But there will still be disparate outcomes, just like in the Olympics, because ultimately people who have the ability to win must decide for themselves if it’s worth it to do what it takes to run faster than the other guy. And that, not woke rhetoric, is reality. We can, and must, remove the burdens that slow people down, but we can’t make them run fast enough to win.