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Systemic Stupidity

Dear readers,

Gladys threw one of her annoying garden parties over the weekend, forcing yours truly to spend time in the company of people he normally (and assiduously) avoids at all hazards. To add insult to injury, for five hours, I was forced to stand outside in 90-degree heat wearing a dark suit and tie, fighting off menacing insects with one hand and repeatedly spilling my whiskey and soda with the other. It was terrible. Utterly god-awful. Let me tell you all about it.

Welcome to my nightmare...

First, our guests. Nearly every one was a neo-paganist of one kind or another from someplace called the “Chappiqaw Unitarian Council” -- which I gather is a refuge for people who don’t believe in God but who like going to church. As a lifelong Roman Catholic, I find the whole idea patently absurd. No-one seems to have explained to these oddball heathens that one of the benefits of being an atheist -- if not the greatest benefit of all -- is the fact that you don’t have to go to goddamn church!

Jesus… what the hell’s the matter with you people? But I digress. That wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was getting into an argument with a certain insufferable gentleman over by the punchbowl. Let’s call this person “Mr. Bee”, since he got deep into my bonnet, as shall be seen.

On the surface, Mr. Bee is a successful affable old fellow about my age, decently well-read and very knowledgeable in his field. But beneath the surface, he’s one of those clueless dinosaurs from the Truman Era who still believes the government is eminently trustworthy and for whom PBS and NPR are God’s honest truth. Now you know just what variety of dolt I had to deal with.

Things started off pleasantly enough. We discussed the emergence of bitcoin and the history of currency for a nice long while, but soon enough, we drifted into the field of politics, and specifically the “conversation about race” it’s so important we all have. And in case you're wondering, Mr. Bee is about as white-bread as they come, as was nearly every other mindless couple trampling over my grass and pretending to admire Gladys’ begonias. They came out like misshapen radishes this year, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that.

Anyway, on the topic of introducing critical race theory into public schools, Mr. Bee expressed his disgust that anyone would oppose “teaching true history” -- as if the story of American slavery and segregation had been somehow excluded from the curriculum for decades. It was rather pathetic listening to a man so deeply in the thrall of mainstream opinion that I found myself predicting his next words before they even came out of his mouth. Furthermore, he had the disagreeable habit of assuming his so-called “information” was all fresh news to me. Like he was doing me some kind of fucking favor.

I mean, here we all are, grown adults, most of us highly educated, and there was Mr. Bee lecturing me as if I was a four-year old child. I was infuriated. Where does he get off? Only I get to do that!

I didn’t think Mr. Bee could possibly grow any more obnoxious, but then he started to describe at length the difference between “racism” and “systemic racism” to me, and with this smug self-satisfied grin on his face, like he’d just unraveled some great mystery of the universe or something -- as if the country hadn’t been talking about anything else for the past goddamn year! By this point, I was ready to slug him right in his fat ugly adam’s apple. I didn’t care if Gladys made me sleep on the couch or not. It’d be worth it.

But then I remembered that this man, for all his brains and (theoretical) good intentions, is trapped in a single information stream with very little internal debate or dissent, and I cooled down a tad. Just enough to prevent me from slapping his punch clear into the azalea bushes.

After all, and as I've said often before, I consider this to be the main problem facing our country right now: the problem of an increasingly partitioned informational landscape, in which each segment refuses to honestly engage with the others. Old people like me, who grew up with just three television networks and two wire services, are completely unequipped to deal with this new problem. We are far too trusting of our news sources, but maybe you slick cynical youngsters, who grew up with the “web online internet” and know how to navigate its highways and off-ramps, can solve what we obviously can’t handle.

Such is my hope, at least. But I suppose you’re wondering how I responded to this man and all his sophomoric blather. Well, I didn’t make my case as well in the moment as I can now on paper, but maybe there’s some good bits you can use in case you ever meet your own Mr. Bee.

Here’s my critique, more or less: In what sense is the country systemically racist? Before anything else, the dimensions of this concept must be defined, and then of course, evidence must be supplied to establish its factual basis.

Also, we should specify our terms. Often the words systemic, systematic, and institutional are used to describe this concept more or less interchangeably, yet each connotes something slightly different. Systemic is probably the better word, since it relates to something present across a whole system, whereas systematic refers to a procedural way of doing something.

As far as I can tell, when speaking about systems composed of people, there are two ways systemic anything can manifest itself. Either the purpose of the system -- such as a set of laws, a business, or some other institution -- is to generate and perpetuate a particular end, or the system has some other purpose but its internal culture tends so strongly towards some end that this might as well be one of the purposes of the system.

To give an example of the first kind. One could call standardized testing a form of systemic meritocracy. The purpose of standardized testing is to bring to the forefront the best and brightest students, all while cutting through differences in family background, economic situation, school quality, and so on. Standardized tests are specifically designed to interrogate how well a particular student thinks and reasons independent of the curriculum taught by his or her school. They may not be perfect at promoting meritocracy, but that is indubitably their intended function.

To give an example of the second kind. One could call professional sports a form of systemic meritocracy, but after a different fashion. In the case of professional sports, the purpose is not necessarily to bring to the forefront the best and most athletic players. Instead, its principal purpose is to make money. Nevertheless, professional sports has the effect of promoting meritocracy, since its demanding competitive culture compels teams to seek out and acquire the best players possible.

I think that’s all fairly reasonable, don’t you?

Now then, with this understood, what aspects of the country can be described as systemically racist? Are there a set of laws whose purpose is to segregate or exploit non-whites? Are there any institutions which actively discriminate against non-whites, either openly or covertly? Are there any institutions so infested with racists that it cannot help but perpetuate racist outcomes even if its principal aim is something other? If so, which institutions? What are their names? Where is the proof? And does the established fact of one or more racist systems -- a handful of police departments, banks, or schools -- indicate nationally widespread systemic racism?

None of this is to say that there are no flawed systems across the land. There are most certainly corrupt police departments, irresponsible banks, and bad schools. But in investigating the causes of our problems, we must be prepared to find as many different explanations for why there are, for instance, bad schools, as there are bad schools in the first place.

For example, if a bad school in a poor non-white neighborhood is shown to have inadequate facilities, how much of this is owing to poverty and how much is owing to racism? If bad schools in poor white or poor mixed neighborhoods also suffer from inadequate facilities, this suggests that racism may not be the principal factor, or even a factor at all.

My question is this: Have the intellectuals and activists behind the theory of systemic racism actually performed any such investigations? Have they proven conclusively that the laws, courts, schools, banks, employers, and police departments all perpetuate measurable racial disparities on account of racism? Have they disproven any alternative explanations for these disparities? Have they even considered them at all?

Well, I've happened to read a few of the more popular works on the subject, and nowhere is any such methodology found. The scholarship is atrocious. To be frank, they read exactly like treatises on alchemy or astrology or some other flim-flam. But such writers do have one card up their sleeve. There's this nifty rhetorical trick they like to play...

Any honest person cannot deny that different forms of systemic racism did indeed prevail in the United States for a very long time. This is inarguable, and moreover, there has never been a definable point in time at which one could say, "On this day in 19----, America ceased to be a racist country." There has never been, as many people long for there to be, a so-called race settlement.

Where does that leave us? Well, in a bit of a pickle. One can always say that America is nowhere near the racist country today that it was in 1990 or 1960 or 1930 or what-have-you. Then again, one can always say that America still has "more work to do". Both may be correct, but which of them is more correct?

My reply is that any amount of racism does not equal systemic racism. I would say further that systemic racism in America definitely ended and further claims are specious. Every recognizable racist systems of the past -- slavery, segregation, redlining, housing covenants, employment discrimination -- no longer exist or have been made illegal. In fact, the laws and courts of the United States (themselves systems) will reliably apprehend and punish any organization or government who attempts to re-engineer such racist systems into being.

If anything, these facts make a compelling argument for why modern-day America is systemically anti-racist. Unfortunately, the intrepid Mr. Bee's of the world will always lodge the point that the effects of past systemic racism persist to this very day, and that somehow this justifies the claim that America is still beset by systemic racism in the present.

This is a tidy bit of sophistry. The answer is that nothing which has already happened can be said to be currently happening without further observation. According to this logic, the Pharaohs are still ruling over Egypt and the Tsars are still banishing people to Siberia. In other words, it is one thing to claim the effects of past systemic racism continues to play a role in American race-relations, and it is quite another thing to claim the existence of systemic racism in the past demonstrates the existence of systemic racism in the present.

This is an obvious non sequitur, and I'm sick of people who should know better falling for it.

The bottom-line is that systemic racism is little more than feeble conjecture. This is not to say there is no racism whatsoever or that racial disparities do not exist, but systemic racism is a specific claim that is never proven, merely asserted. And this thinking will have consequences. Bad ideas produce bad policies which produce bad results.

Proceeding from the flawed premise of systemic racism, even the best, brightest, most incorruptible policy-makers are going to make disastrous mistakes. No amount of Nazi tanks, or Japanese aircraft, or Soviet missiles ever did a fraction of the damage to American communities as the riots of 2020 did. Yet in deference to the belief of systemic racism, this egregious behavior was excused and obfuscated, to the detriment of those voiceless Americans, black or brown or white, who had to pick up the pieces.

And here’s one final point I’d encourage Mr. Bee and his pals to consider: just how much malign abuse are dissenting Americans even capable of withstanding? It is unwise to underestimate the enormous effort white Americans undertook to change their racial attitudes from at least the 1960’s onwards. While some white Americans seem to get a kick out of continually confessing their wretchedness, others of us are beginning to feel pretty fucking underappreciated around here... and if history's any safe guide, this can't bode well.

As for Mr. Bee, despite my valiant efforts, I doubt I made much headway with him at all. It is disconcerting to realize the extent to which people will go along with sheer baloney rather than admit they were wrong about something. But I suppose that’s just human nature, isn’t it? What can you do?

Well, I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I’m going to sow Gladys’ flowerbeds with salt so I don't have to stomach another goddamn garden party ever again. Never again, do you hear? That's final!


James O’Flannery


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