As indicated in Evidence of Systemic Racism (Part I), I’ve been doing some work recently compiling evidence and lines of argumentation people can use while in dialogue with a friend, relative, or colleague who doesn’t think that systemic racism exists, or who asks for evidence of its existence. In this post, I share more tools and approaches in this vein, informed in part by what I have learned by engaging in this effort ‘in real life’ myself in recent weeks. I hope this can save you, dear reader, some time, effort, and headaches, anytime you encounter a racism denier. I will note that, as a caveat, to date I have not (to my knowledge) convinced any systemic racism deniers that systemic racism exists. Not surprisingly, due largely to belief preservation, it is really hard to do. So maybe this is not worth your time to read. But maybe it can be of some help…
Also, if you are Black or are a person of color, I am sorry that this person in your life is gaslighting you and effacing your trauma, lived experience, and survival strategies on which you rely literally every day. It is an understatement to say it this way, but that is just terrible.
I’ve grouped my thoughts into a few themes:
- Shared premises
- Precision of language
- Acknowledgement of progress
- The systemic racism deniers’ premises about why it is not systemic racism causing bad outcomes
- Counterpoints to the racism deniers’ premises
- Contemporary peer-reviewed evidence of systemic racism
While your rampant, belligerent uncle type of racist might be on a completely different ontological plane, your intellectual academic systemic racism denier will likely share with you some basic premises and assumptions about reality. It is good to build on these as a common evidence-informed and logical foundation. Three basic premises, two of which I provide evidence for in Part I, that will tend to be common ground, are:
- There was systemic racism in the U.S. (with the qualifier, though: ‘but it was a different time.’)
- There are disproportionately bad outcomes for Black Americans today.
- We like or love the Black people we know in common (if both parties are white; if you are Black, this shared premise might be directed at you), and we want good outcomes for them/you.
On (1), they will likely concede that Jim Crow, as an historical era, was racist. They know there were laws, policies, practices, and institutions (like banks, schools, companies, government agencies, and law enforcement) that operationalized systemic racism at that time. Not to mention lynchings.
On (2), the evidence is depicted clearly in the charts provided by Business Insider (linked in Part I), using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education, etc. Those charts show that Black Americans experience life differently than white Americans in terms of: unemployment, representation at the top of the corporate hierarchy, representation in government, wage parity, overall per capita income, overall poverty rate in relation to real median household income, household wealth, upward income mobility, advanced course credit in secondary school, college attainment, intergenerational mobility, denial rates for home loan applications, homeownership rates, lack of health insurance coverage, COVID-19 hospitalizations, overrepresentation in the incarcerated population, ratio of imprisonment rates by age, marijuana usage vs. possession arrests, parole supervision rates, fatal police shootings rates in function to percentage of the population, tax assessment discrepancies, rates of maternal and infant mortality (one of the most disturbing and tragic ones), and many more. Your systemic racism denier will generally agree that these realities exist, and they will likely trust the governmental data sources as reliable, credible sources (unless they are full-on pizzagate type people, in which case, just back away slowly).
On (3), I got nothing to say. That’s just messed up. We all know ‘I have a Black friend’ is a square on racist bingo (see here or here), and Trump has said in one of his rallies ‘look at my African American over here‘ [Editor’s note: That man, Gregory Cheadle, later left the GOP because he saw it as pursuing a “pro-white” agenda and using black people like him as “political pawns.”] So I’ll leave that there. Also, I’m reminded that Maya Angelou is quoted as saying, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Precision of Language
While metonymy is an accepted device in everyday rhetoric (e.g., ‘Washington’ indexes ‘the federal government,’ ‘the press’ indexes ‘the news media industry,’ etc.), this should be avoided in discussing systemic racism, because it allows the racism denier to use the ‘not all police’ or ‘not all white people’ retort (brought to you by the makers of ‘not all men’). Of course, many individual police officers and white people are racist, but that is not (necessarily) the point when discussing systemic or institutionalized racism. As such, one should not say ‘the police are racist,’ but rather, ‘the institution of the police is racist,’ which hedges against the logically spurious counter-argument that ‘if not all police are racist, then you cannot say the police are racist.’
Acknowledgement of Progress
Racism deniers emphasize that since the status of Black people and other people of color is (arguably) better now than it was before, there cannot be systemic racism. (The laziest version of this being, ‘we had a Black president’). This to me appears to be a symptom of nationalism, which is a slippery slope (down which the current president is violently shoving us) towards White Nationalism. It is a symptom of American exceptionalism, and is a reason why there are often American flags featured prominently inside churches (which seems to me to be a form of idolatry). Once again, the logical fallacy of this line of reasoning is plain as day. Just because Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem doesn’t mean he’s not happy that he has the right to vote and all, and to claim otherwise is either disingenuous or ignorant; his kneeling, as he states, is just a way to draw attention to the problem of police brutality—oh, and remember, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was surveilled and vilified by the FBI as a ‘bad protestor’ because any protest that disrupts the status quo (i.e., the whole point of protesting) is bad. But of course, anti-racist scholars and activists love to celebrate progress when it is present! So, let’s celebrate!
Side note: I am struck by the weakness of logic among racism deniers (and in some cases the pure lack of logic whatsoever), especially among intellectual and academic ones. It is so glaring that it seems there is some sort of willful ignorance, bad faith argumentation, or duplicity (or some combination of all three) at the core of their position. I return to this point below while reflecting on whether or not academic systemic racism deniers even believe in the validly and credibility of the peer-reviewed research system (which has lots of flaws but nevertheless is pretty central to this line of work).
The Systemic Racism Deniers’ Premises About Why it is Not Systemic Racism Causing Bad Outcomes
The bliss of the shared ground of agreed-upon premises will be short-lived. Your systemic racism denier is likely to proceed to say:
- Those racist laws you point to are historical. Jim Crow ended with the Civil Rights era and subsequently the racist intentions and effects of the laws and the racist functioning of institutions ceased. We need evidence of contemporary racist laws to accept the claim that systemic racism exists now.
- The negative outcomes for Black Americans are caused by the disintegration of the family due to welfare.
- The negative outcomes for Black Americans are exacerbated by abortion, because that robs the Black community of potential human capital.
- Laws like ‘stop and frisk’ decrease crime and thus are good.
- Black people kill each other in Chicago and other cities.
Counterpoints to the Racism Deniers’ Premises
- There are a number of perspectives available to challenge Premise 1:
- Probable continuation, Part 1: It is improbable that racist laws, policies, practices, and institutions (banks, schools, companies, government agencies, and law enforcement) completely reformed in the period of a few years following 1968. To think they did, quite frankly, is magical thinking. Institutional, organizational, sociological, psychological, and political theory and research suggest that just does not happen. Thus, it is likely that laws, policies, practices, and institutions continued to operationalize systemic racism into the 1970s and beyond.
- Probable continuation, Part 2: In addition, the Black middle class that existed in the 1920s was largely destroyed by white racist terrorism, with the complicity of law enforcement, as I mention elsewhere. This had not just individual- or family-level effects; its effects accrue across many areas of social, cultural, and economic capital and across the chronosystem of generations. The advantage of generational wealth, education, and other capitals I benefit from would have been robbed from me by historical systemic racism if my great-grandfather’s business had been burned to the ground and if he had been run out of his town at gunpoint in 1923. In similar fashion, when education benefits such as the GI Bill were systematically denied to Black people as described in this study, a higher proportion of white veterans had the privilege of going to college after WWII compared to Black veterans, with all of the lifetime earning implications that led to. So, in short, historical racism has obvious implications for the continued negative situation of Black Americans, and as such can and should not be discounted.
- Explicit continuation: As Ava DuVernay’s film 13th lays this out quite clearly, there is ample evidence that ‘the war on drugs’ and ‘law and order’ policies and the mass incarceration of Black people as a result of those policies contribute to many (though not all) of the negative outcomes listed above. Some architects of those policies—such as Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman and Reagan campaign strategist Lee Atwater—make it explicit, admitting it in their own words, as shown below. I cannot imagine why they would admit this if it were not true. They said:
- “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (Ehrlichman, from 13th)
- “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N—–, n—–, n—–.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n—–‘—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—–, n—–.’ (Atwater, from a 1981 interview with Alexander Lamis on the ‘Southern Strategy,’ with the full transcript available here.)
- Contemporary evidence: Hypothetically bracketing the historical aspects presented in the three previous points (which in and of itself would be a troubling erasure of context that should make any social scientist squeamish), there is a large amount of contemporary peer-reviewed evidence of systemic racism, from various disciplines using various theories and methodologies, some of which I presented in Part I of ‘Evidence of Systemic Racism’ (e.g., current redlining, current incarceration rates for marijuana compared to rates of marijuana usage by race, etc.), more of which I summarize below. As an academic, if one rejects a huge swath of peer-reviewed literature as somehow not valid or credible, then what are we even doing research for at all?!? Predicated on that rejection, this vocation is thus either a ruse or a farce.
- To challenge Premise 2, I would ask for evidence of the mechanism by which welfare leads to family disintegration or to any of the other negative outcomes experienced by Black people. I have not seen any in my studies to date. If you, dear reader, know of any, please post it in the comment section.
- To challenge Premise 3, if the ostensible mechanism by which abortion causes poverty is that it robs Black communities of human capital, I think the established phenomenon of disproportionately high rates of incarceration of Black men (who do not commit crimes across all categories of crime at a higher rate than whites) is a more plausible cause of any lack of human capital in the Black community—which itself is problematic and paternalistic, because if you don’t already see and celebrate the extant and active wealth of talent across every single sector of arts culture, science, business, and all aspects of life in the Black community, you are truly missing out! So, that ain’t the reason why Black communities still suffer negative outcomes. And as a reminder, the evidence and theory suggest that mass incarceration of Black people is an operationalization of systemic racism, so if you are truly concerned with ensuring Black communities have full access to their human capital, I suggest you work to change the policies that result in at least 1 in 20 adult Black males being in prison in eleven states (see study here).
- To challenge Premise 4, some evidence (such as this study and this study) suggests ‘stop and frisk’ policies, the way they are usually implemented, have no effect on crime, while at least one study has shown it has a ‘modest deterrent effect on crime.’ However, the policy is an example of systemic racism. For instance, in 2017, data show almost 90% of people stopped and frisked in NYC were Black or Latino/Latina. Reducing crime is important, but if the policy designed to do so also traumatizes generations of innocent young Black and brown young men (usually around 70% of people stopped are innocent), as this study shows, is that an ethically acceptable trade-off? If I lived in New York City and Nisia, my 10-year-old brown-skinned daughter, would be stopped and frisked once every few months on her way to high school, would you, dear reader, think that is OK? I would not. I would worry about the effects of that psychological trauma on her future. And we must evaluate not only the stated purpose or intent of a law, but also its effects. So even if Bloomberg did not say, ‘Let’s keep doing this law to racially profile and harass Black and brown youth in the city, because that would be great!’ the evidence shows that the effects of the law are racist, and are associated with anxiety and other mental health issues for its victims/survivors (more evidence on that below). That is not OK. That is evidence of systemic racism.
- We know, and that is a bad thing that we also want to help stop. What’s your point?
OK, in admitting that there was systemic racism in the U.S. in an earlier time, the systemic racism denier might ask for contemporary evidence of this phenomenon. Here is some (a lot, actually):
Contemporary Peer-Reviewed Evidence of Systemic Racism
- Mortgage lending: This 2019 study shows white borrowers have a comparatively high application approval rate compared to ‘minority’ borrowers. This raises the question, then: Are the Black applicants somehow intrinsically less credit-worthy (which, if it were the case, would require that we (a) accept the racist, white supremacist premise that Black people are inferior to white people, or (b) look into why and how that state of affairs came to be), or, rather, is there systemic racism affecting the lending decisions? It appears the latter is true. This 1995 study shows that lending agencies with more minority employees had higher rates of approval of mortgages to Black applicants, suggesting that bias in white-dominated lenders does indeed produce systemic racism. Homeownership is the primary way to build intergenerational wealth. Systemic racism in bank lending practices helps maintain the status quo of poverty in Black communities.
- School funding: This recent study shows ‘nonwhite’ school districts get $23 billion less than white districts despite serving the same number of students: “For every student enrolled, the average nonwhite school district receives $2,226 less than a white school district,” the report authors wrote. … Poor-white school districts receive about $150 less per student than the national average—an injustice all to itself. Yet they are still receiving nearly $1,500 more than poor-nonwhite school districts.” Better-funded schools provide better education, and better education leads to higher post-secondary achievement, which leads to higher lifetime earnings and the creation of intergenerational wealth.
- Hiring discrimination: This 2016 study shows when Blacks and Asians “whitened” their resumes—for example, used “American” or “white”-sounding names—they got more callbacks for corporate interviews. Twenty-five percent of Black candidates received callbacks from their whitened resumes, while only 10% got calls when they left ethnic details on their resume. There are many more studies like that one. Thus, high unemployment and lack of representation of Black people in administration roles are not due to laziness or inferior competencies, but due to systemic racism. If you, dear reader, find evidence that hiring discrimination doesn’t exist, please provide it in the comment section.
- Voter suppression: This is achieved in a few ways, such as racial gerrymandering. This is a contemporary phenomenon as evinced by the supreme court cases Shaw v. Reno (1993) and Miller v. Johnson (1995). It is also achieved by purges of voter rolls. For example, there were recent purges of the voter registration lists in Florida of voters because their names were similar to those of convicted felons, who were not allowed to vote under Florida law. According to the Palm Beach Post, African-Americans accounted for 88% of those removed from the rolls but were only about 11% of Florida’s voters. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, nearly 89% of felons convicted in Florida are Black; therefore, a purge of convicted felons could be expected to include a disproportionately high number of Blacks. That is one clear way in which systemic racism works. Also, between November 2015 and early 2016, over 120,000 voters were dropped from rolls in Brooklyn, New York. Officials have stated that the purge was a mistake and that those dropped represented a “broad cross-section” of the electorate. However, an WNYC analysis found that the purge had disproportionately affected majority-Hispanic districts.
- Police interactions and incarceration rates: This study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows Black men are 2.5 times more likely than their white counterparts to be killed by the police. As Cornell professor Jamila Michener pointed out recently in the Washington Post here, “Black people are disproportionately likely to come in contact with the criminal legal system, whether that’s being stopped by police, arrested, detained or incarcerated.” That is evidence from 2020 and recent years—from peer-reviewed research from the American Journal of Public Health, Nature: Human Behavior, Stanford University, Criminology, and the Sociological Forum—that systemic racism exists today and that it is harmful to Black people, not least because it breaks up family units, which is a big concern to even deniers of systemic racism (since the breakup of Black families is an easy racist trope by which they can pathologize Blackness). Also, as Dr. Michener points out, also using peer-reviewed evidence, “This heightened contact with the criminal legal system is associated with increased risk of illness and decreased well-being, a phrase researchers use to refer to a composite measure of physical, mental, social, financial and spiritual health.” So, when systemic racism deniers fear being called racist (for more on ‘cancel culture’ and free speech, see twitter right now), you can empathize with them, all the while remembering the daily trauma that Black people and other people of color experience at the hands of THE INSTITUTION OF the police and other related institutions.
- Racial and ethnic disparities in pregnancy-related deaths: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as reported here in 2019, Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native (AI/AN) women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women—and this disparity increases with age. Pregnancy-related deaths per 100,000 live births for Black and AI/AN women older than 30 was four to five times as high as it was for white women! According to the American Medical Association (AMA) as reported in a commentary on the evidence of this phenomenon published in The Journal of Perinatal Education here, “quality of prenatal delivery and postpartum care, as well as interaction between health-seeking behaviors and satisfaction with care may explain part of this difference.” One high-profile and gut-wrenching piece of narrative evidence of this is discussed in the Harvard Public Health Magazine here: Tennis great Serena Williams nearly died following childbirth because the health care professionals assisting her initially didn’t believe her claim that something was wrong. They also share a similar story, with a much worse outcome, of Shalon Irving—a CDC epidemiologist—who died in 2017 from complications of hypertension a few weeks after giving birth. My wife Nelly, a Black woman, was a few days away from probably dying from preeclampsia while pregnant with our first daughter. She had been seen by numerous doctors over a period of days, and they all told her she was fine, and was probably consuming too much salt (she doesn’t eat very much salt at all, but they apparently didn’t believe her). Finally, a midwife from the practice we were visiting saw her in the hallway and said she should go to the hospital right away. So this one, in addition to the wealth of peer-reviewed empirical studies, is quite personal for me.
The above evidence, taken together, shows that institutions (i.e., banks, schools, corporations, government agencies, health care, and law enforcement) all have current, contemporary, ongoing policies and practices that disproportionately hurt Black people and other people of color—the textbook definition of systemic racism.
And again, as I mention above in relation to stop and frisk, even if the intention of the laws is not explicitly racist, we must consider their effects, which are demonstrably and unavoidably racist, hence providing evidence and examples of contemporary systemic racism.
Conclusion: Why This Matters
Some people, such as (in evaluation) Doug Fraser, Bill Fear, and CDC’s Tom Chapel, have the privilege to ‘opt out’ of or ‘give up’ on focusing on the issue of systemic racism. Black people, indigenous people, and people of color do not have that option. As James Baldwin famously said
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time.”
Some people say they don’t have time to dedicate to this issue because they are busy and have other pressing responsibilities. I am actually also very busy, and have been blowing by numerous deadlines to work on this issue, but I believe working on dismantling systemic racism, and in this case working to help (hopefully) teach those who would deny the existence of systemic racism, is worth the time. It is a drop in the bucket compared to the extra labor that Black people and other people of color have to do in regards to this issue literally every single day just by existing. As such, I see it as an ethical imperative.
Why do I care so much about trying to help my fellow white people see that systemic racism exists? It is because I do not understand how someone can be (for example) a Christian or (for example) a scholar/educator, and deny it. Plus, I worry that people in those roles who do deny systemic racism cause harm in both of those domains if they persist in denying that systemic racism exists.
In the realm of the Church, this denial means people risk falling short of the mission of caring for God’s creation and loving His children. It is as if your brother’s house is on fire, and he calls out to you for help, and you reply, ‘I love you but I do not see or believe that the fire is there.’ It was systemic racism that led the religious leaders to leave the Samaritan bleeding on the side of the road; I worry Christians’ denial that systemic racism exists today will lead us to repeat those religious leaders’ sin today. This will contribute to propagating the negative image of the Church as an institution that props up inequity rather than promoting equity the way Jesus calls us to do in the Gospel.
In the realm of academia, this denial means people risk researching and teaching social scientific phenomena in a way that is not valid or credible, because they have neglected to include an immensely important contextual element. I know how highly all social scientists value context. This is why Karen Kirkhart wrote of multicultural validity. How can one then measure constructs like ‘leadership’ or ‘motivation’ in communities and organizations and ignore the impact of race and racism on/in those contexts and still draw valid conclusions?
It is analogous to studying botany while denying evolution, or studying geography or geology as a member of the flat-earth society.
How can one teach and mentor Black students and other students of color if, as they sit across from you, they bring a daily lived experience with systemic racism which you deny exists—for instance, perhaps earlier that day, the graduate student across from you was denied a home loan, and she knows that research shows that Black women like her are much less likely to be approved for mortgage loans than their white peers, or maybe she just came from the doctor’s office where a doctor or nurse refused to believe her about her symptoms, which peer-reviewed literature shows happens way more frequently for Black women than for whites?
In closing, this is not a matter of opinion. Just to focus on the scientific side of this (bracketing the moral, ethical commitment to phronesis in social science that we ought all to share as democratic professionals), should all the peer-reviewed studies that Dr. Michener cites be retracted because they lack accuracy or validity? If so, why? Or do you reject outright the notion of peer-reviewed social science as a legitimate form of knowledge production? If so, why are you in academia?
This is a clarion call for those who would deny the existence of systemic racism to either refute the evidence with other evidence, or change their minds.