I encounter people of all sorts fairly regularly on social media. There is a real debate about how the word "racism" should be used. I have a lot to say about that, but I'm not interested in that debate for the sake of this post. There are those who have tried to rework our categories in such a way that prejudice and discrimination are not racism. Racism is purely a structural or systemic thing. Prejudice and discrimination are bad, but they are not racism. We ought to resist them and avoid them to the extent that we can, but racism is just the institutional, structural, and systemic stuff. In their view, we should reserve the word "racism" to refer to the system itself, not the people who do it or their attitudes or actions. Thus racism can only be in one direction, the direction that society enforces with structural, systemic, and institutionally determined forces that act mostly to the advantage of white people and mostly to the disadvantage of others. I happen to think that approach to how we should use the word "racism" is wrong in a few ways, but as I said I'm not interested in that debate for the sake of this post. I'm interested in a reaction against that view that I think goes too far in the other direction.
A very common response to those who reserve the word "racism" for structural, systemic, and institutional stuff is simply to deny that there is such a thing as systemic racism. That sort of statement has been increasingly common on the right in response to what they (rightly in my view) regard as problems in how people (mostly on the left) are conceiving of racism. But what seems to me to be an overreaction is simply to deny that there is such a thing as systemic racism or to deny that it is our most serious sort of racial problem.
The idea of systemic, institutional, or structural racism goes back before the Civil Rights era. People had been calling attention to these sorts of problems well before the time of MLK. But it began to be more mainstream as people noticed that changes in laws and societal attitudes were not bringing along changes in some of the other forces that advantage or disadvantage people along race lines. MLK began to see this toward the end of his life, and he began to recognize that just getting people having the right attitudes and making changes in laws to prevent explicit and deliberate discrimination would not be sufficient to solve all of our race problems. There are systemic, structural, and institutional forces that lead to disadvantage and advantage in ways that no one intends. No one is deliberately discriminating or explicitly prejudiced. Yet disadvantage and advantage occur. The problem is in institutions, structures, and systems rather than in beliefs, desires, emotions, or actions of individual people. That is the concept of systemic racism.
On one conception of racism, the one I was raised with, the one that feels to me like how the English language actually operates, these systemic problems are simply not racism. I completely understand those who don't like to call it racism. I myself don't like to call it that. Racism is an attitude of the heart or a set of actions of individuals. But that's a linguistic issue. It's not an issue of what the world is actually like. The thing people are in fact calling systemic racism, and in fact the only thing that term has ever referred to, is real. Not only is it real, but it consists of what seem to me to be the more significant and substantial problems that we have in our society at this point. The stuff I'm inclined to call racism is becoming less present, less effective in causing real problems. Why? Because there is such a stigma attached to racism, to even being perceived as racist, that it's diminished to a much greater degree than the systemic problems have. But the systemic problems remain. And the systemic problems do trace back to racism in the classic sense, when you look hard enough and far enough. They wouldn't be present without racism having occurred.
Here's an non-racial example for anyone having trouble understanding the concept of a systemic problem. Adderall is a controlled substance. People take it when they have no condition requiring it, and people take doses that are much too high. That means it's illegal for a pharmacy to put it on auto-refill, and it's illegal even to prescribe it with refills. You have to call your doctor every month to get them to submit a new prescription. Typically, the people who are taking Adderall are the same people who have executive control issues and are going to have a harder time being organized and remembering to call about that new prescription, which places an additional burden on people who are already worse off when it comes to things like this. That results in days without the medication that helps them be more organized and attentive. No one is trying to make life harder for people with ADHD and autism who rely on this medication. That's not the point. The goal is to prevent abuse by those who don't need the medication to begin with. But because of laws designed to prevent that abuse, the people who need the medication suffer. This is what a systemic or structural problem looks like.
Are there such problems that occur along race lines? There certainly are. There are institutional, systemic, and structural forces in our society that work against people of color, some of them stronger for certain groups than for others, some of them not because of any present discrimination but just because of the effects of past discrimination (e.g. housing segregation today is not a result of present-day bank practices but because of past discrimination in mortgages and racial contracts of who could live in which neighborhoods), and there remain disparities in infrastructure, housing quality, locations of shopping or other necessities nearby, and so on. School segregation no longer has any laws forcing it, but kids tend to go to school where they live, and the quality of schools reflects the resources of the neighborhood. Together with policies like school choice, which allows enterprising parents and students to get out of the bad schools but also thereby makes the bad schools worse for those without that initiative and drive, our schools get more segregated and more disparate in quality and outcome, and that occurs along race lines. There is many careful studies that identify biases that affect law enforcement and criminal justice, disparities in health care, stigmatizations and stereotypes that affect our behavior even if we think the stereotypes are false, and so on. It should be obvious that many of these things are not racism in the classic sense, but they are the only thing that people have ever meant by terms like "systemic racism." They are disparate results that occur along race lines in ways that are predictable and systemic. The forces in our society tend to produce those results along certain lines in ways that are consistent and recurring. And these problems are much more serious than a privileged white kid using the N-word or not inviting the one black kid in the mostly white neighborhood over for a birthday party.
Now if you prefer to call these things "systemic advantage" and "systemic disadvantage" or something like that, I have great sympathies for why you might want to do that. But the fact remains that these are the only thing that terms like "structural racism" and "systemic racism" have ever meant. Words mean what they are used to mean. So those terms do in fact refer to these sorts of problems. That is so, whether you want to think of these sorts of issues as racism or not. I tend to be in the "not" category on that myself. But systemic racism is real, and those who consistently deny it are in effect denying that any of these problems are real. It does not help the cause of the political right in trying to push back against some of the excesses and unhelpful behaviors of the left on race issues if it just looks like you are denying observable facts, and that's what denials of systemic racism look like to the left. If you want to have real conversations where you engage with real people and actually try to convince them of things, to help them see that you have a legitimate point against anything they are saying, it helps to understand their view and get it right first. You are not doing that if you simply deny the reality of systemic racism and say no more. That strategy is doomed to failure. It is no wonder that they will call that strategy "white fragility" or "white supremacy," because it just looks like a desperate attempt to pretend that our most serious problems along race lines simply don't exist. Let's stop doing that, please. If you don't want to be accused of white fragility and white supremacy, then do not set yourself up to be accused of it by behaving in exactly the way the left predicts you will act. And then maybe there will be room for an actual conversation where people seek to understand each other and move forward.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.