From institutional to systemic racism
The notion of systemic racism is a historic error
In his autobiography, Malcolm X said that whites concerned about racial injustice and racial inequality should work among their own people, seeking to educate white society.
I took Malcom’s advice to heart, as a personal commitment to the black community. From 1973 to 2010, as a professor of sociology in four colleges in the USA (East, Midwest, and South), I taught courses in the political-economy of the world-system, racial and ethnic relations, social inequality, and social movements. The course on political economy, which was of my own creation, covered the historical development of the modern world-system on a colonial foundation; and the twentieth century Third World anti-colonial movements that the world-system generated. It was complemented by two experiential courses, also of my own creation, involving educational travel in Honduras and Cuba. My students were overwhelmingly white middle class. I had to relocate a couple of times, because the anti-colonial perspective that I was developing violating the rules concerning the boundaries of the academic disciplines.
Institutional racism and the colonial model
My course on racial and ethnic relations used a standard textbook in the field, supplemented by materials on the African-American movement from 1917 to 1988. The textbooks included explanation of the concept of institutional racism or institutional discrimination, which I highlighted and emphasized in classroom discussion and tests.
Institutional discrimination refers to standards established by institutions that result in perpetuating racial inequality, without intending to do so. A typical example was the use of SAT scores in college admissions. The use of the SAT as a criterion was never intended to discriminate on the basis of race, but to differentiate on the basis of aptitude or ability. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, there emerged the belief that SAT questions to some extent measure facility in white mainstream culture, and therefore, the use of the test discriminates against those blacks less fluent in mainstream white culture. Moreover, it was increasingly argued that SAT scores are poor predictors of performance in college, which above all depends on individual self-discipline in a new relatively open environment.
Note that the concept of institutional discrimination so defined assumes that the standards established by institutions do not intend to discriminate on the basis of race. They intend to identity those individuals, regardless of race, who have the characteristics that the institution requires. The concept, therefore, takes as given the good faith of the institutional managers as persons who have no preference or interest in the exclusion of individuals on the basis of race.
This assumption by sociologists of the good faith of institutional managers was fully consistent with global and national tendencies toward treating race as irrelevant for qualification. Racism had been important in justifying colonial domination; but by the 1950s and 1960s, the colonial empires were collapsing. The world order was evolving toward a neocolonial world-system, in which peoples of color were developing independent states with equal sovereign rights in such international organizations as the United Nations. In the neocolonial global environment, no country, national elite, corporation, educational institution, or organization had an interest in discriminating on the basis of race, for it would have been seen as morally backwards, which would have been detrimental to its interests.
The assumption by sociologists of good faith was fully consistent with my personal observations. When I was growing up in suburban Philadelphia in the 1950s, it was common for people to express the view that blacks were less intelligent and hardworking than whites, and that, therefore, it was reasonable for companies not to employ blacks in positions that required these characteristics. After 1965, I never heard anyone express such a view. Some objected to affirmative action, and others insisted on a right to display the confederate flag, but their arguments did not include an expression of black inferiority. It was evident that there had occurred a sea change with respect to white racial attitudes, fed by the emergence of visible black personalities that were demonstrating the fallacy of the previous racist view. The idea of black inferiority was demonstrably false, and it was widely understood as a notion that pertained to the past.
The concept of institutional discrimination lent support to the policy of affirmative action in college admissions. If standards for distinguishing among individuals had their imperfections, then the inclusion of the essentially irrelevant criterion of race as one factor among many others, for the positive result of increasing diversity, was not going to introduce additional unfairness or irrationality to the process. On this basis, I attempted to explain to my students that affirmative action was not unreasonable, even though the protection of the social and economic rights of all, regardless of race, would have been more desirable as a foundation for a project seeking to advance in the fulfillment of the American promise of democracy.
In my teaching of historic racism and discrimination in the times of slavery and Jim Crow, and of post-1965 institutional racism and discrimination, I presented racism as one dimension in the larger historical and global process of Western European conquest and colonial domination of the world from the sixteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. As was the case in the pre-modern conquest of the last several millennia of human history, the modern European world conquest had its material incentives and material benefits, providing additional territories, raw materials, and laborers, often forced laborers, for the economic benefit of the conquerors and colonizers. African slavery in America was a part of this four-century long process of domination, which also included: the intensification of the political-economic structures of domination in previously-conquered Ireland; the conquest and imposition of forced labor in various forms in the region that we today call Latin America and the Caribbean; the imposition of a system of economically forced labor on peasants in Eastern Europe; the conquest and settlement of North America; and the conquest, acquisition of land, and the impositions of various systems of forced labor in vast regions of South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. This process of Western European domination was the foundation to the economic development of the modern West.
Racism was necessary to justify and legitimate the project of European colonial domination, but the logic driving it was primarily material gain, not racial hatred. I discovered that my white Southern students tended to like my comprehensive and global formulation, because it enabled them to see the need for humanity to move beyond domination and their racist justifications, without these young Southern white men and women having to view their immediate foreparents as the incarnation of the Devil. The historical and global approach demonstrates the unsustainability of historic human patterns of domination, and it calls upon all to join in a common project in defense of humanity. Let us call this approach the colonial model, as distinct from a racism model, which gives primacy to racism, thereby mistaking the consequent for the essential.
The colonial model sees the capacity of the colonial world order to reinvent itself in a neocolonial form. The imperialist powers granted political independence to the colonized peoples, but preserved structures of economic superexploitation, financial penetration, and indirect political control, thus ensuring the continuation and the expansion of the material benefits of colonial domination.
The colonial model also sees the sustained anti-imperialist movements, from 1948 to the present, which have been constructing in theory and practice an alternative international economic order and a more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system. This ongoing Third World anti-colonial movement today seeks the support and solidarity of the peoples of the North, without distinction between whites and peoples of color.
The colonial model implies that, rather than calling out supposedly racist individuals, it would be better to focus on understanding the structures of neocolonial domination and the Third World anti-colonial movements. Such understanding is the foundation for the participation of the peoples of the countries of the North in the democratic transformation of global economic structures and for the construction of a more just and sustainable world order, a process presently unfolding under the leadership of the Third World plus China. Calling out and “canceling” supposedly racist individuals deepens divisions among the peoples of the North, making less and less possible that unity of the people that is required for transformative change.
The post-2008 turn to “systemic racism”
The sentiment of Malcolm X that whites should work in their own communities became widely accepted in the black community in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as was indicated by the call for separate black institutions. In accordance with this orientation, SNCC voted (by a narrow majority) to expel its remaining white members, including some who had been physically beaten for their support of black rights. As I was involved in various activities in the black community of Southside Chicago in the early 1970s, my presence was frequently challenged, and I found that it helped to diffuse the situation by making clear my intentions, which were to learn and not to “help,” to listen and not to express my views. I interpreted the separatist orientation as an expression by the black community that blacks and only blacks can assume responsibility for the development of the black community.” I believed that the separatist orientation had merit, in accordance with the concept of “self-help” in the tradition of the African-American movement.
However, by the 1980s, by then intensively involved in my project of educating whites, I did not see much indication of the fulfillment of the self-help commitment. There were without doubt unsung heroes in the black community doing invisible work. But what I could see was the emphasis of black leaders on affirmative action, which was of more benefit to the black middle class than the black poor. I saw the emergence of citizen review boards, rather than the development of alternative forms of policing under local community control. I noted the employment of middle-class blacks in social programs that did little for the economic uplift of the black poor. I read the analyses of the black sociologist William J. Wilson, who described “the outmigration of the black middle class” from the historic black sections of cities, which seemed to me an abandonment of Malcolm’s call for black control of the black community.
These disconcerting tendencies in the black community led to “identity politics” in the 1990s and culminated in the post-2008 turn to “systemic racism,” which is illustrated by Carol Anderson’s widely-read 2016 book, White Rage. Anderson wrote that a new Jim Crow had begun to emerge in the late 1960s, in which affirmative action was characterized as reverse discrimination. In the new Jim Crow ideology, Anderson maintains, racism is defined as KKK violence, so that whites could treat racism as an aberration, and not as something systemic. For Anderson, whites were refusing to see racism as systemic, institutional, and pervasive. By late 2020, newly-elected President Joe Biden had picked up on the term, promising that his administration would fight “systemic racism.”
“Systemic racism” does not accurately describe the post-1965 reality of the USA. How can racism be systemic, when the principal leaders and opinions makers condemn racism, when there are affirmative action programs in place, and when institutional managers have no interest in the perpetuation of racism and discrimination? “Systemic racism” would accurately describe the American reality prior to 1965, when there was legally mandated segregation in education and public accommodation and the denial of voting rights in the South; and when there was the custom of segregation in housing and public accommodations in the North, tolerated by state and federal governments.
Any manifestation of racism since 1965 is anti-systemic, standing in opposition to the fundamental goals of the system and the elite. It is a residual racism, a legacy of the pre-1965 systemic racism. Some degree of residual racism is to be expected, inasmuch as attitudes cannot be eliminated overnight by decree. But residual racism was gradually declining, an indication that U.S. racial attitudes and customs were evolving in a form consist with the neocolonial world order. I submit that gradually declining, anti-systemic, and residual racism cannot be reasonably characterized as “systemic racism.”
The inaccurate claim of systemic racism is disseminated with a statistical sleight of hand, illustrated by the wide broadcast of the statistical truth that blacks are disproportionately killed by police. Glenn Loury, a black economist at Brown University, writes that carefully documented data indicate that an average of approximately 1200 people are fatally shot by police every year, and a majority are of them are white. Some 300 of them are black, 25% of those killed, which is more or less double the black proportion of the population (13%). But the crude figures do not control for class, a standard sociological procedure; and we would expect that controlling for class would significantly reduce the black disproportionality. Loury further observes that, even though 1200 deaths at the hands of the police are too many and are regrettable, they nonetheless constitute a minuscule fraction of the tens of thousands of arrests made every day in the United States, which has a population of more than 300 million. Moreover, in analyzing the 17,000 homicides in the United States every year, nearly half of which are committed by blacks, Loury concludes that “for every black killed by the police, more than 25 other black people meet their end because of homicides committed by other blacks.”
In addition, the concept of “systemic racism” ignores analysis of class. Indeed, Anderson maintains that analyzing from the prism of class rather than race is a maneuver to keep blacks disadvantaged. However, the shift of focus from race to class was one of the proposals of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967 and 1968. King maintained that the gains in civil and political rights of 1964 and 1965 pointed to the need for an emphasis on the common economic needs of the poor, regardless of race. With this emphasis, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched the Poor People’s Campaign, which was carried out after Dr. King’s assassination, an immeasurable loss to the U.S. Left and its ideological development.
The positive results of an emphasis on class in order to attend to racial injustices can be seen in the case of Cuba. Cuba abolished its historic systemic racism on September 2, 1960, when the National General Assembly of the People of Cuba emitted the Declaration of Havana, which defined the concepts and rights that would guide the revolutionary process in the subsequent stage, including full citizenship rights for blacks. This formal and legal position of the Cuban revolutionary project was supplemented by significant state investment in a comprehensive program to provide high-quality and equal public education for all, regardless of race. This particularly benefitted blacks, who were disproportionately represented among the poor. However, the commitment to education was not presented as a program to benefit blacks, but as a program to benefit all of the people, primarily the poor, for the long-term good of the nation. The broad educational program had the beneficial consequence of creating opportunities for blacks and whites to work together in the construction of the revolutionary project, which over the course of time led to a reduction of racial animosities.
Racial inequality still exists in Cuba, although it is difficult to measure, because racial demarcations in Cuba are blurry, and because the people tend to self-identify as Cubans and not as whites, blacks, or mulattoes. And there continues to be a degree of residual racial prejudice; the government recently formed a commission to investigate how it might be addressed. But the levels of racial inequality and racism are far lower than what they were before the triumph of the revolution; and the situation is far different of the United States, in spite of the central role of racism in colonial and neocolonial Cuba. A completely different racial reality has been constructed in Cuba, secondarily by declaring against racism, but primarily by putting into practice a project dedicated to the protection of the social and economic rights of all.
In contrast, in the United States, the government has cast aside the proposals of King and Jesse Jackson and has abandoned the people. The poor, white and black, remain as poor as they were in 1965; and the working and middle classes, white and black, have experienced an erosion in their material standing of living. White social insecurity, combined with the absence of a comprehensive program for the protection of the social and economic rights of all and with affirmative action in support of blacks and minorities, stokes residual white racism, which is higher that it would have been if the nation had embarked in 1968 on a program for the protection of the social and economic rights of all. Nevertheless, because systemic racism has been eliminated in the United States, that is, because institutional managers speak against racism, residual racism had been declining for four decades. It is possible, however, that the post-2008 accusation of systemic racism against white society has led to an increase in residual racism.
John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Columbia University, also criticizes the racism model for simplistically ignoring the factor of class. McWorter observes that Ibram Kendi’s How To Be An Anti-Racist assumes that “all racial disparities are due to racism.” For Kendi, this assumption is beyond question for any moral person, and Kendi views anyone who argues against it to be racist. McWorter maintains, however, that cultural factors are important, which is a fact that “ordinary people tend to understand spontaneously.”
Similarly, Adolph Reed, Jr., professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and Walter Benn Michaels, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, maintain that the increase in inequality from 1968 to 2016 was not caused by racism, but by the policy turn to neoliberal capitalism. “And because racism is not the principal source of inequality today, antiracism functions more as a misdirection that justifies inequality than a strategy for eliminating it.”
“Systemic racism” as a “historic error”
In addition to its inaccuracy and myopia, “systemic racism” is a “historic error,”1 because it has divided the people of the United States in a historic moment defined by financial and economic crises, which calls for a united struggle of the people on social and economic issues. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, the people, who at that moment were confused by the mis-teachings of “identity politics,” arrived to the key notion of the revolutionary subject: “the 99%.” They discerned, suddenly, the necessary unity of the great majority in defense of their interests, united against the elite. There was still much work to be done: formulating a program, educating the people, seeing the struggle in the nation in international context. Nevertheless, the notion of “the 99%” was a dangerous idea. But “systemic racism” came to the rescue of the elite, pushing to the side the notion of “the 99%,” pitting blacks and whites against each other and fomenting ideological divisions.
The dissemination of the notion of “systemic racism” has increased the tendency for blacks to blame white racism for racial inequality. In his highly influential and highly problematic How to be an antiracist, Ibram Kendi reports that in 1993, some 48% of black people identified reasons other than white racism as the explanation for why blacks have worse jobs and lower income; the percentage rose to 53% in a 2003 survey, and it reached 60% by 2013 (the figure among whites for 2013 was 85%). In 2013, only 37% of black people believed that white racism is the cause of racial inequity. That is to say, the number of blacks who identified white racism as the source of racial inequity in 2013 was a minority in the black community, and it had been gradually declining for twenty years. But between 2013 and 2017 there was a dramatic change in public opinion. In 2017, 59% of blacks, 35% of whites, and 45% of Latinos expressed the view that white racism was the principal cause of racial inequity. Kendi maintains that the reason for the change in public opinion between 2013 and 2017 was a rise in black consciousness, but I submit that this phenomenon was caused by the emergence of a “systemic racism” ideology that inaccurately blamed everything on a pervasive white racism, ignoring historical and cultural factors as well as the middle-class priorities of black leaders.
Reed and Michaels also point to the political divisiveness of the racism model. Many anti-racists and liberals, they observe, express indifference toward or disdain for poor and working-class whites. But such indifference and disdain support the perpetuation of social inequality and well as racial inequity. “It is practically impossible, as generations of black proponents of social democracy understood clearly, to imagine a serious strategy for winning the kinds of reforms that would actually improve black and brown working people’s conditions without winning them for all working people and without doing so through a struggle anchored to broad working-class solidarity.”
Reed maintains that the new anti-racist politics is a critical tendency within the dominant neoliberal ideology. It is, he argues, incompatible with leftist politics as conventionally understood; it is in fact anti-leftist. It “is fundamentally antagonistic to a left politics of broadly egalitarian social transformation.” It is characterized by “militant opposition to conventional leftist norms of justice that center on economic equality.” It does not seek the elimination or reduction of inequalities of the nation; it only seeks equal access to the hierarchical distribution of goods and services. It is committed to the pursuit of racial parity within the established order.
According to Reed, anti-racist politics promotes the interests of the professional-managerial class, and therefore, it does not seek to forge a large, broad political base seeking social transformation. It is rooted in the social position and worldview of government administrators tied to the Democratic Party, news analysts and commentators, educational administrators and professors, corporate administrators, social service and non-profit sectors, and the diversity industry. The members of this stratum are in agreement that race and other ascriptive identities should be central to the framing of social justice issues.
Many of the black scholars and activists who criticize the racism model consider themselves “black conservatives.” They are critical of the prevailing orientation of black leaders for their emphasis on blacks as victims, which, they maintain, undermines black empowerment. I have written of this current of thought in a previous commentary, “Free Black Thought.”
Will the Left recover from its historic error of “systemic racism”? I believe that the turn of the Left to identity politics in the 1990s and to “systemic racism” since 2008 has violated the fundamental principles and goals of the African-American Movement of 1917 to 1988. And it has led the Left to an ideological dead end, from which it at best could attain narrow electoral wins in alliance with the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, which is dominated at present by sectors that support imperialist foreign policies. This center-leftist alliance is hopelessly deadlocked with the Republican Right, which perhaps, thanks to the errors of the Left, could soon attain a governing consensual majority.
This situation makes necessary an ideological reformulation by the Left, which would involve a creative synthesis of the ideas of the Left and the Right, in a form consistent with the historic commitment by the Left to social justice.
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“Historic error” is a term I have learned in Cuba. A “historic error” is a mistaken policy that results from misreading the historic moment, and which has disastrous consequences with respect to popular support. For example, the alliance of the first Communist Party of Cuba with the dictator Batista is viewed as a historic error, from which the Party never recovered. After the triumph of the Revolution, the Party participated in the formation of a new Communist Party of Cuba, merging with other revolutionary organizations, under the guidance of Fidel.