Systemic Racism?

April 2021

People who compete in contact sports, like hockey and football, are far more likely to be injured than those who participate by watching on television. The intention of these sports is not physical harm, and the occurrences of injury are regretted, instigating measures to avoid them, including technical improvement of equipment, and rule changes. But if you play, you’re in the danger zone; couch concussions are unheard of and are not included in injury statistics.

The appropriate comparative universe, in terms of difference in the harm occurring to various groups, is not with overall populations, but with the common circumstances of affected individuals between the groups. In the current concern of Blacks killed by police, the comparison is not between how many Blacks get shot by police in comparison to Whites, but the universe is of those, in both groups, who get into conflict with the police. If one group is disproportionately involved, then they are logically more likely to be injured. The issue is why they are overrepresented in the first place.

The French writer Anatole France exemplified the issue of uneven prison representation with exquisite irony, stating that the law “... forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Therein lays the core element of the disproportionate level of Black confrontation with authorities. Black poverty is reflected beyond the simple condition of financial poverty; a form of social poverty is embedded in the lives of Black people that ensues conflict.

There is certainly systemic racism in society, but it is symptomatic of the social racism that is the remnant of slavery and colonialist circumstances. The structural racism that is built into Black life carries both the residue of previous racist systems and the present-day resistance to the evolution of culture that would address it. Blacks suffer lower qualities of social services than the general population, most importantly health and education. And in both these services the absence of quality occurs in the interest of class society. Inferior inner-city schools, single parent families, gang culture, junk food, guns, school dropouts, drugs, and the resulting conflict with police, are features that instigate violence and killing – regardless of race – but are disproportionately present in Black communities.

The historical conflict with police has developed a culture of hostility that finds Black relations fraught with a greater likelihood of violence than that with White people. The absence of assumptions of racism means Whites are more likely to obey police commands, contributing to the proportionately lower number of incidents. Many violent encounters with Blacks start with relatively innocuous events like traffic violations. However, the relations with police, stated above, generally tend toward more escalations. In over 20 of the recent police shootings of Blacks, a high level of guns, stolen cars, drug possession, resisting officers, and previous criminal records prevailed among the victims.

Statistics show that 65% of inner-city Black families are single-parented, 30% of which live in poverty; high school drop-out rates are three times that of Whites; in 2019, 259 Blacks were killed by police; 30 per million population. 406 Whites were killed; 12 per million. There is no record of the number of the actual encounters with police, but the conditions cited above certainly lead more Blacks into confrontations with authorities.

A recent article in The Globe and Mail, while dealing specifically with the effects of the pandemic on the educational system, cites a wider reality. A study for the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation points out that the home learning environment is a major factor in learning for all children. Children first learn to read, and then read to learn, and children in lower socioeconomic families are most disadvantaged in learning to read. Low literacy levels are a detriment to learning and inhibit the acquisition of knowledge and skills necessary to function positively in society.

The gradual reforming of the social norms of the slavery period, exemplified by the Jim Crow era, contributes to the suppression of Black people. Fostered by aberrations like affirmative action, the posturing of “diversity and inclusion” committees, bypassing the principle of merit, stigmatizes Black employees and denies them entry into the status quo. This band-aid tactic is currently a social mandate. The unlikely aspirations of show business and sports as the way out of the ghetto, keeps a lower social status as the norm for Black people leading to the lumpen lifestyles that bring Blacks into conflict with authorities.

The result of this stratagem is low expectations and sinecures, elements of systemic racism that result from the arrested development of these groups. The high incidence of Black contention with police results in ingrained racist attitudes; mutual distrust and hatred are inevitable. An example of this, minus the element of contention, is in the film Being There, wherein a simple-minded gardener, named Chance (Peter Sellers), who has never been out alone, is released into society. The cook from his home was a Black woman, and he immediately asks the first Black woman he sees to make him a sandwich. To Chance, Blacks are friendly and nurturing, to cops they are socially menacing. Although Chance is naively innocent, both views are racist.

The insistence on seeing no further than the symptoms of the problems of racism, rather than the cause, is at that core of the reductive responses to the situation. More condescending appointments, awards, sinecures and representation in the media, hate crime legislation and witless N-word decrees, will drive racist attitudes underground, and eliminate merit as a crucial value in society. The existing preconditions must be addressed, and their effects reconciled, in order to open the door for oppressed and ignored people to gain access to the modern world and the age of Enlightenment.