Systemic Racism: Fact, Not Theory (part 2) Skip to content

Systemic Racism: Fact, Not Theory (part 2)

Ken Wolf continues his analysis of systemic racism in America, and conservatives' continued denial of its existence.

3 min read
Photo by Alex Motoc / Unsplash

Given the continued obsession of my Republican colleagues with critical race theory, using an attack on CRT to distract attention from the real issues of systemic or institutional racism in our society, it is time to take a look at some of the facts that confirm the inequality that still exists in America.

In a recent Ledger column on CRT, friend Winfield made a correct distinction between correlation and causation. We historians are fond of telling our students that just because World War II followed only twenty years after World War I, the first world war was not the cause of the second. The fact that something comes after something else does not prove that it was caused by the first event (the “fallacy of the false cause”).

Dr. Rose then adds that one cannot prove that “laws and institutions of our country” actually caused “social, political, and economic inequalities between white and non-white people.” He suggests that inequality could be caused by other factors. I agree.

We do need, however, to think further about the objective reality of racism in America by looking at possible causes well beyond the existence of discriminatory laws, most of which have been repealed.

First, we need to go beyond the notion that race is essentially a matter of biology. Race is profoundly cultural. It is learned behavior. It is in our attitudes more than in our DNA. My former colleague and the first African-America hired in the History Department, Ken Mason, convinced me that all the racial categories devised by scholars over the past three centuries, such as Caucasian, Mongoloid, Negroid, were largely European ways of codifying color consciousness.

Although some biological differences do exist, it is mainly skin color that matters, Professor Mason believed. White people don’t discriminate against African-Americans because the latter are more likely to get sickle cell anemia, nor do we express hostility to Asian-Americans because their eyes look different than those of Caucasians.

We discriminate due to skin color, because it is an easy identifier that allows us to look negatively upon a person whom we want to see as different. And when we make such comparisons in social and political matters, we are always judging one thing or person superior to another.

Judgmental comparisons (really an oxymoron since all comparisons imply judgment) are not found in “pure” science or mathematics, but only in the “cultural” studies called social sciences or humanities in our universities.

And that is why systemic or institutional racism in America is a cultural rather than a biological issue. This would be true whether or not critical race theory ever existed – and well before it became a Republican catch-phrase.

In 1968 the Kerner Commission, established by President Johnson to study unrest in American cities in the 1960s, wrote the following:

“White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

And that is a definition of systemic and institutional racism. It is not a new thing.

So when Dr. Rose calls CRT “a pernicious ideology which attacks the core principles of our civilization,” by which I trust he means American ideas of unity, “e pluribus unum” (from many one) and all that we associate with our commitment to a democratic republic, he is really describing our continuing embrace of racism, not necessarily in our laws, but certainly in our society and a powerful reality in the lives of our black citizens.

It isn’t biological realities that results in African-American per capita income averaging $24,700 annually and white income averaging $42,700. It is not due to decisions made by individual employers as much as institutional practices endorsed or tolerated by a majority of white Americans.

It is not nasty neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, or academic CRT promoters who created a world in which black home ownership is 44% while white home ownership is 73%. It is all of us white folks who tolerated centuries of black people being considered first property and then second-class citizens in America, a country on which we ask God to shed his grace.

Shame on Republicans for attacking CRT instead of joining the rest of us in seeking justice for all – something which can only be secured if we work together to end systemic racism.


Written by Ken Wolf, and originally appearing in the Murray Ledger & Times.

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