The Debate Over Systemic Racism: Why It Divides and Why It Provides Hope

Charlottesville, Virginia

July 27, 2020

The following article appeared in today's WSJ. I found the discussion of Representative Bass' example of systemic racism, and the subsequent discussion by the author, to be informative. I am still wrestling with the phrase "systemic racism." It seems that those two words cause a visceral reaction in many of us and immediately creates a barrier to constructive conversation. I am convince that to some degree that barrier is created because we each have different assumptions and understandings of what we are talking about. I appreciate that this article provides a concrete example of what the author defines as systemic racism.

The article I posted on dignity keeps bouncing around in my head. I can be simplistic at times, but it seems to me that if we brought dignity, humility and curiosity to our discussions about topics such as this one, we could end up understanding each other better and potentially find common ground. I can always hope.

Here's the article:

The searing summertime debate over racial justice isn’t really about George Floyd and his killing in police hands in Minneapolis. Virtually nobody anywhere on the political spectrum argues that what happened to him was just. [Although I have seen enough opinions of deniers that it makes me sick.]

The debate is about police behavior, to some extent. But what it’s really become is a discussion of “systemic racism,” and what turns out to be a deep Black-white divide over that broad topic: whether it still exists, what it means, and what, if anything, to do about it.

In that sense, George Floyd’s death has opened the door to a far more profound and difficult national debate than anyone could have imagined on the day he died eight weeks ago. The topic of systemic racism is more complex than are questions about simple racist behavior or police overreach—and much less given to easy consensus.

Yet the fact that this topic now has been laid out on the national table is why this difficult moment also might hold more long-term hope for Americans of all races.

The question was crystallized last week in a Wall Street Journal online question-and-answer session with California Rep. Karen Bass, who is both chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. A listener presented a polite but pointed question: Do you have real, actual examples of systemic racism in the U.S.? If so, what would you do to solve those?

Rep. Bass responded at first with a chuckle and a simple: “Yikes,” as if to indicate this question opened the door to a tough area.

It’s tough because the lived experiences of Black Americans and white Americans lead to such different perspectives. Today, many white people don’t see how there can be systemic racism when the nation put its most sweeping civil rights laws into effect more than half a century ago, when affirmative action policies have been implemented to address past inequities, when a Black man has been elected president—and, above all, when most white people genuinely believe they aren’t racists themselves. America, they tend to believe, has made more genuine progress fighting racism than any nation on earth.

To many Black people, that also is all true, but not the whole story. They see the ways that the country’s racist past has built into its social and economic systems deep underlying inequities that still exist, long after the attitudes that created them in the first place may have changed. These effects are at once both subtle and more far-reaching.

In her response, Rep. Bass pointed to the part of American life where the lingering effects of past actions are perhaps most clear: housing policy. After World War II, she noted, the federal government pumped millions of dollars into programs to build houses to develop the soon-sprawling suburbs—but under policies that denied those benefits to Black Americans. “So houses were sold at a very, very cheap rate that allowed for generational wealth to be developed in the white population, and did not in the Black population,” she said.

That is true—and in fact, is an injustice that actually began even before the end of World War II. In his 2017 book “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” Richard Rothstein chronicles in detail how decades of federal housing policy affected the disparate accumulation of wealth in America.

Starting during the New Deal, the federal government, through its Home Owners Loan Corp., began underwriting mortgages to allow working-class Americans to keep their homes during the Depression. But the government wanted to protect its investment by funneling funds to relatively “safe” mortgages—and decided that homes owned by white people, in all-white neighborhoods, were safer investments than homes sold to Black people or in mixed-race neighborhoods.

So mortgage assistance went out specifically to help white people, not Black people. When the Federal Housing Administration was created to expand homeownership to more Americans, it simply adopted the same policies. Then, crucially, so did the Veterans Administration when it began helping finance the largest housing boom in American history for soldiers returning from World War II.

So for decades government policies explicitly helped white Americans build housing capital and denied Black Americans the same opportunity. Such policies have long tails: They also consigned Black people to less-prosperous neighborhoods with poorer schools, with effects that linger long after the policies themselves were changed.

“I don’t think it should be a guilt issue,” Ms. Bass said in the Journal interview. “Whoever it is who asked that question, they didn’t have anything to do with this. This is the way the system was created.”

What this awful summer of 2020 has done, though, is given the country a new chance to recognize all this—and figure out how, together, to peel back some of the layers of historical racial imbalances and inequities.

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