June 11, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Step One in the Long March Toward Equality

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What is merit? Merit is natural worth. An individual’s merit is their ability to succeed in society. The notion that all people are created equal means to me that the merit of each individual is based on unobservable traits. Science supports no other conclusion. Therefore, I believe everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed no matter what they look like. The Third Reich tried to concoct science supporting racial supremacism. Nazis argued the White race is more meritorious than other races due to higher intelligence and lower criminality. They failed. They argued wealth disparity is explained by the White race’s superior merit. They were wrong. I assume the reader agrees.

What is meritocracy? Meritocracy is a system where each participant is granted an equal opportunity to succeed. In a meritocracy, the smartest, most talented and hardworking people achieve the best outcomes. In a capitalist meritocracy, the benefit is money. Therefore, in a capitalist meritocracy, merit drives wealth. Assuming all people are created equal and race has no influence on merit, demographics in a capitalist meritocracy’s wealthy communities should be proportionate to the national population. To illustrate, if Black people make up 13 percent of a capitalist meritocracy’s national population, its wealthy communities should be about 13 percent Black.

If equal opportunity abounds in America minus a few ‘bad apples,’ why are Black and Brown people underrepresented in wealthy communities and overrepresented in prisons? I believe all people are created equal. Holding true to this core assumption, I considered every argument I could imagine to explain inequality in America. The only defensible explanation is systemic racism. It is not a liberal fantasy or a circular argument. It actually exists. However, many incorrectly interpret systemic racism, adopting a narrow construction where “systemic” refers to a few racists — ‘bad apples’ — holding positions of authority in American institutions.

Bigots are real. However, this irresponsible, limited view of systemic racism assumes the cure is rounding up the bigots and shaming, canceling, firing or jailing them. Doing this offers no long-term solution to inequality. The solution begins with two steps. Step One is recognizing individually that a broader reading of systemic racism actually exists in America. Step Two is enacting legislation to combat it. There are many subsequent steps. One proposal will not fix America’s ills, though it is a good start. This piece focuses on Step One.

In its broader reading, systemic racism is the collective racial bias of the entire population, amalgamated in piecemeal, countless, often intangible and nondeliberate acts of racism. Each time someone crosses the street to avoid passing a Black or Brown person on the sidewalk, it subsists. Each time a shopkeeper watches their security cameras more closely when a Black or Brown person enters, it breathes. Each time a student assumes their peer was admitted to school on a diversity scholarship, it grows. These behaviors perpetuate in professional settings. In government. Everywhere. White people are not the only culprits. This broad view of systemic racism recognizes an infection of the national conscience.

Taking the broad view, systemic racism results in challenging modern realities like 1) diluted minority voting power due to gerrymandering, 2) disproportionate policing in underprivileged communities, 3) no second chances in the criminal justice system, 4) the prevention of wealth accumulation over time due to generations of discriminatory banking practices, including the historical practice of redlining and modern practices which continue to disproportionately deny loans to minority communities and 5) bad education due to the practice of using municipal property taxation to fund schools, where relatively inexpensive and undesirable properties in low-income communities produce less local tax revenue. The list goes on. No one person is to blame for such challenges. Simultaneously, the reader and I both play a part.

Some argue, however, that inequality is driven not by systemic racism but by socioeconomic factors. Proponents of this argument explain inequality through a social, economic or political lens. Ultimately, The Socioeconomic Factors Argument boils down to three sub-arguments. The Nazi Argument asserts a belief that inequality is inevitable and justifiable due to a racial hierarchy. The Sheer Luck Argument assumes inequality results from sheer luck. The Predictive Accuracy Argument avows the predictive accuracy of associating skin color with unobservable traits.

I assume the reader rejects The Nazi Argument. The Sheer Luck argument is consistent with the following: “When they are treated poorly or experience bad outcomes, they are simply unlucky.” “They happened to interact with a few bad apples (I am not one of them).” Alternatively, “They like living together.” This argument is unpersuasive. Each assertion minimizes inequality as an inconvenience and suggests nothing substantial can be done to address it.

The Predictive Accuracy Argument is more nuanced and less explicitly offensive. Captured in a phrase: “It’s not racism if it’s true.” However, this belief perpetuates the same assumptions about genetic superiority as The Nazi Argument. For example: “I crossed the street because they could be dangerous.” “I watched my shop’s security cameras more closely because they could be a shoplifter.” “You went to Cornell? You must’ve been an athlete.” These examples use skin color to predict that Black and Brown people are likely dangerous, delinquent or unintelligent, respectively. Whether or not each case-by-case assumption is actually true, the result is a mindset that perpetuates racist behavior. The agents of such behavior are often not intentionally racist. Even those who recognize such behavior in themselves may be unable to change it. Nonetheless, never mind the possibility that such behavior may proliferate when observed secondhand by children, students, onlookers or others; using skin color to predict unobservable traits is racism incarnate — even when doing so is actually unintentional and actually predictively accurate.

Consider the shopkeeper’s hypothetical low-income community. Even if area crime statistics show shoplifters are more likely to be Black, the shopkeeper’s response of suspicion toward a Black patron entering the store represents one thread in the living, breathing fabric of systemic racism. It does not matter whether the shopkeeper’s behavior accurately predicts shoplifting. The shopkeeper could be Black. Nothing changes. Because my point is only to prove that systemic racism exists, the argument that systemic racism is useful to the shopkeeper is a self-defeating argument. Further, I have no interest in urging the shopkeeper to ignore their instincts. My interest is in drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that they did not flinch when I used the word ‘instincts.’ Responses like the shopkeeper’s are unnatural and would not occur if Black and Brown people had not been systematically discriminated against for generations. Such behaviors work the other way too. A White patron is more likely to get away with shoplifting because the shopkeeper is less attentive to their presence. Systemic racism breeds privilege as well as oppression and affects people of all colors.

Proponents of The Predictive Accuracy Argument often avoid its logical conclusion — and for good reason. The logical conclusion assumes equal opportunity already exists. Under this view, systemic racism exists only in the minds of a few bad apples, so there is little we can do to improve conditions in the community where the store is located. Therefore, the problem is not the system or the shopkeeper. The problem is the store patron. Proponents argue the shopkeeper’s reaction of suspicion is justified because the patron is likely to be a criminal. Why? Black people are overrepresented in crime statistics. In reality, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that Black people make up only 13.4% of the national population. However, FBI Uniform Crime Reports show 27.4% of charged criminals are Black. This imbalance can only be explained by either The Nazi Argument (“Black people are naturally more violent and delinquent than White people”) or by a set of socioeconomic challenges.

Disregarding the Nazi Argument, systemic racism underlies each socioeconomic challenge. There are many factors that make it more likely for Black people to get arrested for shoplifting than White people. None of them have to do with ‘criminal tendencies.’ Take education, for example. Schools in the shopkeeper’s hypothetical urban community are underfunded, its teachers underpaid, SAT Scores low and chances to succeed slim. Among other socioeconomic factors, poor education partially explains why crime is higher in such a community than in wealthier communities. Leaving it at that, however, fails to address the question why is the education there so poor? Who attends this low-income school? What do they look like? If systemic racism does not exist, why might an imaginary, non-existent low-income American school district be filled with Black and Brown people in the mind of the reader?

Responding to the contention “it’s not racism if it’s true,” in fact, it still is. The Predictive Accuracy Argument is racism disguised under the thin veil of making predictions. The predictions are only useful because poor conditions like those in the shopkeeper’s community are experienced disproportionately by Black and Brown people in America. Black and Brown people are forced into such conditions due to the collective failure of Americans to support legislation for equality. Those who fail to support such legislation either believe inequality is justified by genetic differences connected to race (The Nazi Argument) or they avoid thinking about inequality because it would force them to admit that The Socioeconomic Factors Argument fails to explain why Black and Brown people face worse socioeconomic conditions in the first place. Poor socioeconomic conditions for Black and Brown people cannot be explained by poor socioeconomic conditions for Black and Brown people. Something else is happening.

If every socioeconomic challenge can conceivably be traced back to systemic racism in this way, and if the reader is willing to consider the possibility that for the same reason, systemic racism is a circular argument — a liberal conspiracy fabricated solely to advance the Democratic agenda — isn’t it also worth considering for a moment if systemic racism is real? America enslaved Black people just a few generations ago. Is it really that absurd of an idea that the same dissociative mental acrobatics people engaged in to justify slavery before the Civil War still resonate to justify inequality today? Aren’t these the same dissociative techniques we use when we justify disproportionate wealth and policing and shame bad apples while failing to look in the mirror? Is there really nothing we can do to improve the shopkeeper’s community? Has the reader really never thought like the shopkeeper?

I assume the reader believes that inequality is bad. Therefore, even if the reader believes that the Democrats’ underlying intention in advocating for the recognition of broad systemic racism is solely to win elections or to dismantle the Constitution, recognizing systemic racism is still necessary to achieve a strong majority of citizens who will hold all politicians accountable and demand effective legislation geared only toward equality and toward nothing else. Such legislation can be implemented without undoing capitalism, democracy or the Constitution. There is no reason a democracy needs to work better for White people than for everyone else.

I believe that the solution for behavior like the shopkeeper’s lies in enacting legislation aimed at things like stabilizing crime statistics, prison populations and wealth disparity. In the real world, we can gauge equality by the percentage of Black and Brown people in rich communities and in prisons. Numbers mirroring the national population will be a good indicator of equal opportunity operating in a natural state. With respect to the shopkeeper, we must lift the entire community out of poverty through legislation, not expect them to change their behavior overnight. The shopkeeper may never change their behavior. Changing the shopkeeper’s behavior is not the point of the example — the shopkeeper does not exist. The point is to prod readers to recognize that thoughts and behaviors like those exhibited by the shopkeeper are real. Together with countless others, they form the foundations of systemic racism.

When one adopts The Nazi Argument as an explanation for inequality, they not only embrace a view supported by Hitler and rejected by science, they condone inequality as inevitable and justifiable. With respect to The Sheer Luck Argument, I simply assume that the reader is better than submitting to the notion that wealth disparity and mass incarceration in America result from a haphazard blend of intra-racial cohesion, a few bad cops and sheer luck. These views conveniently assume we can do nothing to solve inequality. The Predictive Accuracy Argument is self-defeating. The contention that individuals often use skin color for predictive purposes supports the argument that systemic racism exists. If I failed to adequately address your argument, please leave a comment. Otherwise, systemic racism must exist. As far as I am aware, it is the only way to explain inequality in America.

Jackson Mann ’16 is a graduate of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the summer.