The Personalist Project

I've noticed some linguistic confusion interfering with mutual understanding and practical progress toward the common good. 

The term "systemic" is being used in two different senses. People on the right typically take it to refer to our objective system of laws and policies. The old Jim Crow laws of the south are a prime example of "systemic racism" in that sense. The wrong was embodied in law and policy. It needed correcting in law. It was corrected, thanks mainly to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his personalist philosophy and practice of "non-violent resistance."

This is why someone like Attorney General Bill Barr can say that while we no doubt have issues with residual racism in some places and individuals, we don't have a problem with systemic racism. He's right about that, imo. On the level of law and policy, America is not racist, unless we're talking about the reverse racism of Affirmative Action policies and practices.

For those on the left, though, "systemic racism" refers rather to a subjective, often unconscious, condition of society. They are talking about our collective moral state, so that even if our laws and politics are race-neutral, we, as a people, can and do still harbor racist attitudes that "leak out" in our social habits and manifest in unequal outcomes like chronic poverty among blacks.

People on the left get upset when someone on the right says something like, "We are the least racist country in history," because they're focused on moral attitudes and disparate outcomes, while the right is talking about objective laws, principles and values. They accuse the right of lying and gaslighting, when, really, they're just using the term in a different way.

Both ways are valid and meaningful. They just shouldn't be confused. 

The main reason they shouldn't be confused (apart from mutual misunderstanding) is that their respective solutions are radically different. Inequities in the objective structures can and should be addressed through law and policy. Injustice in the heart, though, whether individual or communal, can only be fixed through freedom. You can't make a person or society just and generous through force.

And that's what the left seems to want to do. They seem to want to use the coercive power of government to improve moral attitudes and equalize outcomes, which is why the right gets upset when they talk about things like reparations and critical race indoctrination seminars. It can't be done that way. It can only be done through culture, and culture is suffocated by excessive government.

So, speaking for myself, when I vote for smaller government and race-neutral laws and policies, I'm not denying that our society is still suffering from the legacy of racism. Rather, I'm trying to help create the best conditions for allowing it to be addressed at a deeper level.

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Comments (4)

Rhett Segall

#1, Oct 1, 2020 9:54am

Thanks for this important clarification, Katie.

Katie Grimes' article "Antiblackness" (Theological Studies) hones in on the subjective root of racism, i.e. the specific body type "blackness". According to Grimes this body-type fosters a psychic sense of White superiority to Blacks that stays even when systemic racism is eliminated. This phenomena of Whites' attitude of superiority to Blacks is unique. Other ethnic groups, which have freed themselves from American systemic injustice, have not borne this ongoing psychic mindset equating Blacks and slavery which nurtures American racism.

Your emphasis that subjective racism can not be dissolved through coercive measures. is persuasive. Thanks again.

Rhett Segall

#2, Oct 1, 2020 12:25pm

A further observation: I think "subjective" systemic racism becomes "objective" systemic racism not only in Jim Crow laws but also in cultural symbols such as monuments, films and literature.

Dostoevsky's anti-Catholicism, for example, is clear in his comments about papists and Jesuits. Cultural iconoclasm is the wrong response, of course. But it's important to be alert to such things and disavow them without getting bent out of shape

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Oct 2, 2020 9:19am

Hi Rhett. I haven't read Katie Grimes, and I mistrust the claims of hers you report. "Antiblackness" seems to me the worst and most toxic kind of abstraction, confected out of baseless projections about other people's subjectivity. Was it Scheler who wrote of this as a habit of "spreading your own mind"? I forget. 

Anyway, whether her points have merit or not, we are agreed that racism and other forms of bigotry can persist long after their manifestation in law has been eradicated. We're also agreed on the parallel with anti-Catholicism. I love Newman's description of the way his youthful conviction that the Pope is the Whore of Babylon lingered in him "like a stain on my imagination" long after his reason had repudiated it.

About cultural symbols: They're not nothing and they do have reality and influence in the objective realm, but it's important to stress that they're not part of our system of laws and policies.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Oct 2, 2020 9:34am

A few years ago controversy arose in Holland about the "black petes" who are part of the traditional celebrations around St. Nicolas. We have Santa's elves; the Dutch have St. Nicholas's mischievous servants called black petes. (They come from the fact that the historical St. Nicholas is known to have ransomed a Moorish slave.) With the new race-consciousness of our era, black petes were abruptly deemed racist. One segment of the population demanded they be outlawed; another segment resented the intrusion of divisive identity politics into a heretofore innocent and beloved national tradition.

The prime minister (or maybe the former prime minister), who had studied philosophy, made an important distinction between government and the civil society. He said the question of how to deal with a cultural item like the black pete tradition is one for the civil society, not government.

In other words, it should be addressed through collective freedom, not force; through mutual respect and understanding, not contempt and control.

This distinction can also be found implicitly in JP II's treatment of the problem of historical injustices against women. Law can be changed on an instant, but habits of mind need time.

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