The Personalist Project

Accessed on August 10, 2022 - 11:08:20

Two different meanings of “systemic”

Katie van Schaijik, Sep 30, 2020

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.