Home/Rod Dreher/‘Systemic Racism’: An Uncontestable Axiom

‘Systemic Racism’: An Uncontestable Axiom

Protesting 'systemic racism' in public schools in Massachusetts (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

So I guess this is how it’s going to be everywhere, for the foreseeable future:

More than 1,200 current employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have signed a letter calling for the federal agency to address “ongoing and recurring acts of racism and discrimination” against Black employees, NPR has learned.

In the letter, addressed to CDC Director Robert Redfield and dated June 30, the authors put their call for change in the context of the coronavirus pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black people and the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks. NPR obtained a copy of the letter, which is published below.

“In light of the recent calls for justice across this country and around the world, we, as dedicated public health professionals, can no longer stay silent to the widespread acts of racism and discrimination within CDC that are, in fact, undermining the agency’s core mission,” the letter reads.


In the letter, the authors point to a variety of “well-meaning, yet under-funded” efforts to diversify the agency’s workforce over the past several decades and assert that none of them have made much difference. They note that Black employees represent only 10% of senior leadership and 6% of the CDC’s 2019 class of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, a fellowship program described as “the training ground for tomorrow’s leaders within the agency.”

It describes an “old boy/girl network,” where white managers promote white staff while allegedly stifling and discouraging Black staff, and a “pervasive and toxic culture of racial aggressions.” It also says that hundreds of Equal Employment Opportunity complaints have been filed by Black employees in the past decades, many of them unresolved.

Read it all. 

Is it true? Well, how would I know? Here’s the thing: how can we know if these claims made in the letter are true? Is there any way to contest them, to falsify them? Practically speaking, I don’t think there is. You’re going to be the manager who tells black people who signed the letter that actually, their claims are in any way inaccurate, unfair, or wrong? Unthinkable. Don’t misunderstand: these grievances might well be justified. My point is that for all intents and purposes, in this cultural environment, it is impossible to challenge them.

I was googling today and found an interview on YouTube with a black undergraduate at Princeton, who asserted that the university was racist.  The interviewer asked him for examples of Princeton’s racism. He could not come up with a single example! But this did not deter him. He said that Princeton was “structurally racist.” Maybe it is, I dunno. But again, is this a testable hypothesis? If it’s not a testable hypothesis — I mean that as a matter of cultural politics — then what does that mean? It means that if you are part of an “oppressed minority,” you can get whatever you want just by demanding it, because those running our institutions lack the confidence to challenge you.

Look what happened to Princeton’s Joshua Katz today: because he had the nerve to criticize a militant black student group that relied on intimidation to achieve its campus goals, he was denounced by Princeton’s president, and has now been denounced by his department, which accused him of putting all black people who are now and who ever were at Princeton “at serious risk.” It is a lie. It is a slanderous lie designed to silence Joshua Katz and destroy academic freedom. And these pusillanimous faculty and college administrators are going along with it.

Read the text of the Classics department statement. It’s all about hurt feelings and groundless assertion of racist harm. How can anybody claim with a straight face that a Classics professor harshly criticizing student militants puts them or anybody else “at serious risk” of anything, other than being fawned over by other academics and college administrators?

A friend of mine describes America today like this (and he’s talking about right wingers as well as left wingers):

(1) I am my desires

(2) Justice is the fulfilling of my desires, injustice is the impeding of my desires

(3) You are either the ally or the enemy of my desires

(4) If you are the ally, I will tolerate you; if you are the enemy, I will seek to destroy you.

This is why there does not have to be any falsifiable claims made at the CDC, or Princeton, or anywhere else. Objectivity is beside the point. This is all about power and desire.

Here’s some related education news from Philadelphia, via the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Angela Crawford has said it for years: Philadelphia schools can’t make meaningful improvements until there’s a reckoning over the racial injustices that underpin the education system.

As a veteran English teacher at Martin Luther King High School, Crawford has lamented a lack of cultural competence and systems that disadvantage Black children and other students of color, leading to disparities in achievementdiscipline, and access to elite classes and schools. The way to begin fixing it, she said, is a move toward antiracist curriculum and away from practices that center only on the experiences of white people.

Antiracism, Crawford said, “needs to be the overarching theme of every single school in the city.”

What does this mean? Every single school in Philadelphia must center everything on “antiracism”? Why?

Don’t expect the Inquirer to tell you. The reporter does nothing but repeat the assertions of advocates. It could well be that the reporter understands all this better than I do. As James Lindsay writes, “antiracism” is a standard Social Justice term, one that assumes pervasive racism. More:

The identification of racism against non-white people in any situation is always possible and rarely, if ever, falsifiable because it does not have to be intentional or conscious (see also, impact versus intent). For example, if a black customer and a white customer entered a store at the same time, and the white sales assistant approached the white customer to offer help first, this could be identified as racism because it prioritized the white person’s needs (see also, centering). However, if the sales assistant approached the black customer first, this could also be identified as racism because it could be read as indicating a distrust of black people and unwillingness to have them browse the shelves unsupervised. The shop assistant’s perception of her own motivations are irrelevant, and, to be a conscientious antiracist, she would need to admit her racism and pledge to do better.

In fact, the antiracism approach would start from the following assumption, as phrased by critical race educator Robin DiAngelo (author of White Fragility): “the question is not ‘did racism take place?’ but rather, ‘how did racism manifest in this situation?’”

This is going to become the new standard, I guess. More from the Philadelphia Inquirer report:

Philadelphia’s actions are happening as some school districts across the nation are moving in the same direction. Detroit’s school board recently promised antiracist measures; closer to home, the Bethlehem, Pa., district has done the same, and its superintendent, Joseph Roy, has said that “our curriculum needs to expose our students to the history and horrors of racism.”

The American Association of School Administrators has called upon its members to move beyond equity into antiracism because “we are living at a time of obscene inequities and merely trying to compensate is not enough,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director. “Now is the time for all educational leaders to intensify our commitment to address inequities and work to dismantle systemic racism.”

Ah, so that’s it. Systemic racism is why black educational achievement in elementary and secondary school is so lagging. The black economist Walter Williams wrote earlier this year, about black students:

As of 2016, in Philadelphia, only 19% of eighth-graders scored proficient in math, and 16% were proficient in reading. In Detroit, only 4% of its eighth-graders scored proficient in math, and 7% were proficient in reading.

National Assessment of Education Progress tests give further testament to the tragedy. In Philadelphia, 47% of its students scored below basic in math and 42% scored below basic in reading. Below basic means that a student is unable to demonstrate even partial mastery of knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work at his or her grade level.

Last year, Charles D. Ellison, a black Philadelphia journalist, published a blockbuster column denouncing Philly’s educational system as failing black and brown kids. It’s full of details. Ellison believes the problem mainly has to do with the widespread poverty of the city’s public school population, and lack of proper school funding. Whether he’s right or wrong about that, it’s arguable. Notice what he’s not claiming? That teaching “antiracism” is the answer to the school system’s problems. So, when thoroughly racializing the public schools fails to create utopia, and in fact does nothing but increase anger and racial tension, what will the progressives do then?

My point here is that claims of systemic racism in particular institutions are now accepted and repeated as fact, and that it is practically impossible to criticize or reject those claims in any way. “Systemic racism” is as fundamental to the construal of reality in the fast-emerging social order as “class conflict” was in Marxist social orders. It is the uncontestable axiom on which the entire ideological structure is built. Deny that, and you’re part of the racist system.

It would actually be useful to learn ways in which racism is built into systems and structures, so we could work to dismantle and overcome them. But that is not what this is about. If you can’t prove that particular claims of systemic racism are wrong, you have no reliable way of proving that they are correct either. Again, though, what is true and what is false is a sideshow. The real deal is about power. And once more, this is how we think in America today:

(1) I am my desires

(2) Justice is the fulfilling of my desires, injustice is the impeding of my desires

(3) You are either the ally or the enemy of my desires

(4) If you are the ally, I will tolerate you; if you are the enemy, I will seek to destroy you.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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