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What is ‘Systemic Racism,’ Really?

Feels like another power grab designed to humiliate white middle and working class 'deplorables' already hunkered down and defensive.
News - George Floyd Protest - New York City

Sometimes big political developments arrive in the country like Sandburg’s fog, on little cat feet, silent and unnoticed until they envelop the nation. The emergence of Donald Trump four years ago is an example. Though a loud and clamorous candidate, he seemed to many like a kind of political clown destined for defeat. Establishment politicians believed almost to a person that the “blue wall” of Democratic electoral dominance would hold against this guy. The Midwest would stay solid, and Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. 

But a silent fog was moving in. It was a growing sense among middle-class voters in heartland America that something was seriously wrong with the country, that the nation’s leaders were transforming America in bad ways and unraveling their future in the process. But there was no street protest or fiery rhetoric, no coalescence of civic activism or public demands. Certainly the mainstream media, so aligned with the country’s elites, didn’t detect anything of consequence bubbling up from within the polity. Why would they? Everything seemed fine to them. 

Meanwhile, the disaffected merely bided their time, silently waiting for their opportunity to express themselves in the quiet sanctity of the voting booth. After they did, Donald Trump was the next president. Hardly anyone saw it coming. 

Something similar is likely to happen in the wake of the widespread street demonstrations–with attendant riots, looting, destruction, and violence–that followed the awful death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a brutal police officer who pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. That a black man could have his life snuffed out by a white cop in such a manner is just cause for a national outpouring of grief and soul-searching. Not surprisingly, public-opinion surveys showed widespread popular support for the peaceful demonstrations that were organized to honor the life and condemn the senseless death of George Floyd. 

But the polls also demonstrated widespread indignation toward the rioting and looting. Thus, the civic drama that followed Floyd’s death, including the sprees of destruction and increasingly aggressive rhetoric from the left, intensified some ongoing political tensions that lie at the heart of the country’s current distemper. It accentuated the extent to which America is becoming two nations with two narratives about the times we live in and the problems we face. 

One narrative, call it the liberal one, has been projected with increasing force in recent years and particularly since George Floyd’s death. It is that America is an inherently racist country, infected with something called “systemic racism.” You can’t always see it; often it is hidden behind a facade of phony white benignity. But it lurks in the hearts of whites nonetheless and is activated in subtle ways to keep down minorities, particularly blacks, and make them feel inferior. 

This systemic civic virus, according to the narrative, is particularly problematic in police departments throughout the land, in which rampant racism poses serious dangers to blacks, particularly young black males. Much of the rhetoric that emanates from this narrative would have us believe that innocent blacks are killed in accumulating numbers across the country in a surge of uncontrolled law enforcement bigotry and brutality. 

There’s a corollary to this narrative of systemic racism and ongoing violence against black Americans. It is that whites, based on the sins of their forebears and today’s lingering bigotry, need to be put in their place. In this regard, a certain abasement and humiliation is prescribed. This part of the narrative has become increasingly brazen in recent years. 

The other narrative, the conservative one, is largely defensive. In this view, there is no doubt that racism lingers in the body politic and must be addressed when it can be seen. Racial profiling by police also must be dealt with whenever and wherever it appears. But the country has made tremendous progress since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s in addressing overt racism, eliminating barriers to equal opportunity, and recognizing the racial sensibilities of minorities. The problem with the allegation of systemic racism is that it is too vague to be discerned clearly and hence can’t really be  effectively addressed even if it exists, which many dispute. 

As for police racism leading to the killing of blacks in telling numbers, the statistics simply don’t bear that out. Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute notes that, based on a Washington Post database, police fatally shot nine unarmed blacks in 2019 (and 19 unarmed whites). Based on the numbers of black homicide victims generally (7,407 in 2018), Mac Donald calculates that the fatal shooting of unarmed blacks represents about 0.1 percent of all African-Americans killed in 2019. She bolsters her position by citing studies by the National Academy of Sciences, a Justice Department survey of Philadelphia police practices, and research by a Harvard economist. The Academy of Sciences study found “no significant evidence of antiblack disparity in the likelihood of being fatally shot by police.” 

In the wake of the Floyd killing, the liberal narrative soon dominated the country’s political discourse. It is seen everywhere–in most of the mainstream media, in stark expressions from agitated civic groups, in the ravings of the celebrity culture, in mass street demonstrations, and, yes, even in the rioting and looting that destroyed businesses, livelihoods, and neighborhoods. 

The rhetoric of the liberal narrative these days is delivered vociferously, with defiance and a forcefulness that brooks no dissent or even passivity. Consider the experience of Drew Brees, the heralded quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, who responded to a question about whether the George Floyd fallout would include a revival of NFL players protesting racial injustice by taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem before games. He would not participate in such a protest, said Brees, because “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” He followed that with a plainly heartfelt and eloquent expression of  patriotism, harking back to the memory of his war-veteran grandfathers and the courage of Civil Rights activists who struggled to improve the nation. 

The result: an explosion of opprobrium, vicious attacks, and mean-spirited vitriol. An telling example was a Washington Post piece by a black sports columnist for the paper named Jerry Brewer. First he praised Brees as “among the most exceptional human beings in sports,” a man who “epitomizes the character, benevolence and grace that people seek in a sports role model.” But just because he’s a good guy and exemplary human being, snarled Brewer, that doesn’t mean he should get away with distancing himself from the Colin Kaepernick brand of protest. 

Brees, wrote Brewer, showed himself to be a “misguided, insensitive dolt….a sometimes ignorant, lazy thinker in desperate need of a broadened perspective.”  It was journalistic thought control in action, and it worked. Brees abjectly apologized–twice–for his transgression against humanity. 

Jerry Brewer was serving as enforcer for the proposition that the liberal narrative is sacrosanct, and you can’t say or do anything that calls it into question in any way. You see the same motivation behind the recent fate of the University of Washington women’s basketball coach, Jody Wynn. In response to George Floyd’s death, she issued a sincere statement of concern that read in part that “we must stand with our Black Amerians & seek justice! Black, brown, yellow…ALL lives matter.”

Oops. You can’t say that! Systemic racism in action. We’re talking about black lives here, and to confuse that with expressions of concern about other racial groups is absolutely unacceptable. Her Twitter account was deactivated, according to the Seattle Times, and Wynn quickly issued a replacement statement saying she was talking only about black lives. “I would like to sincerely apologize,” she wrote in a gesture of self-abasement, adding that she understood that her words were “hurtful to people of color….I’ve learned a hard and important lesson in this moment and am committed to educating myself…on how we can best create change.” She vowed to be part of change that is aimed at ending racism. 

But it isn’t enough for those of the liberal narrative to bully and humiliate genuine heroic figures like Drew Brees into recanting their expressions of genuine patriotism. They also refuse to condemn the riots and looting that unfolded on the nation’s television screens, as local police officials hovered out of the way. Why? Because, it seems clear, they want to preserve the narrative that animates the left and gives it propulsion in the fiery discourse of American politics.  

The underlying essence of the narrative is an increasingly brutal and incendiary polemical assault on a demographic segment of the nation–white people. They are guilty, it is said with increasing aggressiveness, for the sins of their forebears, for the racism of the past. And they must confess their guilt and seek absolution through self-abasement. 

This was captured in stark reality in a video segment aired on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program the other day. A young white woman on the street during the New York protests is approached by a man who identifies himself as working for Black Lives Matter. “Since I work for that company,” says the man (who is white), “my CEO has told me to come out today and bring you on your knees because you have white privilege. So if they see that a white person is getting on their knees, that shows solidarity for the situation.”

She slowly, without saying anything, gets down on her knees on the sidewalk. 

“And could you just please apologize,” says the guy, “for, you know, your white privilege?”

She doesn’t seem to know what to say.

“Just apologize?” he persists, ever so politely. 

“I am,” she says. “I’m trying to think of the words to thank you.”

No doubt many within the nation’s elites would view that scene as touching, perhaps even inspiring–a young white woman getting to her knees and apologizing for….what exactly? Certainly not anything she did, as far as we know. No, she was placed into humiliation because of her race, and she accepted it, apparently, as a normal consequence of her heritage.

But a lot of Americans aren’t going to view it that way. They will see it as a racial assault and a huge power grab. The cry of “systemic racism” constitutes a threat to white people. We all know that racism is the country’s most potent social taboo. Even innocent slips of the tongue or benign observations can bring severe opprobrium, societal and professional sanctions, ostracism. Thus does the allegation constitute a serious threat to millions of Americans. And it constitutes also great political leverage for those tossing around the allegation. 

But, if America is infected with systemic racism, who are the systemic racists? Certainly not, in the view of those pushing the liberal narrative, themselves. Not the cable news liberals who toss out the allegation with abandon. Not the mandarins of Hollywood who spout out about it constantly. Not the think tank mavens with their phony studies and charts. Not the Democratic establishment persistently leveraging identity politics. Not the professional celebs whose household recognition qualify them, in their view, as authority figures. Not those in the top level of the meritocratic elite living their pristine lives in gated communities. And certainly not the nation’s minorities, spoon-fed the liberal narrative day by day. 

Who’s left? Middle-class and working-class whites, already beleaguered economically by the hollowing out of the nation’s industrial base and struggling to survive in the new service and high-tech environment. And now they have to worry about becoming the next Exhibit A in the elites’ persistent search for evidence of systemic racism. Deplorables again.  

This is scary stuff to people who just want to live their lives without feeling vulnerable to being singled out as specimens of systemic racism and called to account for slipping into some hazardous lapse such as thinking that all lives matter or any other innocuous racial observation that never would have raised eyebrows among whites or blacks just a few years ago. 

When the political reaction comes, as it inevitably will, it will come on little cat feet. And the nation’s elites, secure in the thought that the systemic racism charge has worked brilliantly in intimidating any lingering dissenters into submission, won’t see it coming. 

It’s an open question whether this can help Donald Trump in November. His is a failed presidency, and the collective electorate seldom rewards failed presidencies with retention in office. But down the road, as the issue intensifies and as white Americans feel increasingly beleaguered by the left’s identity politics and disdain for Middle America, as more demonstrations and riots ensue with more destructive force, a counter-movement will emerge. It likely will approach the body politic as quietly as Sandberg’s fog. But, once it arrives, it won’t stay quiet for long.   

Robert W. Merry, former Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent and Congressional Quarterly CEO, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).