The idea of systemic racism is one that has been critiqued in this column in the past. That being said, it is worth noting that if ever the case for systemic racism could be made, it is now, in the era of COVID as Social Distancing protocols, mask mandates, and vaccine mandates have been imposed throughout the land.
“Systemic racism” has also been used as an alternative term for “institutional racism,” “structural racism,” “covert racism,” “unconscious racism,” and “subconscious racism.” We will treat it synonymously with these terms here.
So what is systemic racism?
Systemic racism is almost always contraposed to individual racism. Whereas the latter is overt and peculiar to the person, the former is tacit and ubiquitous as it operates, well, systemically, i.e. via society’s fundamental institutions.
Examples of systemic racism in action are in seemingly endless supply:
Kindness and color-blindness are expressions of racism.
Mathematics are racist.
Science is racist.
Logic is racist.
Individualism is racist.
Objectivity and neutrality are racist.
Impartiality is racist.
One source supplied a list of “micro-aggressions.” These are manifestations of systemic but implicit bias. Not all of these are precisely race-based bias, it’s true. Yet the lines between race and other types of bias more often than not converge (“intersectionality”). Here are some of the of words that betray an implicit, but racially-oriented bias that is itself the function of the racism embedded in our cultural institutions.
A white person telling a black colleague that he or she is “articulate;”
Confusing the names of minority members in a specific setting (like a classroom);
Inquiring into the origins of members of certain racial/ethnic groups;
Telling a person that his or her name is “so hard to pronounce;”
Asking a black woman whether her hair is “real;”
Asking a person of another religious tradition why he or she wears attire that is specific to his or her religion.
The Smithsonian Institute has informed us that the following are all “aspects and assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture”:
the nuclear family;
history (conceived and practiced as it is within the framework of Greco-Roman-Jewish-Christian-British thought);
monotheism, particularly of the Judeo-Christian variety;
planning for the future;
respect for authority;
prioritizing private property;
justice, via the American system with its basis in English common law tradition, the formal protection of properties and entitlements that this affords, and its focus on intention;
most Christian, American holidays;
democracy (as in “majority rules”);
the avoidance of conflict and intimacy;
and refraining from the indulgence of emotion and the discussion of one’s personal life.
Considering that these values featured in the Smithsonian Institute’s attempt to surmount racism, it is fair to say that these suppositions and dimensions of “Whiteness” are but more examples of systemic racist bias.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) insists that systemic racism is embedded deeply within all of our legal, political, economic, and social institutions. This accounts for the phenomenon to what has been called, “racism without racists.”
Proof of systemic racism is what is known as “disparate impact.” If, say, blacks are disproportionately affected (in a negative way) by laws, policies, and/or social and historical patterns, then, according to the logic of systemic racism, blacks are the victims of racism.
For this reason, medical care in America is and has always been racist. From the doctrines of innate racial inferiority that were pronounced by leading medical experts during the days of slavery to the examinations and procedures conducted by the same upon slaves; from the eugenics movement to the Tuskegee experiment to “healthcare disparities” that chronically persist until the present day—the medical industry in the United States has always been but another structural representation of the country’s systemic racism, for blacks have always been disproportionately and negatively impacted by its practices.
With all of this in mind, the true believer in systemic racism, if he or she was truly honest, would have to admit that the COVID era has revealed the country’s systemically racist character in spades. To be clear, it is not any virus or disease that has made this revelation possible. No, it is the measures that have been imposed in the name of combatting COVID that have shown that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
All Social Distancing restrictions, from plastic visors to signs requiring six feet of distance, from “air hugs” to “elbow bumps,” from the forcible closing of businesses to the laying off of tens of millions of American workers, from the forced closing of schools and churches to the “quarantining” or “locking down” within their homes of American citizens—all of these “mitigation” efforts, the case is compelling, are, ultimately, racist.
And they are racist in two respects.
First, racism in its most insidious forms is nothing if it isn’t a matter of objectifying human beings on the basis of morally irrelevant criteria. The racist is one who reduces other human beings, on racial grounds, to objects of fear, disdain, or indifference. The racist is unwilling to see the members of the race that he or she scorns as persons deserving of the same treatment as persons that he or she would expect for him or herself. Thus, these people, in the fevered imagination of the racist, are deserving of being alienated, excluded, and treated with all manner of intolerance.
They are Untouchables.
So, Social Distancing protocols, though they apply to all (well, in theory, at any rate), further entrench and exacerbate the very vices—alienation, excessive fear, exclusion, and intolerance—that have always been the toxic hallmarks of racism.
Second, since “disparate impact” is the principle used to determine whether systemic racism is rearing its ugly head, that all Social Distancing measures have a disparate impact upon black people means, inescapably, that they are racist. Here is one writer’s take on this. Though he comes at this from a different angle, this doctor says enough to disclose the intersectionality of the government’s response to COVID and race:
“Being able to maintain social distancing while working from home, telecommuting, and accepting a furlough from work but indulging in the plethora of virtual social events are issues of privilege. In certain communities these privileges are simply not accessible.”
However, “the absence of privilege…does not allow a reprieve from work without dire consequences for a person’s sustenance, does not allow safe practices, and does not even allow for 6-foot distancing” (emphasis original).
Many blacks living under the crowded conditions of many urban areas do not have the privilege of subscribing to the COVID protocols imagined and imposed by overwhelmingly white elites and the middle and upper classes of citizens who perpetuate them.
It isn’t that masks, historically the symbol of the Outlaw, of criminality, makes criminals of all of us. Yet the wearing of masks by black Americans threatens to further entrench the stereotypical notions of criminality that have long been associated with this group.
Also, masks sow division. They alienate each person from every other. Masks promote suspicion. They promote fear.
Masks are walls, and as we’ve been told repeatedly by some particularly world-renowned figures of influence, we should not be building walls. Rather, we should be building bridges.
Masks, in other words, are borders. No more and no less symbolic than the imaginary territorial lines drawn on any map, they are nevertheless exclusionary signifiers that, as such, reduce, as geopolitical borders reduce, the promise of interpersonal communication.
But division, alienation, suspicion, exclusion, fear—these are the distinguishing marks of racism. And there is no question that black Americans, to an arguably greater extent than the members of any other racial or ethnic category, are disproportionately impacted by the promotion of these vices.
Mask mandates are unconscionably, albeit subconsciously, i.e. systemically, racist.
As are vaccine mandates—which, although you hear little of this from the mainstream media, are being resisted by black Americans in numbers that, both absolutely and relative to their percentage of the United States population, are not only substantial but significantly greater than those of their white counterparts (see here and here).
Consequently, it is the prospects for employment, education, financial well-being, and social inclusion of black Americans that vaccine mandates promise to disproportionately undercut.
Interestingly, those who have been forever assuring us that a voter identification requirement is racist are one and the same people who are now advocating on behalf of vaccine passports—which are guaranteed to deleteriously affect “Blacks and Hispanics, poor the most.”
Black Americans have a history of being subjected to coercion generally, coercive medicine specifically. These mandates are but the latest illustrations of this history.
They are but the latest illustrations of systemic racism.