This brief essay is not intended to pick an argument over terms alone; I believe referring to “systemic” racism where it does not exist is not only untrue, it is dangerous. It permits some people to feel free to destroy anything—public or private—since, after all, such things are “part of the system,” and “the system” is fundamentally unjust.
I take it that the expression “systemic racism” is intentional, and that the expression means something different from “occasional racist behavior,” or even “widespread racism.” If all that is intended is something like: “Some people are real jerks,” there would be no need to call such “systemic racism,” since it would merely mean “rude or boorish behavior, some (but not all) of which is directed towards black people.” I take it that the expression means that some or all of the various sub-systems that constitute the American experience function in such a manner (intentionally or not) as to prevent black people from benefiting from and flourishing in the culture as much as other ethnic groups do.
It is entirely possible that some such sub-systems exist that would be out of the realm of public policy and discussion. For instance, if one were to suggest that absentee fathers contribute to poverty, to poor discipline, to disrespect for authority, etc., one could agree that in some senses “the family system” is failing black people. But it is hard to imagine a circumstance today in which there might be any public policy solution to such a systemic problem. Can we order deadbeats not to be deadbeats? And if they are deadbeats–who would abandon wife and children if they could–would it really help the situation to require them to live in the same domicile as those they would like to abandon? Perhaps the absence of a deadbeat father is preferable to his presence, and there may be no public policy solution to such human failure.
What would be a public policy matter worthy of public discussion would be to discover other systems, such as educational or legal systems, in which there are policies and/or practices that prevent black people from prospering and flourishing as much as other demographic groups. I await evidence that such “systemic” racism exists, because, if it can be demonstrated that it does, it ought to be a matter for public policy discussion. While I await such demonstration, I would like to mention six systems that were, in my own lifetime, characterized by systemic racism that are so no longer. Here they are, in a sentence or two for each, as briefly as I can explain them.
Educational system. When I was a child, education was segregated (“separate but equal” was the language of the day). I don’t believe I had any black friends as fellow students until about the sixth or seventh grade. The courts acted on the earlier Brown v. Board of Education’s (1954) “separate but equal” doctrine some time during my Junior High years, and by the time I graduated from High School, this aspect of racism was removed from the educational system (and soon it was removed across the nation, not only from the compulsory schools, but from colleges and universities as well).
Housing system. When I was young, a person could put an ad in a newspaper, indicating that he had apartments to rent; and, if a black person came to rent the apartment, the landlord could legally refuse to rent to him. That changed by the late 1970s or early 1980s in Virginia, and it is now illegal to refuse housing on the basis of race. This aspect of racism was removed from the housing system.
Marriage system. When I was a child, I was over ten years old before a white person could legally marry a black person. Loving v. Virginia (1967) ruled that such bans violated the 14th Amendment, and inter-racial marriages became legal (and I had the privilege of officiating at one about five years ago). This aspect of racism was removed from the marriage system.
Social system. Until I was, I believe, in High School, private social clubs (ordinarily Country Clubs) were often segregated, and legally so. Legislation was passed in my native Virginia (and by now, I am confident, nationally) that denied liquor licences to any organization that was racially segregated by policy, and since most golfers enjoy a beverage after a round of golf, soon segregated social organizations largely disappeared. This aspect of racism was removed from the social system.
Transportation system. Anyone familiar with Rosa Parks recalls that as recently as the 1960s in some states black people, though taxed like all other citizens, were not permitted to a seat on public transportation vehicles if whites were seeking seats. Thankfully, Ms. Parks refused to obey such an injustice, and her civil disobedience led to changes in those systems. Black people today enjoy the same privileges in public transportation as other citizens.
Employment system. During my childhood years, employers could refuse to hire people simply because of their race. In 1965, Congress established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to combat workplace discrimination. By the 1980s, public institutions—especially colleges and universities—were aggressively recruiting black people to serve in their institutions. Over time, the EEOC has succeded in combatting racial discrimination from most large firms, though perhaps a few Mom and Pop smaller business occasionally fly under the radar. This aspect of racism was substantially, if not entirely, removed from the employment system.
Nearly every one of these six systems impinges upon the life and experience of nearly every American; and racism has been entirely removed from most of them and substantially from the others, all within one lifetime. I was born one year before Dr. King began his public labor for equality in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955. A man who was almost unknown by the public when I was born later earned a Nobel Peace Prize (1964), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977, posthumous), and the Congressional Gold Medal (2004, posthumous). I was literally born before there even was the civil rights movement, and among the greatest joys of my life has been to observe its gradual-yet-remarkable success. I sometimes believe that some of my contemporaries act as though Dr. King, Rosa Parks, the SCLC, the NAACP, and many other individuals and organizations accomplished nothing. I disagree, and believe that they accomplished an enormous amount in roughly a half century.
When I was young, black people were largely absent from positions of public power; they are so no longer. L. Douglas Wilder (whom I served when I was a page in the Virginia legislature during his first term as a state senator) was the first black governor in the United States (1990-94); black people have served on the Supreme Court of the United States since Thurgood Marshall took his seat there in 1967, and Justice Thomas serves there today. In the 1970s Tallahassee, Cincinnati, Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington DC and New Orleans elected their first black mayors (as did other cities). By the early 21st century, after the arrivals of black mayors in cities such as Memphis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, Seattle, Denver, St Louis, Rochester, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, San Francisco and Houston, the elections of black American mayors was/is no longer regarded as being noteworthy. Today, over one-third of America’s top hundred cities have black mayors, though black people constitute only 13% of the population; in such circumstances, they are over-represented by a factor of almost three-to-one. 22% of the current Congress are racial minorities. If I am not mistaken, the last President of the United States was a black man. If America today suffers from “systemic racism,” why are so many black people disproportionately over-represented in positions of governing power?
Because of the remarkable elimination of racist policies from six of our major public systems over the last half century, I am unwilling to condemn the entirety of “the system” with a broad brush. Indeed, I remain, for the moment, unpersuaded (though certainly persuadable, if good grounds are presented) that “systemic racism” exists in America. The family system is a real problem, as I mentioned before; but I doubt that such a reality could be improved by public policy (though certainly some public policies designed to help black people have sometimes done unintended harm, and such policies should be addressed).
A handful of jerks acting like jerks is not a problem with the system; it is a problem with the individual human condition. Total strangers have made ugly and threatening comments to me before, often about my height (or lack thereof!), but I don’t believe we suffer from “systemic shortism;” some individuals are just jerks. Flawed people (such as I) do flawed things.
This brief essay is not intended to pick an argument over terms alone; I believe referring to “systemic” racism where it does not exist is not only untrue, it is dangerous. It permits some people to feel free to destroy anything—public or private—since, after all, such things are “part of the system,” and “the system” is fundamentally unjust. Anarchists do exist, though in a relatively small number. But they can do greater damage than their number suggests, the way one angry child can destroy in seconds a sandcastle that other children took several hours to build. The language of “systemic racism” or “systemic injustice” is therefore quite different in its effect than that of “occasional racism” or “occasional injustice,” either of which is to be expected in an imperfect world. Nor does such true and modest language prevent laboring towards further progress; a physician who determines that the patient does not have pneumonia, but a common cold, still treats the common cold. I do not believe our American system of life, a system that over the last half-century has expended significant and effective efforts to remove racism from six of its more important sub-systems, can be responsibly referred to as “systematically” racist. Poverty, however, still exists for many, and for many black people. The “American Dream” is not equally experienced by all, and there is undoubtedly much room for improving that experience, without denying the enormous progress that has already been made.
Dr. T. David Gordon is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College.
 I have deliberately excluded alleged racism in law enforcement from consideration here, because it is complex enough to warrant separate treatment. If we discover racism within segments of law enforcement, we should certainly address the matter, but even then, “the system” would not be racist; only “the law enforcement system” would be so. And if the FBI believes that the figures available to it are under-reported, there were more than the reported 10.5 million arrests last year (similar to other recent years), in which there were fewer than twenty deaths of people in police custody (as many white as black), and the factor more common in those situations than race was physical resistance to the arresting officers. Each of the publicly-known events of Spring/Summer 2020 have featured physical resistance and/or threats to officers (and sometimes to others) by those who were arrested. While even a brief video clip of what appears to be one human being suffering at the hands of another is emotionally disturbing, such a video—by itself—is not evidence of a system-wide problem.
 Poverty exists for non-blacks also, notably portions of Appalachia, whose demographics are nearly identical to those of urban blacks. They have nearly identical rates of non-completion of High School, unwed mothers, absentee fathers, alcohol and drug abuse, and underemployment.