In their victory speeches, both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris pledged to make fighting “systemic racism” a priority of their administration. But what does “systemic racism” mean — and how should libertarians respond to it.
The term “systemic racism” has become politically contentious. There is widespread misunderstanding that leads some to take it as an indictment of themselves. They conclude that systemic racism means a system full of racists, but in fact the term means almost the exact opposite.
Most Americans, themselves, harbor no bad intentions toward people of color, nor do most people they know. They’re not wrong about that. Of course, they recognize that there are actual racists out there and that there are sometimes racist incidents, but they see those as occurring on the fringes of society, not something that implicates them.
But systemic racism is not about individual intent or behavior, nor even about whether someone is a good person or personally prejudiced. Indeed, it has little to do with us as individuals at all. Rather, as NAACP president Derrick Johnson explains, systemic racism is “systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantage African Americans.” Or, as the Aspen Institute puts it more broadly:
[Systemic racism is] a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity….Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.
History Informs the Present
America’s 400-year history of racial abuse, from slavery, to lynching, to Jim Crow, and beyond, is undeniable. But even more insidious was the philosophical, cultural, and even theological development of an ideology of black inferiority and white supremacy in order to justify behavior that was so sharply at odds with this country’s professed beliefs. This set of beliefs became deeply embedded in the law and social fabric of our country.
The key insight of systemic racism is that current laws and policies can perpetuate this legacy even in the absence of deliberately bigoted intentions from individual actors. The racial disparities of today are a result of the explicitly racist oppression that preceded it, which is still well within living memory and directly affected many individuals still alive today. And worse, many government policies today that are not intended to worsen and prolong these disparities built on injustice, have that very effect.
The effects of America’s mistreatment of African Americans and other people of color did not suddenly vanish with the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s. Even if one believed that racial animus evaporated with the stroke of a pen, the consequences of past policies and attitudes remain with us. You cannot have a race in which one runner is loaded down with weights and chains, remove them before the final lap, and suggest that from there on is a fair contest.
Simply put, therefore, systemic racism is a combination of historical and cultural legacies that continue to put African Americans and other minorities at a disadvantage. Systemic racism is an indictment of the government policies that created that injustice as well as the government policies that continue that injustice today. It is a quintessentially libertarian explanation of how the effects of government policy do not always align with their intentions. The second and third order consequences of bad laws must be considered. Injustices inflicted by the state on a vast scale can have wide-ranging and long-lasting negative effects on a society.
Systemic Racism in Practice
The evidence for systemic racism is easy to see in disparities large and small. These disparities include such examples as job applicants with black-sounding names being less likely than those with “white” names but identical resumes to receive callbacks for positions, and black hairstyles frequently being considered uniquely problematic for work or school. It shows up in our health care system when doctors are less likely to believe complaints from black patients and when some medical textbooks continue to teach that African Americans feel less pain than whites. It is apparent when schoolbooks leave out large swaths of African and African American history. Likewise, it is visible in the indignity of security guards who follow young black men and women around stores, and hundreds of similar slights.
None of this is to strip African Americans of agency or to suggest that they have no responsibility for their own life choices. Nor does it imply that there has been no progress towards equality. But it does mean that people of color face very different circumstances than do white Americans. And the consequences of those circumstances can be both large and ongoing.
Consider just two areas where systemic racism puts African Americans at a disadvantage: criminal justice and housing.
Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System
As Radley Balko has amply chronicled, dozens of studies show that the criminal justice system treats African Americans differently throughout the process, from street-level law enforcement, to arrest, to trial, to incarceration. For instance, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rates, African Americans are arrested more than three and a half times as often for marijuana possession. In some states, the arrest rate for African Americans is nearly six times higher. And, of course, black drivers are stopped for pretextual reasons far more often than white drivers. While some have attempted to explain this away by suggesting that blacks speed more often, the disparity mysteriously diminishes at night when police have a harder time determining the driver’s race.
Nor are inequities in the criminal justice system strictly a function of the drug war. For a wide variety of crimes, prosecutors charge black defendants with more severe offenses for the same underlying act. African Americans are sentenced to longer prison terms than whites convicted of the same crime and with similar criminal records. And, once incarcerated, blacks are likely to wait longer for parole.
Disparities in the criminal justice spill over into many other areas. A criminal record makes it more difficult to find employment post-incarceration. Admission to a university or student aid or even renting an apartment can all be denied because an applicant has a conviction on their record. It is estimated that involvement in the criminal justice system has contributed to removing nearly 1.5 million young black men from the marriage pool, thereby increasing non-marital births and the poverty associated with that.
Systemic Racism in Housing
Housing is another area where the results of systemic racism can be easily seen. Just 47 percent of African Americans own their own home, almost 30 percentage points lower than white home ownership. This is not an accident. For decades, housing segregation was the explicit policy of the federal state, and local governments. For example, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a federal agency that provided low-interest mortgages to first time homebuyers, insisted that any property it covered must include a clause in the deed forbidding resale to non-whites. Even when government agencies weren’t directly involved, redlining, restrictive covenants, and other practices that limited homeownership on the basis of race was all too common. For example, Levittown, the quintessential American suburb of the 1940s and 50s, in its lease documents a provision that property in the community could not “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.”
Even after such explicit segregationist restrictions were outlawed in the 1960s, zoning ordinances and other government regulations continued to make it difficult for minorities to integrate largely white suburban communities. A quick look at overlaying demographic maps of most major cities shows little change since the explicit segregation of earlier decades. Today’s regulations have locked in the patterns of the past.
Housing is not just a question of whether black people live next to white people. Educational opportunities, for instance, are too often distributed by zip code and tied to property values, especially in the absence of meaningful parental choice. Exclusionary zoning too often forces the poor and people of color into neighborhoods with few jobs, high crime rates, and bad schools. And, perhaps most significantly, housing discrimination has had a significant impact on black/white wealth disparities For most families, their house is one of their largest and most valuable assets. Moreover, it is an asset that can be passed along to future generations. But African Americans were deliberately locked out of this intergenerational wealth building.
A Libertarian Approach to Systemic Racism
What then should libertarians do about systemic racism? Recognizing that people of color do not compete on a level playing field does not mean that we must embrace big government to solve those problems. Simply looking at both history and current practices tells us that, even when the government hasn’t been actively discriminatory, it has far too often served as a barrier to racial equality and achieving justice for past policies of explicit racism. Similarly, there is no reason to abandon support for free-market capitalism. Free markets are antithetical to racism, breaking down artificial barriers, and generating the wealth needed to bring about more genuine equality. Much racially disparate legislation stems from efforts to prevent people of color from participating in the free market.
Libertarians are well situated, then, to help tear down the structures and institutions of systemic racism. Notably, libertarians should continue to push for criminal justice reform, including an end to the wars on drugs, to open educational opportunities through increased choice and competition, to remove zoning and other restrictions on housing, and to free up labor markets.
At the same time, libertarians have long recognized that private action and civil society are the most effective remedies for many societal problems. Libertarians should cheer, therefore, the many private actors—from businesses to mutual aid organizations to activist groups—that are taking action to remedy extant racial disparities.
At its heart, libertarianism encompasses the idea that every human being is of equal worth and dignity. Racism is a pernicious form of collectivism that is contrary to all that libertarianism stands for. It is not enough, therefore, for libertarians to simply be passively “not racist.” They should actively embrace anti-racist ideas and policies. That means understanding, rejecting, and fighting systemic racism everywhere we find it, as we do all the other harmful consequences of unjust laws.