“It’s past time for America to discard the left-wing myth of systemic racism,” former Vice President Mike Pence said on a recent visit to New Hampshire. We should go a little further than that. Let’s discard the phrase “systemic racism” altogether.
The chief function of that phrase is to make our political disagreements, already large, seem even larger than they are. The people who insist systemic racism is real and the people who deny it exists generally have different things in mind.
For the first group, it means something like “racial inequities that persist without requiring widespread, ongoing, conscious discrimination by individuals.” The wealth gap between Black and White Americans is a case in point: It is in part a legacy of past injustice.
An education system where wealth lets you live in a neighborhood with good public schools then perpetuates that gap. No individual has to discriminate for the system to produce unfair outcomes.
The second group understands “systemic racism” to mean more than just that the effects of racism pervade our society. They regard it as an indictment of the U.S. as a country that is rife with intentional racism and racist in its essence. And they bridle at that indictment.
That’s the way Pence used the phrase. Right before that sentence, he said, “Let me say, as my friend Tim Scott said with great effect on the national stage not long ago, America is not a racist country.” He was referring to the South Carolina Republican senator’s response to the State of the Union address.
“While we are not perfect yet,” Pence added, “we ought to do justice to all the progress that has been made.”
Pence spoke similarly during last year’s vice-presidential debate, denying “that America is systemically racist,” while also accusing his opponent Kamala Harris of making racial disparities in criminal justice worse when she was a prosecutor and California attorney general. The would-be fact-checkers at Snopes.com dinged Pence for the supposed contradiction, which dissolves upon taking account of the ambiguity of the contested phrase.
Avoiding the phrase altogether does not always dispel the confusion. Senator Scott didn’t use it in his response to Biden’s State of the Union address. His denial that the U.S. is racist nonetheless “ignited a fiery debate,” as the Washington Post reported. On Twitter, liberal criticism of “Uncle Tim” was a trending category until the platform took it down. USA Today ran an attempted gotcha feature detailing the country’s racial inequities.
The morning after Scott’s speech, Vice President Harris said: “No, I don’t think America is a racist country. But we also do have to speak truth about the history of racism in our country and its existence today.”
Scott hadn’t said otherwise: He had referred to enduring discrimination himself and mentioned “our painful past.”
Harris received some criticism from progressives who took her, and the senator, to be denying the existence of racial injustice. For the most part, though, Scott’s critics just ignored that Harris had agreed point for point, and sometimes word for word, with him.
President Biden, too, tried to defuse tensions in response to Scott: “I don’t think the American people are racist, but I think after 400 years, African Americans have been left in a position where they are so far behind the eight ball in terms of education and health, in terms of opportunity.”
Well-meaning Americans have been calling for a “national conversation on race” for decades, but the participants in it remain determined not to hear each other. People who mean to deny that most Americans are racist or that our institutions are illegitimate — people such as Pence and Scott — are taken to mean that everything is OK now. Those who mean to affirm the existence of large-scale racial injustice, such as Harris and Biden, are taken instead to be slandering the country and most of its population.
We have real disagreements about race. Should we strive for race-blind policies, or take race into account to remedy past discrimination? In teaching U.S. history, should the emphasis be on injustice or progress?
We are unlikely to debate such issues productively if we have a distorted view of what the disagreements are. It doesn’t help when we agree with each other at the top of our lungs.