Discussion: Systemic Racism, Unconscious Bias, and Affirmative Action

A liberal friend of mine and I have engaged in off-an-on discussions of systemic racism in American institutions. I say it was eliminated in the 1960’s. He says it is a still a problem. Below, is the start of a formal discussion of this through this forum. He presents his case and then there is a back-and-forth discussion on the matter. I include his comments verbatim. We can learn a lot engaging in such discussions. All too often, discussions like this are not discussions at all; they take place in echo chambers where one side creates a straw man of the other and then speaks only to those who agree with them already.

I have found it extremely difficult to engage others in any type of discussion of sensitive political matters. Others often get angry with me for simply having a differing point of view and discussions generally break down quickly. Other times, we can’t have a substantive argument because we each have our own set of facts which are always in dispute. Hopefully, we won’t hit such a barrier in this discussion.  

As we kick off this discussion, I will say I’m really glad to have someone willing to engage in a civil, open-minded discussion and seek common points of agreement. It doesn’t happen often enough. I don’t know yet where it will lead, but let’s see what comes of it.

My Esteemed Critic’s Premise of Systemic Racism

You have said that systemic racism ended, however, I read an article that shows current examples and I’d like you to comment after reading the article.  It is 64 Examples of Systemic Racism Against Black Americans — Curious Refuge.  It looks like they pulled information from a bunch of different sources such as government agencies, news articles, and think tanks.  Their entire list has 64 entries in it and I’m picking a few for discussion purposes.  They start out by providing definitions of individual and systemic racism.  Individual racism is defined by intentional acts by an individuals and systemic racism are patterns and policies in a society that disadvantage a group of people based on race.

Youth looking at college. 

4. Predominantly black school districts receive far less financial funding than white school districts – ED Build

7. A higher percentage of black Americans with a GPA of 3.5 or higher attend community colleges vs top-tier selective institutions – Georgetown University

Paying for college.

9. Black college students are more likely to go into debt to pay for college – US Department of Education

10. The average Black college graduate leaves a public four-year institution with $111,486 in debt; 55% more debt than the average white college student. – American Council on Education

In the workforce.

11. Black Americans with college degrees are twice as likely to be unemployed – The Atlantic

12. Black Americans with ‘white’ names receive 50% more callbacks for job applications – National Bureau of Economic Research

Buying a home.  I saw an article about #23 and I wish I could find it.  A Black woman had her house appraised twice.  The first time she engaged the appraiser and the second time one of her White friends did.  When she did it her house was valued at something like $125k and when her White friend did it the house was valued at something like $225k.  She was trying to refinance her house and terms for loans are much different based on the value.  With the first she couldn’t refinance and the second she could.  The article pointed out this is anecdotal evidence but based on studies like in #23 this shows it is commonplace.

19. Black homebuyers are shown 17% fewer homes and apartments than white buyers – US Department of Housing and Urban Development

20. Black homebuyers are more likely to be denied an appointment with a real estate agent – US Department of Housing and Urban Development

21. Housing lenders have disproportionately steered Black Americans to subprime housing loans, even when they were qualified for prime loans. – Suffolk University Law Review

23. Comparable homes in black neighborhoods are worth 23% less compared to white neighborhoods – Brookings

The next section in the article is the Justice system.  An entire book could cover that, so I won’t here, but there are many examples.

Day-to-day life.  I hadn’t considered #42, but that is interesting.  If I recall playing simcity back in the day, parks contribute to happiness.  Rural areas have no problem with parkland, but cities and such must make the land available.  From a business perspective there is little value to parks as there are only a few business opportunities in them so the only way to make the space available is through public funding.  To me, this shows how less money is allocated to areas with Black Americans versus areas with White Americans.  If parkland is treated this way, then what is the likelihood this will also happen with schools and other infrastructure?  The crosswalk study in #46 started because they were noticing bias in accidents and fatalities and wanted to see if it was behavior of the driver or pedestrian that was likely to be a higher contributor.  It looks like they found drivers were less likely to yield to a Black pedestrian.

42. Black Americans have far less access to local public parks. In Los Angeles, white Americans have 31.8 acres of local parkland per 1000 residents, whereas Black Americans have 1.7 acres of parkland per 1000 residents. – National Parks and Recreation Association

43. People with ‘Black-American’ names are 16% less likely to be approved for AirBNB rentals – American Economic Journal

44. Uber riders with ‘African-American’ sounding names are 3x more likely to have their ride canceled. – National Bureau of Economic Research

46. People are less likely to stop for black Americans at a crosswalk – National institute for Transportation and Communities

They have sections regarding health and diets in the article and I’m not going to cover them. 

What are your thoughts?  Are you still a firm believer that systemic bias doesn’t exist based on race?

Me:

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I propose we start this debate with the definition of racism. It is how the article you sent begins and it is fundamental to the discussion. If we cannot agree on what exactly we are debating, it will be hard to come to any agreement or have a meaningful discussion. I start with an authoritative source, Merriam-Webster dictionary:

1: a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

Next, the article you sent included these definitions:

  • When most people think of the word racism, they think of Individual Racism, or the specific actions of a person that intentionally express prejudice, hate, or bias. Most people would agree that Individual Racism exists and is wrong, but racism extends far beyond just the things you do, say, or think.
  • Systemic Racism is when policies, practices, representations, and norms work together to perpetuate racial inequality. Systemic Racism often happens unconsciously and at a large scale, which is one of the reasons why it’s hard for individuals to see that it exists.

Finally, I include one more definition from one of the leading voices condemning systemic racism, Ibram X. Kendi. (From Wikipedia: Ibram Xolani Kendi (born Ibram Henry Rogers, August 13, 1982) is an American author, professor, anti-racist activist, and historian of race and discriminatory policy in America. In July 2020, he assumed the position of director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. Kendi was included in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020.)

KENDI: Sure. So, racism, I would define it, um, as a collection, uh, of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas. [PAUSE. LAUGHTER.] Sure. A collection, uh, of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas. And anti-racism is pretty simple using the same terms. Anti-racism is a collection of anti-racist policies leading to racial — anybody want to take a guess? — equity that are substantiated by anti-racist ideas. source: WATCH: ‘Anti-Racism’ Guru Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s Definition Of ‘Racism’ Doesn’t Actually Define Racism (clashdaily.com)

The dictionary definition of racism is simple and one that I believe most people would recognize and agree with. Basically, it says people believe that their racial group is superior to others and they act upon that belief in very ugly ways. I’d say this definition is how I’ve viewed racism for my entire life.

I would also agree with the author’s definition of “Individual Racism” up to the point where he says: “racism extends far beyond just the things you do, say, or think.” Racism starts with what you think or what you believe and it is then manifested in what you do and what you say. By his standard, we could say someone is adulterous without lustful thoughts and without actually engaging in an adulterous activity. How exactly can I be a racist without thinking I am superior than another because of my race and without then doing or saying things which actually harm others? The adulterous act starts with lust or desire and the racist act starts with a prejudicial, hateful, or biased thought. We cannot hold each other accountable by any other standard.

There must be some tangible action or thought by which we can judge another. I was taught and I still believe that as humans we judge each other by our actions, but only God judges our hearts and our motivations. Yet, this author wants to tell us that others, the anti-racist police specifically, know our true racist intentions–even we don’t know ourselves. He is not God, so I discount this rhetoric.

The definition provided says: “Systemic Racism often happens unconsciously and at a large scale, which is one of the reasons why it’s hard for individuals to see that it exists.” In other words, my denial doesn’t matter even if others agree that I am not overtly biased because I can still be unconsciously biased. I am often unconscious that I have a nervous habit of clicking my pen in meetings, but when someone points it out to me, I suddenly become aware and I stop. Those who want to say that folks like me and others are unconsciously biased, can never quite explain how we are biased. They can’t tell us what action we need to stop. Please, just tell me what I am doing wrong. It is just a bit too convenient to blame racism on some amorphous thought or action which can never be nailed down. You can never lose an argument by that standard. I am always in the wrong whether consciously or unconsciously. How am I supposed to stop being unconsciously biased if nobody can ever tell what specific action or thought is the problem? I cannot accept that standard.

This unconscious bias term is very easy to throw around by those who claim to be “anti-racists” but when the table is turned on them, they are bewildered. Listen to this short clip of Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton questioning Biden DOJ nominee Vanita Gupta. Ms. Gupta said in the past “All Americans are racist and we all have racial biases”. The term “All Americans” obviously includes Ms. Gupta as well, so Cotton asks what are her biases? She cannot answer the question. In fact, she appears totally confused by it. It is fine to throw around the “unconscious bias” term when it applies to others, but it is a different story when you have to live up to your standard yourself. Ms. Gupta also said every institution in America is racist, so Cotton asks her: “what institutions in the current Biden Administration are racist?” Skip over the initial discussion on drugs and go to the two-minute mark. She can’t defend her claims at all in five minutes of questioning.

TENSE QUESTIONING: Tom Cotton asks Vanita Gupta: “Against which races do you harbor racial bias?” – YouTube

If you believe in unconscious bias then I will too if you can define for me your unconscious biases. Maybe you want to take a stab at defining what you think my unconscious biases are? How can the author of this article be sure that so many Americans have unconscious biases? Maybe we don’t know what they are because we don’t have any? Do you think that’s possible? Does he know us better than we know ourselves?

Finally, the Kendi definition of racism exemplifies the weakness of the systemic racism argument. I listed his credentials and it seems that folks like you would say he is qualified to speak on the matter. One of the things I learned during my school years is that you do not use the word you are defining in the definition. This Twitter response to Dr. Kendi says it all:

  • Thank you @DrIbram for this illuminating definition. Racism is when someone does racist stuff that is racist in a fully racist way. Similarly, evolution is the study of evolution using evolutionary principles defined by evolution. My man!

— Gad Saad (@GadSaad) June 1, 2021

None of these folks are doing a very good job at enlightening an unconsciously biased conservative like me. Maybe during our discussion you can do a better job at enlightening me?

I will also add that I am not trying to deny the existence of systemic racism. Slavery, Jim Crowe Laws, and Affirmative Action are all clear examples of systemic racism that have existed in America (or still do in the case of Affirmative Action) . In all those instances, the intent to demean, harm, or discriminate against others is clearly stated and is not hidden or unconscious in any way. My problem is the manner in which systemic racism is defined today. It is supposedly some grand conspiracy in which racist actions are so cleverly designed or executed as to not be apparent to Americans other than those few enlightened anti-racists among us.

Before I delve into any of the examples you provide, I’ll stop for your response. Can we at least agree on Merriam-Webster’s definition of racism? I can agree with the author’s definitions of racism but only if eliminating the last sentence of each definition. I cannot agree with Kendi on his definition because it doesn’t have any meaning for me. Do you have another definition we can use or agree on? Or do you want to explain why my understanding of racism, individual or systemic, is flawed?

Him:

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The common definition says that a racist is superior along racial boundaries and I’m wondering if the definition could be rewritten not as my race is better than yours, but your race is inferior to mine.  Does it mean the same thing?  White supremacy is clearly an example of racism and most people don’t associate with those organizations or thought.  I’m proposing that looking down on someone based on race is also racism.

Did you ever play a game called smear the queer, or monkey in the middle?  While smear the queer isn’t racist, it is being used as an example of a commonplace use of something that is puts down someone else.  Not to mansplain, but queer used to be a derogatory term used to put down a gay person.  This term has been taken back by the LGBTQ+ community, but still offensive when used in the context of the game.  Another example is calling a Black man a “boy”, as you can guess, is also belittling the man and is offensive.  How about when you had to pick someone to find everyone when playing hide-and-seek?  Did you do eenie, meenie, miney, moe, catch a tiger by the toe?  Tiger wasn’t the original word.  What do you think that means?  For some reason I think of Ring Around the Rosy and the how things that we think are innocent may be referencing something very real.

Moving to unconscious bias…  The definition is they are the underlying attitudes and stereotypes that people unconsciously (without thinking) attribute to another person or group of people that affect how they understand and engage with a person or group.

In the past I recall you said this is healthy, and in many situations that you laid out I agree.  I think the examples you posed were with a wild animal in front of you.  A person’s bias kicks in and it becomes a fight or flight.  What about something like all Black people play basketball and dance.  Do you think individually either is true, let alone both?  I’m pretty sure there is clear evidence there are Black basketball players as well as Black dancers.  I’ll put it out there that some Black people can both play basketball and dance, but not likely all of them can do both.  Amazingly there are people that believe that all Black people play basketball and dance.  Taking this to the next step, in gym when playing basketball if you pick the Black people simply because of their skin color with no knowledge of their ability it might be a bias.  Unconscious bias would be if you find yourself having picked mostly Black players prior to picking any White players and not realizing why.  Conscious bias is when this choice is intentional.  Just to be clear, this is an example of discrimination, or specifically, racism.   

You’ve mentioned an anti-education bias among Blacks.  Is there evidence that backs this up?  What I found is this may be an example of a false belief of yours and I found Education and the Myth of Black Anti-Intellectualism (udayton.edu) that discusses this myth.   While I’m sure there are Black people that have an anti-education bias, it isn’t a predominate thought.  To go one step further this could be the basis for a lot of other bias and the foundations that could develop into racism.  Speaking of bias, being from the south you may have experienced bias by people thinking of you as a country hick, or I’m sure you’ve been called racist, not because you are White, not even because of anything that you said or wrote, but because you are simply from the south?  Likewise, I’m sure you fly Confederate flags on your pickup truck that has your gun rack, and you go around saying the South will rise again, right?  Taking this to the next step, some people may think you are uneducated, simply because of your southern accent and as such if you worked somewhere and you were passed over for a promotion and it was attributed to this bias, it is called discrimination.  That same situation attributed to race is called racism, which is a specific type of discrimination.

I don’t see Affirmative Action as racist policy. 

Wikipedia definition of Affirmative Action refers to a set of policies and practices within a government or organization seeking to increase the representation of particular groups based on their gender, race, sexuality, creed or nationality in areas in which they are underrepresented such as education and employment.

By the definitions that have been discussed, racism includes that a particular race is superior or inferior to another.  Affirmative Action is all about increasing representation of a group of people based on various factors, including race.  These policies may be the result of racist behavior, such as disadvantages in education, employment, etc. they aren’t racist.

Does that help bring our definitions in line with each other’s?

Me:

Batman Wow

Your additional definition of racism seems fine to me. We can move on from there.

As I kid I played many of the games you mentioned (I never heard of “Smear the Queer” though). I had no idea then that “Ring Around the Rosie” referred to the Black Plague. I know it now, but it doesn’t matter. Let kids play their silly games. It doesn’t scar them or turn them into evil monsters; it is harmless fun. Grabbing the tiger by the toe was once racist? I didn’t know, but I really don’t care in any case. It is still a game and kids don’t know or care about its hidden meaning which was forgotten long ago. Too many today are looking too hard to find racism in anything and everything, even innocuous things like playground games and Dr. Seuss books (also deemed racist by Amazon and Ebay). Name one person you know of who turned into a racist or had their life take a wrong turn because they once played eenie, meenie, miney, moe or read And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street. I may have possibly turned out better because of these things. I don’t have much patience when someone says they should be banned.

I don’t know anyone who would admit they think all blacks play basketball or dance, but what if they did? A person isn’t all that bright to not be aware of differences in individuals. However, thinking such a thing wouldn’t racist because it isn’t intended to demean or hurt another person or group. Intent matters. And if were on the playground picking a team, I would pick the black kid before I picked the white kid because the black kid is more likely to be a better player (assuming they are both fit and able-bodied). This is what Thomas Sowell would call “rational bias”. I asked my 15-year-old this question just now and it seemed obvious to him as well (we’ve never discussed the topic before). The black kid may not be better, but I’m just playing the odds. I would consciously pick the black kid because everyone knows blacks excel at basketball more than whites. It is not a racist act because again I am not demeaning or hurting anyone (I am just trying to assemble the best team). It is just a fact that 90% of the NBA players are black. I suppose that is because basketball is very popular among black youths, much more so than among other ethnic groups, but who cares why it is true? It just is. Wouldn’t the racist be the one who refuses to pick the black kid because he doesn’t like blacks?

It seems obvious to me that Affirmative Action is racist, but we can take that up the next time along with what you call racist educational policies.

You never said anything about Dr. Kendi’s definition of racism. Why is he, an expert in this field, unable to clearly define systemic racism? What about the bewilderment of Dr. Gupta when asked how she is unconsciously biased? To me their inability to articulate definitions of systemic racism and unconscious bias is damning evidence these are made-up constructs.

Him:

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Are you not aware of the version where tiger is replaced with the n-word in “Catch a tiger by his toe”?  It continues with “if he hollers let him go”, and you say this is harmless?  The point is this and names of playground games shows the pervasiveness into cultural norms these things have become despite the potential hurt they cause people. You’ve done the substitution test and if you changed tiger with your name or other group that you associate with and see how it feels.  Repeat this repeatedly with no end.  For cultural norms I have no desire to demand an end to anything and making those demands is likely to cause a backlash of problems.  I’d like to think that someone who is made aware of how something impacts someone else would have empathy for their fellow person and stop doing something hurtful.  If they decide to continue then it is showing their thoughtlessness and says quite a bit more about them than anything else.  I can’t definitively say this about all religions, but I’m sure most have doctrine that looks down upon actions that are knowingly hurtful to others.

An Asian stereotype is their intelligence.  The same as you think you have a higher probably of gathering a winning basketball team if you pick all Blacks, do you think your work team would be better if you picked all Asians?  If so, then why pick anyone that isn’t Asian?  Since you aren’t Asian yourself, why wouldn’t you do the right thing, quit your position, and make sure an Asian took your place, so your employer gets the most value?  The reason is because it is a stereotype and not all Asians are prodigies.  It is a tough standard to live up to.  The stereotype that all Black people are criminals is a hard standard to meet as well.  Based on this stereotype, if you were a police officer, with that little devil on your shoulder always said that Black people are criminals (or better basketball players) then you might hold them to a different standard, such as always under suspicion or you might use more aggressive tactics since they are likely guilty of something.

If the selection for your basketball team is based on race, and you think this would advantage you to win, I’m guessing you wouldn’t call it racism, but what is it?  You mentioned Thomas Sowell used the term rational bias. As I mentioned this so-called rational bias in the case of team selection doesn’t seem harmful to anyone, but the bias that all Blacks are criminals has gotten people harassed and, in some circumstances, killed.

I don’t know enough about Dr. Kendi to comment specifically about him.  If you remove the word “racist” in “racist policies” and remove the end “substantiated by racist ideas” then you have our definition.  His additions help put him on the stage and us talking among ourselves.

Ours

  • Systemic Racism is when policies, practices, representations, and norms work together to perpetuate racial inequality. Systemic Racism often happens unconsciously and at a large scale, which is one of the reasons why it’s hard for individuals to see that it exists.

His

  • racism, I would define it, um, as a collection, uh, of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas.

I find the way some media and social circles get caught up on a few colorful words to belittle and distract the man’s message is amazing. 

I think Vanita Gupta did answer Tom Cotton’s question as much as anyone else does in a congressional hearing and it sound very similar to how you’ve described bias.  At a very primitive level it is fight or flight, very black and white.  I think that is what she was referring to when she said everyone has bias.  To bring it up a level, as an example, at parties most people end up around their friends and I think we can agree this is bias as well.  We have a bias to be attracted to people that are in some way like us, be it the color of our skin, our gender, our education, who we work for, our hobbies, our religion, etc.  This is bias and if you can show me someone who doesn’t ever exhibit bias then I would be very surprised.

Wrapup:

To summarize our discussion:

  • We came close to an agreement on a definition of racism, although I think any such definition should not include “unconscious bias” which I believe is a made-up construct.
  • We don’t agree on the examples of racism. I think the children’s games mentioned are innocuous, but he thinks they are an indication of how pervasive systemic racism is. I just don’t see how they are causing damage to our society.
  • I think much of what he attributes to bias and racism is what Thomas Sowell called “rational bias”, which is something we all exhibit when we encounter new situations, people we don’t know, or stray dogs. Dr. Sowell and I agree with him that bias is real, but unlike him, we think it is not always harmful.
  • He clearly thinks stereotypes are a big problem, but I contend almost everyone understands that many individuals defy stereotypes. I do agree with him that stereotypes exist and are not that useful to us.
  • We clearly don’t agree on Affirmative Action which I think is just trying to cure racism with more racism.
  • He doesn’t see any problem with Vanita Gupta’s testimony that “all Americans are racist” (that includes Dr. Gupta, my esteemed opponent, you, me, and everyone else we know) while I find this statement shocking and ridiculous.

In future posts, we’ll try to cover more on these topics along with other issues raised but not yet addressed.

One thought on “Discussion: Systemic Racism, Unconscious Bias, and Affirmative Action

  1. ur so called liberal friend has no clue what he is saying. probably minimal engagements with black people and just believes what MSNBC tells him.
    His examples are nonsensical
    . Predominantly black school districts receive far less financial funding than white school districts
    NOT TRUE – its just the opposite where black inner cities receive far more federal dollars than white suburbs.
    fact: The Detroit Public Schools Community District spends more per student than all but eight of the nation’s 100 largest school districts, or $14,259, average district in Michigan is $9,910 per pupil,. Even with all that money, the district still generated the nation’s worst reading scores among low-income students.

    “Another example is calling a Black man a “boy”, as you can guess, is also belittling the man and is offensive. ”
    when does this occur – 50 years ago? Then term boy is used in the sports world all the time –
    thata boy
    that boy can flat out hit
    that boy can do this or that and it is used by black commentators mostly and is not offensive at all.

    Also White supremacy does not exist. It is a unicorn for the left to buffer or shelter the true racists – BLM . They are the ones who loot and burn during last years riots. I don’t even know what a white supremist is as that term fostered out of the college universities in last few years.

    The black basketball layer example is also invalid. How about this – if u really wanted to be fair – black men make up 6% of the population but represent 70% in the NFL and 74% in NBA, we should diversify and get more whites in those jobs.
    Now according to him, Affirmative Action is all about increasing representation of a group of people based on various factors, including race. So lets apply Affirmative Action to the NFL and NBA

    Like

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