One *****ist is a joke. A million *****ists are a nightmare.

One communist is a joke. A million communists are a nightmare. The same is true of racists. To illustrate, one of my favorite whackos in America is Michael Symonette, who tries to unite Blacks and Whites…by blaming everything on the Cherokee Indians. He’s deeply crazy and “racist”, but the dude is basically harmless because nobody agrees with him.

Think about fascism, capitalism, Confucianism, hedonism, racism. If only one person holds these views, they’re easily sidestepped and don’t matter much. Only when a view is pervasive does it make a big splash. (See the Economics of Discrimination (1957)1 by Gary Becker, a coldhearted Libertarian if there ever was one.)

That’s why “systemic racism” is the only type of racism that matters. The allegation that systemic racism is woven into American society is one of the most divisive splits between Red and Blue America now. I hope that zooming out to consider it in the context of other -isms and other countries can help us approach the topic constructively.

Group ratios matter

South Africa was ruled by a White minority government until 1990 under an infamous system called Apartheid. (Namibia, too.) It was Segregation on steroids. Around 10 percent of South Africans are White, and the majority are Black—roughly the opposite of the racial group sizes in America.

When South Africa’s government abandoned racist policies, the changes to society were much faster and further reaching than what happened in America after the 1960s. Systems that negatively impacted Black citizens were more quickly dismantled. Black confidence and sense of “ownership” of society blossomed more quickly. [Find a citation.] Even if individual White South Africans kept racist personal views, they became relatively easy to sidestep.

Dismantling -isms must be balanced against competing priorities

The Soviet Union was a repressive communist regime that choked its subjects creativity and personhood. But it was also a system of governance that supported the lives of its 280 million people. I can’t pretend to be an expert on the disorderly dissolution of the Soviet Union, but anybody can see there were tradeoffs. Some groups were unambiguously blessed by freedom from the USSR, but other groups were hurt by it. Pensions ceased, jobs were lost, education was disrupted. People went hungry. Freedom from Soviet-style communism came at a great cost to the citizens of the former USSR, and the vacuum left by the collapsed system led to today’s unhealthy political environment in Russia.

Similarly, recent post-colonial countries face tradeoffs between dismantling unjust leftovers from their history while maintaining systems that sustain their citizens. A great example is land reform and maintenance of property rights. After Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980, most farm land was owned by White farmers, and the government redistributed that land in a messy forceful fashion. In principle, returning land to the citizenry redressed an injustice, but it had disastrous consequences for Zimbabwe. The country’s White elites saw that their rights would not be defended by the new government, and they left en masse.2 When neighboring South Africa passed to Black control 10 years later, is was much more careful to reassure White citizens of their security under the new government and to protect their property rights. The process of fixing unjust patterns of land ownership in South Africa has been slower than in Zimbabwe, but it’s been better for the country overall.

If we take seriously the idea that systemic racism is woven into America’s institutions, we also have to accept that dismantling racism cannot be the only priority.

Systems can outlast the ideas that motivated them

Belief in communism motivated the Chinese Communist Revolution. That government is still in power, but its communist beliefs (in an economic sense) have long ago died out. China is run by capitalists today. For that matter, backlash against taxes provoked the Boston Tea Party in Massachusetts, which today has earned the nickname Taxachusetts.

Recognizing that systems in our society are “racist” in some way does not mean the participants today are motivated by racist beliefs.

  1. Time filters out good literature. Nobody talks about a mediocre book 50 years later. 

  2. Bad leaders and sanctions by the U.S. have also played a role. It’s a complicated history. 

Written on June 26, 2022