Since the death of Mr. George Floyd on May 25th of this year, not only have issues of police violence been at the forefront of public discourse but systemic racism has entered the public discussion.
Headlines have suggested, America is waking up to the issue of systemic racism, a trait pervasive in American culture. Some, of course, will continue to remain willfully ignorant and deny its existence. The attorney general of the United States, William Barr, for example, recently denied that its pervasiveness within police departments across the United States. But despite these kinds of dismissals, many accept that systemic racism exists and needs addressing.
And although “Systemic Racism” is at the fore of so much commentary today; whether it is in the press or in the media in general many are still unclear of its definition. We must ask then, what is Systemic Racism?
On July 1, 2020, National Public Radio Morning Edition host, Joel King, interviewed Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want To Talk About Race. On the issue of systemic racism, Oluo explained, “the framing around racism has always been there is a white person who doesn’t like people of color or a Klan member, or someone, you know who is making their hatred and ignorance very obvious. But what’s actually been impacting our lives are systems that rely on subtle and not so subtle biases against people of color to disempower us and put us at risk.”
What Systemic Racism Means And The Way It Harms Communities
Systemic Racism Defined
- Justin Worland of Time Magazine writes, "Systemic Racism finds its way more insidiously into institutions, most Americans revere and seek to safeguard.”
- N'dea Yancey-Bragg of USA Today gets definitions form NAACP President Derrick Johnson who characterizes systemic racism as, "systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantages African Americans."
- Yancey-Bragg talks to Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward and publisher of Colorlines who defines systemic racism as, "the complex interaction of culture, policy and institutions that holds in place the outcomes we see in our lives."
- Peggy McIntosh, who popularized the expression “white privilege” stated, over 30 years ago, in Peace & Freedom magazine, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance of my group”
- Eleanor Seaton, an associate professor at Arizona States University interviewed by ASU Now (06/23/20) explains systemic or institutional racism as follows:
“What is systemic or institutional racism? Institutional racism is when societal institutions engage in practices that favor the dominant group and practices that are biased against subordinate groups. It is important to acknowledge that institutional racism in one domain reinforces institutional racism in other domains, providing an interconnected system that constantly reinforces each other while reproducing racial disparities across the lifespan. I would argue that institutional racism is more dangerous than individual racism because institutional racism creates environments that dictates every aspect of life for subordinate individuals. Racism dictates where one lives and attends school, what types of jobs one is able to work, whether one has health care, whether one has access to healthy and nutritious food and whether one is treated fairly by the criminal justice system to name a few examples. The cycle repeats itself throughout the lives of individuals and across generations.”
These are a few examples among many. The idea of Systemic racism was developed by a sociologist, Joe Feagin (Cole, 2020) and according to this author,
"Systemic racism includes the complex array of antiblack practices, the unjustly gained political-economic power of whites, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines, and the white racist ideologies and attitudes created to maintain and rationalize white privilege and power. Systemic here means that the core racist realities are manifested in each of society’s major parts [...] each major part of U.S. society—the economy, politics, education, religion, the family—reflects the fundamental reality of systemic racism."
So, for the authors above and many more commentators, Systemic Racism is a pervasive system that relies on subtle and not so subtle racial biases. It is a system that is insidiously active in institutions; characterized by complex interactions of various segments of society or by invisible systems of dominance. It is an interconnected system promoting disparities or a complex array of anti-Black practices.
In short, Systemic Racism can be subtle, insidious, invisible, and definitely represented by an interconnected complexity. It seems that the notion of Systemic Racism is not easily grasped and quite difficult to define in practical terms, which from a political standpoint remains seriously problematic if one wishes to alter or do away with such a system.
We will strive in this essay to analyze some of the reasons this may be the case.
Plausibly because of the elusive and complex aspects of Systemic Racism (SR), there appears to be on-going confusion between SR and individual racism (IR). It is possible to illustrate this confusion that is pervasive across many commentaries on SR. For instance, Professor Seaton and Mrs. McIntosh mentioned above in their words and writing, both provide us with illustrations of a fundamental barrier to understanding SR. E. Seaton, in her interview, while specifically distinguishing the difference between individual and systemic racism, in order to illustrate systemic racism, refers to the well-mediatized encounter between a white lady walking her dog unleashed in a park and a Black gentleman asking her to keep her dog leashed. This woman’s assumption and belief that the police would automatically come to her “rescue,” while feeling “threatened” by a Black man illustrates SR for this writer. In a different fashion P. McIntosh claims explicitly that systemic racism, invisible systems of dominance, is not to be reduced to individual acts. And yet, she does away with that claim further in her article by introducing a series of questions for individuals, destined to self-examine, to identify on a daily basis, the effects of one’s own white privileges onto oneself in order to reduce racism. Push comes to shove, while attempting to illustrate what SR is or to redress SR, both Seaton and McIntosh do so by presenting an illustration based on the individual dimension of racism. Even Feagin ends up stating:
“A central argument of this book is that white-on-black oppression and its accompanying inequalities have been socially reproduced by the actions of white individuals and small groups set within critical institutional and community frameworks.” (Feagin; pp 270-271)
The explications and demonstrations of SR by all three authors illustrate the difficulty to grasp practically what SR is and the ensuing confusion can be seen to be prevalent among the general public in addressing systemic racism, namely, the subtle and not so subtle biases of institutions, the insidious and invisible systems of dominance, the complex interactions constituting systemic racism. All three, ultimately appreciate SR from the perspective of the individual. Although E. Seaton emphasizes activism as necessary to address systemic racism, like McIntosh who promotes self-examination of one’s own white privilege by individuals, she still lists a series of individual acts of acknowledgement of one’s racism and privilege (self-education, self-examination, homework assignments, etc.), while Feagin ends up attributing the origin of SR to behaviors of white individuals perpetuating and protecting their privileged interests within various contexts, familial, community, institutional and finally societal. Accordingly, the cause of SR lies mostly with individuals who can then be described as both the cause of SR -- privileging one’s interest within networks -- and the solution to SR - critical self-examination of one’s own racism and privilege. We end up in a conundrum leading to the very exclusion of the issue of SR now reduced in practice to IR; for one may ask, how is addressing the individual basis of racism facilitating the address and redress of the very invisible systems, i.e. the social systemic dimension characteristic of Systemic Racism?
Systemic is defined by Merriam-Webster as: of, relating to or common to a system such as fundamental to a predominant social, economic or political practice. So, we can easily apply this definition and state that racism is a fundamental practice of American society at large. Thus, systemic racism is a social phenomenon characterized by the fact that the whole of society is fundamentally racist. It is not an individual phenomenon nor can it be reduced to it. Even if it is possible to be fairly certain that instances of on-going racist actions by individuals, such as chronic racist enactment by individual police officers can be affirmed to be born from SR, instances of IR alone are not necessarily symptomatic of SR; hence the confusion.
In order to make this issue more clear, we shall introduce the concept of “methodological individualism (MI).” Speaking of MI, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, “… It amounts to the claim that social phenomena must be explained by showing how they result from individual actions.”
These actions, according to the Encyclopedia, must be explained by the intentions motivating individuals. Thus, this pervasive doctrine makes it difficult to address problems that are systemic since its basic assumption is that social realities are resulting from what people intend and do as individuals. This doctrine was further developed by Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian School of Economics. This approach is what led Margaret Thatcher to claim that “society does not exist.” By this assumption, the issue of systemic racism will be appropriated by this doctrine and the analysis of racism will be founded on the basis of individual intents and motivations. MI fundamentally addresses social problems from a psychological and psycho-social position. Racism, taken from this perspective will be a very personal matter. White individuals, not only will be encouraged, but will take upon themselves, at least for those opened to do so, to understand their personal motivations and intent – a psychological matter -- when confronting the issue of racism. White individuals will strive to reconcile their personal, not to say intimate, and individual encounters with the issues of racism. SR comes to be equated with IR.
Consequently, within this prevailing MI doctrine, individuals cannot find a frame they can use to reflect and process systemic and social issues beyond their individual experiences, moral stances, ideas and opinions born from such experiences. In other words, people will have no choice, although unintentionally but to collapse, as illustrated above, the social, collective and political issue of systemic racism into a personal, emotional and individual experience organized by one’s psychological make up. This basically reduces political and social issues to morality, psychology and at most to social psychology. This has been easily observable following the lynching of George Floyd, by the many acts of apologies, acts of contrition, wishes for forgiveness and absolution on the part of white individuals, individual politicians, corporate entities and so on. Pertaining to the issue of racism, through the doctrine of MI, the question of social change comes to be transformed into the question of personal and individual change.
Of course, this ideology of individualism is prevalent in the American mythology of white supremacy. The ideology of the rugged and righteous individualism fuels the beliefs about change and transformation. Whether the tough get going when the going gets tough, whether one is to find spiritual or inner strength within oneself, whether one is to learn mindfulness and self-examination, this ideology holds forth the conviction in the individual’s inner capacity to face off challenges, take them on and overcome them; be it racism, discrimination, poverty or anything else.
The black community as well has been subjected to the same ideology whereas “solutions” have been thrown at Black individuals to “help themselves” overcome social, economic and racial challenges such as, “unlearning” helplessness, promoting policies to facilitate entrepreneurial initiatives by Black individuals, promoting the election of Black individuals, both men and women, into positions of political power (even as president of the nation), etc.
Others more rigorously bent on the virtues of individualism have turned the issue of racism upside down and suggested that speaking of Blacks as a group is racist because it negates the particularities, rights and freedoms of each individual within that group.
While some individuals may have benefited from such ideologies, focusing on individual levels have not altered the challenges faced by Black communities and the country at large when it comes to systemic racism and other systemic issues in general (economic disparities, etc.). Presumably, white individuals are encouraged to modify their beliefs in one’s own superiority while Black individuals are supposed to overcome their “negative self-beliefs” in order to become “successful.”
The ideology of MI cannot possibly provide a frame to address the invisible, the insidious, the complex, the subtle and not so subtle biases of systemic racism, namely a social problem.
This ideology of individualism is one of the fundamental beliefs of white supremacy. It assumes we are all born equal and what follows will be each person’s cross to bear.
This assumption is fundamentally flawed because it omits the fundamental material realities that the context in which one is born, as Feagin clearly explains, is deeply determinant for most people’s lives.
White Supremacist Ideology
I refer to this ideology as white supremacist because it sets up a system in which the dice are loaded throughout the system and Whiteness gains a definite economic and racial advantage (psychological and economic wages) over Blackness. This individualistic ideology leads to the complete omission of the social and economic determinants of Black American lives as a social group within our society. It leads to the dismissal of the issue of racism as a systemic, social and political problem. Only the individual rests as the source of change. In such light, it becomes more understandable why those who try commenting on systemic racism, implicitly embracing the doctrine of MI, will inevitably end up addressing racism certainly but not systemic racism even when they clearly differentiate between individual racism and systemic racism.
Systemic racism is complex, subtle and not subtle, insidious, and invisible. It appears often, yet not necessarily, in a vast array of individual racist acts and deeds. These “anecdotes” of individual racism have been chronically on-going for years, for centuries so much that the idea that there are a few racist individuals within certain groups or particular groups of racist individuals flaming racial violence (the bad apples argument) is no longer tenable and has forced the American people today to realize that the instance of the death of George Floyd cannot be taken as an anecdote but is the symptom of a larger problem, if unclear, nevertheless real, that is to say systemic racism.
Systemic racism is then reframed in light of the white individualistic ideology. Individuals are to address their own racism, en masse, and the cycle is completed. Systemic racism “disappears” from public visibility to never be seen again all the while remaining ever present, invisible and pervasive; until the next “anecdote” that is.
Consequently, if there is no frame to address systemic racism how is it going to be possible to redress it?
“When we talk about the system, we are talking about capitalism. I repeat: when we talk about the system, we are talking about capitalism. Let us not be afraid to say it. And when we talk about capitalism, we are talking about the system that has created the situation Blacks are in today! Let us be clear about that too. Black underdevelopment is a product of capitalist development.” -- James Boggs (1970)
To Methodological Individualism we can oppose the idea of methodological holism (MH). This approach is radically different and claims that the “determining cause of a social fact should be sought among social facts preceding it and not among states of the individual consciousness.” This basically means that what happens socially should be understood, among other things, from a historical perspective and cannot be reduced to what individuals believe or do.
This approach assumes that individuals are the products of their environment. With this doctrine, Systemic Racism as a social phenomenon cannot be reduced to individual racism but can be best understood in relationship to other aspects of our society and its history.
If MI claims that racist individuals create a racist social environment, MH claims that a racist society creates racist individuals. This leads to the inevitable question, regarding racism, should we start then by changing individuals or should we start by changing society? Clearly since the former has been at work for quite a while without much improvements for Black communities across the country, we claim here that only the assumption of MH can provide a frame to understand systemic racism and do away with it. It will be of course a lot more challenging to change the existing system than to design strategies for individuals to change themselves within the existing social structure. The question is no longer of one’s individual experience of racism, both as perpetrators or victims but rather of the larger system’s functioning as a racist system. What makes our social system racist? How does this social system create and reproduce racial inequalities? Addressing systemic racism means to fundamentally address the systemic aspect of racism and the complexity associated with it, namely the historical foundation of such system but also its relation to other aspects of social life like economic, political and institutional aspects of our social system promoting racism. At the systemic level, the personal motivations of perpetrators and victims of racism are not so much ignored as they are considered consequences rather than causes of racism and therefore addressing SR is to put the whole of American society into question. Any refusal to do so is equivalent to embrace a white supremacist position if only because it maintains power relations characteristic of white supremacy, namely the burden of change lies with the individual, a logic favoring of course whites in maintaining their privilege even when those very white individuals exercise themselves sincerely at not being racist. The system that produces and reproduces racism has to be put into questions.
Systemic Racism and Political Economy
What are we talking about when systemic racism is said to be complex, subtle, insidious and invisible? What is this system of dominance of whites over Blacks, which seems to persist today, despite all the changes that have occurred since the Civil Rights movement? How is this racist system implemented despite an absence of explicit and overt racist policies akin to those of Jim Crow or South African apartheid?
When no one is intentionally carrying out racist policies, lobbying for racist laws and regulations, when the children of those historical victims of legalized racism have become judges, police chiefs, athletic and artistic icons, CEOs, millionaires, governors, senators, professors, president, etc., when racism is ground for legal proceedings, how can this society remain fundamentally racist?
In fact, the many achievements by Black individuals bespeak and might illustrate how this society does not prevent Blacks from “success,” and hence cannot be described as a racist society.
From the perspective of MI, Black “success” confirms that racism can be done away with by individual effort and proves that anybody can succeed.
The Persistence of Racist Outcomes
But then, the MH perspective will ask, when these “successes” are compared to the overall conditions of Black people across the nation, can these achievements and successes by some Black individuals be taken as exceptions that, in fact, confirm the racist status quo?
With MI the success of the few confirms the idealist notion that potentially any other individual can make it to success while MH on the other hand posits that the success of the few reveals that the many – a material fact - cannot make it to success and therefore that if a few Blacks can achieve “success” in America, most cannot.
For those who have succeeded, well, we can only say, good for them, but then we have to ask, what about the rest of the people? The latter’s social and economic position remains determined by the system in which they live, a system that is systemically racist.
How does MH help us understand this? Well, as many are claiming once more, the present racist state of affairs is steeped in the history of this country and the place of the Black people in it and the cornerstone of that story is, as everybody should know, the slave trade and slavery.
Often, the conversation about slavery, and in a very human manner, turns to the Horrors experienced by Africans during that period of history.
In fact, the Horror immobilizes the mind of the student of the slave trade. Its scale incapacitates comprehension. How can human beings, I am not saying this in the past tense, do these things to other human beings? Why did white men endeavor to enslave Africans, to transport them to faraway lands, across oceans to colonies in the Americas and to exploit them in such a brutal and inhuman fashion?
The most powerful of motivations led them to do so. That motivation was greed. Greed fueled the great quest for wealth; a quest not unlike today’s constantly promoted and heralded quest for ever greater wealth, granted no longer by trading slaves but by other means, means not necessarily more respectable.
The making of money, and more money, namely profits was the driving force of the slave trade and chattel slavery, therefore, understanding the importance and significance of political economy is imperative.
As C. Burden-Stelley (2018) explains, analyses of the Black condition (Black studies) have “tended to ignore or marginalize the study of economic agency and resistance, the failure of the market, the relations between labor and exploitation, and economic development (or the lack therefore) in US Black communities and the Black world.” Referring to the Black radical tradition of the 30s’ as Burden-Stelley does, we will further claim that the political economy of systemic Racism and the Black condition offers the only frame able to reveal the invisible, insidious and subtle systems of dominance and bring them to light. Political economic understanding can act, so to speak, like an electrical switch turning on the light against darkness, namely enabling one to see that which has remained invisible.
In today’s currency, the slave trade and slavery amounted to billions of dollars. Towns and cities were created from it. Properties were purchased because of it, Jobs were generated, technologies invented, loans created and given, etc. The whole of European society, and particularly England has benefited economically in no small ways – a euphemism -- from the Horror. A historical site in Virginia explains,
“The business of the domestic slave trade permeated every aspect of the American economy. The profits from the trade in enslave people flowed to many places. Traders were not the only ones to profit from America’s internal slave trade. Slave owners in the Upper South profited because they received cash for the people they sold. Slave owners in the Lower South profited because the people they purchased were forced to labor in the immensely productive cotton and sugar fields. The merchants who supplied clothing and food to the slave traders profited, as did steamboat, railroad, and ship owners who carried enslaved people. Capitalists in the North profited by investing in banks that handled exchange of money for people or in insurance companies who provided insurance for the owners’ investment in enslaved people. So did foreign investors in southern securities, some of which were in issued on mortgaged slaves. Ironically, the hotbed of American abolitionism – New England – was also the home of America’s cotton textile industry, which grew rich on the backs of enslaved people forced to pick cotton.”
As most agree today, slavery was founded upon the dominance of one group, whites, over another group, Blacks. The relationship between the plantation owner who owned slaves and the enslaved people was the most overt expression of this system of domination. This constitutes the very explicit visible system of racial dominance if there ever was one. This is unquestionable. But as this short paragraph above illustrates, a whole slew of others benefited from that system of domination without themselves owning slaves, without being masters over slaves. And yet, they too participated in this system of domination although, we could say, in more subtle manner, in a more insidious and much less visible way. This constitute the invisible systems of dominance. Invisible because although they benefited from the commerce of slavery, they themselves did not visibly, actively and directly dealt with slaves – the very visible, unsubtle form of white and economic dominance. Therefore, the invisible system of dominance introduces a systemic dimension above and beyond the dominance of plantation masters over slaves.
Let us carry this line of reasoning further. Once more, we can ask, why did this system of dominance go on in such an extensive and systemic fashion? The answer once again is profit. Certainly, many in the general media today do acknowledge openly the racial organization of the slave trade and the plantation system, yet not as many clearly are ready to acknowledge that this system of dominance is not simply some racial sadomasochistic endeavor by Southern plantation owners but is in fact motivated by the economic profit motive. Thus, it is possible to state that the racial economy of slavery was fueled by exploitation towards profitable ends. To exploit, simply defined, means making use of, taking advantage for one’s benefit, for one’s profit. The principal function of this system was to exploit Blacks in order to generate profits and wealth. If the plantation owner exploited slaves directly, a whole set of opportunistic industries parasitic to the plantation industry such as Insurance companies, banks, transportation industries, clothing industries, etc. arose to extract financial gains, albeit indirectly. Within that parasitic system of exploitation, racism does not even have to be mentioned. Racism goes without saying insofar as the profits generated from slavery justify its very existence upon which, parasitic industries strived. And this justification suffices to the system’s existence. From the standpoint of the profit makers, the situation requires no analysis whether it is fair, unfair, inhumane since it does what it is supposed to do, namely it generates wealth. The practice of slavery presents a clear instance of a visible system of dominance both racial and economic. The parasitic industries, a few degrees removed from the visible system of dominance come to constitute the invisible system of dominance since their activities rely on the visible system of dominance without themselves visibly participating in it. The latter we claim remains the foundation of Systemic Racism, as we shall see.
Let us take a more contemporary example. Recently when D. Trump boasted of selling hundreds of millions of dollars in military equipment to Saudi Arabia, and he boasted unabashedly of the profits to be made. In that deal, not only will the companies’ owners selling this military ware benefit but workers themselves, those who make it, will be guaranteed sustainable jobs, health insurance and so on. Furthermore, local and non-local businesses will benefit from workers using their services or buying their goods and so on. No one will question whether the use of this military ware is fair, unfair, inhumane, etc. Moreover, this system of operation does not permit us to accuse objectively these workers of hating those against whom this military ware will be used. It is doubtful that American workers will be pondering at all the welfare of people in Yemen and therefore cannot be accused of racism against this African people even though they actively participate in their demise.
Let us take another example closer to home. The purchase of one’s favorite pair of sneakers appears to be the most benign act whatsoever. And yet, when most American workers of a sneaker’s company make between $20,000 and $120,000 dollars per annum, we realize that the sneakers company provides jobs to many, from transportation, storage, retail, sales to management and so on. When the CEO and COO of that same company make about $14 million and $5 million per year respectively, well, we might appropriately consider this company to be very successful. But when we find out the company subcontracts oversea workers to make those very same sneakers for a couple of dollars a day, questions could be raised. Or when one of those same sneaker company decides to close its factories in South East Asia to search for cheaper labor after its 30,000 subcontracted workers organized by trade-unions decided to demand better wages, such conflicts did not even appear on the horizon of the American landscape. The point here is that the American worker of the sneakers company or the consumer of sneakers in the United States unknowingly participate in the exploitation of oversea workers. Yet, they, the worker and consumer cannot be directly accused of racism or inhumanity towards these oversea workers even though both the US worker and consumer do participate actively in the perpetration of this exploitative and often inhumane system in the same way the worker in a military ware factory does participate in the demise of the victims of that hardware. And this contradiction does apply to owners as well. Owners of the sneakers company do what they must to keep the company profitable and hiring the cheapest possible labor, whatever the circumstances, is paramount and makes complete business sense. Accordingly, even owners do not have to hold any particular negative feelings towards oversea workers. Cheap labor and profits are their sole concern.
In a similar vein, the Brooks Brothers company that sold clothing for slaves to slave owners did not have to be racist; Lloyds of London, a company that insured the slave value for owners did not have to be racist either. In this system of capitalist free enterprise, paradoxically no one is free. The owner facing the competition of other companies in his or her industry (producing sneakers, military wares, sugar, cotton or tobacco) has to use the cheapest possible labor force in order to remain competitive in generating more wealth. The workers have to participate in order to provide for their families and if one wishes to simply exercise then one has to buy sneakers. No one is in fact free. Describing this invisible systemic process I am provocatively stating that “they did not have to be racist” to emphasize the fact that in this system, whether the employees of Brooks Brothers or Lloyds of London were racist or not, or whether the workers and consumers of todays’ sneakers harbor negative feelings towards exploited overseas workers or not is irrelevant to the system’s functioning. The profit motive is enough of a justification as it also creates unavoidable constraints. The profit motive requires no particular racist ideology even though paradoxically the quest for profits will produce the vilest forms of racism. This illustrates how systemic racism can exist, function and be promoted independently from whether individuals (employees, workers, consumers and even owners) are racist or not. A racist system can exist independently of individual’s relationship to racial prejudice. The system was perpetuated because it was ultimately lucrative for both those involved directly and those indirectly involved with the exploitation of slaves.
How does this apply to slavery and the Black communities today? Well, eventually the plantation industry and the practice of slavery came to be abolished, namely the visible system of dominance was done away with. However, the direct line between slavery and today’s condition of Black Americans can be better understood if one realizes that if slavery – the visible system of dominance -- was abolished, the system of exploitation and profit making – the invisible system of dominance -- was not. On the contrary, we might even say that the abolition of slavery saved the system of exploitation by cleansing it of its overtly “inhumane dimension,” characteristic of the visible system of dominance and exploitation. A logic we can as easily apply to Jim Crow apartheid. The very system of exploitation that bore and nurtured slavery and profited from it without practicing it, the invisible system of exploitation was in effect not abolished. Only the visible and overt exploitation of slaves by the slave owner was abolished to the great benefits of the former certainly but the very system that enabled the various opportunistic and parasitic commercial interests to flourish from slavery was not. The means of exploitation of Black people changed with the abolition of slavery but exploitation remains. The blueprint of American slavery maps the very geography of American capitalism, namely the system of exploitation allowing for the greatest profits. But we must reiterate, if the overt exploitation of Blacks slave by white masters was abolished, the exploitation of Blacks was absolutely not abolished. On the contrary, it was perpetrated in other forms.
Blacks within the historical frame of American life have remained exploited. The black slave has been turned into the low wage workers, the factory workers, the construction workers, the farm hands, the domestic help, the carceral labor force, and so on. In a system founded on exploitation, someone has to be exploited. There is no way around it. This is the necessary condition for the existence and sustainability of capitalism. Wealth has to be created from the exploitation of someone and if that someone cannot be exploited by slavery then it will be by wage-slavery. This relationship has to be preserved at all cost, actually at the lowest cost. The system cannot exist without it. From the inhumanity of unpaid slave labor, Blacks, like the oversea workers, were “granted” the right to be free to sell their labor at the lowest cost. From slaves, Blacks became the poor and lower working class; so much that Black and poor became synonymous. A social-historical and economic construction is revealed that persists to this day, Black is poor and poor is Black.
Even when the system of exploitation, i.e. the right and freedom of creating wealth is no longer based on overt racial segregation and exploitation, that system remains exploitative and therefore racist. Blacks remain historically determined within American capitalism to represent the cheapest form of labor. In that system exploitation and racism are one and the same. Like the oversea workers, Blacks end up being exploited by a system which fosters and promotes racism without any racist intent – this is precisely what systemic racism is. Blacks, like South Asian workers, end up being exploited by whites without the implementation of overt racist policies and because the racism of capitalist development no longer has to be overt, explicit and intentional, the systems of dominance, i.e. of the exploitation it requires, remain invisible; but an analysis of the political economy of capitalism can render visible their very existence and functioning. An analysis that ought certainly to be developed to greater length.
Other instances of racism without racist intent, i.e. systemic racism, can be readily found domestically to this day. An Insurance company, for instance, will not insure a Black enterprise because it has no history of doing business; a bank will not loan the money to a Black family because it has no collateral, a real-estate agent will not sell a house to a Black woman because it will decrease property values of the neighborhood. Such situations of course will be experienced by individuals as overt racism on the institution’s part, which can readily be reduced to illustrations of individual racism by its victims. On the other hand, and this is the more cryptic aspect of systemic racism we are trying to introduce, the insurance agent, the bank manager or the real-estate agent, may or they may not be racist. In fact, whether they are or not is irrelevant to the system. All these institutional agents have to consider is the institution’s economic interest first. Financial and legal liability, financial guaranties, housing markets do inform and prevail in their decision making. For their decisions are to ascertain that the enterprise they represent or for which they work, remains profitable. That is their bottom line.
These agents, even though they may not be racist, may enforce racist rules like racial covenants and redlining, but these can be recognized and reformed. In the absence of such racist rules the agents may just obey and follow the rules of the market. The market may dictate discriminatory policies without having to be openly and explicitly racist. If the purchase of a property by “poor people,” or Black people makes properties around them less desirable, namely reduces property values, the market and its agents, who need to uphold higher prices will see to the exclusion of anyone or anything that threatens higher market prices, i.e. profits. In consequence, the laws of the market, which are not objectively racist, result in racist and discriminatory decisions. These agents just obey the rules of a system of exploitation destined to generate profits for the owners of such institutions very much like the Insurance companies, banks and such did in providing services and goods to slave owners. Whether they are racist or not is irrelevant to the reproduction of capitalism, even when it results in racist segregation and exploitation. That is systemic racism and American capitalism cannot not be systemically racist.