It is becoming more and more popular – fashionable, even – to say “racism is systemic.” Which is a good thing because it is; it’s an institutionalized system designed to create patterns of discrimination based on race. My concern is that we don’t all understand what that means or the extent to which it may manifest. Without constant and regularly updated efforts to draw up how that system works the phrase runs the risk of becoming culturally nebulous and eventually being treated with incredulity instead of credit, as fashions are wont to do.
There are reasons why, to pull a pebble from the base of a mountain of examples, police abuse on one end of the country unfolds the same way it does on any other side of the country. It is because of top-down policies reflecting ancient social and political values. We’re talking legislation, elections and enforcement…all provisions of the state. Those values came from people, and what people determined to be valuable at one time, and much of what we see with police is merely maintenance of a system that supports those old values. The way they do their job lives and dies on process and training, but their training largely consists of a value maintenance process, not the preservation of life. We don’t go to army barracks to have our livers removed, and we shouldn’t expect police to play with our children in playgrounds. They do what they’re trained to do as police officers, but also as Americans. The slogan on the side of their cars is “To protect and serve.” As mission statements go, it’s not very clear who is to be protected and served. If we were to base it on their behavior – not just the shootings and abuse, but on the general rhythm of how a random interaction with an officer goes; on the nature of the job itself, really – it becomes easy to assume the target audience of that slogan isn’t people at all.
That sense is generated everywhere police and people interact not because people are inherently criminals but because those values – old, racist values – are completely and utterly systemic. It’s not a class they’re taking; it’s an automated reaction to stimuli spread across every facet of society. People don’t even run racism anymore. That’s why when someone says something like “can’t well all just stop being prejudiced and stop treating people based on their skin color?” they not only sound silly, but very frequently end up committing an act in aid of racism (in that instance, racism by erasure). Racism uses people like pawns, but has long stopped moving those pawns under the power of human hands.
All of this is why when people suggest we should instead call racism “white supremacy” I don’t disagree, but I balk. It’s not that it’s incorrect. Supremacy is definitely the goal, but fulfilling interests is how the goal is achieved. The words “white supremacy” bring to mind slavering hordes of skinheaded Nazis or good ol’ boy Klansmen. Again, not incorrect: those idiots are supremacists. But they’re not alone in the maintenance of racism (or, if we’re completely honest, in the evaluation of whiteness as an ideal and normative state of existence). White interests are the participles of racism, modifying its verb manifestations: it’s not just “the American”; it is “the African-American” or “the Asian-Amercian” or “the Native American” (a people so othered in this society that they lost their hyphen. How exotic and not-white!).
Do you like comic books or Marvel movies? Well, look at it this way: racism is the Ultron of social ills.
It is a process originally set up to protect that eventually determines that the best protection is extermination. Its architects said “Protect white interests” and the machine spat back “Understood,” and eventually proceeded to treat not just blacks, but all people like viruses infecting a nervous system. It takes its prime directive – protect white interests – and strips it of all ambiguity. It removes all things that are not white interest – love, a perceived shared humanity worldview, genuine discourse, education…even people. It focuses on manipulating processes that feed white interest as a value, not a group of people. The beneficiaries are whoever is left over after the process has run its course. Those people will be white, but let’s be clear: you don’t need people – black, white or other – for the value to have value. It is an end unto itself. It even changed its diet (went institutional) when it looked like its food source (segregation, Jim Crow, slavery) was running dry (emancipation, Civil Rights, world condemnation, common sense). It used to be a coal-based system, requiring land and blood and sweat equity to power it. It has long since upgraded to an equally powerful yet far more passive solar matrix. Racism is efficient and runs on self-sustaining fuel. Sure, you can still find a guy who owns an antique Model-T Ford, but would you consider him representative of the auto industry? Are the Dylann Roofs and Donald Trumps of the world what we mean when we say “racism is systemic”? Of course not. They are pawns, but pawns only make up eight pieces on either side of a chess game. Who are the bishops, knights and rooks? We only ever talk about the pawns. We need to stop seeing racism as tumors and more as cancer.