Home > Essays > Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru’s Analysis of the Phrase “Systemic Racism” Unwittingly Underscores the Difficulty of Having a “National Conversation About Race”

Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru’s Analysis of the Phrase “Systemic Racism” Unwittingly Underscores the Difficulty of Having a “National Conversation About Race”

Our local newspaper featured an editorial this morning written by Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru titled “The Phrase Systemic Racism Clouds the Debate“.  The article opens making a sound point: the lack of an agreement over the definition of “systemic racism” results in a situation where groups on both sides of the debate are talking past each other. Mr. Ponnuru suggests we should abandon the use of the term altogether and outlines his rationale for that in the opening paragraphs:

“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.

Later in the essay, Mr. Ponnuru offers this thought:

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.

Here’s a thought: maybe those of us who are “well-meaning” might seek to understand the reasoning that folks like former VP Pence and current SC GOP Senator Scott are using as the basis for their assertion that “everything is OK” now for blacks in our country. We might be able to have that elusive “national conversation on race” if we engaged in evidence-based inquiry by posing questions like this:

  • IS there evidence that the wealth gap between blacks and whites is closing?
  • IS there evidence that the earning gap between blacks and whites is closing?
  • IS there evidence that the more black families are able to live in neighborhoods with good public schools?
  • IS there evidence that the arrest rates for Blacks using drugs matches that of whites?
  • IS there evidence that the opportunities for blacks to gain employment in jobs paying wages that a family can live on have increased over the past several years?

As one of those “well-meaning Americans” who seeks a national conversation on race”, I don’t believe the problem is the definition of the term “systemic racism”. I believe the problem is the definition of “conversation”. A “conversation” is a dialogue, not a debate. In a conversation participants strive to gain an understanding of each others’ perspective with the intention of finding some areas of agreement and, in doing so, might accelerate the pace of racial equality. In the Brown v. Board of Education that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine set in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Chief Justice Warren wrote that schools across the country should integrate “with all deliberate speed”.  Those who filed the case did so in hopes that black children across the country would have access to the same kinds of education afforded to white children. Yet schools today are nearly as segregated as they were in 1954 even though the percentage of white students attending public schools is lower. Why is this? Maybe the response to that question will lead to the conversation we’ve been trying to have for decades.

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