God is Everywhere—On the Ontology of Systemic Racism and the Faith-Belief of the Progressive

I realize a lot of people disagree with me on my rejection of the systemic racism thesis. My rejection of the thesis (which is based on evidence and logic) is not the main reason I oppose teaching critical race theory to children. My objection there is not that it is wrong but that it is taught as if it were the truth. It is wrong to lie to children. So while I teach critical theory in my law courses, I do not teach it as gospel. However, opposition among conservatives to the teaching of critical theory is formed on the basis of a correct understanding of race relations in contemporary United States. I suspect that one of the reasons so much energy is spent mocking and ridiculing conservatives is the need to poison the well on this issue.

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll is out indicating an association between support for critical race theory being taught in public school and belief in the notion of systemic racism, with conservative respondents skeptical of the existence of the phenomenon and therefore less likely to support the public instruction of critical race theory. (See Are Teachers Really all in on Critical Race Theory?) Critical race theory, boiled down, is an academic theory developed in law school rooted in the assumption that racism is embedded in the US legal system and American institutions. (See Crenshaw Confesses: Critical Race Theory is About Racial Reckoning. Also State Media Defends Critical Theory.)

Buckner, Kentucky, June 28, 2021

One might look at American history and note that the system of de jure (that is legal) racism was dismantled more than half a century ago and wonder what the claim that racism is embedded in the legal system could mean. The response to incredulity is that racism is axiomatic and that, therefore, the absence of a race-conscious legal system and of race-conscious institutions and policies is the manifestation systemic racist. In other words, colorblindness, equal treatment, race-neutrality, etc., equals racism. The response is similar to the response I get when I ask a believer how he can believe in God when there is no evidence for God’s existence. The believer responds, “Just look around you. God is everywhere.” I have also been told that the greatest trick the Devil ever played is telling me that God is not real.

It’s a cute trick that I confess falling for at first. Not the God thing. The systemic racism thing. But the God thing compelled me to ask about evidence for the systemic racism thing. I have tried to live my life beyond faith-belief. It’s why I became a scientist. So I took a look and, to be sure, the facts indicate that blacks trail whites in every significant social category. Putting this in sociological terms, life chances for whites are on average better than they are for blacks. Whites as a group enjoy better health care outcomes and longer lives, higher levels of educational attainment, greater labor force participation rates, higher salaries and wages, nicer homes, less criminality and violence, and their children are more likely to live in two-parent homes. These and other group disparities are often cited in defending the claim that whites enjoy a racial privilege.

However, the distribution of situations and life chances internal to respective racial categories are more variable than average differences between groups on these factors and, moreover, whereas variability concerns individuals, statistical averages are abstractions. I can see, for example, that there are many more poor whites than blacks (three times more), whereas a greater percentage of blacks are poor relative to demographic proportion (see They Do You This Way). I agree that statistical aggregates are useful in predicting other statistical aggregates. But to draw assumptions about individuals based on abstractions commits both the ecological fallacy and the fallacy of misplaced concreteness (or reification). Even at the level of statistical abstraction, group disparities do not explain those facts. Unexplained variance is just that.

Social facts accepted, the western system of jurisprudence developed in the context of adjudicating disputes between actually-existing individuals and formal groups. Put another way, the common law developed to deal with the matters of concrete fact not statistical abstraction. Moreover, the burden of proof rests with the accusers, while the accused is presumed innocent. The court does not accept prima facie an accusation as correct until proven otherwise. This gets the burden wrong. First impressions are often incorrect or inaccurate. A disparity is not proof of an injustice. Effects are not their causes. Any claim made about causal forces must identify and specify them and show empirically that the outcomes in question result from them while ruling out other causes. The foundation of the democratic republic is secular and supernatural claims are walled off for this reason. Yet the advocates of critical race theory ask us to substitute for the absence of evidence for systemic racism in law and institution results of unidentified or unspecified processes that lie beyond the law.

After overcoming the false belief of systemic racism, I wondered why conservatives are immune to the fallacious manner of thinking that propels the myth of systemic racism and white privilege even while they admit that personal prejudice and discrimination exist and are wrong. Here’s what I think is going on.

A thought-stopping mechanisms was put in me from a very young age wherein, if I were to blame individuals for their situation, I would find myself blaming the victim if the individuals in question were black and feel ashamed. Asians and Jews, two groups who have historically suffered remarkable levels of racism (or, in the case of Jews, at least something very much like it), overcame their situation in the United States through the ethic of hard work. Asians and Jews emphasize the importance of family, community, initiative, and responsibility. One can say this in the present of progressives without much controversy if certain comparisons are not made. One may not ask the same questions about the disparities between blacks and whites.

One may note the failures and pathologies of whites. Did they have babies too young and too often? Is the father involved? Does the parent surprise and discipline her child? Does she emphasize educational achievement? Does she drink and drug? To be sure, there are other reasons why there are poor white people. Corporations shipped the factories overseas. Politicians opened the border to mass immigration. But the point is that we’re allowed to include everything in the analysis. For sure, we may not claim that the situation of poor whites is the result of systemic racism. 

A conservative will tell you that everything I above identified played some role in creating and perpetuating white poverty. Globalization has made life difficult for the white working class. But members of that class have also often made life difficult for themselves. Not all poor white people were always or will always remain poor. That tells you a lot. Some change their lives for the better and they would take offense at the suggestion that they played no role in overcoming their circumstances. However, unlike the progressive, the conservative will also consider all these same possibilities with respect to the situation of a black person. He is open to explanations that rest on class and economics. But he is also open to cultural explanations. Too many children born out of wedlock? Fathers involved? Children supervised and disciplined?

The progressive cannot be open to cultural explanations with respect to blacks because he believes that to do so makes a man a racist. To be a good men, he must be the opposite of a racist. He must be the antithesis—the antiracist. The antiracist assumes group disparities, where those groups are differentiated by racial identity, are the result of injustices visited upon all members of the victim group. He has a priori excluded from all possible explanations the role of attitudes and behavior among those judged victims of circumstance. The progressive is still allowed to use the cultural explanation for groups not judged victims. He has no problem condemning the backward and ignorant whites who vote Republican and complain about critical race theory at meetings of their local school boards. In this instance, what a conservative believes is what explained his behavior. The white murderer chooses to pick up a gun and murder his victim. The black murderer kills because white supremacy put a gun in his hand.

Progressives believe in critical race theory being taught in public schools because they believe in a thing without evidence, indeed, a belief that flies in the face of the evidence, as well as defies logic because evidence and logic do not apply to faith-belief. Faith-belief is stood up on ideological ground. They also believe in teaching CRT to children because this makes them an antiracist and therefore a good person. In contrast, conservatives are immune from belief in systemic racism not because they are racist or bad people but because they neither reflexively nor selectively disallow cultural explanations for the outcomes progressives accept as prima facie evidence of systemic racism. Progressives want you to believe conservatives are backwards and ignorant. But, at least on this matter, they are thinking for themselves.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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