David Carlin: Is “systemic racism” real? Or is it an abuse of language, stretching the meaning of the word “racism” beyond its legitimate bounds?
The issue of equality is almost always on the American national agenda. It was so from the day the Declaration of Independence was signed; it’s been so again and again in the years since 1776. And today it is prominent as Americans once again consider how to reduce inequalities between men and women, between native-born and immigrants, and above all between whites and blacks.
The idea that “all men are created equal” wasn’t discovered in Philadelphia in 1776. For a precise time and place for its beginning, think of Athens around 300 B.C. For that was the approximate year when Zeno of Citium founded the Stoic school of philosophy in the city that was the philosophical capital of the Greek world. Stoicism taught that all humans are equal in that they possess reason, a godlike attribute; and that reason is the best of all human things, better than wealth, health, strength, fame, good looks, etc. In other words, that all humans are equal is what is most important.
This was a great theoretical breakthrough, though it didn’t have much immediate practical effect. In the immediate aftermath of this great Stoic discovery, slaves were still slaves; rich people could still lord it over poor people; men could still push women around, etc.
The coming of Christianity was another great leap forward in the spread of the idea of universal human equality, for a number of reasons.
(1) Christianity was a universal religion, that is, a religion open to any and all humans, regardless of race or nationality or sex or wealth or status as slave or free. This made it a very different thing from the many local religions found in the Roman world, including the Jewish religion. It did however require initiation (Baptism), but this initiation was open to all who were willing to subscribe to the basic Christian articles of faith.
(2) Christianity regarded God as a universal God, as the Creator and Father of all human beings, regardless of race, nationality, etc.
(3) Christianity held that that Jesus Christ had suffered and died in atonement for the sins of all human beings. Centuries later John Calvin and his followers held that Jesus had not died for all, but only for some, namely the Elect. But this notorious Calvinist doctrine is a deviation from ancient Christian orthodoxy.
(4) The great Christian sacrament of the Eucharist was open to all Christians without regard to wealth or power or sex or social status. It was no less open to a slave than to a king, no less open to a homeless person than to a multi-billionaire, no less open to a woman than to a man, no less open to a Greek than to a Jew.
(5) Christianity taught that the rules of morality are the same for all human beings; that all humans should abstain from murder, adultery, theft, lying, and so on; and that all humans should love their neighbors.
(6) Christianity taught that all humans have the potential for becoming saints; that is, for enjoying eternal happiness in the company of God.
(7) Of course sanctity, according to Christianity, is not possible without the assistance of the grace of God; but Christianity also taught that this saving grace is available to all humans. Again, Calvinists disagreed; they held that God’s saving grace is available to the Elect only.
It was inevitable that this religious or spiritual equality would eventually, if slowly, spill over into the secular realm. By the 18th century, equality in the eyes of God had evolved into the idea that all humans are – or rather, should be– equal before the law. This meant that nobles would have to lose their legal privileges, and it also meant that slavery would have to be done away with.
But in a post-slavery world, further inequalities remained, most notably the great gap between rich and poor, a gap that grew greater as capitalist modernization proceeded. In the United States, we have tried to justify this gap with the idea of “equality of opportunity.” To the degree that all runners have an equal chance of winning in the great and universal American race for social and economic prizes, we consider the resulting inequalities to be fair. At the same time, we as a society have a duty to reduce or eliminate whatever might prevent an equal start in this great race – we must, for instance, reduce discrimination based on sex, race, ethnicity, class, religion, etc. And to a great extent, we have done this. Impartial surveys such as the one here show America and other developed countries to be among the least racist in the world.
In recent years, however, many loud and increasingly influential voices have shouted, “Equality of opportunity is not enough; besides, it is impossible to bring about.” Instead, we are told, our national equality slogan should be, “Equality of outcome.” This is especially true when it comes to comparisons between whites and blacks. When blacks (on average) are worse off than whites (on average) in income, wealth, education, arrests, imprisonment, drug addiction, residential quality, life expectancy, and so on, these inequalities are the results (so we are told by these clamorous voices) of “systemic racism” or “structural racism.”
One of the great merits of Catholic colleges in the old days, when these colleges weren’t very good academically in comparison with their secular peers, was that they made students take a course in elementary logic, a course that usually placed a strong emphasis on the nature and importance of definition. Catholic colleges nowadays, far more up-to-date than they were when I was young, don’t worry much about elementary logic courses. Too bad. For before Catholics with a strong social conscience rush into battle against the evils of systemic racism, they should pause for a moment to ask for a definition.
Is systemic racism a kind of racism? Or is it (as I suspect) an abuse of language, stretching the meaning of the word “racism” beyond its legitimate bounds?
David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.
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