Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, seeking to pander as hard as the rest of his clown-van cohorts, recently played the race card in an interview on NPR. Namely, he asserted that:

Systemic racism [is] all around us. It’s the air we breathe.

I’m struck by the fogging up of the phrase “systemic racism.”

It used to refer to the laws and structures that forced discrimination even when individuals didn’t want to discriminate, i.e. slavery and Jim Crow laws. Laws. As in the government put them in place and enforced them. In that context, “systemic racism” refers to institutionalized racism.

Many years back, when I was working for a defense contractor, we went through a set of management training and exercises. One such involved reading 8 or so sentences, each with a blank, then figuring out what the best single word to fill that blank was. The exercise was leading, in that “computer” would have worked just fine for the first 6 of 8, but didn’t for the last two. I saw through the gambit, and that they were leading us to the word “system.” Most didn’t – they wanted to shoehorn “computer” in because it was their first idea, because they didn’t read through to the end, and because they hated the vagueness of the word “system.”

The lessons of that exercise aren’t of prime relevance here, but the notion that “system” can be vague is.

“Systemic” can mean a lot of different things, both in context and based on a reader/listener’s predilections, and it can be used to refer to both the era when the system aka government was explicitly rigged against blacks and to a vaguer and more latent sense that there’s lots of racism lying below the surface today.

A better word to describe the latter would be “pervasive.” Problem is, if you assert that there’s “pervasive racism,” people will balk, not only because it may not ring true in their view, but because it tags almost everyone, not just the not-me otherness of a “system.” It’s easier to get away with using the vagueness of “systemic racism” and imply pervasive racism, because the implication can be denied or deflected if challenged by someone who doesn’t agree.

“Systemic” lets people point a finger away from those around them and at a faceless and nebulous bogeyman, which is much easier to attack because it doesn’t exist in any concrete way and therefore cannot fight back or even be debunked. In declaring the continued existence of systemic racism, baiters and self-servers like “Mayor Pete” rely on the vagueness, fogginess, and looseness of the word system to let people fill in the blanks in a way that satisfies their preferences, but often won’t stand up to scrutiny.

The term “equivocation” refers “to the use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid committing oneself,” and it’s a very common tactic in politics. As actual racism in our society has waned, equivocation surrounding the word has increased, because some people don’t actually want racism to go away, lest they lose a raison d’être.

Are there racists out there? That’s like asking if water is wet or if the sky is blue. There’ll always be racists, and no rational person will assert otherwise. They are best handled individually, via the mechanisms of a free society that include challenging, shunning, etc.

Is racism “systemic?”

Define “systemic,” then judge the question within the definition you choose. And, then, if you believe the answer is “yes,” use that definition instead of “systemic.” If you can’t define “systemic,” then don’t ask the question until you can. Otherwise, you’re equivocating, you’re cheating, you’re selling an agenda rather than addressing a social wrong.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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