Lately, right-wingers have been on something of a tear denying the existence of “systemic racism.” Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield, writing on the conservative Wall Street Journal op-ed page, Andrew McCarthy in National Review, and Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, all have argued that systemic racism is nothing but a term designed to lay a guilt trip on white people and also explain away the continuing failure of Black people to take responsibility for their own inadequacies.
To right-wingers, racism only matters when it is conscious and deliberate; racism that is unconscious, implicit, or institutional simply doesn’t count in their worldview. And as individualists, they think we are all masters of our own fate: If people are poor, it is basically their own fault. Therefore, systemic racism is an impossibility.
The number of true racists in society is trivially small, conservatives believe, and all evidence that Black people are economically disadvantaged just shows that they don’t work hard enough or save enough, have too many children out of wedlock, or are too comfortable being on welfare. The playbook here is clear: Always identify some reason for racially disparate life outcomes that lets white people off the hook and lays the responsibility for their circumstances squarely on Black people themselves. It’s a classic case of blaming-the-victim rhetoric.
It is undeniable, however, that Black people are materially worse off than white people in a variety of ways indisputably documented in objective data. A new report on household income from the Census Bureau shows that the median income (the exact middle of the distribution) for Black households was just $45,438 in 2019, versus $72,204 for white households. The poverty rate was 18.8 percent for Blacks but only 7.3 percent for non-Hispanic whites. These gaps have existed for decades.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, African Americans have had lower earnings and higher unemployment for as far back as there is data. One reason: Research shows that employers are less likely to interview job applicants with Black-sounding names than those with white-sounding names. It’s even the case that Black taxi drivers receive lower tips than whites.
A new report from the Federal Reserve examines home ownership and net wealth. It shows that Black families have a fraction of the wealth of white families and considerably lower homeownership rates. The two are correlated because housing is a key source of wealth. According to the Fed, at every age, Black families are considerably less likely to be homeowners than white families. This is a key reason why the median net wealth of white families was $188,200 last year, but for Black families, it was just $24,100.
It might seem that this is largely a lifestyle choice—some people prefer to rent while others would rather own a home. But this ignores the fact that government policy dating back to the New Deal systematically disadvantaged Blacks. A just-published study in the American Sociological Review reviews the sordid history of racist housing policy.
Among the causes: The National Housing Act of 1934 established the Federal Housing Administration to guarantee private mortgages and make them more widely available and on much better terms than had been the case previously. The goal was to stimulate home-building to create jobs. Although there was no explicit racist intent in its creation, there was a deeply racist result in the way it operated in practice. Because the FHA favored single-family homes in racially homogeneous neighborhoods, it drained the cities of their white middle class. The FHA also instituted a practice known as “redlining” that effectively made homeownership out of reach for African Americans and other minorities. It would not insure loans in the places where they lived, thus creating ghettoes in all our major cities, ringed by lily-white suburbs.
Although civil rights legislation in the 1960s prohibited formal policies that discriminated against African Americans, informal policies still exist, and the housing gap between Black and white Americans continues to grow. Last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development accused social media of steering Blacks away from certain advertisements for homes. In the words of the Urban Institute’s Claudia Aranda, “Unbeknownst to them, individual home seekers are denied critical information about housing choices across multiple online platforms.”
Even Trump administration officials took notice. “Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”
Racial bias extends even to Airbnb rentals. A 2017 study found that applicants with Black-sounding names were 16 percent less likely to be accepted by landlords than those with white-sounding names.
A secondary effect of housing discrimination is that schools in predominantly Black districts tend to be underfunded and of lower quality than those elsewhere, in large part due to the widespread policy of funding schools with property taxes. This means that poorer areas tend to have financially strapped schools. A bad education takes away the first rung on the ladder of upward mobility, leading to worse employment prospects and lower lifetime incomes.
The lack of wealth in the Black community has ripple effects. It reduces bequests to Black children compared to white children, which lowers access to higher education and makes it more difficult to start a business. This is why racial disparities last for generations. In many ways, Black Americans are still suffering for slavery and Jim Crow policies that took place decades ago, a key justification for reparations.
Regarding health policy, research has long shown that African Americans generally have poorer health and receive inferior medical treatment than whites. For example, the infant mortality rate for Blacks is 2.3 times greater than for non-Hispanic whites, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Pregnancy-related deaths are considerably higher for Black women—for those with at least a college degree, the death rate was 5.2 times that of their white counterparts.
Another area where public policy systematically discriminates against African Americans is policing and the war on drugs—a majority of Americans agree that Black citizens are treated less fairly than whites, according to a new poll from the University of Massachusetts. A key factor is the contrasting sentences for possession of crack cocaine, a drug that’s used widely in the Black community, and powdered cocaine, which is preferred by whites. Until a 2010 reform, the penalty for possessing 5 grams of the former carried the same penalty as for 500 grams of the latter—a 100-to-1 ratio. Nevertheless, possession of crack is still more harshly punished than for powdered cocaine, resulting in disparate treatment of Black and white populations for comparable drug offenses.
Even without discriminatory laws, the criminal justice system tends to deal more harshly with Black Americans than whites charged with similar crimes. According to the NAACP, African Americans represent 34 percent of incarcerated persons in the United States but just 12 percent of the general population. Imprisonment, in turn, has long-term effects on the ability to get a job, which reinforces income inequality between African Americans and whites and also reduces the political power of Black people relative to whites because of laws that deny voting rights to those convicted of felonies.
Space prohibits a full accounting of all the ways systemic racism permeates American society. A recent effort by Citigroup economists to calculate its economic impact concluded that if the racial gap in the U.S. had been closed 20 years ago, the gross domestic product would have been higher over this period to the tune of $16 trillion. Here’s a partial rundown of Citigroup’s findings:
- Closing the wage gap would have added $2.7 trillion to Black income, raising consumption and investment throughout the economy.
- Improving access to housing credit would have raised the number of Black homeowners by 770,000, which would have added $218 billion to GDP.
- Increasing access to higher education for Black students could have added as much as $113 billion to national income.
- Leveling the playing field for Black entrepreneurs in terms of lending might have led to an additional $13 trillion in business income, creating 6.1 million jobs per year.
- Closing all these gaps immediately would raise GDP by $4.8 trillion between now and 2025, adding 0.4 percent to the growth rate per year.
Another recent effort to document the existence of systemic racism appears in American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise by New York Times reporter Eduardo Porter. He told me that many of the policies originally instituted with racist implications are now degrading the lives of whites, as well:
These pathologies, to be sure, hurt people of color intensely. But they also hurt vulnerable whites: Much of white America, the part addled by opioids, ravaged by suicide, despairing of a future, is also a victim of a nation that refuses to care. The life expectancy of whites might be higher than that of blacks. But it is lower than that of pretty much every other advanced industrialized nation.
Yet even as white America suffers along with African Americans, it has proven politically impossible to enact policies that would improve their lives because racism divides the two groups, preventing development of a political alliance that would benefit both. The best hope for the future is that nonwhites will develop a governing majority in coming years—the very fear that has become a driving force behind the Trump coalition of disgruntled whites.