When Everything Is 'Systemic Racism,' People Will Tune Out the Term

Leveling that grave accusation at every aspect of American life will produce disengagement, alienation, and reaction.


Monday afternoon, as I had been repeatedly alerted to by emails from my daughter's elementary school, the school's parent-teacher coordinator, and our district's Community Education Council, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) held the second of a three-part "teach-in" titled "Segregation in Our NYC Schools."

Cosponsored by NYC DOE Bureaucrats for Black Lives, and moderated by "employees across the DOE who are dedicated to creating a truly anti-racist public education system," the teach-in encourages parents and students to "be a part of this change"—namely, to explicitly support the specific set of sometimes radical alterations to school policies that activist educators are pushing through in the name of rebalancing racially unequal distributions of student populations across the K-12 system.

This may seem like an odd moment to be having an intensive conversation about skin-color disparities in public schools unless the discussion is pegged to the one issue that parents have actually been trying to teach themselves for the past 13 months: Namely, when school buildings can finally fully reopen, instead of being overwhelmingly part-time and anti-scientifically susceptible to last-minute, 10-day closures. By far, the biggest educational news in Gotham during rounds one and two of the teach-in wasn't about segregation, it was about Mayor Bill de Blasio finally announcing after two months of deliberation that he was relaxing the city rule mandating automatic school closure after just two positive test results for COVID-19. (Partly in response to that very noticeable change, 51,000 kids have changed their preference from fully remote learning to maximally in-school.)

There is a relevant story to be explored about unequal outcomes in remote learning. In New York City, as elsewhere in the U.S., a much higher proportion of white students than black students are attending school in person, though—also as elsewhere—parents of all ethnicities and backgrounds tend overwhelmingly to jump when given the real chance to send their kids to school full time. The resulting race and class disparities in learning loss (similar to gaps in COVID mortality) are indeed profound and worthy of urgent policy correction.

But that's not the focus of this particular "teach-in." The promo flyer for the series did not contain a single reference to the pandemic, while using the heavily freighted (and contestable) word "segregation" four times, plus an aspirational "desegregating" to boot. You can watch Part 1 for yourself, if you have the stomach for such progressive jargon as, "please try to be radically present today with us," or tell us "something that describes the energy that your bringing to the space today."

Since I have attended a dozen such meeting-lectures over the years (many featuring the same cast of speakers), received scores of such emails, interacted with battalions of such taxpayer-salaried activists, read far too many "reformer"-fluffing articles such as this, and observed my own middle-school kid cite in her homework such assigned authors as controversial "antiracist" Ibram X. Kendi, my patience for these exercises has long since ground down to the nubs. Not because of the subject matter—I have been writing about race in history and politics and criminal justice and sports and libertarianism for as long as I have been writing—but because I know from soul-numbing experience how one-sided, predictable, and never-ending these sermons will be.

It appears that I'm not alone in tuning this stuff out: That first teach-in video was still well south of 100 YouTube views as of Wednesday morning. (It is also true that parents still caught in hybrid limbo are not exactly overflowing with surplus discretionary time.)

But it strikes me that consumer detachment from the racial obsessions of the political/journalistic/entertainment class is likely to continue escalating, far beyond the neurotic confines of New York City education. Especially when applied to situations that don't seem as immediately relevant as a white cop shooting an unarmed black motorist.

On Tuesday, for example, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D–Mass.) tweeted out, "You can't be anti-racist if you're anti student debt cancellation." Uh-huh. Actor Hank Azaria, wallet safely fattened by three decades of doing voice acting on The Simpsons, is making an apology tour this week for the "structural racism" of voicing (until last year) the beloved Indian immigrant character Apu. The Federal Reserve, according to a Brookings Institute study released Monday, is "overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly drawn from the business communities…with little participation from minorities, women."

Race, "equity," and implicit bias are being prioritized at institutions that have other pressing tasks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), whose pandemic role is so all-encompassing that it is now in charge of forestalling evictions, announced last week a major new initiative "addressing racism as an obstacle to health equity."

"To build a healthier America for all," the agency asserted, "we must confront the systems and policies that have resulted in the generational injustice that has given rise to racial and ethnic health inequities. We at CDC want to lead in this effort." Similar initiatives are taking place throughout the administrative state, in fulfillment of President Joe Biden's very first executive order, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.

Doing a Google News search for systemic racism will lead you to believe that either America is the most racist country on earth, or conversely that it is doing the most to confront its discriminatory past, or perhaps that it has simply lost its damn fool mind. There are full-page advertisements in U.S. newspapers this week accusing General Motors of systemic racism for not spending enough of its ad budget on black-owned media companies. "Low alcohol taxes uphold systemic racism," Gresham, Oregon, City Councilor Eddy Morales co-wrote in The Oregonian Sunday. This Friday, the influential Columbia University Teachers College is holding a conference on "Decolonizing Psychology Training." What say you, Pharmacy Times? "Pharmacists Have a Role to Play in Dismantling Systemic Racism."

It is entirely possible to believe that the S.R.-term is 100 percent applicable in the previous paragraph's examples while acknowledging that this language and utter preponderance sounds a bit goofy around the gills for a significant portion of the public who need to be persuaded if the sweeping changes advocated by activists are going to be enacted. Unless, that is, skeptics can be alienated into disengagement or intimidated into silence, leaving the remaining players on a shrinking field increased elbow room.

There certainly are readily apparent disincentives to poking your neck out and suggesting within an activist-dominated subculture—a school district, a college campus, a modern newsroom—that some of their current identitarian norms might be unwise. (It is also certainly true, while also probably attracting comparatively less notice in the national media, that daring to question orthodoxy in conservative-dominated settings carries its own personal dangers.)

Over on Bari Weiss's Substack, a Manhattan private school math teacher named Paul Rossi told a harrowing story of what happened to him when, in his words, he "raised questions" at a "mandatory, whites-only student and faculty Zoom meeting" about the school's categorization of people as being either "oppressor" or "oppressed." Rossi says he even questioned at the meeting "whether one must define oneself in terms of a racial identity at all." And then:

However, when my questions were shared outside this forum, violating the school norm of confidentiality, I was informed the head of the high school that my philosophical challenges had caused "harm" to students, given that these topics were "life and death matters, about people's flesh and blood and bone." I was reprimanded for "acting like an independent agent of a set of principles or ideas or beliefs." And I was told that by doing so, I failed to serve the "greater good and the higher truth."

He further informed me that I had created "dissonance for vulnerable and unformed thinkers" and "neurological disturbance in students' beings and systems." The school's director of studies added that my remarks could even constitute harassment.

A few days later, the head of school ordered all high school advisors to read a public reprimand of my conduct out loud to every student in the school.

This is a one-sided version of an extreme edge case, yes. But it doesn't take many of these—here's another such story from last week—to let non-public figures know that there is a potentially frightful cost to expressing skepticism about prevailing mores surrounding personal identity, let alone asserting a directly contrarian view. For most people whose beliefs don't fit neatly with the program, it's just not worth it to pipe up: The training seminar will be over soon enough.

Weird things happen when people feel they cannot talk openly about a subject, and since that sense appears anecdotally (and also in some polling research) to be on the grow, it's worth keeping an eye out for some trends. Here are a few predictions:

1) In-group jargon will become increasingly incomprehensible. Here's an acidic linguistic analysis from Nicholas Clairmont in Tablet last year:

Here's how you do it: You talk about platforms, and spaces, and bodies with your nouns. With your verbs, well, you just use more nouns, plus suffixes that don't fit. For some reason, this year, you put "settler" before you write "colonialism." The letter X is very in, as you may have noticed when Elizabeth Warren's campaign did an event with a group called Black Womxn For. Or maybe you have by now read about the now-infamous wokese imposition of "Latinx" (pronounced Latin-ex) to name a group of people first designated by a Nixon administration-era census as an ethnicity, and whose members either haven't heard or don't want to be termed by that label rather than the supposedly problematic "Latino" or "Hispanic." A recent New York Times essay by progressive strategists Ian Haney López and Tory Gavito found that, "Progressives commonly categorize Latinos as people of color, no doubt partly because progressive Latinos see the group that way and encourage others to do so as well. Certainly, we both once took that perspective for granted. Yet in our survey, only one in four Hispanics saw the group as people of color."

Clairmont views such exertions as intentional barriers to entry erected by the over-educated classes to maintain their privilege, and there is surely something to that. But I would also suggest two more charitable interpretations: Every ascendant subculture creates its own jargon to identify fellow travelers and put fogeys on the defensive; and also, exclusionary in-groups over time just lose contact with the views and even language of those they have driven away. There is a lot of mutual incomprehension afoot.

2) Out-group reaction will become more reactionary. One of the subcategories of articles in a systemic racism Google News search is like this, from Louisiana Weekly: "Louisiana lawmaker wants to prevent teaching on systemic racism, sexism." Faced with what they see as an authoritarian, always-encroaching sectarian movement marching through the institutions, some conservatives and libertarians are reaching for the stick of government to beat the hordes back.

Republican lawmakers these days are pushing illiberal bills to combat social media political censorship, enforce campus viewpoint diversity, punish students for kneeling during the national anthem, and retaliate against corporations that get too pushy about politics. Fueling such opportunistic politics is a kind of mirror-image monomania, in which many consumers and commentators cannot avert their gaze from media bias, culture wars, and/or critical race theory, even as more significant developments come and go without much comment.

3) The populism and collectivism of this political moment will only continue to grow. I take no pleasure in reporting this, etc.

Groups that can't talk to one another, particularly if they are engaged in competition over power, become abstractions, menaces, conspiracy theories. It is a slog in these tribal times to insist on treating people as complex and human individuals rather than plug-and-play members of this or that group, yet I don't see any other way out of this mess.

Atomization can generate personal liberation and tremendous amounts of creativity, so that's what I am looking forward to in these hopefully roaring '20s. But wherever the two tribes encroach into my business, like Clubber Lang, I predict pain.