How Can Systemic Racism Be a Problem When So Many African-Americans Are Successful?
October 26, 2016 by 0 comments
“I guess I just fundamentally don’t understand why so many people have obsessed with talking about race and finding racism hiding under every rock. I mean, in this moment in U.S. history, isn’t it self-evidently not true? Isn’t there a level of irony in all the attention on race and racism at a time where our president is black, our AG is black, one of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nominee (Ben Carson) was black, the foremost writer of our generation is black (Ta-Nehisi Coates) and so on and so forth. How can racism be a significant problem in our country if so many black people are so successful?”
The above paragraph is a conglomerated paraphrase of an argument I’ve often heard, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly. Have you heard a similar argument? Have you thought about the fact that perhaps systemic racism isn't quite the problem it's made out to be when a book like The New Jim Crow (addressing systemic discrimination) can sell so many copies? Have you found it to be somewhat (or entirely) persuasive?
I want to push back against it a little bit. To do so, I want to ask that you consider another paragraph.
“I guess I just fundamentally don’t understand why so many Christians in America claim that they are being persecuted or rejected because of their faith, or that they are afraid to speak out about their beliefs, or Christian academics who claim they get passed over for promotion and whatnot. Isn’t Christianity the dominant religion in the U.S.? In fact, isn’t Christianity the dominant culture in the U.S.? Don’t a majority of Americans self-identify as Christians? Hasn’t every single president in history self-identified as Christians? Didn't every single Republican candidate for president self-identify as a Christian? How can the erosion of Christian liberty and bias/persecution against Christians be a significant problem in our country if so many Christians are so successful?”
Hopefully you can see that both arguments fail, and for similar reasons. That’s not to say the underlying points are wrong; it’s entirely (theoretically) possible that racism is not a problem in our country anymore, and neither is bias against Christianity. But these particular arguments fail as arguments.
Responding to allegations of systemic racism and prejudice against minorities by pointing out the success of some minorities would be legitimate if the allegation was that every single white person, and particularly every single white person in a position of power, was prejudiced against every single black person. And responding to allegations that there exists a broad bias against Christians by pointing out the success of some Christians would be legitimate if the allegation was every single non-Christian and even some Christians, and particularly every single person in a position of power, was biased against Christians.
But nobody is making either of those claims, meaning that the responding arguments are actually non-responsive. They both either prove nothing at all, or they prove too much.
They might prove nothing at all, because they might have absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether racism or bias against Christians exists in our country. In other words, they might have the same rhetorical and argumentative legitimacy as pointing out that there can’t be a significant problem of racism or bias against Christians in the U.S. because some labradors are called black and some bugs are called “praying” mantis’s.
Or they might prove too much, because if they are true, that means any time a certain amount of individuals within a subgroup achieve success, then persecution of that subgroup generally can’t be a problem. Anti-semitism can’t be a problem because lots of Jews are successful. Slavery can’t have been a problem because Frederick Douglas did alright for himself. Classism against poor, rural whites can’t be a problem, because look at all the poor, rural whites who have moved up in the world. Bill Clinton was a rural white from a little town called Hope, and he became President.
Racism might be an overstated problem; I don’t think that it is, but of course it’s theoretically possible that it is. There might not really be all that much bias against Christians; I think that there is, but of course it’s theoretically possible that there is not. Either way, though, the success of Barack Obama, Stephen Colbert, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Mike Huckabee has little to do with the argument.