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Structural Racism

Ever since the death of George Floyd there has been a worldwide uprising in the debate about racism. How do we solve racism? How does it manifest itself? What is the origin of racism? These are all prominent questions we should be asking ourselves. But first of all, we should be asking ourselves what we mean exactly by racism. My good friend Wikipedia gives me this definition: “Racism is the belief that groups of humans possess different behavioral traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided based on the superiority of one race over another.”[1] Or to put it simple: racism is discrimination based upon race.

            But now we see a lot of different definitions of racism which try to add upon the definition given. We now even see Merriam-Webster changing the definition of racism to include systematic oppression.[2] There are many problems which we can discuss about changing definitions based upon the opinions of some people, which try to reflect a certain ideology. But I want to focus on the issue of structural or systemic racism.

            Again, we need to define what we mean by structural racism. One definition is: “Structural Racism in the U.S. is the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color.”[3] This is rather vague. What is meant by ‘an array of dynamics’? When is something ‘routinely’ an ‘advantage’? Because of this rather vague definition, it is hard to have a meaningful discussion about structural racism.

            What is the solution to structural racism? Well that would be Racial Justice. But what does racial justice mean? It’s not diversity, it’s not equality, it’s equity.[4] Which means an equality of outcome. Depending on what you mean by outcome, this can be highly problematic to have as a goal and it is one best to be sailed away. For now, we’ll leave it at that.

            Again because of its vagueness, it is easy for opponents to dismantle the argument. Because structural racism is vague to grasp, the debate shifts towards institutional racism, which means that the institutions have an inherent racial bias. Opponents will say that there is no rule or law (anymore) which is inherently racist. Every law applies to everyone equally, which means that it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is, the same rules apply to everyone. So, the racism is no longer institutional but rather an individual manifestation of racism in a person who is member of an institution. For example, there are no laws which disadvantage someone of color, but a police officer might have a racial bias towards someone of color. Even though the police officer is a member of an institution, it is an individual manifestation of racism, rather than an institutional one.

            I would say the debate going on is about these individual manifestations of racism, which are being generalized towards institutions and societies. Though it might be true that there are racist police officers (there certainly are), that doesn’t necessarily prove that the police institution is inherently racist. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything to try and decrease the individual manifestations of racism, it does mean that trying to defund the police because they are ‘inherently racist’ might not be the right move to do.[5]

            There are some problems with the concept of structural racism. Like I said above, structural racism completely disregards the individual. The concept claims that whoever you are, based on the color of your skin, you will either have a huge advantage in society or have a huge disadvantage. The way it is filled in at the moment, it would be: just because you are white, you will have the advantage in society. Just because you are black, you will have the disadvantage in society. This means that even though you might not be individually racist, you are racist nonetheless because you reap the benefits of a racist society which gives you advantages on the basis of your skin. That means that a poor white person born in a ghetto will always have an advantage over a black person born in a rich neighborhood. This completely disregards the experiences of the individual. Which is problematic in its own and it is certainly problematic when you combine it with the doctrine of equality of outcome.

            Now obviously people have prejudices and obviously there are racist prejudices, I don’t think there is a serious person who would deny this. But these are individual prejudices. These are prejudices held by an individual person, not because of an underlying structure of racism, but because they believe that this is the case. One of the problems with structural racism is that it is inherently racist. It discriminates on the basis of the color of a person’s skin. Combined with the equity doctrine this means, that some people should be advantaged based upon the color of their skin. In this way they ask for the same thing they are fighting for, only they try to reverse the roles. Equality of opportunity would imply that we grant everyone the basic opportunities in order to live a fulfilling life. We could use Martha Nussbaums capability approach as a starting point.[6] But with equality of outcome that would mean privileging certain people in order to achieve ‘equality’. An example would be to have a 50/50 man/woman rating in teachers for example (even though there are now more female teachers than male teachers, are we going to fire female teachers in order to get more male teachers? That would be bad). Thus, talking about structural racism is inherently racist to do so.

            But you could say that this is just because white people don’t see their privilege and black people cannot be racist against the oppressive institution (which would again be racist to claim) and you might make a valid point there. But if think a bit further we actually shoot in our own foot with the claim of structural racism. If we disregard the individual and we say that because you are a part of the system and that system is structurally racist, you are also inherently racist, whatever you actually do, then we cannot put any moral blame on the person who is racist. Moral blame goes from a sense of free will, that we had another option and we didn’t take it or that we could actually do something about our view about things. Structural racism completely disregards this. Even if you don’t want to be racist, you are because you reap the benefit of that racist system. How can we morally blame someone of racism when he literally has no control over the fact that he is racist or not? Here is an example: I’m a good hypnotist. I put you completely under my control and you obey my command. Even if you don’t want to do it, you’ll do it. I make you rob a store. I run away with the money and the police catch you. Are you morally responsible for the robbery of the store? I think most of us would say: no. The same applies to anyone who is racist in a structural racist society. How can we say that a police officer is morally responsible for his racist actions, if he literally has no control over his own actions. We might say that racism is bad, but we couldn’t say that the racist is bad.

            The point I tried to make is that the concept of structural racism doesn’t solve the problem, namely racism. Trying to end structural racism will only create more polarization and racism in my opinion. That is because this concept completely disregards the individual. Instead I would say we should go to the roots of how racism is created. No one is born a racist. Racism is learned and it can be unlearned. The question is: How and why do people learn it? The answer that the system is inherently racist, disregards the fact that most people aren’t racist. Most people don’t think someone is inferior to them based on the color of their skin. We need to take the problem more seriously. There are many factors contributing to individual racism and to make a simplistic generalization isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous. It is time we debate about the foundation of things and put debate at the forefront, instead of disregarding it altogether. The 2020 election is coming up and this will have repercussions all over the world. Instead of shouting at each other and missing the point, we should try to understand one another, as equals. We should let rationality prevail and not succumb to feelings of hatred.




[4] Ibid.


[6] Stevenson, Thirteen Theories of Human Nature.

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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