Structural, systemic, systematically — we’re hearing these words a lot at the moment. Racism isn’t individual. It is structural or systemic. So are poverty or injustice. People aren’t just oppressed or tortured; they are systematically oppressed or tortured.
This is the language of Black Lives Matter and some of the noisier Democrats, and it’s telling. It comes from Marxist academia and the Black Power activism of the 1960s, and it evokes the radicalism of that time, which is generally now regarded as having been on ‘the right side’ of history. These words are also helpfully vague — nobody knows precisely what they mean — which means you can stress them without being contradicted. You can also feel righteous without quite knowing why. It’s lazy speech, in other words, which makes it stupid. Or perhaps it’s the other way round. Language, Orwell told us, becomes ‘ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.’
Still, if we don’t know precisely why social wrongs are ‘systemic’, we get the gist. It means there is a system, a machine, built by the powerful, which perpetuates injustice. A system that benefits the powerful and crushes the powerless. On race, therefore, we are led to believe that every aspect of society — politics, education, capitalism, even our language — is designed to enhance white supremacy, or something.
But that’s where all this ‘systemic’ talk isn’t just wrong; it is dishonest. Because western society isn’t systemically racist. If anything, it is systemically woke. Our political institutions, our schools and colleges, our corporations are all geared towards destroying racism. Students in schools and universities aren’t brainwashed into thinking that racism isn’t a problem. On the contrary, almost everybody who has been educated since the 1970s has been relentlessly taught to abhor racial prejudice. Our workplaces are run along politically correct lines. Our language is policed, in case it might incite racial hatred. The machine, or what those Sixties radicals would have called ‘the Man’, is anti-racist.
What about Donald Trump? Well, he’s an aberration. His political success is in large part a revolt against oppressive political correctness. Trumpists and anti-Trumpists have spent the last five years arguing about whether or not he is racist. That very fact suggests that racism is not normal, let alone systemic.
Then there’s the media. Black Lives Matter activists and antifa think that the media is part of the evil neoliberal system that privileges whites and keeps minorities down — that’s why, in Atlanta, rioters targeted the CNN headquarters even though CNN, like MSNBC and other news networks, has done its best to portray rioting as benign, arson as peaceful, and looting as just.
Again, the rage here is with the anti-racism machine, not against it. Liberal reporters are despised not for being prejudiced against black people, but for being insufficiently committed to the dismantlement of white privilege. As a result, journalists strive ever harder to show fealty to the cause, even if that means jettisoning their responsibility to tell the truth. They stress the peacefulness of violent protests. Commentators bid to outdo each other in parroting Black Lives Matter slogans — ‘silence is violence’, ‘no justice no peace’, and so on. None of that suggests institutional, structural or systemic racism. It suggests the opposite.