Why I reject “systemic racism”

The moment of my real race awakening came in 1955 with the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white woman.

He was a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago. I was a 14-year-old white boy from The Bronx. Maybe I felt some kind of teenage, Big City kinship. More than murdered, he was viciously tortured and the story splashed over the front pages of New York’s seven daily newspapers. You read that right — seven daily newspapers.

The funeral of Emmett Till. (Photo: CBS Chicago)

Emmett Till opened my eyes. Well, sure I knew the South was backward and bigoted, but I soon learned lynchings continued into the Jim Crow era, and African-Americans were routinely denied voting rights across the South. That I learned from my parents, who were unionists and Socialists and devoted to the cause of equality. 

When the civil rights movement blossomed, I was paying attention.

Across the South, but elsewhere, too, Blacks were not welcome in many hotels, and were forced into segregated seating on public transportation and in restaurants — when they were admitted at all — including Woolworth lunch counters, the American icon.

There were occupations Blacks could not enter, communities where they could not live, schools they could not attend. I remember, with pride, when President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation order. As the Allied hero of World War II, it anguished Ike to send U.S. troops to face U.S. citizens. But the law is the law, a lesson that seems to be slipping away today.

One notion that seems to be gaining is that the U.S. suffers from “systemic racism.” Even President-elect Joe Biden uses the term, despite having served a Black president, and standing next to the first Black/Asian woman to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. That would not be possible in a “systemic racist” country.

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When television came along, Blacks (and other minorities) were almost invisible. Today, they star in their own shows. Many movie superstars are African-American, who also dominate much of the music business. 

You can’t watch TV commercials without seeing Blacks as doctors, judges, engineers, parents . . . This is not trivial. Advertisers select actors who will help them sell their products and this normalizes them as every day Americans, and not the “other.” Don’t underestimate the ability of television to create new realities, and to shape public perceptions.

Speaking of perceptions, there are seven Black billionaires in America. Would “systemic racism” allow that to happen?

The National Basketball Association once was as white as the National Hockey League is today. Here’s a picture of the 1955 NBA Champions, the Syracuse Nationals.

And here is a picture of 2020 NBA Champions, the Los Angeles Lakers.

See the difference? And do you get the picture?

It is no longer “news” when an NFL team hires a Black quarterback. No one even notices. 

Almost every major American city has had a Black mayor, and Black mayors are scattered like dandelions across the once-segregated South. Sheriffs, too.

African-Americans are increasingly prominent in the arts, and in the sciences, in the military, and diplomacy.

This is not to say there is no discrimination, but remember what Barack Obama said when campaigning for president: “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

Perhaps an exaggeration, but true nevertheless. Certainly not possible in a “systemic racist” country, but possible in an egalitarian nation that still struggles with the remnants of racism.

No one blinks at Black network TV anchors like NBC’s Lester Holt, and CNN’s Don Lemon. I remember when Trudy Haynes became the first Black on Philly TV, on KYW Channel 3 in 1965, followed the next year by Edie Huggins on NBC10. Each was a friend.

Because I have lived through Emmett Till and segregation and lynchings and Freedom Rides in which civil rights activists were assaulted or murdered, where Americans seeking their just place were beaten and jailed, when I hear about microaggressions today, I can barely take them seriously.

You are triggered if someone asks a Black person where he is from? Or you believe that it’s “racist” to say the best person should be hired for a job? Or the term “legal votes” is racist?

Here is my idea of racism: One great pleasure of my career was interviewing two Black men who were pilots with the famed Red Tails fighter squadron in World War II. The government was ambivalent about Black pilots, and their training at the Tuskegee Institute was brutal — 65% of the men washed out. That meant those who got their wings were the best pilots America ever put in the air.

But neither of the two I interviewed could get a job as a pilot when the war ended. That was racism. Angered, but not crushed, each turned to a different career path, and each was successful. That was America then.

It is not America today. I know idealistic young people are looking for a cause — it might be the environment, or unequal income distribution, or health care, or racial justice.

Good on them.

That things aren’t what they should be does not mean they are not a million miles from what they once were. The progress has been transformative, as we experienced a peaceful revolution, the growth and flowering of minorities in our midst.

This progress disproves that America is plagued by “systemic racism,” which means the system is racist. It is not.

Some point to police shootings of Blacks as proof of “systemic racism.” It is not. Those tragic shootings represent a microscopic fraction of Black interactions with police, and twice as many white people are shot by police.

The laws of the “system” prohibit racism, so where it exists — and it does — it is a violation of the system, not a part of it.

But to see this clearly, you have to step back several decades for perspective. That’s where I stand and I welcome you to stand with me.

23 thoughts on “Why I reject “systemic racism””

  1. HAPPY TUESDAY !!!
    Welcome to December !
    Stu,
    We have a problem. In all of the years that our paths have crossed, we have spared, but never fought. That still stands today. We agree on almost everything, and live with the minor “imperfections” in our friendship. Is that racist ? Anti Semitic ? Anti Italian – Native American ? Of course not . We take the time to “communicate ” ! Therein lies the problem. T.V. and other media, are quick to sway the public into misnomers such as race baiting or systemic racism, or any of the other popular wrongs.
    As you said. We have lived it. We have seen it – maybe first hand, and we are here to talk about it. So the big question. How do you reach those young twisted liberal minds that have been fed this diet of maladies ? How to we reach the other generations that choose not to listen ? Quite simply, if you have a message, find a way to get it heard. You do that pallie. For the most part, you are preaching to the choir, but keep writing and your message will be heard – and followed.
    Tony

  2. It was summer of 1955. I had gone from Lower Merion to Norfolk, Virginia with a classmate whose dad was an exec with the old Pennsylvania Railroad. Thus, we rode for free. My classmate wanted to buy an gas-operated pistol, sold openly in Virginia but illegal in Pennsylvania. It was a hot day, and we were walking down the street from the Norfolk railroad station when a short, bent old Negro stopped me and asked me politely if I would go into the drugstore in front of us and buy him a Coca Cola. [Note: I used ‘Negro’ to maintain the flavor of the time of the story] I was puzzled and asked the man why didn’t he go into the store and get his own Coke. He looked at me like I was from another planet and said, “I’m not allowed in there.” I was stunned. It was the first time I was made aware of segregation. Later, after my eyes had been opened, I noticed the COLORED ONLY water fountains, railroad waiting rooms, and bathrooms. Summary: for those who think racism is still running rampant in the USA, try to consider how far we as a nation have progressed since the day a US citizen could not buy a Coke because he was not white. Yeah, there are still lowlifes out there who hate Jews, and Blacks, and ANYONE different from themselves. Can’t get rid of them because, like the cockroach that’s been around for 100 million years, haters will always be in the dark. It is up to us to ceaselessly point out the absurdity of hatred based on difference. Is anyone listening?

  3. I agree, there is racism but the system is not. I to grew up during the late fifties and sixties and have seen the changes this country has gone through. Politicians have pushed the narrative that the system is racist. Just look at sports and the entertainment fields and you can see the changes. My one complaint is I am tired of being blamed for the problems of the black community because I am white. I believe they should step up and take responsibility for their problems and not just blame white society.

  4. Systemic racism is a term that implies America is inherently racist. More accurate is that people have implicit bias. It becomes a critical issue when it affects the actions of law enforcement and those in government. The fact that blacks have achieved a high level up to the presidency doesn’t help a person of color being profiled by a cop who is biased. We’ve come a long way but we’re not out of the woods yet. Racism, bigotry and Anti-Semitism haven’t gone anywhere.

    The real problem for all Americans regardless of race is economic discrimination. Income and wealth inequality. Billionaires have gotten wealthier during the pandemic. That is a crisis in this country. Systemic inequality, a wealth gap. It’s worldwide but more in this country compared to other First World countries. Yes this hits blacks harder but it affects all Americans. The Rocha and powerful control it all and there’s not much we can do about it.

  5. My compliments on a very prolific overview of the travesty of what was and the assimilation of what is today for racial equality. I have made it a point to read as much as I can about the struggle during those years you alluded to and also to update my understanding to where America is today having witnessed the great strides accomplished in the Black community. However I disagree strongly as you do that systemic racism exists today in any form. If there is one form of the word systemic it is the perpetuation of the false narrative that opportunity and advancement are hindered in the Black community. I tire of the demagogues and sections of the media that imply that police are killing blacks in great numbers. As you so fairly stated the percentage is .008 of police shootings with over 10 million contacts by police every year that end peacefully. Yet there is a vail of silence of the thousands of blacks killed every year by other blacks. I wish there was a form for discussion in the schools today to update the past acceptance of mass racism into the reality that no longer the intrenched belief of victimization is viable and there is a level playing field for anyone of color who is motivated, educated and dedicated to succeed in our society.

    1. So long as Blacks view successful Blacks as Uncle Toms, they will stay mired in second-class status… sadly, self-imposed.

      1. Ignorant black are no different than ignorant whites. Ignorant white and black people sometimes resent educated people. The term “They” infers most black think that, they don’t. Blacks who are Trump supporters, not necessarily successful, are called Uncle Tom by some black people. I don’t agree with them, but that’s where it comes from.

        1. Your argument falls apart with your use of ‘ignorant Blacks.’ I am referring to EDUCATED Black liberals who resent EDUCATED Blacks who are NOT of the ‘correct’ political persuasion.

          1. You didn’t say educated blacks, you said blacks and you said “they” I’m not trying to argue. You’re the least racist person I’ll ever meet.

  6. still HAPPY MONDAY !!!
    A lot of good points were made here. Somehow, as usual, I see things just a bit different. The advantage of any racism is many fold, but it can be summed up in one word. MONEY ! If I can keep a people uneducated, I can make more money.
    I really do believe that what we are seeing now, is the accumulation of sixty plus years of us heading towards socialism. It was/is a joint effort by ALL in the swamp ! Think about the old sayings. “The rich get richer”, “Keep them in the ghetto “, “make it overseas, where it’s cheaper”. Etc, Etc.
    Like it or not, OUR President Trump saw all of this and loved America instead of “the almighty buck”. He successfully pi*(ed off everybody in the swamp ! He put a helluva dent in their pocketbook, b ut most Americans were/are too rapped up in themselves to see the good he did and certainly will miss the good that he would have done. I also believe that if the Senate rolls over, we are going to pay a huge price for our attempt at a coup against the swamp !
    Tony

    1. Tony – regarding your first paragraph. That’s P.T. Barnum said. And he was rather successful with it, for better or worse.

  7. Stu,
    Thank you for writing this piece. It is among the best you have ever written, and will be a touchstone in your legacy. This is what the Inquirer has foolishly cheated themselves out of. I might add that the prominence and success of Blacks in media, entertainment, sports, politics and business in this era, has been accomplished despite comprising only about 13% of the US population.

  8. Malcolm X even ridiculed those who laid all the blame for violent racism on the South, while ignoring the often genteel but sometimes violent racism of the North.

    Remember that his father was murdered by the Black Legion, a Klan-like group in the North.

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