Reducing systemic racism.

Addicted: physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance, and unable to stop taking it without incurring adverse effects.” – Oxford Languages

“Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self criticism, and regular self-examination.” – Ibram X. Kendi

“Racism is steeped in denial.” – Ibram X. Kendi

Each day’s news brings fresh examples of systemic racism to light. What might it take to reduce the racism rampant in our society versus merely lament it? The previous LOTRW post promised a further exploration of this topic.

Ibram Kendi suggests, in How to be an Anti-Racist, that racism shares features in common with addictions – such as alcoholism and other chemical dependencies on opioids and nicotine. To the extent the comparison holds, looking for ideas from that direction might be a good place to start. To do that, however, is to discover that the outlook is not encouraging, for two basic reasons.

To begin, chemical addictions (caffeine excepted) afflict only a fraction of the population. For example, in the United States, with a population north of 300 million, perhaps some 15 million are alcoholics. The number of opioid addictions is put at only ten percent of that latter figure. Smokers number some 34 million. By contrast, systemic racism is near-universal; it dogs all of us. This is the first problem.

Moreover, for metabolic dependencies, there exist some chemical therapies , which though themselves of limited efficacy, can provide some help. But chemical approaches to reducing systemic racism don’t appear to be in prospect. That leaves behavioral approaches. The latter are not actual cures so much as coping strategies. To work, they require vigilant self-awareness and concentrated effort. They must be maintained moment by moment, day to day, essentially indefinitely. Unsurprisingly, relapses are common. That is the second problem.

Organizations provide help to those in need. One of the best-known is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA is not perfect; its faults are several and its detractors are legion. Any web search will provide more information on these. Yet AA can point to some successes, which it attributes largely to its twelve-step program. This being the year 2020, and eight billion people being a large number, the world already includes some who have already rephrased and (slightly) adapted that program for application to the racial problem. Here are the twelve steps as framed by Racists Anonymous:

  1. I have come to admit that I am powerless over my addiction to racism in ways I am unable to recognize fully, let alone manage.
  2. I believe that only a power greater than me can restore me in my humanness to the non-racist creature as God designed me to be.
  3. For my own good and the good of future generations, I have decided to turn my will and my life over to the care of God insofar as I understand God.
  4. I’ve made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself concerning my bias toward others on the basis of race, class, gender, physical attributes, abilities, nationality, sexual orientation, and more.
  5. I have admitted to God, to myself and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongful thoughts and actions.
  6. I am entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. I humbly asked God to remove my shortcomings.
  8. I’ve made a list of all persons I have harmed and am willing to make amends insofar as this is possible.
  9. I will make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them, others, or create more harm than good.
  10. I will continue taking personal inventory, and when I behave wrongly, I will admit it promptly.
  11. I will continually seek through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God insofar as I understand God, praying for knowledge of God’s Will and Wisdom for my life along with the power I need to carry that out.
  12. As I have spiritual awakenings as the result of these steps, I will share this message with other race addicts as I seek to practice these principles in all my affairs.

A few observations.

First, context: as Kendi notes, denial is a critical barrier. Only a fraction of alcoholics can bring themselves to openly admit they have a problem, that they’re hurting not just themselves but others, and that their problem is out of control. Case in point? AA members add up to no more than ten percent of alcoholics in the United States.

But denial is only the initial hurdle, one of several. Again, as Kendi emphasizes, the “searching and fearless inventory” is a similarly big lift. Most of us, if we bother to reflect at all on our shortcomings, gloss over the specifics. Some churchgoers find comfort in the phrase “we have done that we ought not to have done, and left undone that which we should have done,” but surely that falls far short of what’s needed.

We gloss over the particulars because to acknowledge them, to list them, to give them voice, confronts us with our need to make amends. Scale is an obstacle. We recognize that when it comes to systemic racism, “amends” carry considerable economic impacts and redistributive consequences. But it gets worse. A recovering drug user making restitution faces an individual challenge. By contrast an entire society making restitution faces additional complexities and history requiring a social framework for progress. Developing the framework requires collaboration, but it also requires leadership – individuals and institutions at the top who will give actual reparations priority and provide the means and structures that will make our cumulative individual efforts matter. As a result our initial tendency is to see a huge, insurmountable liability rather than recognize that what confronts us is opportunity – a step that opens the way to solving other societal challenges including wresting a safe, meaningful, and sustainable living from the wild and restless and increasingly damaged planet on which we find ourselves.

(This point typically fails to get the primacy it deserves. Many see challenges such as national security, domestic law and order, climate change, environmental degradation, public health, law and order as problems that need to be solved first – only then will we have the luxury of tending to equity and love and trust in our fundamental relationships with each other. But we likely have got the order reversed. It may be that if we first get right with each other relationally, most of our other societal challenges will melt away. And it may be that to make progress we have to make incremental improvements on all these fronts simultaneously.)

But for many, perhaps most, the real elephant in the room is the appeal to a Higher Power, or God as we understand God. Some consider this language anathema and have stripped it from the twelve steps. Here’s one example, attributed to AA Agnostica:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe and accept that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to entrust our will and our lives to the care of the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to ourselves, without reservation, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were ready to accept help in letting go of all our defects of character.
  7. With humility and openness sought to eliminate our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through meditation to improve our spiritual awareness and our understanding of the AA way of life and to discover the power to carry out that way of life.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Understandably, much of controversy swirling around AA focuses on this, as any web search will quickly reveal. For some, the active involvement of a Higher Power is what makes the twelve steps effective: the sine qua non. To remove it is to strip the twelve steps of any efficacy. All that is left are empty words. For others, any such bow in the direction of a higher power is pure (and intolerable) hypocrisy – a stumbling block. They’d rather trust in the “collective wisdom” of other searchers.

You and I get to choose where we stand on this spectrum. Many in the middle, desperate to manage their addiction, participate in one or another group spanning this divide and keep their opinions to themselves. But we don’t get to choose what we do. If we are to move the world to a better place, then large numbers, if not all of us, will have to get past denial, do inventory, and make amends. Best to embrace this, rather than flinch from it.

One final point. Action on our part along these lines doesn’t guarantee successful outcomes. That’s because efforts at amends can never make the injured party whole. Damage can never be completely undone. The individuals and groups injured, really all of us, have to add a generous overlay of forgiveness to every social transaction.

And, repeatedly along this path, given the continuous effort required, the obstacles to be overcome, the existential personal and societal stakes, we’re likely to find ourselves offering an unvoiced prayer – whether to something or Someone.

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2 Responses to Reducing systemic racism.

  1. Bill:-

    Provocative, as always. Let me provoke you a bit, if I may.

    How do we know – not just surmise, but accept as fact – there is systemic racism? The answer is inequities, I suppose. But here’s where things get tricky. Because the evidence we have is all about inequality.

    If I look at policing, I find all kinds of stats that argue against a SYSTEMIC racial problem. to quote the Wall Street Journal, “In 2019 police officers fatally shot 1,004 people, most of whom were armed or otherwise dangerous. African-Americans were about a quarter of those killed by cops last year (235), a ratio that has remained stable since 2015. That share of black victims is less than what the black crime rate would predict, since police shootings are a function of how often officers encounter armed and violent suspects. In 2018, the latest year for which such data have been published, African-Americans made up 53% of known homicide offenders in the U.S. and commit about 60% of robberies, though they are 13% of the population.” And black police officers are just as likely to kill unarmed blacks, and more likely to kill armed blacks, than white officers. The very real anecdotes (George Floyd, et al.) certainly indicate racist behavior, but it’s hard to find evidence of systemic racism in policing. Further, the one factor that’s missing is the experience of poor whites.

    However, if we really want to look for possible inequities, let’s look at education or unemployment or wealth. Educational “attainment,” especially in our defacto segregated inner city schools is so bad that it would have to improve to be abysmal. Look at Baltimore – proficiency in reading and math hovering just slightly over 10%, but with a 70% graduation rate. And DC does little better – a whopping 20% proficiency among eighth graders, while spending twice the national average per pupil. Black unemployment before Covid-19 reared its ugly snout was at an all-time low, “only” twice as high as non-Hispanic whites. Since the 1980s, black families have seen no growth in their wealth, while their white and especially their Asian counterparts have seen significant increases. The growth in Asian achievement is particularly significant, I think. How “systemic” is racism, if these non-whites have the highest growth rate in wealth AND the highest edicational proficiency and attainment? And if you can’t read and can’t do basic math, it’s hard to get a job that will enable you to save enough to build a nest egg for your family.

    Yes, racism exists; it’s part of our atavistic makeup. But there is little evidence of SYSTEMIC racism in policing. There are clear inequalities in employment, education and wealth. I would suggest that if these inequalities are indeed inequity (or iniquity, take your pick) then we are focusing on the wrong things. I don’t see how we will ever know we have accomplished anything if we try to come at this through “doing something” about policing. Clearly, by attacking any of these others, especially education – with so much progress to be made – we can truly make the lives of all of us better.

    • william hooke says:

      Thanks, John,

      thoughtful comments as always. The thrust of the post was/is broad. To me, the “system” that matters includes but is not limited to public education, public health, housing, employment, protection under the law, vulnerability to economic and social impacts of hazards and much more.

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