The Invention of ‘Systemic Racism’

It is now the official view in government, industry, and education that African Americans and certain other “people of color” perform poorly in schools and the workforce, but nonetheless must be treated as if they perform well. The statistically weak performance of African Americans, according to the official view, is not their fault; it is the fault of other people. Namely, as we have been told ad infinitum, it is the fault of American slavery. No less than the “newspaper of record,” The New York Times, has in its “The 1619 Project” advanced the thesis that slavery and only slavery is the foundation of America, and, as America’s “original sin,” has shaped and corrupted America through racism ever since. The alleged facts supporting the historical claims of The 1619 Project have been proven to be false by historians, and the lead author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, now admits that the Project is not history, but an attempt to change “the national narrative.”

Certainly slavery, while common around the world throughout most of history, is an evil institution. It has also not existed in the United States for one hundred and fifty years. No living African American has ever been a slave, nor were their parents; no living American has ever owned slaves, nor did their parents. Furthermore, millions upon millions of Americans descend from ancestors who immigrated to America long after slavery was abolished. Slavery is invoked because it has moral weight, which it should have, but it in no way explains the poor performance of African Americans a century and a half later.

Recognizing the weakness of slavery as an explanatory factor, radical sociologists invented “systemic racism,” which is alleged to be “societal” bigotry and discrimination in the absence of bigotry and discrimination by actual individuals. This is how it is put in the recent Princeton letter on anti-Blackness:

Anti-Blackness is foundational to America. It plays a role in where we live and where we are welcome. It influences the level of healthcare we receive. It determines the degree of risk we are assumed to pose in contexts from retail to lending and beyond. It informs the expectations and tactics of law-enforcement. Anti-Black racism has hamstrung our political process. It is rampant in even our most “progressive” communities. And it plays a powerful role at institutions like Princeton, despite declared values of diversity and inclusion. …. We call upon the administration to block the mechanisms that have allowed systemic racism to work, visibly and invisibly, in Princeton’s operations.

The evidence-free “systemic racism” is “proven” in the minds of radical professors and race activists by the poor performance of African Americans, by the “underrepresentation” of African Americans in choice professions, jobs, and wealth, and by the “overrepresentation” of African Americans in the prison system. The argument is that, if African Americans are underrepresented among rocket scientists, brain surgeons, and presidents of major corporations, it must be due to bigotry and discrimination. QED. As the Princeton letter puts it, “Diagnose the problem of racism through transparent demographic reporting. Redress the demographic disparity on Princeton’s faculty immediately and exponentially by hiring more faculty of color.” The signatories of the letter are both students and professors—most of whom are in the humanities and very few in the social sciences (two professors of sociology, zero professors of economics), except of course for anthropologists—who thus, entirely in the absence of evidence of racism, buy into the argument that any “demographic disparity” is the result of “racism.”

We should keep in mind that this so-called “underrepresentation” of African Americans still exists in spite of fifty years of vigorous “affirmative action” preference given to African Americans in government, industry, and education. The “social justice” mantra of “diversity and inclusion” does not mean inclusion of whites, Asians, or Jews; it only means inclusion of African Americans and other “people of color” and the exclusion of others. (Nor should you ever imagine that “diversity and inclusion” means diversity of opinion, which is forbidden; uniformity of thought is enforced by the ever growing number of “diversity and inclusion” officers. Just ask Joshua Katz, who critiqued the Princeton letter, how his views were received.)

History is never used to explain the performance of other segments of the population. Is the educational, professional, and economic performance of American Jews ever explained by centuries of antisemitism and by the Holocaust? Is the performance of Asian Americans ever explained by their long exclusion from immigration, anti-Asian bigotry, and being rounded up into concentration camps? Of course not. Explanations that are offered to explain success are more contemporary, rather than the centuries-old misfortunes used to explain weak performance and failure to gain success by “people of color.”

So, what is going on here? What is going on specifically with commentary about African Americans and other people of color is that they are being excused from responsibility for statistically poor performance, and the fault for their poor performance is allocated to whites. The broader development is the replacement of the ideal of equality of opportunity by the socialist ideal of equality of outcome and sameness of result. In other words, the new argument is that, in place of individuals having the chance to pursue their goals, equal outcomes should be guaranteed, so that everyone is the same in achievement, income, standing, and so on. This transformation in the basic American value of equality has been brought about primarily by our ever more left leaning universities that relentlessly indoctrinate students in “progressive” social justice and socialist ideas.

African Americans in particular, and people of color in general, are the cause celebre of today’s “progressives” because they are portrayed as “marginalized” minorities and victims of white oppression—the Marxist model of class conflict adapted to identity politics. None of this is demonstrated; it is simply asserted and taken to be obvious and true. Evidence is ignored, for example, about alleged “systemic racism” in policing or about African Americans being threatened with death by whites, because the evidence does not support these claims. And alternative explanations for poor performance based on real world influences are ignored.

What explanations might account for the statistically poor performance of African Americans?  Family structure is a major factor: some 70% of African American children grow up in single-parent homes, almost always headed by females, with no male role models. It has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that children, especially boys, brought up in mother-led, single-parent families have a very high probability of being drug users, homeless, gang members, criminals, and incarcerated. Children brought up in two-parent homes to a greater extent avoid these pathologies. These facts are widely recognized, and have been lamented by multitudes of African American leaders, academics, and intellectuals, including Barack Obama.

Community culture is also an important factor. This includes the degree of emphasis placed on following the rules and being law-abiding; the commitment to hard work and postponement of gratification; and placing a high level of stress on education, seeing education as valuable in itself. These all contribute to strong performance and success in America.

Community culture varies from one population sector to another. These factors are strong in Asian American and Jewish communities, and while they are also strong among middle-class African Americans, they are weaker in African American inner cities.

But not all troubles lie with inner city African American family structure and community culture. There are elements of structural inhibition to African Americans’ success. The primary one is inner city schools. An alliance between progressive politicians and self-serving teachers’ unions has led to a public school monopoly and the denial of school choice to African American parents. As a result, the schools are poor quality, a further disadvantage to African American children. One further question is whether teachers trained by our radical feminist faculties of education give boys a fair shake or marginalize them even more, an even greater problem for those not always oriented toward education.

The Princeton letter demands that claims of racism must shape official policy:

  • Establish a core distribution requirement focused on the history and legacy of racism in the country and on the campus.
  • Create a center specifically dedicated to racism and anti-racism that can work alongside the Department of African American Studies.
  • Empower departments, centers, and related fields to tailor inclusion efforts in discipline-specific ways. The Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity should collaborate with individual departments on discipline-specific action plans for anti-racist research, teaching, hiring, and retention.
  • Address Princeton’s history with slavery as part of First-Year Orientation, using the resources of the Princeton and Slavery Project.
  • Acknowledge, credit, and incentivize anti-racist student activism.
  • Provide anti-racism resources and practices to every student group approved by the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students.
  • Offer incentives for groups doing anti-racist/community facing and inclusive work.
  • Create and fund a student-led symposium, lecture, or public conversation series on race.

Presumably this would also include expunging any reference to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his “racist” colorblind ideals.

For self-proclaimed “progressives” and anti-racists, the answer to the alleged “marginalization” of African Americans is not to assist them with greater school choice and encourage family stability, but, leaving aside universalistic standards such as merit, to use force majeure by way of preferences, quotas, and special benefits for African Americans to compensate for weak performance. The letter has many such demands:

  • Reconsider the use of standardized testing (SAT, GRE, etc.), which research shows to be strongly correlated with the underrepresentation of people of color on college campuses.
  • Recruit many more faculty members of color.
  • Give substantial FTE to those departments and programs with a track record of supporting faculty of color, such as Gender and Sexuality Studies, American Studies (Latinx, Asian), African American Studies, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and Anthropology.
  • Enforce repercussions (as in, no hires) for departments that show no progress in appointing faculty of color.
  • Elevate more faculty of color to prominent leadership positions within divisions and across the University.
  • Reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary.
  • Nominate no fewer than two faculty members of color for annual elections to C3, C7, and the Committee on Committees.
  • Provide additional human resources for the support of junior faculty of color.

There are also demands for anti-racist admissions policies:

  • Support departmental and program efforts to identify and recruit postdoctoral scholars of color.
  • Help departments educate themselves on the importance of holistic admissions.
  • Require and fund each department to establish a senior thesis prize for research and independent work that is actively anti-racist or expands our sense of how race is constructed in our society.
  • To promote equality, open the University to more first-generation and low-income students by seeking a broader pool of applicants into the Transfer program and increasing the number of persons admitted as transfers. Public universities, such as the top-rate California system, serve their regions by welcoming many students from two-year colleges, a great many of whom are students of color.
  • Fund scholarships for students of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation to attend Princeton. Work to identify and support such students while in high school. Indigenous communities are by considerable measure the most egregiously underrepresented minority at the University.

A majority of African Americans and other people of color do not agree with or appreciate the racial pandering of “affirmative action,” race preferences, quotas, and special benefits. According to a Pew opinion poll, 62% of African Americans say that race should not be a factor in college and university admissions, while 20% say it should only be a minor factor. 65% of Hispanics and 58% of Asians say it should not be a factor.

The liberal American position assumes all individuals and all categories of people have the potential to succeed—and assuming certain categories of people are incapable of succeeding is demeaning. Canceling the use of standardized tests because some groups do not perform as well as others is to feign equality when the assumption is otherwise. To assume that people of a particular race are incapable of succeeding without special favors is a racism of low expectations.

The Woke Revolution is not really about stamping out “racism” and helping African Americans, Hispanics, illegal aliens, and LGBTQ++ any more than the Black Lives Matter organization is about saving black lives. Recruiting weak candidates as students and professors who struggle to keep up, and undermining the value of their degrees and status as a result, is not uplifting any more than rioting over a few individual African American deaths at the hands of police, while ignoring the tens of thousands of African Americans shot or killed by other African Americans, shows any real concern for black lives.

The Woke Revolution is really about a power grab, through destroying liberal American institutions and culture and replacing them with a Marxist-inspired identity class struggle, socialism, and a totalitarian culture that cancels any opposition. This is now the agenda of our universities, of “progressive” politicians and office holders, and of the rioting mobs in the streets. The USSR, China, Cuba, and Venezuela are the utopias to which the Woke Revolution wants to take us. And the socialist “equality” that they espouse would be the equality of poverty and powerlessness that “people of color” would enjoy no more than any other subject of a totalitarian tyranny.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash


  • Philip Carl Salzman

    Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Past President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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8 thoughts on “The Invention of ‘Systemic Racism’

  1. Thank you for providing the perfect tool to teach my college composition students argument by starting with an opinion article that seems credible, apparently written by a credible author with some credentials, and yet is nothing more than a reactionary rant full of unsupported claims. When claims are supported they are often supported with misused or misanalyzed evidence. This is a great example of hostile rhetoric, unreasonable bias, and inflammatory language that is often masked to students in a first read of such a piece, especially one by a “professor.”

  2. An impressive article with very strong arguments. Thank you, Dr. Salzman, for continuing to add your insights to the topic of CRT.

  3. Well said. Clear, succinct and on point. I wanted to understand where the term “Systemic Racism” came from. I am so tired and disappointed to hear those words everyday in every conversation. Thank you.

  4. A brilliant analysis of the systematic destruction of American society through purposeful miseducation via institutions of higher learning..

  5. ‘This is how it is put in the recent Princeton letter on anti-Blackness:

    “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America.”‘

    Race activists suffer from ‘proletariat envy’. They talk as if the relationship between white and black people is like the relationship between capitalists and workers in classical Marxism. But, according to this theory, capitalists need workers, but I can’t see how white people, or the USA, needed black people. If America had never imported a single African slave, it would have survived, and avoided a civil war. Sorry.

  6. African immigrants give the lie to these claims of systemic racism or even racism period since they have higher educational attainment and economic success than native born whites.

    And regardless, even if you pulled blacks off the streets and placed them in the various careers where they are underrepresented there would not be enough to meet demand. They make up only 13% of the US population.

  7. Your analysis articulates my thoughts and feelings as accurately as if they poured out of my mind and onto my MacBook.

    Thank you for being bold enough to share the truth with fact based assertions.

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