Guest post: Can you not simply look about you?

Originally a comment by Tim Harris on Tough times for Scarlett.

In connexion with Iknklast’s remark at #1 about ‘systemic racism’, I wrote the following e-mail to Andrew Sullivan, who in one of his blog-posts had, while invoking Orwell, presented a case for plain writing, quoted a horrid example of bad writing (which was genuinely horrid) and listed a number of terms that he considered pretentious, ambiguous & obfuscating, amongst which was ‘systemic racism’:

Dear Mr Sullivan,

It did not, alas, altogether surprise me when you listed ‘systemic racism’ in your collection of ‘horrid examples’ of obfuscating terms. I honestly feel it is disingenuous of you to do so. The term really is not difficult to understand. It derives from the term ‘institutional racism’ used in the Macpherson Report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Here is the definition the Report provided:

“The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour that amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

That seems very clear to me, and, I should have thought, to anyone of any intelligence and good-will. You need only change one word of this definition so that the opening phrase reads ‘The collective failure of a society….’ to have a clear and cogent definition of ‘systemic racism’, that would apply as much to, say, the Chinese treatment of minorities as to American treatment of minorities. (ADDED: one might say ‘social and political institutions’ instead of ‘society’ to make things even clearer.)

I note also that you immediately plump for ‘socio-economic factors’ as explaining things where ‘poor outcomes’ for non-whites’ are concerned. I am not going to wade into the question of whether an apology, abject, or otherwise, was warranted, or whether the ‘defenestration’ was justified (probably not, I suspect, just as the ‘defenestration’ of Liz Cheney and other anti-Trump Republicans was not warranted – and where ‘defenestrations’ are concerned, I think you should pay rather more attention to those on the right if you wish to be, and to be seen as, fair-minded).

I have not read the original article, and do not intend to, but I note that it is not merely economic factors that are spoken of, but ‘socio-economic’ factors. I wonder what factors that ‘socio-‘ referred to? The kind of factors that the Macpherson Report draws attention to should surely be among them. Were they included? Or did the podcast confine itself to tired complaints about black family life and simply pretend that ‘systemic racism’ as defined above does not really exist? If the latter, then the podcaster was at fault (which is not to say that he therefore deserved ‘defenestration’).

Examples of ‘systemic racism’ – can you not simply look about you? Here are a few to be going on with: Gerrymandering so as to decrease the importance of the black vote; the various ‘election laws’ that are being passed in Republican states in order to discourage black voters; the incarceration over the years, often for long terms, of huge numbers of African-Americans for often trivial offences; the unwarranted violence too often visited by the police on African-Americans, of which a recent example was the murder of George Floyd.

I find curious the insistence by people on the right that systemic racism does not exist, and the pretence that the term ‘systemic racism’ is vacuous, while dishonestly rendering it suspect by supplying for it a false provenance. Sir William Macpherson was hardly a radical lefty, imbued with Foucauldian ideas and post-modernist ‘theory’.

I might add that I am just as sick of the proliferation of vacuous terms on the left as you are, as well as of the mealy-mouthed rubbish that you quote. But I dislike just as much an appearance of bluff straight-talking that in fact serves the purpose of not honestly addressing genuine issues. Shakespeare certainly disliked it, as the examples of Edmund & Iago show. I wonder if Orwell had anything to say about this tactic – for tactic it is.

Yours Faithfully,

Tim Harris


I might add that I find rather curious the nature of the interest Sullivan takes in racial matters, and why it exercises him so much.

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