America is sorely in need of transformative leadership. While many steps have been taken to combat legally mandated racism, a lasting legacy of the past 400 years of oppression and prejudice has produced a culture of bias that thrives in various institutions, often supported by different cultural and legal forces. This systemic racism continues to perpetuate the harm caused by the racism promoted in America to support the slave system. Moreover, the long-term deprivation of rights, property, and family structures in the black community has stolen from us the kind of resources that other groups in America have had access to for furthering generational progress.
None of these issues and concerns have been systemically addressed by the United States. In fact, the US government has failed to even produce an apology for slavery. Not surprisingly, this has led to a growing mistrust in the black community. It is hard to believe that America is serious about addressing its racist history and the present systemic obstacles that perpetuate its effects today.
Why Are Conservatives So Skeptical About Systemic Racism?
The response from some conservatives has been exceptionally bizarre. There has been an insistence that there is no such thing as systemic racism, despite various disproportionate negative outcomes, the persistence of institutions founded with racist ideology, legal theories and laws that make the protection of civil rights difficult, and the personal testimony of black Americans. This resistance to recognizing systemic racism is highly puzzling when one thinks about how conservatives use race in policy arguments.
Pro-life groups are eager to point out that Margaret Sanger was a racist, that she used Planned Parenthood to push for racist birth control, that this racist-founded organization is supported by a major political party, and that it receives millions in government funding. School-choice groups point out that the current model of mandatory public schooling—without school choice—traps black children in failing schools, which leads to adverse outcomes. Those schools are supported and defended by the government. Welfare-reform advocates typically argue that the structures of those programs create perverse incentive structures that weaken, in a disproportionate way, the black family. Most recently, conservatives claimed that Joe Biden—the main rival for the presidency—showed himself to be a racist when he claimed to decide who is and who is not black, based on whether or not they would vote for him.
Until recently, it was taken as obvious that President Trump had helped reform a whole statutory scheme—the 1994 crime law—that, even if not racist in its intent, was racist in its effect. As President Trump, himself, pointed out, the law was based on explicit racial bias expressed at the time of its passing:
“Super Predator was the term associated with the 1994 Crime Bill that Sleepy Joe Biden was so heavily involved in passing. That was a dark period in American History, but has Sleepy Joe apologized? No!”
No Republicans cried out at the time that this clear recognition of racial bias in our laws and legislative process meant the downfall of the Republic or an embrace of intersectionality.
Even anecdotal evidence from Republican Party members has been used to show that the Republican Party is capable of understanding racial bias, including in law enforcement settings. For example, Senator Tim Scott has explained how he has been stopped seven times in one year for mostly biased reasons. He explained that this represented what appears to be a serious pattern of misconduct in America. What is this claim, but that there is a systemic racism problem in America? Yet, only a fool would claim that Senator Scott is a raging leftist.
If conservatives really believe these claims, it is quite the act of cognitive dissonance to refuse to connect these dots and admit that a country that allows all of these racist structures and institutions to thrive has a systemic racism problem. In addition, it is incredible that a country struggling with racism in so many areas would not also struggle with racism in other institutions, namely law enforcement. Indeed, the idea that law enforcement—which has a history of racial bias—is no longer affected by racial bias in a system that already tolerates so much other racism is absurd.
That this radical skepticism defies common sense can be seen in the examples of other societies that worked to ameliorate and address systemic class bias in other contexts. After various civil conflicts, the Patricians of Rome granted full citizenship to Plebeians. The Plebeians, of course, were skeptical of the Patrician claims that they would not behave in a biased way after centuries of legal discrimination. The Patricians—unable to deny the common sense conclusion that their class would still be affected by centuries of prejudice—made permanent changes to the Roman constitution to ensure that Plebeians could veto laws that would harm them, assuring them of structural protection from invidious discrimination.
The systemic bias against Plebeians took hundreds of years to dismantle. And it was only done through both Plebeian struggle combined with real structural commitments from the Patricians. Human nature being what it is, it is simply not credible that America has left the problem of racism behind, despite everyone agreeing we passed a racially biased law as late as 1994. No society is so exceptional that it can escape the legacy of centuries of oppression and bias in a generation.
Framing Racism as a Partisan Issue Hurts Republicans
Sadly, the Republican with the most prominent platform, President Trump, has not addressed this issue when it needs to be addressed most. And since this topic is at the heart of the protestors’ cries for justice, that silence is deafening and inexplicable. Not only is his silence on systemic racism morally inexcusable, it is a political mistake.
Many of the cities currently in crisis are run by Democrats, and they have been for a while. Joe Biden has been building and perpetuating legal programs and structures that many people recognize as supporting systemic racism, including the infamous 1994 crime law.
In contrast, Trump has been president for three years. Having avoided the baggage that comes with being a career politician, we can hardly expect him to volunteer to be held personally responsible for the systemic racism in America. But by insisting on ignoring systemic racism, President Trump has turned an issue that all America bears responsibility for and allowed it to become a partisan issue. While people in the streets demand that black lives matter, and Democrats agree, Donald Trump keeps tweeting “Law & Order!” and updates on employment numbers. This makes it easy for Democrats to argue that the only way to address these race issues meaningfully is to elect them, because—even in the face of this crisis—President Trump will not discuss systemic racism.
A smart politician who cared about addressing systemic racism would not allow it to be framed as a partisan issue. Not only is this bad news for a Republican Party that claims it is serious about outreach to black Americans (and all other Americans who care about racism), but it is not good for America. Systemic racism is bigger than one party. After all, different ideological blinders in each party would benefit from a broader conversation that helps different groups see the racial bias in institutions that they would normally ignore. Indeed, each party would benefit from the other not only exploring the systemic racism in various institutions but within each other. This problem is bigger than partisan politics or a particular political cycle. This is a problem 400 years in the making, with damage and trauma spanning generations, enmeshed in our institutions and cultural presumptions. It will not be solved by one party or in one election. By handing this issue to the Democrats, Trump is not only hurting the Republican Party, but the nation.
Americans Need Real Leadership to Heal Racial Divisions
There is another way. President Trump could announce and start laying the groundwork for a serious nonpartisan “Manhattan Project”-type effort to address systemic racism in America, publicly acknowledging that racial injustice cannot be solved by one party. This would show a real commitment by the United States to finally address systemic racism by bringing the greatest minds, policy experts, community leaders, politicians, and scholars in America to discuss systemic racism. The project could provide data and reports to understand the human and economic cost of slavery and discrimination, including its contribution to the wealth of America. It could then propose solutions to address, minimize, and eliminate systemic racism and remediate the harm caused by racism past and present and explore concrete actions to facilitate reconciliation.
To know that they are being heard, Americans need to see real leadership, inspired by a bold vision, with clear timelines and goals. We need something like President Kennedy’s announcement that America would put a man on the moon. If we had such leadership, black Americans would no longer wonder if our lives matter. A national commitment to produce concrete results and reconciliation would be a down payment on real healing.
Justice delayed is justice denied. We cannot afford any more delay—and delay is exactly what will happen if this struggle has to be fought in the streets or becomes deformed through the bitter rancor of partisan politics.
Fifty years from now, no one will care about May’s job numbers or the rocket launch. But they will remember whether—in the face of 400 years of pain and oppression—the president of the United States took decisive and bold action to heal this nation of its racist past and present through a particular and sustained national effort. We need a “Black Lives Matter Project.” Because, quite frankly, there is no point in going to Mars, if black lives are not going to matter there either.