Now that I have your attention with that title about issues of race and justice and police and all that, let me ask a question that is on a separate subject: “Do you believe in Epicycles?”
If you don’t understand the question, it’s probably because you are not as interested in astronomy as I am. I bet that since you occupy such a privileged position in history to have electric lights and all that drown out the starlight and oppress people like me who enjoy looking at the stars, you might not notice certain things that happen in the darkness. That’s okay, I’ll explain the concept of Epicycles to you.
An “Epicycle” is a description of the way planets have retrograde motion in the sky. The retrograde motion of the planets in the sky is an absolutely incontrovertible fact which is how planets move one direction, come back, and then return to their original motion against the background of the stars.
To prove this fact, I’ll show you a diagram of the position of the planet Mars in the sky over several months.
That chart above is an example of literally MILLIONS of observations of people like me, and you would be an idiot to doubt these facts.
So let me ask again: Do you believe in Epicycles?
The Problem With Bad Questions
If you said “yes,” then there is a problem. Yes, retrograde motion of the planets in the sky is an incontrovertible fact. But “Epicycles” are not.
Epicycles are an explanation of the retrograde motion of the planets if you believe in a geocentric universe. If you believe in that kind of universe, then the way you explain the retrograde motion of the planets looks something like this:
But then again, if you believe that the planets go around the Sun, then the explanation of the incontrovertable fact changes. Instead, it looks something like this:
Back to the Subject at Hand
Now that this tangent is over, let me ask another question that is seemingly unrelated to the structure of the universe: “Do you believe in Systemic Racism?”
I personally, do not. But the reason I do not believe in “Systemic Racism” is that this phrase is an EXPLANATION of many incontrovertible facts (as well as some mistaken observations). It is not a phrase that refers to “incontrovertible facts” themselves.
The Problem With Changing Definitions
When thinking about “Systemic Racism,” most people understand “racism” according to its old and ordinary definition. In that definition, “racism” means:
a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
Additionally, many people understand the adjective “systemic” according to the ordinary definition, meaning:
of or relating to a system
Therefore, people believe that “Systemic Racism” is just a belief or doctrine about a particular racial group that affects our system.
Fair enough. There is a good question about whether the things we see are the result about stereotypes. There is a good question about whether these things are the result of individual ignorance of the actors. There is a good question about whether these things are the result of malice and oppression of others. (There are also questions about whether the things we are seeing are the result of pre-packaged vignettes that are meant to tell a story and not objectively reflect the facts, but that’s a different conversation.)
However, the term of “Systemic Racism” does not mean that. Instead, just like the word “Epicycle,” the term is a highly technical term that requires the acceptance of many background assumptions about the universe. As you can find in many places, like this website, for instance, the “Systemic Racism” can come in many forms with different technical meanings, including:
Cultural: The ways in which the dominant culture is founded upon and then defines and shapes norms, values, beliefs and standards to advantage white people and oppress People of Color?
Institutional: The ways in which the structures, systems, policies, and procedures of institutions in the U.S. are founded upon and then promote, reproduce, and perpetuate advantages for white people and the oppression of People of Color.
So let me ask that first question about “Systemic Racism” in a clearer way, based on the TECHNICAL definition of what “Systemic Racism” is:
Do you believe that “White culture” is the “dominant culture” not only in the United States as a whole, but in every sub-community of the United States, and that this “White culture” defines and shapes norms, values, beliefs, and standards FOR THE PURPOSE of advantaging White people and oppressing People of Color?
Do you believe that the United States of America, including our legal system, was FOUNDED UPON and now promotes, reproduces, and perpetuates advantages for White people and the oppression of People of Color?
I don’t. Do you?
Answering The Full Question on Systemic Racism
If you do believe that, then you probably would go so far as to say that the “founding” of America was not in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed and when we declared our independence from Great Britain, honestly (but imperfectly) declaring that “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Instead, you might believe the “founding” of America was in 1619, when there were hardly more than 10,000 Europeans on the entire North American continent, but when the first individuals who could be considered “slaves” also arrived on our shore.
That sounds crazy, but if you do believe in Systemic Racism, then not only might you make such a claim, but you might also award a Pulitzer Prize to the person who made and pushed that claim, which is what happened this year.
What These Questions Expose
If you think it is “obvious” that America was founded in 1776, do not think that this 1619 belief is “stupid.” It is also not a “mistake” to say that the founding events of a nation are not important (for example, note that there were two original “founding” settlements in the United States. One was in Virginia. It’s goal was to make money. The other was in Massachusetts. It’s goal was to be a religious community and a “city on a hill” as an example to the world. Think that hasn’t affected America?) Instead, these answers to questions about Systemic Racism are the LOGICAL conclusions of foundational assumptions. What they reveal is staggering.
What these questions and answers expose is an ideological divide about how both civilization and the universe is structured. This divide is LARGER than the divide that existed between those who believed “the Earth is the center of the universe” and those who believed “the Earth goes around the Sun.”
If you think that is hyperbole, it’s not. After all, even Galileo and the Pope agreed on “Math.” But for postmodernist today, “Math has been used to oppress people” (see the link, but don’t accept the claims at face value). Both Galileo and the Pope agreed that they had not observed a parallax, which would be evidence to definitively prove the heliocentric theory. But for the postmodernist today, even the reliance on “evidence” and “logic” is the system that is used to oppress, and is rejected as needed.
Is the Postmodernist system COHERENT? Yes. It is. It is coherent just as the Ptolemaic pre-Copernican and pre-Scientific understanding of the universe was “coherent.” But is it TRUE? If you’re a Postmodernist, that concept doesn’t exist.
What If What I See Still Bothers Me?
If you don’t believe in “Systemic Racism” after seeing the curtain pulled back on that VERY loaded term, you may still be worried about all these things that have been CALLED “Systemic Racism.”
To that, I say: “Good.” However, there is another way to make sense of these issues.
Perhaps you could say that things that were not INTENDED to be unjust when it comes to races have BECOME that way, regardless of anyone’s intention.
Perhaps you could say that when people and entire cultures are not familiar with each other in any meaningful sense, maybe they will have a hard time distinguishing between jovial friendliness and sarcastic derision.
Maybe they will have a hard time distinguishing between a really bad guy and a guy who is having a really bad day.
Maybe when these failures to know each other become so wide, it breaks apart the bonds of friendship and brotherhood that lets a “jury of your peers” be composed of “peers” and instead leads to a group of people who have NO IDEA why someone would be carrying that much crack if they weren’t some horrible person destroying our community (when they have a bottle of OxyContin in their purse for their chronic pain).
Additionally, maybe you could say that the motivating factor of some obvious racial oppression is not “the oppression of the dominant racial culture against the minority racial culture” but just ordinary greed. Maybe the “intent” of an injustice was “generating revenue,” and the EFFECT was to “violate the law and undermine community trust, especially among African Americans.” In case you are wondering, that is EXACTLY what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, and I’m sure it has happened many other places, as well.
Are these not-quite-intentionally-racist things still BAD? Of COURSE!!! Would I go on to say that many of them move from “bad” into the realm of EVIL? Well, that’s a much harder case to make and it would require a lot of—YES!
But that’s not the end of the matter. There is a frightening conclusion to this other way of thinking about the things that worry us.
The frightening conclusion that comes when we reject a highly ideological explanation of “Systemic Racism” but still become worried about the things we see is this:
Under one set of assumptions, the solution is to push back against the “oppressors,” who are the REAL problem.
Under the other set of assumptions, the problem is a bunch of ordinary people minding their own business, not raising a big fuss about things “over there,” and telling their small little lies here and there to make themselves comfortable or explain the world around them.
What To Do Based On Your Answer
If you do believe in the technical definition of Systemic Racism, then what you do is obvious. You overthrow the oppressing system and culture. If you need to break a few eggs to make an omelette, then oh well. The oppressing class has enough eggs to spare. We need omelettes.
But when you don’t believe in Systemic Racism, the frightening conclusion is that the problem becomes YOU and ME, regardless of your race, regardless of your wealth, regardless of your occupation, regardless of your faith, regardless of your privilege, and regardless of your power.
In this way of understanding the universe, the plea of “But I didn’t DO anything!” is not a proof of innocence. It is an admission of guilt. You did not do anything when your obligation as a citizen is to DO something that improves your community and BE someone who is virtuous.
But there is hope beyond that frightening fact. In the world of Postmodern Systemic Racism, the entire structure of the universe prevents meaningful progress, because the system is always oppressing those who are downtrodden. The only way to advance is to burn things down. Sadly, when “the system” burns, many of those who once believed these assumptions about the universe will find their homes, their families, and themselves burned and destroyed, too.
But when the responsibility to change the world is put on YOU and ME, then a single kind word, a single awkward moment voluntarily accepted, a single friendship, a single gift, a single discovery, a single child taught, a single sin forgiven, and a single smile received can be the first TRUE step in making the world a better place.
And THAT is why I do not believe in “Systemic Racism.”