Liberty Matters

Systemic Race Theory and Liberty: Toward an Understanding


Systemic race theory has entered the public square and positioned itself as the way to understand the dynamics of racial inequality.   To understand this public square debate, one has to understand the theoretical and methodological basis of systemic race theory and systematic racism.  When this is done, it becomes clear that systemic race theory is very conservative and cannot explain successful groups who are considered outside of the majority. This theory is part of the theoretical traditions of closed systems, which means that the system will determine everything.  In social science, we must consider individual and group effects, remembering that unlike variables in physics, people can change their minds and behaviors.  In physics for example, Isaac Newton saw the universe as a closed system which determined all movements.   But when that system was seen as open, all kinds of possibilities were seen.  Systemic racism is in the same reasoning tradition, with a closed system of economic opportunities preserved by Caucasians, or those with the characteristics to become “white.”  Picture with me just one tree, from which humans can pick wealth, and that tree represents the whole system.  Systemic racism does not recognize that in America, other trees can be planted which enhance excluded populations; thus, the system is opened.  It is the dynamic nature of  an open systems approach which accounts for the fact that some of the most excluded groups in America, such as Blacks,  who saw lots of discrimination, have achieved the most.  Come and reason with me with a deep dive into this issue.
Roots of Systemic Race Theory in Social Science
During the explosive 1960s, the idea of a closed system where all inequality is built in, or systemic, emerged when Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton suggested in Black Power, The Politics of Liberation, that racism had become institutionalized.  Institutional racism was defined as those things that have an effect independent of individual instances of racism and have a detrimental effect on the black community, such as higher rates of poverty.  Like all closed system ideas, it alleged that racism had become systemic and could run on its own like a machine. Individual racism was defined as a terrorist bombing a black church or an individual killing, something that most Americans would never condone.  There was a problem when positing institutional or systemic racism as the singular variable to blame because in America, only individual rights are guaranteed under the US Constitution.  Legal scholars faced the biggest problem because they wanted to take the system to court;  they pounced on the idea of systematic racism.  Systemic racism blamed “whites” for all forms of discrimination.  But because the system was closed, it could not account for the massive amount of progress made by the black community in all areas since the end of slavery.  
The One Sided Presentation of Race and The American Experience  
Systemic race theory was posited by legal scholars (with no true theoretical grounding in the history of ideas) in the face of the fact that the  American  Constitution guarantees individual rights, not group rights, as they were looking to blame the entire “white structure” of  America for racial inequalities.  Most everyone agrees that all history should be taught in America, and it is the job of historians to document events- from Custer’s Battle of the Little Big Horn, to the Trail of Tears, and to the experience of immigration from Europe.
But systemic race theory only tells one side of the story.  What is left out is that Black Americans achieved their greatest success when America was at its segregated “best.” As noted in my book Entrepreneurship and Self-Help Among Black Americans:  A Reconstruction of Race and Economics, no other group in America created successful future generations as well as the black generations coming out of slavery.  Underneath the racial exclusion of segregation developed a system of private colleges and universities which has served, and continues to serve, black southerners (and now non-blacks) in that tradition. Books and articles on outstanding black communities, such as those in Birmingham, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; Houston, Texas; and Jackson, Mississippi testifies to this tradition, and they all had their own universities. Indeed, the story of Black America is not about those who ran from the south to establish communities with no colleges and universities, but those blacks who stayed in the south and created these colleges and universities that still exist today. While Booker T. Washington and his Negro Business League left an endowed university, Tuskegee, there is no match in the states where blacks migrated to.   
Discrimination was intense everywhere, but there is and was a great opportunity structure to look forward to in the south.  I can say that without a doubt, and as a part of that tradition, I was looking down on most white southerners who were not part of this tradition of strong education. Everyone in my legally segregated community were college graduates. But America norms Blacks based on those who are trapped by the “system,” not those who operated and organized themselves at a group level.  Although this process can be seen by other immigrant groups, no one created educational and business enterprises like black southerners. This is why the Atlanta Black community has a different history than Detroit and Chicago, and why the state of Mississippi produces Black college graduates at a very high rate.
Systemic  race theory, grounded in a closed system, would never tell the story of success among black Americans which has been so well documented. Indeed, it took a German PBS series to point out that one out of every 50,000 black Americans are millionaires. Although the series does not tie present wealth to historical wealth, it does what systemic race theory could never do-show  the story of Black America’s success and show that the signature of America is that it is not a closed system with just one tree to pick from. There are many trees that are created as people take their troubles to the market place in the form of entrepreneurship and community building. Indeed, if Blacks who are not southerners had developed the same kind of value system as their southern counterparts under legal segregation, there would also be generations of college graduates outside of the south. I was at a recent meeting of my Alma Mater when the recruiters were using first generation college graduates as a proxy for Blacks. I informed them that when I graduated from LSU in the 1960s, the great majority of Black students were second, third and fourth generation college graduates. The biggest problem with critical race theory is that there is no place for black success in America because it operates on a closed system that does not take into consideration open system effects.  
Liberty and Systematic Race Theory
As a closed system of thought, systemic racism does not give attention to the mobility of people within America. America certainly had slavery, but it also stands out as one of the few countries in the world that ever fought against slavery. It certainly has and  had racial discrimination and legalized segregation. It also has seen the development of Black success because liberty means that one can also create other routes to success, as was done by black southerners. America is not a closed system society but one that is open to new and creative ideas of success. Liberty, at its base, is the state of being free from oppressive restrictions imposed on one way of life. What most people miss is that from entrepreneurship to structures of opportunity, liberty is always “in the becoming” in America. The idea that we do not all have to eat from the same closed system is what makes the country one of liberty.  It also means that people from different groups will learn to live with each other. Legal scholars are trying to persecute America, not explain its vast ability to create new opportunities.