What’s Missing from the Conversation about Systemic Racism

“He thinks there’s no systemic racism.”

No, it’s just that I think we overstate its role in American society today.

“But what about redlining? What about the cops? Can he really …?”

Yes, he can — because things like that just aren’t as simple as we are taught to suppose.

One recent study of redlining is Exhibit A.

First, some background: Redlining was a policy in which certain neighborhoods — coded in red on maps — were considered too risky for mortgage lending. In a great many American cities, Black people were essentially corralled into these red zones, unable to build equity in better housing found elsewhere.

Redlining is now widely seen as a major justification for reparations for Black Americans,especially in light of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s famous Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.” In Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, the City Council in March approved a plan to pay out $25,000 grants for home repairs, down payments or mortgage payments to Black people who suffered housing discrimination or whose family lived in the city during the years of active redlining. However, as with so many matters of race, the redlining story is more complicated than many know.

For one thing, there’s the matter of how many white people owned homes and lived in the redlined areas. An interesting National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by the economist Price V. Fishback and co-authors matched households in the 1930 and 1940 censuses to their locations in neighborhoods in “residential security” maps of 10 major Northern cities produced by a New Deal mortgage entity, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. The researchers found that white people accounted for 82 percent of individuals living in the lowest-rated areas. White people also owned 92 percent of the homes in these areas. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation made a higher share of its loans to Black people than the other lenders at the time (a better-known New Deal agency, the Federal Housing Administration, insured a substantially smaller share of Black mortgages).

I know where you may think I’m going. One approach to this data is to say that redlining was about class, not race, and treat it as a refutation of arguments such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s.

But not so fast. Black people were still represented disproportionately in the lowest-rated neighborhoods: More than 97 percent of Black people — in other words, almost all of them — rented or owned homes in redlined neighborhoods in the 10 cities surveyed.

One reason for that was almost all Black people were poor, a disproportion due certainly to manifestations of other forms of racism at the time and historically. And this disproportionate representation in redlined communities helped keep them poor. Plus, there is plenty of anecdotal and fragmentary evidence that people working on the ground for the F.H.A. and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation had not only classist but also racial biases. And of course within neighborhoods, homeowners themselves openly barred Black people from becoming neighbors via the racially restrictive covenants memorably depicted in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (I recommend Charles Shields’s forthcoming Hansberry biography).

However, the Redlining 101 story — that cigar-chomping bigots in suspenders drew lines around where Black people happened to live while giving loans to poor whites — doesn’t fully hold up. I am not arguing that systemic racism isn’t real overall, but rather I am scrutinizing one commonly addressed case of it to show that the facts are more complex than they seem. Namely, large numbers of poor whites — recall from above, some four-fifths of the people living in redlined neighborhoods in the cities surveyed by the study I cited — dwarfed the numbers of Black people and were stuck in the redlined neighborhoods too, getting old and having to move in with their grown kids elsewhere as the neighborhoods fell apart. We just don’t hear that part of the story.

Nor do we tend to hear that the cops kill vastly more white than Black people. Or, if we do, the issue of disproportion comes up, just as it must on redlining. But then comes poverty — leaving us again with a more complicated picture than many seem to find convenient.

In 2020, a plurality of the more than 1,000 people shot and killed by the police, according to data compiled by The Washington Post, were white (459); Black people were about a quarter. That is typical year after year. From these statistics some people might wonder why we consider killings by cops a Black problem.

But not so fast. Black Americans account for about 13 percent of the country’s population, but they are more than two times as likely as white Americans to be fatally shot by police officers. This must be attended to, even if it isn’t that Black men are all, or even most, of those killed. The disproportion is typically taken to suggest that racism leads cops to value our lives less.

So: Just as racism was why most Black people lived in redlined, even if mostly white, neighborhoods, racism is why Black people are killed by cops disproportionately, even if they kill more white people numerically. Right?

Yet poverty is germane in the police-killing case as well. Black Americans are more than two times as likely as white Americans to be killed by cops, and also more than twice as likely to be poor. And crucially, as a report on policing, poverty and racial inequity in Tulsa makes clear, policing is concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, which are more frequently communities of color and which receive more frequent calls for service. And the horrors of modern “war on crime”-style policing are focused on poverty.

Just as racism certainly operated within the housing loan system, racial bias certainly operates within policing. Solid evidence shows racial bias in who gets pulled over (Black people are less likely to be pulled over after dark, when the driver’s race is harder for officers to discern), searched (the bar for searching Black drivers is lower than that for searching white drivers) and verbally abused.

Yet data also suggests that when it comes to police shootings, with all factors taken into account, such as whether the suspect was armed and whether the officers had just cause to fear for their lives, cops kill white people in greater numbers than Black people, but they kill Black people to a disproportionately far greater degree. White cops may not like Black people much in many cases — and they show it — but when it comes to ending Black lives, just maybe we can open up to the possibility that they hold back on resorting to shooting just as much as they do with white men?

That was the finding of the Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who in 2016 found that while Blacks were more likely to experience some form of force in their interactions with the police after they were stopped, there was no racial bias when it came to officer-involved shootings.

Overall, the Cops and Black People 101 story — that police officers casually mow down Black men while letting white men pass with a summons or a slap on the hand — doesn’t hold up. Many more white men than Black men die at the hands of cops. We just don’t hear that part of the story very much.

So on that gloomy old map you see illustrating articles about housing bias, most people living within the redlined perimeter were likely white, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research study, but we don’t hear that part of the story either.

None of that means that racism hasn’t existed or doesn’t exist. But it also suggests that socioeconomic factors matter as well, and a lot. This is a point made by the historian Touré Reed, who wrote an important book to this effect; his father, the political scientist Adolph Reed Jr., is of similar mind, as is the historian Barbara Fields — all three want us to think more about class than “antiracism.”

In a nutshell, one of my takeaways from redlining and shootings by the police is that alleviating Black poverty makes Black people less susceptible to ills that disproportionately befall those who are poor — ills in which racism surely plays a part, but my interest is in the fact that being poor makes you encounter these things so much more.

Some will still prefer to focus their battle on racism, but no one is going to tell me that focusing more on poverty is anti-Black or disloyal.

Have feedback? Send me a note at [email protected].

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and the forthcoming “Woke Racism.”

Please join me for a virtual event on Oct. 14 where I’ll be chatting with Jane Coaston, the host of “The Argument” podcast, and with the opera singer Angel Blue. We’ll talk about language, race and song — and we’ll discuss examples, submitted by readers, of words we have stopped using in every day language. You can sign up here.

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