Newton’s First Law holds that objects in motion tend to remain in motion unless acted upon by another force. We understand this as a description of inertia, and readily see how it applies to the physical universe. We slide a book across a table, for instance, understanding that it will only stop moving when it falls to the floor or when the friction created between the upward force of the table and downward force of gravity is sufficient to bring its motion to a halt.
But the concept of inertia applies not merely to the physical world. It also applies to the socio-economic world and the forward motion of historical events. Life is not a series of single-day occurrences, followed by a re-set to the beginning, like a video game. Instead, that which happens today will impact that which happens tomorrow, and so on. Indeed, the inertia of history lasts far longer than that of the book sliding across the table. Historical events and patterns leave legacies.
Inertia is a concept that can help us understand systemic racism — a subject about which many have been speaking lately, but about which just as many remain confused.
Contrary to what some think, systemic racism is not a concept that suggests horrible racists predominate in every HR department, police station, or classroom. Systemic racism doesn’t require any such persons to exist at all. Obviously, some do, but they are mostly irrelevant to a discussion of systemic racism because systemic racism is, wait for it…systemic. As such, it is concerned with the functioning of institutions and structures and how racism becomes sedimented in the operations of society, with or without deliberate and bigoted intent. It describes the process by which unequal opportunities, life chances, and outcomes obtain depending on one’s race.
As a prime example of how it works, consider the American housing market in the 20th century, and its relationship to other institutional settings that impact our lives like the job market and schools.
Let’s start with the part about which we can all agree. For many generations, Black people were deliberately discriminated against in housing access, all across the nation. Where they could live was circumscribed by overt hostility, including dozens of anti-Black race riots, laws that proscribed their access to entire communities, or restrictive covenants that prohibited the sale of most homes to Black folks.
Additionally, there was redlining by banks, which precluded loans for homes or businesses in Black communities. This practice impacted Black access to both conventional loans for housing and government-created instruments like FHA loans, almost all of which went to white families from the 1930s to the early 1960s. These white families — at least 15 million by most accounts — were able to hustle it to the suburbs in mid-century, bolstered by government-backed loans that Black folks could not obtain, in communities where they could not live.
After several generations of this blatant (but legal) discrimination, Congress finally passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, theoretically barring racial discrimination in rentals and home purchasing. Of course, just because housing discrimination became illegal doesn’t mean it ended, just as laws against burglary and assault don’t stop them from happening, even quite often. In the case of the Fair Housing Act, the law wasn’t given enforcement teeth until 1988. Even afterward, research suggests there are millions of instances of race-based housing discrimination against people of color each year.
But even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that there was no more racial discrimination in housing after the Fair Housing Act became law, it would not change how the previous history contributed to systemic racism at a deep, structural level. This is true because, remembering Newton’s first law, objects in motion tend to remain in motion.
So, as housing construction and homeownership exploded in the wake of World War Two, tens of millions of white Americans were able to gain a valuable asset at a time when Blacks, by and large, could not. These assets then appreciated due to the increased demand for housing, so that by the early 1970s — at precisely the time the Fair Housing Act was finally, theoretically, prohibiting racial discrimination — residential real estate values had roughly tripled.
Whites reaped a windfall from this appreciation. If they wanted to move up to an even nicer home, they had substantial equity with which to do that. If they died, they could leave a valuable asset to their children, as many did. On the other hand, Black folks, having been excluded from the market when the costs were cheap, now found themselves often unable to afford starter homes because of the expense. Even without additional discrimination, aspiring Black homebuyers would tend to be priced out of the market for all but the least desirable housing, as the homes previously made available to whites were now out of their price range.
On the one hand, this appears to be a simple market mechanism. Black people aren’t being discriminated against, per se; they just can’t afford the same kind of housing as whites. The culprit isn’t racism as we’re used to thinking of it, and surely not as it had been practiced for generations. But the results are no different than if those practices had never changed. Because of past favoritism for white home buyers (the flipside of anti-Black discrimination), whites saw their net worth explode, while Blacks found themselves on the outside looking in.
Only the most obtuse could view this as a genuine free-market issue, or the result of a neutral “invisible hand” pricing Black people out of housing access. Clearly, the past was impacting the present, and in so doing, altering the future for millions of whites and Blacks across America.
This process of asset accumulation, on the one hand, and exclusion on the other, explains, in no small measure, the current racial wealth gaps between whites and Blacks. Depending on which numbers you consult, these range from 10:1 favoring whites to over 400:1, if only examining financial assets. Even Black families headed by college graduates have less wealth than white families headed by high school dropouts, and despite having solid incomes, middle-class Black folks lag well behind comparable whites due to the head starts afforded by prior asset inequities.
But racism in housing impacted far more than access to that single asset, and other assets that often flow from having obtained it. What made the racism of this process systemic — as opposed to merely institutional within that one social sphere of housing — is that it then produced inequities of opportunity and life chances in other areas.
For instance, in the wake of white suburbanization, businesses also began to relocate from cities to outlying areas. The land was cheaper to develop (because there was more of it), and the construction of interstates starting in the 1950s helped lower the cost of relocation and getting goods to market. Even if we assume these relocation decisions were made with no racial malice aforethought and companies were making purely economic decisions to build plants or office parks in the suburbs, the consequences are self-evident. Now, whites would have disproportionate access not only to new housing, but they would also be able to access an increasing share of the new jobs. Meanwhile, Blacks who remained concentrated in cities — first because of blatant discrimination and now by a combination of discrimination and cost — would face a diminishing job market.
And public transportation typically would not run to the places where the jobs were being created. So if most Black folks in the cities didn’t possess vehicles (because they hadn’t needed them before), obtaining one of the new jobs in the ‘burbs would be unlikely for even the most qualified Black worker. And even if one had a car, employers might be less likely to hire Black applicants, not necessarily because of bias, but simply because they might think employees who lived closer to work would be more reliable.
Additionally, new schools were being built in the suburbs, financed mostly by property taxes, which benefited the new and more affluent communities. And these communities could also raise substantial funds through PTAs and other mechanisms to add to the government allotment for the benefit of their children. Again, none of this required deliberate malice. But due to greater white housing access, job and educational opportunities were enhanced for them as well.
Meanwhile, in urban spaces, Black and brown students labored in unequal facilities with unequal resources only to be given the same standardized tests given to more advantaged white students. Performance on these tests would then be used not merely to track how students were doing relative to some desired standard, but as a gatekeeping mechanism for college and the future opportunities that flow from it. This, in turn, would then influence the next generation of job and housing opportunities for whites as opposed to Black folks. With or without any racist intent, all of these factors guaranteed racial disparities of life chances and outcomes that are hardly different from how they would look if bigotry were widespread.
And all of this reflects the systemically racist effect of policies in just the housing market alone. One could perform the same inter-institutional analysis beginning with jobs or schools and show how policies in those spheres influenced each other, as well as housing, or criminal justice, or health care, or any other area of daily life.
The point is, once we admit that racism was deeply embedded in several institutions for most of American history — an inarguable truism, disputed by no rational person — it becomes possible to trace the consequences of that historical racism into the present day. Much as with Newton’s Law, forward motion in the socio-economic world tends to be perpetuated until it is met by a force capable of stopping it.
And in the case of racism, unless that force not only stops the forward motion but then repairs the damage the moving object created — in this case, the moving object of discrimination and unequal opportunity — the shock waves of that motion will continue to travel, seen or unseen, well into the future.
Consider this the Wise Corollary to Newton’s First Law:
When objects in motion cause substantial destruction, it isn’t sufficient to arrest their active trajectory. It is also necessary to repair the damage their forward motion has created and the ongoing shock waves they produced.
We have inherited these shock waves. It is not our fault that they were created, but it is our responsibility to address them now, with honesty and intentionality.