In the aftermath of the horrific killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, racial tensions have risen dramatically. One major debate revolves around the issue of “systemic racism” (or “structural racism” or “institutional racism”). Is it woven into the very fabric of our nation? Is it a major problem? Is it a side issue? Does it even exist? These questions have sparked heated debates, but they often ignore a more fundamental question: what is “systemic racism”?
Surprisingly, scholars are not necessarily helpful here because they tend to define “systemic racism” implicitly rather than explicitly. For example, in his important work, Racism Without Racists Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (the current president of the American Sociological Society) lists the phrase “systemic racism” in his index. Yet this term refers back to a two-page description of racism that, frankly, offers little in terms of a definition. A few pages later, though, he writes:
“Whereas for most whites racism is prejudice, for most people of color racism is systemic or institutionalized…. my examination of color-blind racism has etched in it the indelible ink of a ‘regime of truth’ about how the world is organized” (p. 8)
“a society’s social structure [is] the totality of the social relations and practices that reinforce white privilege. Accordingly, the task of analysts interested in studying racial structures is to uncover the particular social, economic, political, social control, and ideological mechanisms responsible for the reproduction of racial privilege in society” (p. 9)
In his book, How to Be An Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi writes that:
Here’s an example of racial inequity: 71 percent of White families lived in owner-occupied homes in 2014, compared to 45 percent of Latinx families and 41 percent of Black families. Racial equity is when two or more racial groups are standing on a relatively equal footing. An example of racial equity would be if there were relatively equitable percentages of [Whites, Latinx, and Blacks] living in owned-occupied homes…
A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups…. Racist policies have been described by other terms: ‘institutional racism,’ ‘structural racism,’ and ‘systemic racism.’ But those are vaguer terms than ‘racist policy’…. ‘Racist policy’ says exactly what the problem is and where the problem is… Racism itself is institutional, structural, and systemic” (p. 18)
Though they don’t use the term “systemic racism,” Sensoy and DiAngelo‘s definition of “racism” clearly captures a systemic component:
racism refers to White racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination, supported by institutional power and authority, used to the advantage of Whites and the disadvantage of peoples of Color. Racism encompasses economic, political, social, and institutional actions and beliefs that perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources, and power between White people and peoples of Color. (p. 228)
While these explanations differ, they all share one major theme: systemic racism does not primarily refer to overt acts of racial hostility, but to ideologies and policies that produce racial disparities.
If we look at popular definitions, we often find the same basic understanding. For example, a recent USA Today article defined “systemic racism” as “the systems in place that create and maintain racial inequality in nearly every facet of life for people of color.” It quotes NAACP President Derrick Johnson to argue that “systemic racism, also called structural racism or institutional racism, [refers to] ‘systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantages [sic] African Americans.’” The article then quotes Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward, who defines it as “the complex interaction of culture, policy and institutions that holds in place the outcomes we see in our lives.”
An ABC News article defines structural racism as “A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.” While this article does not elaborate on what the term “racial group inequity” means, we should note that “equity” is often a technical term that refers not only to fair processes, but also to outcomes (See Kendi’s quote above, or this definition from the Center for Social Inclusion).
Vox writes that: “The phrase ‘systemic racism’ is used to talk about all of the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions that harm certain racial groups and help others. ‘Systemic’ distinguishes what’s happening here from individual racism or overt discrimination, and refers to the way this operates in major parts of US society: the economy, politics, education, and more.” The article also cites Glenn Harris, who defined “systemic racism” above in terms of outcomes.
Given these definitions, both academic and popular, a concise definition of “systemic racism” would be something like “systems which create or perpetuate racial disparities.” In contrast to a traditional understanding of racism, which focuses on individual acts of racial prejudice and animosity, “systemic racism” would produce racial disparities even in the absence of personal, individual bigotry. The connection between racial disparities and systemic racism explains why discussions of “systemic racism” will immediately turn to the abundant evidence of racial disparities in wealth, education, incarceration, and health care to show that “systemic racism” is an undeniable reality.
Given this definition of “systemic racism,” do I believe that “systemic racism” exists? Absolutely.
So what’s the problem? This definition of “systemic racism” is fundamentally flawed.
Racism and Disparities
Surprisingly, it’s dangerous to define “systemic racism” as “systems which create or perpetuate racial disparities” because racism is evil and ought to be dismantled wherever it is encountered. I’ll say that again: racism is evil and ought to be dismantled and that is the problem with the understanding of “systemic racism” that I outlined above.
When we designate some phenomenon as “systemic racism” we are implicitly passing a moral judgment on it and are indicating that such systems need to be dismantled. When people say that racial disparities in wealth, in prison sentencing, or in police shootings are manifestations of “systemic racism,” they are not making purely descriptive observations. They are assuming that there is something deeply wrong with these systems.
Unfortunately, many other systems meet this same definition for systemic racism.
Take marriage. People tend to marry intra-racially, not inter-racially. Because whites have higher incomes and greater wealth than blacks, the combined income and wealth of a white married couple will exceed the income and wealth of a black married couple, allowing the white couple to invest, buy a home, save, and build additional wealth relative to the black couple. Thus, according to this definition, marriage is a manifestation of “systemic racism.”
Private property is another example. There is a tremendous wealth gap between whites and blacks, a large part of which comes from home ownership. If private property were abolished, a large portion of this disparity would vanish. Conversely, to fail to abolish private property is to perpetuate this racial wealth disparity. Private property therefore meets our definition of “systemic racism.”
While these two examples may seem purely academic, it’s worth noting that some scholars and activists really are making similarly extreme recommendations. For example, in her essay “Inequality in America: The Failure of the American System for People of Color,” Edna Bonacich writes that “the racism of this society is linked to capitalism and… so long as we retain a capitalist system, we will not be able to eliminate racial oppression” (p. 103). Similarly, recent calls to #AbolishThePolice should be understood, at least in part, as a response to the perceived systemic racism of law enforcement.
Logically, there are then only two options available to us if we define “systemic racism” and “systems which create or perpetuate racial disparities.” Either we can agree that marriage, private property, law enforcement and a host of other systems are manifestations of “systemic racism” and therefore must be dismantled. Or we can agree that some manifestations of “systemic racism” -like marriage- do not need to be dismantled because they are actually good and just (which is surely not what we want to suggest)!
Since neither option is viable, we should adopt a different definition for “systemic racism.”
A Way Forward
Let me suggest an alternative. The main problem with both academic and popular definitions of “systemic racism” is that they tend to lump a huge number of very different phenomena together (much like the phrase “white privilege“). For example, I would distinguish several different categories that are often subsumed under the broad heading of “systemic racism”:
- Laws or policies that are intended to harm people of color.
- Laws or policies that unintentionally harm people of color.
- Unconscious biases that harm people of color.
- Harm from historical racism that continues to be felt by people of color today.
Distinguishing these categories is exceptionally important because doing so allows us to craft nuanced policies that best accomplish our goals. “Ban the box” laws are an interesting case in point, where zealous activists, in an effort to enfranchise formerly-incarcerated people, promoted policies which actually produced greater racial discrimination. To claim that either their efforts or the laws they created were forms of “systemic racism” is to obscure the actual motive of their activism and to misidentify the actual cause of the increased racial disparities. On the other hand, the same data did show racial biases on the part of the employers even when the “box” was present (which, at a minimum, would be an example of category #3 above). So this data shows both the existence of racial bias and the need to parse proposed solutions carefully.
So rather than talking about “systemic racism,” talk specifically about “policies which unintentionally harm POC” or “the effects of redlining” or “harmful racial stereotypes.” Precision will help clarify exactly where the problem is and where it isn’t. For example, despite the fact that marriage perpetuates racial wealth disparities, there is nothing wrong with the institution of marriage. Marriage is, in fact, one of the best ways for parents to invest in their children.
Finally, we need to be very clear that racial disparities do not entail injustice. To take two trivial examples, no one thinks that 75% of NBA players are black because of injustice or that Asians are over-represented in the Ivy Leagues because of discrimination. While this may seem like an obvious point, it is one that is explicitly denied by Ibram X. Kendi, author of the current #1 Bestseller How to Be an Antiracist. In his book Stamped from the Beginning Kendi writes that “racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial disparities in this country and in the world at large” (p. 11). Such a claim will only produce wrong and facile analyses of racial injustice and will lead to policies which may end up hurting, not helping, the very people they aim to benefit.
In conclusion, while I’m not denying the existence of modern-day racism and racial injustice, I’m pointing out that clarity of language is important. When someone asks “Does systemic racism exist?” our answer should not be “yes, of course!” or “no, of course not!” but “What do you mean by ‘systemic racism’.”
See all content on critical theory here.