What is systemic racism?

Johnson defined systemic racism, also called structural racism or institutional racism, as “systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantages African Americans.”

Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward and publisher of Colorlines, defined it as “the complex interaction of culture, policy and institutions that holds in place the outcomes we see in our lives.”

“Systemic racism is naming the process of white supremacy,” Harris said.

Harris said systemic racism creates disparities in many “success indicators” including wealth, the criminal justice system, employment, housing, health care, politics and education. He said that although the concept dates back to work done by scholar and civil rights pioneer W. E. B. Du Bois, the concept was first named during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and was further refined in the 1980s.

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How does systemic racism affect people of color?
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Structural racism prevents or makes it more challenging for people of color to participate in society and in the economy. While structural racism manifests itself in what appears to be separate institutions, Harris emphasized that factors like housing insecurity, the racial wealth gap, education and policing are intimately connected. 

Harris used the example of housing, explaining that today, a disproportionate number of people of color are homeless or lack housing security in part due to the legacy of redlining. Black people make up nearly half of the homeless population, despite making up only 13% of the population, according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development report presented to Congress in January.

Harris noted that this is just one example and this type of analysis could be applied to issues of voting rights, employmenthealth disparities as well.

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How can systemic racism be addressed?

Both Johnson and Harris say that not enough progress has been made in the fight against systemic racism.

Johnson outlined three steps people can take to address systemic racism. We must “acknowledge that racism actually exists,” get involved with organizations that are fighting it, and finally elect leaders and policy makers who won’t reinforce or support structurally racist policies. 

“Racism is not a partisan issue, and we need to stop making it a partisan issue,” Johnson said. “It’s a question of morality.”

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Harris said individuals doing personal work to understand systemic racism is “necessary, yet it’s so not sufficient.” He urged those wanting to enact change to join those protesting in the streets and to demand fundamental change from institutions in their own lives.

“It requires us to move beyond reform,” he said. “Articulate clearly that the current system is not working.”

Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg

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