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?
Systemic racism: What does it mean and how can you help dismantle it (usatoday.com)

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

3 thoughts on “What is systemic racism?

  1. Systematic racism is present today as it always has been, but is more well hidden that it was before, and therefore more easily overlooked or downplayed and left unacknowledged. Many political leaders fail to realize the role they play in white supremacy, as well as what efforts they could make to ease and help. However, most people do not like to admit the power and privileges they have, and therefore invalidate those that have been affected by racism directly, in the system and their day to day lives. For African Americans, in politics, they are rarely seen or represented, and even when they are, they are only showing the views of the white supremacists in power. They are economically unprivileged, and as written in the article, cover the most homeless percentage despite their numbers. The George Floyd murder was another way that the system showed their utter lack of care for black lives. The police use their power unnecessarily and this is not the first or last case of unnecessary blunt force. Black people are targeted and systemically killed by white police officers. The lack of laws despite the constant repetition of these race related crimes shows how little care there is. From gentrification to education, the system has largely failed its African American community and has continued to show lack of reparation or changes to the system that founds it. Lack of health care, wealth and proper representation is all fundamental and yet is being stripped from this community to benefit those already on top. We require the system to be largely changed and reformed to respect and aid in dismantling white supremacy and helping Black voices be heard.

    1. I agree with you Violet. I find that systematic racism is heavily downplayed and well covered up here in Canada as we don’t often hear about issues on the news. But, in the United States it is heavily apparent as we see the hate crimes and acts of violence inflicted on black people quite often on the news. Nevertheless, systematic racism inarguably lives in both countries and a lot needs to be done to make a change. Just as you said, political leaders have a lot of power, but I don’t think that they don’t realize they can help; I am sure they know, but these political leader benefit from the system- so honestly, they may not really care. And yeah, in many cases they fail to acknowledge their privilege as white people but I feel that they are aware of their white privilege even if it’s a subconscious awareness. The government is corrupt, both in the States and here in Canada and they are unbothered by systematic racism, and issues causes by capitalism which I believe go hand in hand. To be quite frank, the system ensures that when it comes to race there is no way out; if one is unfortunate enough to be born with black skin, they are forever a second-class citizen. The wealthiest black people classify below the poorest Caucasians when it comes to privilege and opportunities. This is very true as out of hundreds of billionaires in America, there are only seven who are black and not a single one of them inherited their fortune while there are so many white billionaires who are born into money and do not have to work as hard to be successful and affluent.

      America is rooted in black slavery and has a large history of racism, that still affects black people presently. This is why we have mainly white supremacists in the upper class (this includes majority of political leaders) and they aren’t doing anything worthwhile to make a change.
      Because of all this, I find that racism is going to continue to be hard to completely rid of. Race affects every aspect of society from people’s subconscious thoughts to political, economic, social and religious institutions; racism is not just one’s individual actions, it is embedded in American culture and for this reason no knowledgeable individual can truly be neutral on issues of race. But there is hope that with enough allyship overtime, change should gradually come, especially as Generation Z ages and starts to fill up governmental positions. I mention this because I find that Gen Z has a lot more allies than older Generations.

      I found this video on Systematic Racism, it explains it further really well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrHIQIO_bdQ&t=103s

      Furthermore, I wanted to comment on George Floyd’s murder that occurred over a year ago. This along with what happened to Trevon Martin, is something that really opened my eyes to what was going on in our society in regard to racism, systematic racism and racial profiling/police brutality. I’ve always been told growing up that because of the color of my skin, I’ll have to work harder and be more cautious etc. etc. But I never really understood the gravity of it- I never fathomed that, one of my siblings, parents or a friend could die simply for being black; I wondered when my skin color became life threatening. Of course, I knew about slavery, but I was naïve enough to think that just as slavery went away, the racism and oppression went along with it. It really showed me how deep the hatred lies in many people’s hearts towards people with black skin. It all makes me so distraught and upsets me whenever I think about it. Police officers should be promoting peace and contributing to making the world a safer and more peaceful place instead of killing people unwarrantedly. Yet, the corruption and injustice in the system enables police to get away with killing innocent black lives and destroying black families as they do not have the same rights and/or privileges as white people. The racially biased law enforcement system is only fractional evidence of systematic racism in America and the subsequent socioeconomic divide and imbalances between white and black individuals; even independently noble policemen or women are still bad because they work for a corrupt system- this is the reason for the political slogan “ALL COPS ARE BAD” (ACAB). Society is in continuous conflict because of limited resources and social order can only be maintained by people of authority. As a result, people with power try to hold on to it by suppressing the powerless. For this reason, as well as blatant racism, white supremacists feel the need to subdue black people; so that they can stay in power and the system will continue to benefit them, but as it benefits them the result is destroyed black lives. Because of these race and class divides caused by systematic racism and capitalism there is no way out unless the root of the cause is eliminated; this is why the Black Lives Matter movement endeavors to start by defunding the police. Racism exists everywhere, from subconscious thoughts, to employment, educational, and judicial systems as it is baked into the fabric of the United States and there is more than potential for a revolt to change the destruction caused by a corrupt law-enforcement system and the immoral white supremist police officers.

      I hope and pray that the relationship between race, racism and power can be transformed, and change can be made where black people can finally, and truly be liberated from decades of oppression by white supremacists and the corrupt and prejudiced systems they authorize.

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