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.
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:
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 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.’“
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.”
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.”
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.