Systemic Racism? We’re Talking Past Each Other

  • Some suggest that the Unites States is a systemically racist nation. Others say that American ideals are the foundation for a nonracist society.
  • Both sides are talking past each other.  There is a difference between saying “There are systems of racism in America” and “America is a racist system”. The first statement describes parts of society; the latter is a characterization of the whole
  • A part – even a large part – doesn’t define a whole.
  • The tension between racist and nonracist forces has permeated American society from its inception.  Understanding this tension is key to dismantling the systemic origins of the racial divides in American culture.

Racism, sexism and other “isms” run deep in our culture. However, the way we speak matters.  When we say, for example, “We live in a racist society”, we are using essentializing and totalizing language.  If we indeed live in a racist society, then our society is in some sense fundamentally racist.

Terms like “systemic racism”, “institutionalized racism”, “White supremacy”, and related expressions have rhetorical power. These terms gain their power from several basic truths:

  1. There has been and continue to be systems of racism, sexism, classism and so forth.
  2. No one wants to think of themselves as racist, sexist, classist, or the like
  3. People want to distance themselves from any system, person, or group that can be characterized as racist, sexist, classist or in similar terms.

Essentializing statements like, “We live in a systemically racist society” use the term “systemic” to advance a particular type of ideological agenda – one that depicts a particular society, culture or nation as fixed, monolithic or unified system.  In this ideology, society is a fixed and overarching structure of power that dominates over groups and individual who fall outside of that structure[i].

This way of thinking allows the speaker to mobilized political force — to rally against the system. It suggests that the only way to eradicate racism, sexism and other “isms” is to dismantle the fixed and static system-that-is-essentially-racist and replace it with something else.

We must face the legacy of racism in our nation. However, totalizing calls to overturn a system regarded as inherently racist confuse the parts of society with its whole.

Fixed Systems and Dynamic Systems

At its most basic, a system is any set elements that function together.  From this view, some systems may in fact be fixed, monolithic and closed.  A clock is an example of a closed system.  It works according to fixed rules that are contained within the system itself. It does not change as a result of interactions that it has with the environment outside of itself.

A society is not a fixed, monolithic or closed system. It is a dynamic system. To be more precise, a society is a dynamic system of interpenetrating systems (which itself is embedded in larger international and even cosmic systems). The elements or “parts” of a dynamic system are not independent of one another. Instead, they influence each other over time.  As a result, the structure of a system is something that self-organizes or emerges over time.

Everyday social interaction provides a good example of how a dynamic system works.  Imagine two people working together to move a couch. Each person is a distinct system (composed of subsystems) and is part of the larger system of the dyad (the two people interacting). As one person lifts the couch, the other senses the movements of the first, and adjusts his or her behavior accordingly. The first person then adjusts to the second until they reach a stable state (they are holding the couch). As they begin to move, they continuously adjust their actions to each other. Whenever a stable state of interacting is disrupted, and a new pattern of give and take emerges. Order self-organizes without any single “plan”; the structure of the system emerges in the very course of social interaction.

A Society is a Dynamic System

A society is not a monolithic system; it is a dynamic one.  It is not a monolithic structure organized by a single dimension (e.g., power). Any society, of course, is organized around systems of power, but not only around power. There are racist, sexist and classist elements in society, but there are also elements of society that are decidedly non-racist, non-sexist and non-classist. There are and have been bad actors, bad practices, and bad institutions in society; but society is not defined merely by those bad actors, practices and institutions.

In short, we do not live so much in a racist society, as much as we live in a society containing systems of racism and non-racism. The very systems, practices and beliefs that brought the United States into existence contained elements of both racism (e.g., slavery) and non-racism (e.g., abolition). It was founded upon systems of sexism (e.g., only White men could vote) and feminism (e.g., “Remember the Ladies”, said Abigail Adams to her husband John). It was founded both on systems of constraint and class (i.e., only property owners could vote) and systems of social mobility (e.g., education; beliefs in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”).

The Systemic Origins of Racial Disparities

It is upon these contradictory systems of belief and practice that our society evolved and continues to evolve. An overly simplified (!) representation a systems conception of race relations is shown in Figure 1. The figure shows how systems of racism and non-racism evolved in relation to each other over time.

Figure 1. The Systemic Co-Evolution of Racism and Non-Racism

As shown in the top panel, the slave trade was motivated by economic means and opportunity of colonialists, coupled with racialized beliefs about non-Europeans. At the founding of the United States, there was also a belief in equality. As is well known, many colonists were deeply uncomfortable with the concept of slavery.  This led to the abolitionist movement, which ultimately prevailed with the outcome of the civil war. Nonetheless, racism and racialized beliefs remained even after the civil war, which were resisted by anti-discrimination laws and other social movements (i.e., the civil rights movement).

This leads us to where we are today. We have made enormous progress in relations among racialized groups. Contemporary racial relations are systemic; they are products of how diverse elements of society mutually influence each other.  This is shown in Figure 1 by the simplified relations highlighted in the light circle.  As a result of an overdetermined set of historical process, some racialized groups (Blacks, Latinos) are more likely to (a) have less current and intergenerational wealth[ii], (b) experience lower levels of education and academic achievement[iii], (c) are underemployed[iv]; (d) have poorer quality health[v]; (e) inadequate access to quality healthcare[vi]; (f) live in disadvantaged neighborhoods[vii]; (g) engage in higher rates of crime[viii]; (h) and experience higher rates of incarceration[ix].  Against this backdrop, poor families tend to face higher levels of stress[x] and have more difficulty supporting their children through the psycho-social challenges of poverty[xi].

These processes occur against the backdrop of broad systems of racial bias and discrimination within social institutions and social practices. These practices include but are not limited to implicit and explicit discrimination in hiring and promotion[xii]; patterns of observed and experienced discrimination in the workplace[xiii]; differential access to healthcare and nutrition[xiv]; differential treatment of racialized groups with the criminal justice system[xv]; differential access to credit[xvi] and housing[xvii]; zoning laws that limit access to housing[xviii]; intergenerational disparities in wealth and inheritance[xix]; and other forms of systemic discrimination.

These variables are not independent of each other. Instead, they mutually influence each other to produce racial and class-based disparities[xx].  A person coming from a family stressed with underemployment, inadequate education, and inadequate family resources is more likely to gain the initial skills needed to perform well in school[xxi]. In turn, parental education affects employment and income of children, which influences intergenerational cycles of poverty and wealth[xxii]. To the extent that public education is funded using local property taxes, people who live in poorer communities will tend to have fewer resources for education – both in and outside of the schools.  Poor access to health care and nutrition is associated with cognitive and socio-emotional challenges, which make it more difficult to succeed educationally and vocationally[xxiii].  Strained social systems are associated with increased levels of crime and incarceration[xxiv].

Disrupting the System

Systemic racism is often thought of as the idea that that patterns of discrimination that are built into the fabric of social institutions and thus define them.  From this viewpoint, if we could simply remove institutional discrimination – the power of biased institutions to oppress – we would be able to transform racial inequities.

To be sure, we must work to remove institutional patterns of racism. However, there is a problem with this way of thinking. The sad truth is that removing patterns of institutional discrimination can only bring us so far. This is because the history of racism has created challenges that extend beyond institutions that oppress: they have penetrated racialized communities themselves.  Merely ending institutional discrimination will not remove the achievement gap, group differences in criminal activity, rates of single parenthood, and other challenges to poor and racialized communities. Transformations must also occur in communities that have been victimized by historical and present-day racism.

The systemic transformation of poor communities requires collaborative action on multiple fronts. These include but are not limited to the infusion of businesses into poor communities; community-based job training and education or people who need it; parental support and high quality daycare; systematic early intervention for infants and preschoolers; education committed to enforcing high standards and providing students with the support and direction – both in and out of school; partnerships between communities and law enforcement that breed mutual understanding and respect; economic and social opportunity that channelizes development toward purposive and meaningful careers, and much more.

Systems are composed of relations among multiple processes. Systems change when changes in important parts of the system ripple through and create changes in the remainder of the system.  When this happens, over time, minor changes can eventually produce massive shifts.  We may not know exactly which parts of our existing social systems need to change to initiate such ripple effects. To transform racial disparities, we need to identify those system elements that can changes throughout the social system.

Racial Disparities are Systemically Caused Versus “We Live in a Racist Society”

The concept of a “systemic isms’” has noble intent. It is used, in part, to locate an “ism” not in particular individuals, but instead of the broader institutions that make up a society. From this view, racism does not (necessarily) exist in you or in me – but in a broader system that functions (to some extent) independent of you or me.  In this way, to eliminate racism, one does not simply seek to change individual prejudices, but instead seeks to transform institutionalized practices and mindsets that oppress and discriminate.

A problem these ideas is that they substitute a part of the problem for the whole.  “Systemic racism” because a kind of “thing” – a static system of power that is used by some groups of people to oppress others.  When this happens, the concept of “systemic racism” becomes an instrument of power – a rhetorical bludgeon that casts entire institutions as either good or bad. Thinking in this way, the only course of moral action is revolutionary: dismantle the bad institution and rebuild it in the image of the good.

This is what happens when people utter statements like, “The US is a racist society” or “The US was founded upon racism”.  Such statements are essentializing ones. They suggest that society has a particular nature and that its nature is both monolithic and bad.  However, as we have seen, as a dynamic system, a society is a mixing, moving set of consilient and contradictory processes. There is no single plan that organizes the system.  Yes – some processes are more dominant than others. Regardless, dynamic systems self-organize without a central plan. We should not so easily say, “The US is a racist nation”.  Instead, we should say, “The US is a nation that contains systems of racism, non-racism and anti-racism”.

To eliminate isms, focus on the complexity of the systemic processes.  Find the important subsystems. Modify them. Monitor the results. Rinse and repeat. Be tireless.


[i] This use of the term “systemic” is perhaps paradoxical, as those who speak of culture as systematically this or that also tend to warn against the use of essentializing and totalizing language – the language of stereotypes.  We habitually disdain any attempt to identify any particular group of people in terms of any fixed or essential characteristics.  However, people often allow this to occur when we speak of social institutions.

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