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What Do You Mean by “Systemic Racism”?

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1) If there aren’t any racist laws on the books, how can we have a racist society?

2) I don’t get what the difference is between racism and structural/systemic racism.


It helps to distinguish individual racism from systemic racism. Individual racism is the racist attitudes and actions of individuals. Systemic racism is the way a social system privileges some and disadvantages others. While America’s systemic racism was held in place for centuries by laws that oppressed people of color—laws that have been thankfully (though often reluctantly) overturned—the momentum of this centuries-old white-favoring system continues to this day. And it this momentum that continues to allow (for example) the pattern of police abuse against people of color. And this is precisely why multitudes are now rising up to call for radical reforms to eradicate racism from the American system, which includes the police force, our system of education, economics, government, etc.

Whether you’re talking about a traffic system, a system of education, or an economic system, you know a system works when the people using it don’t notice it. Efficient systems tend to run on autopilot, so we only notice a system when it stops working. Because the American system works for them, white people generally have a robust confidence in the goodness of the system that black and brown communities do not share. This is why when a video shows white police officers abusing their authority against people of color, many whites interpret the event in terms of the individual officer’s choices and cannot see the systemic structures that allowed this abuse to continue for centuries up to the present day. On top of this, psychological studies show it’s hard for people to notice something when they benefit from not noticing that thing.

Because we are called to love and care for all our neighbors, we believe white Christians are called to join forces with their black and brown brothers to bring an end to this systemic racism.1

1 Matthew 22:36-40, Luke 10:25-37

2 thoughts on “What Do You Mean by “Systemic Racism”?

    Rie Sinclair says: Monday June 15, 2020 at 9:27 am

    This is all very, very real. And then isn’t it so much deeper? The “codes” and use of language, the morals which change depending on one’s social strata, the lines of escape from barbarism to civilised. The secret exchange of guilt and debt as a function of society.

    Question: How to identify IF an offence is a weird social norm vs. a personal attack? Shouldn’t it at least be OK to acknowledge ethic differences, even globally, so I can do this math? To generalise/example, ‘loud’ greeks are considered rude to introverted swedes, who in turn appear ‘snobbish’ and – again – rude to greeks. When ‘whites’ point out to each other how articulate they are, it is due to a society that diminishes the importance of education and appears to hold a judge-y disdain for a little more effort in speech.

    These massive social nuances create unnecessary miscommunication and misidentification, in turn short circuiting the whole process. Compliments are even viewed as offence halting the process of reconciliation.

    In a society where we are taught to use and dispose, it is the spiritually, psychologically, financially and mentally impoverished who suffer most. Affording dignity is rarely seen in White America, how could it possibly be afforded to other ethnicities? I am white and I have found myself at odds with much of the system, but in response feel voice-less. I’m told to ‘grow where I’m planted’, ‘take what I’m given’, basically shut up and wait. This doesn’t help anyone out of a desperate position. 🙁

    Also how to separate tribal communion from divide and conquer mentalities? As children we make little ‘tribes’ in school. Us/Them. This desire for community is good. But the need to dominate to survive is a whole other element. The system works for those with money, even the middle class. At the extreme are a mix of races including a mass caucasian individuals who are homeless, uneducated and socially removed from the art of moving above their social strata. Trump reiterated a core crude reality of America: dominate or be dominated. Extraordinary loneliness of the individual. How to be unique, individual, ‘free’ and not segregated?

    As Erich Fromm points out, “ethical norms are identical with social norms and social norms serve the perpetuation of any given society, including it’s injustices and contradictions. It is obvious the elite which governs a society uses all means at its disposal to make the social norms on which its power rests appear to be sacred, universal norms, either revealed by God or inherent in human nature”. – The Revolution of Hope.

    I doubt racism can be eradicated until proper identification of the root desire for “power over” is fully understood.

    Apologies for the length. But of most individuals exploring this, I admire your work greatly.

    Lola Sykes says: Friday June 26, 2020 at 8:35 am

    So can you have this change in a capitalist society?
    Or If you want to go from Individualism and being responsible for yourself,
    to community or tribalism, then are you not talking about a fundamental change to socialism?
    I ask this not philosophically I ask this because we are founded as a capitalist society was that wrong?


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