When most white people think of racism, they think of someone in a white hood and robe or a generally hateful person. This is individual racism; the racist attitudes and actions of individuals. The examples of this are obvious, but systemic racism (sometimes called structural or institutional racism) is harder to understand. Does systemic racism just mean a bunch of racists who have banded together? How can we have racist systems if there are no longer specifically racist laws on the books? No, systemic racism is not a collective of racists, nor is it necessarily what laws are currently in place. Rather, systemic racism is the way a social system privileges white people while disadvantaging people of color.
For centuries, America’s systemic racism was held in place by specific laws that oppressed people of color—laws that have thankfully been overturned (though often reluctantly). But, even after those laws were overturned, the white-favoring momentum kept right on rolling. And it this historic momentum that continues to allow, for example, the pattern of police abuse against people of color.
Whether it’s a traffic system, a system of education, or an economic system, you know a system works properly 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, like the highway system during construction season! White people tend not to notice how systems work in our country because the system isn’t broken for them. During a sweltering summer, if my A/C is working just fine I don’t think about it at all, and I might assume my neighbor’s is also working just fine. So if a white person is enjoying a system that’s working just fine for them, they might assume the system is also working just fine for their black or brown neighbor. But this view that the systems are good and working is not shared by most within black and brown communities.
Talking about systems and structures can seem abstract, but they have very real consequences. For example, Minnesota has one of the worst disparities in home ownership in the country: with 76% of white households owning their home and only 23% of black households owning their home. (MN State Health Assessment). How do we explain this? The answer is that this is the momentum of a system at work, and the system goes back a long way.
Starting in 1910, Minnesota realtors used something called “racial covenants.” These were legal clauses in property deeds that specified that black people were not allowed to buy certain properties. This came out of a fear that black residents would hurt property value in white neighborhoods. This practice was reinforced in 1934 when banks began a practice called “red-lining” where they refused mortgages to people of color to keep them out of mostly-white neighborhoods. Red-lining and racial covenants are illegal now and have been for decades, but we are still reaping the consequences of these policies and legal decisions. How so? In America, most wealth is accrued through home ownership, but because the majority of black people were unable to access home ownership until recently, entire communities could not build wealth or pass wealth on to the next generation and the devastating repercussions of this are still felt today.
This kind of history fuels disparity in things like education, jobs, healthcare, prison populations, and yes, police interactions with people of color. The origins of each of these systems (and many more) created advantage for whites over people of color. For instance, Early policing developed through the creation of forces to protect whites from Native Americans and slave patrols meant to catch runaways. Of course, police forces developed beyond this, but the racial bias and disparity have persisted. In a nearly three-year study of the Minneapolis police department, research data showed that black people were 8.7 times more likely to be arrested for low level offenses than white people, and Native Americans were 8.6 times more likely to be arrested for a low-level offense than white people. Does this mean that all 800 officers in the Minneapolis police department are racist bigots? No. But it does mean that something else is going on. There is a larger system at work driving these disparities.
But this is hard for white people to see, because culturally they are used to seeing racism as individual choices, not a larger structure. For many whites, racism can be summed up as: “some individuals choose to be racists; end of story.” This false ideology of individualism distorts the perception of many white people so they see individual prejudice (which exists!), but fail to see that the American system is rigged in favor of whites and against people of color.
So, 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. Besides, psychological studies show it’s hard for people to notice something when they benefit from not noticing that thing. And it doesn’t benefit white people to notice that the police system is broken.
Openly addressing systemic racism as a nation is going to be difficult. Because black and brown people have suffered under the systemic racism of the judicial system and police force for generations, there is a deep mistrust of, and anger toward, these systems. It is time for these grievances to be expressed and addressed, and this is not something a lot of white people are eager to hear. The system has worked pretty well for white people, who’d like to believe it works the same for everyone. But it doesn’t. From the Reconstruction Era to our current mass incarceration prison system there is an unbroken tradition of whites going to extraordinary lengths not to hear or address these grievances. Yet, this is precisely what needs to happen to restore (or perhaps establish for the first time) trust between the police force and black and brown communities.