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What Is “Systemic Racism”?

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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.

As long as white folks look through the lens of Individualism and retain their confidence in the inherent goodness of the system, they will tend to dismiss or explain away testimonies that the system oppresses black and brown people. Because of this, we encourage white Christians to humble themselves and to confess, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” We encourage white Christians to take responsibility to educate themselves on the racial history of America and the systems it gave birth to (see our list of resources), and to take seriously the experiences of their black and brown sisters and brothers. 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] To this end, we encourage all white Christians to prayerfully consider how they might restructure their life so they can avoid living in a homogenous white bubble and can become enriched by developing relationships with people of color.
[1] Matthew 22:36-40, Luke 10:25-37

8 thoughts on “What Is “Systemic Racism”?

  1. Rie Sinclair says:

    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.

  2. Lola Sykes says:

    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?

  3. Matthew says:

    Why is it that only one side of this matter is presented and the many strong voices of black and brown people that disagree with this narrative are silenced? https://youtu.be/zgUjCK2jMp0

    1. Emily says:

      Hi Matthew, Thanks for the question! We speak to the question of differing voices and who we listen to here: https://whchurch.org/who-am-i-supposed-to-believe/ and here: https://whchurch.org/is-america-still-racist-today/. Hope that helps.

  4. Jesse says:

    So I think it would be very difficult to aruge that this country was founded in part on principles of racism and white supremecy. This was because those elements existed in the founding fathers as evidenced by slavery and the oppression of the Native Americas along with ideology like Manifest Destiny.

    However, I’d argue that things have improved over time. Just because something was founded with rascim doesn’t mean things can’t change. I’d like to ask you to provide some of the systems or laws still active today that are intentionally designed to oppress miniorities. I’m not questioning that racism still exists today but arguing for the possibility that it lies within some individuals rather than the systems, laws and institutions.

    I’d also argue that an instituion is an inantimate thing. It can’t feel or make decisions. The people that make up the instituion do those things. So in order for an instituion to be systemically racist, wouldn’t all members of that instituion need to be considered racist?

    How about when white police officers abuse their authority against white people? How about when white police officers kill white people? Shouldn’t that garnish some attention from you? Shouldn’t abuse of power be equally as troubling regardless of ethnicity? Shouldn’t you balance your position with some of that?

    As for some positive steps, wouldn’t you like to acknowledge President Trump for the First Step Act he passed in 2018 and the opportunity zones established? How about the massive funding for education in the black community?

    Seems like a few of these things would be good to mention in an effort to bring some balance to your position.

    1. Emily says:

      Hi Jesse,
      Like you, we agree that things have changed over time and we are grateful for the progress that has occurred in our nation. Leaders of both parties have created positive change, and we applaud that. It is because of this progress that there are no longer laws on the books that are explicitly worded or “intentionally designed to oppress minorities.” However, some policies and laws still work better for white people than for people of color even when unintentionally or unconsciously.

      Like you said, an institution is inanimate and cannot make decisions, but it can be built in such a way that it creates harm even if accidentally. Moreover, beyond the policies of an institution, there is also a culture of an institution. And a culture can preserve racial judgments without the individuals who comprise the culture realizing it. Part of the work we can do is recognizing which policies and practices, and what aspect of a culture or sub-culture (e.g. the police force) work to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others.

      For an example of how unintentional bias can cause harm, a good illustration is in the world of astronomy. Scientists researching certain topics submit proposals to gain access to the Hubble Space Telescope. Researchers discovered, though, that women’s proposals received fewer approvals than men’s. To correct this disadvantage, a new process was created to remove all identifying information from submissions. When this new policy was implemented, anonymous proposals allowed for a significant increase in the approval of women’s proposals, and this is now the standard policy at NASA. The original policies were not blatantly sexist or malicious, nor would we say that those approving proposals were all sexist individuals, but when the original practices were shown to unintentionally contribute to subtle sexist biases, NASA adjusted their practices to help level the playing field.

      In the same way, although there may not be explicitly discriminatory or malicious laws on the books, there are practices that advantage white people while disadvantaging people of color. When our eyes are opened to this, we can begin to make change. We can ask ourselves: “What current polices inadvertently create negative outcomes for people of color and need to be dismantled and what policies are missing that could proactively change outcomes?” So too, we need to ask ourselves: “What aspects of the current institutional culture are contributing to negative outcomes for people of color and need to be dismantled?”

      Certainly we must balance individual responsibility with systems, but when the balance is so badly tilted in one direction (in this case systems over individuals), in order to correct it, we must emphasize one over the other until balance is restored. Right now, we believe that although both are problematic, systemic racism is causing damage in a way that individual racist choices are not. Likewise, police brutality against any race is unacceptable and we must denounce it, but given the long tradition of the justice system not working for people of color, we believe that this is where our primary focus should be.

      Perhaps the clearest place to see systemic problems is through data. Every five years, the Minnesota Department of Health conducts a health assessment. Their most recent assessment found the following statistics for the state of Minnesota:
      • 41% of black people live below the poverty level, while only 8% of white people do.
      • Children of color are 3-5 times more likely to be living in poverty than white children.
      • Black people have on-time graduation rates of 65% while white people have a rate of 87%.
      • African-American and Native-American people are 3 times more likely to be unemployed than white people.
      • Black people have infant mortality rates over two times as high as white people.
      • While white people make up 83% of Minnesota’s population, they represent 47% percent of the prison population. Black people make up 5% percent of the population, but represent 31% of the prison population.
      • The median household income for white people is $40,054, but for black people it is $18,417.
      • Homeownership rates for whites are 76.0%, but for blacks it is 21.7%.

      These disparities are across the sectors of education, healthcare, employment, income, home-ownership and criminal justice, and are too significant to be accounted for by individual decisions alone. So if the system is what is broken, then the system is what we need to fix.

      —Emily from the Communications Team

  5. Steph says:

    “No civilized society can operate without it’s institutions; The problem with those in the U.S. is that they have historically rejected poc” Prof. Mahmoud El Kati, McCalister College
    1) Race is a construct.. and like anything constructed it can be torn down
    2) Race that finds its ways in institutions are called ‘disparities’ Latino people are 8x more likely to die from COVID than their white counterparts; largely due to the increase of exposure because of the kinds of employment they are more likely to have
    3) White Supremacy is often used in place of race because it states right out the power dynamic at play; calling individuals ‘racist’ bears insufficient fruit when we are trying to give more attention to changing institutional practices
    4) Our history informs our past; we are seeing what we are seeing because only SYMBOLIC changes have been made without changing what we are at our core: white supremacist
    5) It is not enough to be NON racist..we must be ANTI racist: challenging those attitudes and practices within our institutions that drive disparities that threaten the overall health sanctity and well being of us all

  6. Emily says:

    Thank you all for your comments and feedback! We believe this conversation is worth continuing, but are closing the comment section for now as we hope to engage individually with those of you who would like to discuss these topics in more detail. If you have further thoughts, please email us at info@whchurch.org.

Comments are closed.

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