The word “racism” evokes strong emotions in people, and for many, it’s just about the worst thing one can be called. As language evolves and words take on new meaning, the gravity of the word “racism” hinders people’s willingness to accept new meanings and uses for the word. The term “systemic racism” faces this problem, as there are those who, before understanding its meaning, assume that it is an indictment of the United States and believe that it implies an inherent flaw within the nation. In doing so, they immediately reject the premise that systemic racism exists and refuse to engage in dialogue, as they feel that their American identity is under attack. Given that there is such anger and confusion permeating American discourse, it would benefit everyone to understand what systemic racism means.
Systemic racism refers to the system of advantage based on race in which individual prejudice interacts with institutional authority in a manner that subjugates Black Americans and self-perpetuates White control of these institutions of power. While conventional definitions of racism focus on discrimination and prejudice, new interpretations assert that there are three constructs from which racism emerges: power, prejudice, and privilege. Prejudice by itself is the familiar understanding of racism, yet if one were to consider the lack of accountability for police officers in cases of police brutality and prison sentencing disparities, it’s impossible to attribute these injustices solely to prejudice. Important in these cases is the fact that no laws were violated, yet it is clear that both are instances of injustice. Part of the explanation for this is the concept of privilege. Privilege refers to the advantages those in control of the social order enjoy; for example, the United States Sentencing Commission found that Black men are sentenced to 20% more time than White men, meaning that White men are enjoying an advantage of literal freedom based on their skin color.
And yet, prejudice and privilege explain why these injustices exist, not how. In both cases, one might wonder why Congress wouldn’t just pass legislation that would address these issues, and the reason is power. Nonwhites make up 39% of the United States population, yet they comprise only 22% of Congress (Pew Research, 2019). Consequently, Whites hold an outsize influence in government, which allows them to legislate in ways that legally maintain the status quo, and therefore racial inequality. The result is a systemic imbalance of power, in which White people are overrepresented and have outsize control of the government, which in turn allows them to continuously empower White people at the expense of others.
Systemic racism isn’t an indictment of American values, nor is it a shift of culpability away from the individual, and because of this ambiguity, it’s easy to understand where the misunderstanding lies. In one sense, it veers from old-fashioned racism and hateful discrimination, and on the other hand, it asserts that “the system” is at fault. What’s important to understand is that, whether they intend to or not, people discriminate. Legislation itself might not be discriminatory, yet the administration or practical implications of such legislation might very well be, so when those in power discriminate, and have latitude under the law to do so and face no consequences, a clear imbalance and abuse of power develops. Yes, the GI Bill wasn’t inherently discriminatory, but when those in power exclude Black veterans from taking advantage of the bill and face no consequences for doing so, there is an interaction present, in which those in charge (Whites) are exercising power over Black people in a prejudicial manner, which left more funding available for White applicants, which thereby granted them privilege.
Change can be difficult, and adapting to a new understanding of what modern-day racism looks like can feel threatening to our self-concept. It’s important to consider where injustice still exists, because it does, understand how it’s being perpetuated, and assess what’s necessary to rectify it. Racism is more than hate speech and physical violence, it’s the disempowerment of Blacks at a system-wide level and the simultaneous superordination of Whites, and understanding that these concepts are rooted in American history and sustained today is essential for changing the future. As citizens within this system, we must ask ourselves, where do we see systemic racism? In what ways do we benefit, and what can be done to advance equity within our society? We might not draw the same conclusions, but embracing this conversation is a critical first step.