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What is systemic racism?

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The fight for racial equality must be heard. Amplify is our series devoted to raising awareness, spotlighting issues, and taking action.

Whatever you’ve been up to during this generation’s civil rights movement — whether out on the streets or diligently contacting your city council — it’s likely you’ve encountered one phrase over and over: systemic racism. 

Since the horrific police killing of George Floyd, the determination of protesters in Minneapolis and around the country helped to unlock a moment of intense, inspiring reckoning on racial injustice, anti-Blackness, and police violence in the U.S., fueling interest in understanding how racism operates on a systemic scale. 

For some, the phrase’s meaning (and lived reality) is well-known, while others are just beginning to familiarize themselves with the importance of conceptualizing racism in this way. But despite its reiteration at rallies, on social media, and in conversations with peers, you might still need an explainer to really unpack its meaning. 

Mashable talked to professors Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke University sociologist who studies the collective and structural phenomena of racism, and Osagie K. Obasogie, a bioethicist at the University of California, Berkeley who has studied racial disparities in health, to break down what systemic racism means and how it can be dismantled.

What is systemic racism? 

Systemic racism, which refers to the systems in place that perpetuate racial injustice, has three primary components to its definition, says Bonilla-Silva. 

First, it’s historically specific, meaning the systems maintaining racial injustice change over time (and sometimes based on location). 

“We don’t want to say there is one ‘racism,'” Bonilla-Silva said. While (the beliefs and institutions that arrange relationships between races) often share attributes across countries and cultures, the systems that uphold them adapt to changing conditions. 

This includes the ways in which systemic racism has persisted over time in the U.S.: Chattel slavery, Bonilla-Silva notes, had particular practices and rules necessary for its maintenance as a system, which were different than the practices and rules necessary for Jim Crow Laws, which were different than the practices and rules necessary for ongoing racist housing policies, and on and on. These were all particular to historic moments, but ultimately had the same effect: The violent disenfranchisement of Black people.

Second, systemic racism is a distinctly structural phenomenon, meaning the practices and behaviors that perpetuate racism within a system are baked into the system itself. This also means that regardless of intention, most people participate in some way with the systems that are in place, Bonilla-Silva notes. 

“You don’t have to be George Wallace or Archie Bunker to defend the racial order of things,” Bonilla-Silva said. (Wallace was an infamously staunch segregationist governor while Bunker is a fictional TV character whose racist views, intended as satire, reinforced racist beliefs for some viewers.) “You don’t need to wear a police uniform to enforce racialized order. Most [people] defend it in a passive or neutral way.” 

He explains that the essence of understanding the definition of systemic racism lies in knowing that regular people living within a system are an essential part of that system. Even something as seemingly benign as neighborhood choice or your own group of friends is an action that upholds a particular racial order, should they intentionally (or, more likely, unintentionally) uphold the status quo. When you’re in a system, all of your actions within that system play some part in either upholding (or dismantling) it. 

“No system of domination has depended on a few actors,” Bonilla-Silva said. “Everybody has a way of participating; all actors need to participate in various ways.” 

This also illustrates the rhetorical usefulness of an expression like ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards): It’s not placing blame on a single law enforcement officer; it’s implicating the entire system of policing. 

Finally, Bonilla-Silva explains that where systemic racism exists, if the system provides advantages for some, it disadvantages others. In the U.S., we live in a culture of white supremacy. This benefits those who are white, and disadvantages everyone else. 

Where does systemic racism occur?

In short, essentially everywhere. 

Because it’s built into the very building blocks of American society, systemic racism occurs in some of our most fundamental structures. That includes where you live, what kind of education you’re able to receive, how your family has (or hasn’t) acquired wealth, what quality of healthcare you can easily access, how likely it is for you to face violent and deadly policing, your access to voting, and more. 

Let’s take healthcare for example. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the disproportionately high rate of COVID-19 deaths among Black people in the U.S. is not mere happenstance. Instead, this racial disparity is the result of a host of structural conditions that (ultimately) got their roots in slavery, as Dr. Sabrina Strings, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, argued in the New York Times

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has also backed up a similar claim, noting that social determinants of health for Black Americans are contributing to the disparity seen amid the pandemic.

The pandemic has made a long-evident truth even more clear for many people: Structural inequalities are harming Black people in the U.S. from all directions. 

Why people still misunderstand it 

Despite growing awareness of systemic racism as a concept, Bonilla-Silva thinks that many people are still getting it wrong. 

“When you poke a little bit, they invoke the concept without knowing what they’re really talking about,” he said. 

One big reason for this, in his thinking, has to do with a longstanding conception of racism as a matter of personal attitudes and opinions. That’s what’s happening when people say “racists” (as if this is a distinct group, or type of person) just need to be educated differently. 

You might also be able to recall vague childhood lessons about choosing love over hate (when discussing racism), or receiving a sanitized version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings. For plenty of people, this remains the lens through which they conceive racism: If I’m just “nice” to everybody, I’m somehow not racist. 

That’s not the case. 

When we think of racism within the framework of personal attitudes, Bonilla-Silva notes that solutions tend to focus on education on an individual scale as well. Rather than targeting the inherent flaw of a system that continually perpetuates racism with its very existence, conceptualizing things this way can make people think that “solving” racism merely entails educating other people. 

Again, not the case. 

What does this look like in practice? Well, let’s say you’re a mayor trying to grapple with instances of violence occurring within your city’s police department. 

If you think of racism within a police department as a phenomenon attributable to a few “bad apples,” you might look into implicit bias trainings or place a ban on chokeholds, with the intention of closing the avenues for these “bad apples” to carry out their supposedly individual prejudiced tactics. 

However, in the past, Obasogie notes that policies like these have failed to prevent police violence in places where they’ve been implemented. (You’re targeting “bad apples” within a system without considering that the bad apple could be the system itself.) 

In a , he points out that not all vaccines are efficient, particularly when they miss the underlying cause. 

“Whether it is the coronavirus or police use of force, the underlying causes mutate and adapt to the environment, making vaccination a moving target that requires constant vigilance,” Obasogie wrote. 

So, what might a solution to police violence that incorporates an understanding of systemic racism look like? Put simply, it would have to get to the root of the problem: the system itself. 

“If you agree it’s a problem, the solutions have to match the nature of the problem,” Bonilla-Silva said. “The solutions need to be systemic.” 

Protesters involved with the Black Lives Matter movement have called for a defunding of police departments. They then suggest that cities should redistribute some police funding to community-beneficial resources in order to build new models of safety, such as civilian-led crisis intervention where highly-trained medical professionals respond to mental health-related crises, as opposed to armed officers. That’s a systemic solution: Implementing it will require a visionary re-thinking of what it means to keep citizens safe and enact justice. 

Finally, Obasogie notes that people also misunderstand systemic racism in a much more primal way as well: They don’t realize just how bad it is.

Amid the ongoing protests, some people have only just become aware of the extent of racial injustice in the U.S. — and particularly the pervasiveness of the mechanisms perpetuating anti-Blackness and the disenfranchisement of Black people — which puts their comprehension level far (far) behind the organizers who have been doing this work for decades. (If this is you, you’re also likely misunderstanding how deeply embedded racial injustice is within the systems in which we live.) 

Of course, all this really means is that you play a part in the problem, and as such have a lot of learning — and catching up — to do. In order to understand what kinds of systemic solutions might undo systemic problems, you’ll need to broaden your understanding of anti-racism, and apply the concept as you support efforts looking to change the system. 

Bonilla-Silva maintains that even as people continue to deepen their own understanding of systemic racism, the growing awareness of the term is a positive thing. 

“This conversation couldn’t [have happened] just a month or so ago,” Bonilla-Silva said. “The term is circulating, and I don’t think you can remove that.” 

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