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What is systemic racism?

President Joe Biden mentioned "the sting of systemic racism" in his inauguration speech. Here's what the term means.
Illustration of Black woman looking over a brick wall
There's a difference between individual racism and systemic racism, but they're related.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

On Jan. 20, President Joe Biden became the first in U.S. history to explicitly name “the sting of systemic racism” in his inaugural address. With this deliberate and specific use of the term, Biden was drawing attention to the deep-seated racial inequities in America.

Racism describes the marginalization or oppression of individuals because of their race. Systemic racism provides another dimension to that; it describes what happens when cultural institutions and systems reflect that individual racism. As Dr. Crystal Fleming writes in "How To Be Less Stupid About Race": “The major insight about systemic and institutional racism is that there is no such thing as ‘a little bit of racism’ or ‘pockets of racism’ or ‘random incidents of racism’ isolated from the rest of society. Whether you realize it or not, racism is systemic, pervasive and embedded within the core of all of our major institutions.”

Systemic racism is “this ever-present force, kind of like gravity. You can't see it, but you can experience its effects and it ‘holds’ the world together."

Jo Persad

"Systemic racism" describes how discriminatory actions show up in the American educational system, the economic system, the health care system, the criminal justice system and more. It's when individual attitudes of prejudice and bigotry are baked into the operations of cultural institutions. And as Fleming writes, “The consequences of systemic racism are vast — from the burgeoning racial wealth gap, political disenfranchisement, mass incarceration and racist immigration policies to microaggressions, racial profiling, racist media imagery and disparities in health, education, employment and housing.”

Jo Persad, a Boston-based high school science teacher and a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, describes systemic racism as “this ever-present force, kind of like gravity. You can't see it, but you can experience its effects and it ‘holds’ the world together. When you drop a pen, you see the effects of gravity. But the laws of gravity become more complex as they are used to explain phenomena at a planetary and galactical scale. Systemic racism can be likened to the latter. It is not (isolated racist acts), person to person; it is the intricate infiltration of racism into policies and the execution of said policies so that racist practices are perfused into everyday interactions.”

A heartbreaking example of systemic racism is that health outcomes for Black women are dismal compared to their white counterparts. A 2015 study from the Department of Health and Human Services reported that a baby is more than twice as likely to die during childbirth if the birth mother is Black. Furthermore, a Black mother is 3 to 4 times more likely to die during childbirth than a white mother. A 2016 study reported that Black people were significantly less likely to receive adequate pain management medication, because of the false belief (held by almost 75% of medical professional participants in the study) that Black people have a higher pain tolerance than other races.

And most recently, a 2020 study on racial disparities among COVID-19 patients found that Black people were more than 3 times as likely to die from the disease. These statistics are not because Black people are genetically predisposed to particular conditions, nor because they are somehow fundamentally “unhealthier” than other racial groups. These statistics are a result of institutional racism in the health care industry. They show what happens when medical professionals as a group make biased or prejudiced choices that dictate the level of care for people from different races, even if the medical professionals are unaware that they are acting in a prejudiced manner. When individual racist attitudes intersect with institutional practices (such as those in the health care sector), it results in vastly different treatments, systems of care and outcomes for different racial groups. In other words, systemic racism.

Educator Beverly Daniel Tatum likens racism to a “smog” that we breathe in almost every day of our lives. We absorb racialized messages about the world from our youngest days: It comes from our parents, our teachers, our classmates, our colleagues and our media. Regardless of how much individuals want to believe that they are not racist (or that they’re antiracist), the racialized biases and prejudices we’ve absorbed show up in both conscious and unconscious ways in our actions.

“Systemic racism is so embedded in our societal interactions that racism has become normalized and rendered nearly invisible. So invisible that people deny its existence and instead cast blame on the individual. This is by design,” Persad said. In other words, systemic racism describes how the racial inequities that we see today — the under-enrollment of minority students in higher education, higher incarceration rates for Black individuals, lower life expectancies for Black mothers, as a few examples — are not the result of individual shortcomings or "personality flaws," but are instead the result of centuries of disenfranchising people of color.

Systemic racism also describes the connections between racist policies of the past and present-day inequities. A striking example is the impact of racial discrepancies in the post-World War II GI Bill, which, among other benefits, provided low-cost mortgages to returning white veterans and paid their tuition if they wanted to attend college or university. While approximately 125,000 Black servicemen fought in World War II, the benefits afforded under the GI Bill were not extended to them. This meant that white servicemen were able to purchase low-cost homes that would build generational equity, and they could access a free college education that would increase their job prospects and net worth. Black servicemen received no such benefit. The wealth of white servicemen, who were able to build home equity and access high-paying jobs, has accumulated over generations, resulting in a racial wealth gap today where the average white family has approximately 10 times the net worth of a Black family. The racial wealth gap shows the effects of centuries of racism intersecting with societal systems.

“We have to remember that although systemic racism appears invisible, its effects are clear to see," Persad said. "When we look at the results across racial lines, we start to see a pattern. We start to question the validity of exclusively blaming the person, and we look deeper into what the system is doing to certain populations of people. Through the acknowledgment of its existence and taking action (with the oppressed communities), we can be the force that dismantles and breaks through these racist systems.”