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  • Giulia Paganucci

Guide: What is Systemic Racism?

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

The belief that being non-actively discriminative doesn’t make a person a racist is a fairly common thought in our society, especially among white people. It’s almost normal, in fact, to think that as long as someone is not verbally or physically harmful, then no damage is done and can be considered morally in the right place.

There is a bigger picture to consider, though.

What is systemic racism?

What is described in the previous statement is a criminal act, and criminals shouldn’t be tolerated. If racism existed only because of the violence committed by a minority, then it wouldn’t be an internal problem of our society. So why do we talk about racism being systemic, but not, for example, about murder being systemic?

"Racism persists because well-intentioned people regularly contribute to racial inequality"

Because, my friends, racism is not caused by the hate or actions of a few white supremacists or criminals. Racism persists, as explained by Megan Lietz, because well-intentioned people regularly contribute to racial inequity, without even being aware of it and without being conscious of the bias intertwined in the structure of our society.

So, what is systemic racism?

Systemic racism is a phenomenon that has developed over many years that sees the political and economic institutions of society operating to systematically disadvantage ethnic minorities, especially those in the working class, while at the same time systematically giving an advantage to white upper classes.

Systemic advantage and disadvantage mean a condition of inequality, where opportunities to succeed in life are unequally distributed among classes and citizens, and society’s institutions produce and keep this hierarchy intact.

"where opportunities to succeed in life are unequally distributed among classes and citizens"

Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward and publisher of Colorlines, defines systemic racism as "the complex interaction of culture, policy and institutions that holds in place the outcomes we see in our lives." That means that, throughout history, the people and their institutions had to adapt to welcome new cultures, most likely with different customs and appearances.

The incapability of accepting something different from our common knowledge has frequently resulted into generating stereotypes and bias. We all have implicit biases, but do we know what they are? They play a key role in the process of discrimination, as they make us unaware of it. And unawareness eventually leads to passivity, which is kind of the problem, isn’t it?

By not actively resisting racist dynamics we might contribute to a system that sustains inequality and racism.

How did systemic racism start?

As mentioned in the previous paragraphs, systemic racism is the outcome of years of intercultural, political, and economic interactions that affected most fields of everyday life, until it became part of the very structure of our society.

Media company posted a video clarifying how this process began in the first place.

Taking the United States’ case as an example, it’s possible to track the origin of systemic racism back to a few decades after the end of the Civil War. In the 1880s, many government agencies started a process called Redlining. Redlining consisted of selecting areas on a city map with a red line, deciding which ones were good or bad for investment. For decades, these maps were used by banks to deny private and public loans to black people, based entirely on race. Because of that, black people were unable to afford houses and, consequently, higher education, since schools use property taxes for funding.

Long story short: No money, less opportunities. Which also feeds the implicit bias that we were talking about before.

And what about the other countries?

Dr Dwain Neil and Dr Donald Palmer have analysed the situation of systemic racism in Western countries. Systemic racism in Europe started in 1452, when Pope Nicholas 5th launched a Papal Bull (the Dum Diversas) that authorised Alfonso V of Portugal to conquer and enslave “Saracens (Muslims) and pagans” and anyone who wasn’t Roman Catholic. The Bull, and other similar acts, were soon integrated into the laws of many European countries, which put restrictions and barriers on non-European people. This system persisted for hundreds of years, so even when the government issued laws against racism and slavery, the behaviour had set so deeply within our society that it became a mentality.

So, you see? No matter how and where it starts, it always arrives from the same concept: suppressing one race, in favour of another one.

What is systemic racism?

Systemic racism in science

Let’s assume that, against all odds, a black person and a white person both get accepted into a great university and graduate with the same Grade Point Average.

The two will now look for a job. At this point, they should both have the same chances, you might think. However, studies show that white names receive 50 percent more call-backs for job interviews than African American names. Surprisingly enough, though, applicants living in better neighbourhoods receive more call-backs, regardless of race. Still, the amount of discrimination is uniform across all industries and kinds of occupations.

"in the academic field, lack of diversity and structural racism are heavily intertwined"

Science journal Elsevier points out that in the academic field, lack of diversity and structural racism are heavily intertwined. According to statistics from the US National Center for Science and Engineering, in 2016, minority students accounted for only 22% of bachelor’s degree awardees, 13% of master’s degree awardees, and less than 9% of awarded doctorates. A reason for these numbers might be that students from minority backgrounds are likely to perform better if the instructor is also from an underrepresented group.

Even if they decide to pursue an academic career, black scientists seem to have difficulties in securing major long-term funding. In 2011, a review of racial differences in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicated that African American principal investigators (PIs) have a 17% probability of being funded for their research, while for white PIs there is a 29% probability.

So, for a combination of interpersonal (implicit bias) and economic (lack of funding for private and public investments) causes, black people struggle to be successful in the academic and work fields.

What is systemic racism?

What can we do about it?

Being aware of the implicit bias that each one of us has is the first step to making a change. Although awareness alone may not seem like an active response to racism, it is precisely our lack of awareness of our own implicit bias which causes passivity. Becoming more conscious is definitely a step in the right direction, allowing us to reflect on our own behaviour and changing it for the better.

Take this implicit bias test if you want to know yourself better!

To contribute more actively to the change, we can encourage people to support movements and institutions against racism, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, The International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), and many others.

Last but not least, inform yourself! Luckily, we live in the technology era, where all information is available without much effort. Follow pages, magazines and forums that are not run by national media or power-seeking journalists. Watch documentaries.

Develop a critical thought and call people out when they act like bigots! Read our article How to have a conversation about race to find out more.

Simple, isn’t it? So, go and make a change.

For more resources and guides, head to our dedicated Racism, Islamophobia & Antisemitism section.

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Foster West
Foster West
Oct 29, 2023



Apr 12, 2023

Systemic racism affects people of color by making it more difficult to participate in and succeed within our social systems as compared to a white person.

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