What does “systemic racism” mean?

Frank S. Robinson
4 min readJun 15, 2021

June 15, 2021

Black Republican Senator Tim Scott said America is not a racist country. I used to agree, seeing our few remaining racists as backward people who didn’t count for much. If anything, anti-racist affirmative action now held sway. And then we elected a nonwhite president.

However, that actually intensified racial antagonism, by newly threatening the caste dominance some whites saw as their birthright. And the next president played those racial anxieties like a fiddle. Now Republicans harp on academic “critical race theory” as a bugbear somehow threatening whites; and even “replacement theory,” a supposed conspiracy to swap them out for nonwhites.

Yet most Americans are not actually racist. It’s still only a small minority, and they’re still not our society’s movers and shakers. They’re losers. That itself partly accounts for their attitudes.

So why all the talk of “systemic racism?” Can you have systemic racism without (many) racists?

The answer is yes. “Systemic racism” does not mean whites are systematically racist. Instead it refers to societal structures that incorporate the lasting effects of ancient discrimination.

Our local Times-Unionrecently reported on past “redlining” in Albany. A 1938 Map with literal red lines around areas warned banks that mortgage loans there would be risky. Not necessarily targeting Black neighborhoods as such — rather, economically problematic ones. In fact, that map’s redlined zones were populated mostly by poor white immigrants. Only later did Blacks move in; mainly because of affordability, while being unwelcome in most white neighborhoods. And redlining did deny mortgages to Blacks. Such maps have been gone for decades, but their effects on where people live persist.

Then take education. For a long time “separate but equal” really meant separate and very unequal, by design. The Supreme Court outlawed that in 1954, yet separate and unequal is still widely the reality. The separateness is partly due to factors explained above. That’s hard to undo. The inequality manifests in rotten schools compared to white neighborhoods.

That should be more fixable. Yet the system is very resistant to such reform. So instead of ameliorating the disadvantage with which many minority kids start life, the education system actually worsens it, perpetuating the impact of past bias.

All this exemplifies what is meant by “systemic racism.” It doesn’t require anyone today actually being racist. It’s in the system.

Then there’s policing and criminal justice. Some say Blacks on average just get in trouble more. That has to be acknowledged. But (contrary to racist stereotypes) trouble is not in their biological DNA. Instead it comes with their social and cultural territory — not dictated by DNA either. It’s left behind when Blacks live in better neighborhoods. But for those who don’t, their environment is another lasting reverberation of a past landscape full of disadvantage.

And they get treated even worse by police and the criminal justice system than the foregoing might predict. Can’t say there’s no outright racism at play, but it’s more a matter of unconscious assumptions about people. Without being consciously racist, many have negative gut reactions toward Black faces, culturally implanted in ways often too subtle even to pinpoint. But when tested for it in the lab, even many Blacks themselves show it.

It’s very hard to overcome. I don’t consider myself some enlightened higher being, but nowadays, in most contexts, encountering Blackness gives me a positive rather than a negative vibe. Partly this is a reaction against their nemeses on the racist right. And I admire most Blacks for being good people despite all they’ve endured. Yet occasionally an opposite unconscious response is detectable.

I keep coming back to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of one’s conscious mind as a rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. We think the rider is steering, but it’s really the elephant in charge. Our challenge is to get control of that beast.

--

--