Defining Systemic Racism

By Andrew Koppelman

What is systemic racism, anyway?

Systemic racism needs to be clearly defined since there is so much uncertainty and confusion about what the term really means.

Is there even such a thing as systemic racism? Some argue that the idea makes no sense. The term does need clarification, but it points at an undeniable reality.

Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield writes in The Wall Street Journal that the phrase incoherently “describes a society that is so little racist that no one can respectably advocate racism, yet so much racist that every part of it is soaked with racism,” leaving us with “the paradox of a racist society without racists.” 

Matthew Franck similarly argues at Public Discourse that the term connotes “a conspiracy theory with no conspirators, an unfalsifiable, undeniable thesis.” Attributing racism to an entire economic and social system ends up blaming everyone and no one and provides cover for the few actual racists: “If everyone in general but no one in particular is to blame, the few remaining actual racists among us are let off the hook.” 

Others say the same.

Defining what systemic racism really is

These critiques are overstated. The term is indeed sometimes used in vague ways. NAACP President Derrick Johnson calls systemic racism "systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantage African Americans." Wikipedia defines the term as “the formalization of a set of institutional, historical, cultural and interpersonal practices within a society that more often than not puts one social or ethnic group in a better position to succeed, and at the same time disadvantages other groups in a consistent and constant manner that disparities develop between the groups over a period of time.” These formulations do not explain what is causing these disparities, and so are vulnerable to Mansfield’s and Franck’s criticisms.

The phrase nonetheless has real power. President Abe Lincoln, in his second inaugural address during the Civil War, observed that “all knew that (slavery) was somehow the cause of the war.” 

Today, all know that deliberate racist practices, most important slavery and segregation, are somehow the cause of the present disadvantages of African Americans. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops thus puts the point nicely: "Today's continuing inequalities in education, housing, employment, wealth and representation in leadership positions are rooted in our country's shameful history of slavery and systemic racism.” 

A global attack on the idea of societal racism can easily become a denial of this obvious fact.

Of course, that does not explain the reason for any particular disadvantage. And it is possible to overstate the point, as Ibram X. Kendi does: “Racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial disparities in this country and in the world at large.” 

Little that happens has a sole cause. 

More important, if you want to change something, the causes that matter are the ones you can fix. And then we are doing social engineering, which here means figuring out how to change the world so that African Americans have opportunities that they are now denied. When we undertake that task, societal racism is only one among many relevant factors, in the same way that when a doctor treats a cancer patient, she doesn’t blame everything on the patient’s genetics (which might be a crucial part of the explanation, but which can’t be changed).

Personal experience with racism: I thought I never personally experienced racism. Then I realized I just normalized it.

What is the value of talking about societal racism? It captures the moral urgency of the undertaking. The United States, as a nation, has grievously sinned against its African American members, and the injury remains. For too many years, remedying that — most urgently, the Black/white gap in education, the product of centuries of deliberately unequal education — has been a low political priority. Quite a lot of what government has done in the past few decades (most notably the war on drugs and mass incarceration) has made the condition of African Americans worse.

Mechanisms of racial disadvantage

We have to study the mechanisms of disadvantage. Blaming every disparity on racism has often created the illusion that the lives of African Americans can be improved by relentless self-examination by whites — what John McWhorter calls “willfully incurious, self-flagellating piety, of a kind that has helped no group in human history.” 

Unconscious racism exists and it is good to become aware of it, but it does not explain every racial disadvantage. 

Franck’s piece has become notorious because of the shameful journalistic malpractice of Newsweek, which published his piece on the web but then took it down after two hours and announced that it would not reappear until it was reedited and a commissioned rebuttal appeared beside it. The proposed terms were ridiculous: The rebuttal’s author would criticize Franck, but Franck would get no opportunity to augment his piece in response. 

Franck quite properly withdrew his essay and published it elsewhere. His complaint is fair: “As many conservatives know, their views must always be ‘balanced’ and ‘contextualized’ in conjunction with liberal views in the mainstream media — but liberals’ opinions are never treated that way.” 

Sensitivity can easily deteriorate into a counterproductive fear of heresy.

Racism and society: How we stop systemic racism from killing Black mothers

The focus on race also keeps us from seeing the ways disadvantage is rooted in patterns of social class that affect people of all races, and which can be the basis of cross-racial political coalitions. The answer is not to purify our souls but to change the conditions on the ground, to free ourselves from our shameful legacy of racism by actually improving the lives of the worst-off African Americans. 

Andrew Koppelman, the John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University, is the author of "Gay Rights vs. Religious Liberty? The Unnecessary Conflict."