What it means to call racism systemic

People take part in a rally against hate and confront the rising violence against Asian Americans at Columbus Park in the Chinatown section of the Manhattan borough of New York, on Sunday, March 21, 2021. The term “systemic racism” doesn’t describe a collection of many people with racist beliefs. It describes a system which demands that people comply with and carry out racism through their participation within that system. Photos courtesy of Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / AP Photo.

In 2020, with the murder of George Floyd and an international uprising for Black life, we’ve seen a renewal of the term “systemic racism” to describe the most powerful and harmful mechanisms of White supremacy. While it’s clear that racism alone involves superiority based on shared physical characteristics, the Encyclopedia BritannicaDictionary.com and the Merriam Webster Dictionary all describe racism as a belief or doctrine. So how does racism become “systemic?” Is this just when the belief is very widely held? 

The term “systemic racism” doesn’t describe a collection of many people with racist beliefs. It describes a system which demands that people comply with and carry out racism through their participation within that system. This latter definition is responsible for the violent conditions of racism today — the discriminatory “justice” system, White supremacist vigilante terrorists and intergenerational poverty — which are all felt along racial lines in the United States. These oppressions exist because there are legal, social and cultural institutions supporting them which have been created and maintained over centuries. We must recognize that it is these systems who have created racists and not the other way around because in practice, our results will differ greatly if we attempt to struggle against racist individuals or racist institutions.  

Don’t get me wrong: many individuals are sick with the prejudice of racist society, and challenging and suppressing them is one of the foremost anti-racist goals. Regardless of where harmful beliefs originate, these immediately put all racial and ethnic minority lives at risk. Any person who subconsciously or consciously believes in others’ inferiority will easily be a bystander to a society with this belief, vote for a like-minded politician or even direct this hatred at somebody in a verbal or physical attack. This same constant danger also comes with prejudice against gender, sexual, religious and other identities — people’s lives are at risk. 

But our greatest attention should be put toward the social structures which empower people to act upon these prejudices. Civil rights organizer and Black Panther Kwame Ture put this best in this saying: “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.” 

What empowers a white man to lynch a person of color? Let’s consider the anti-Asian murders of six women in Atlanta last week. Is it a coincidence that the perpetrator was peacefully intercepted by the police after the murders, when so many nonwhite “suspects” are violently apprehended or killed? Is it a coincidence the police believed wholeheartedly that his attack was motivated only by a “sex addiction,” when there was clearly racial prejudice involved? Is it a coincidence that authorities and media around the country detract from the racial motivation of this crime? 

Of course not. These are all factors of institutional White supremacy which the attacker correctly assumed would be at play during his arrest. In fact, the police captain — who declared that the murders resulted from a “sex addiction” and a “really bad day” for the perpetrator — had a record of anti-Asian social media activity. While the unique historic link of sexual and gendered violence against Asian American women cannot be discounted, there’s also no denying the racial motivation behind these murders or that the killer was encouraged by institutional racism. 

Alternatively, let’s consider the police officer who killed George Floyd. He almost certainly had a racist attitude, however this didn’t give him a badge and a gun nor teach him he would be  unlikely to face consequences for murdering an unarmed black man. These things were shown to him over a very long time by capitalism, settler-colonialism and by the enslavement, forced-migration, systematic discrimination and segregation of Africans and their descendants for centuries. These can’t be seriously addressed in the mind of one cop. Derek Chauvin should pay dearly for his crimes, and then we should move onto interrogating his empowerment to begin with. 

All the above histories are great examples of institutions that are inherently laden with systemic racism. How could settler-colonialism in the United States, where the settlers are white Europeans and the populations expelled through genocide were North America’s indigenous, not involve systemic racism? How could capitalism — financed by the capture, enslavement and labor of Africans — not involve systemic racism against their descendants in the same society?  

If we want to pose a fundamental challenge to racism and white supremacy, we need to identify the institutions that create them. Until we challenge and ultimately overthrow these forms of systemic racism, we will continue to fail to understand the causes of racist violence, and we will fail to protect people of marginalized identities.  

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