Systemic Racism Is More Than Simple Prejudice

By: Dave Roos  | 

protest against George Floyd
Demonstrators denouncing systemic racism in law enforcement and the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer gather at a press conference in Brooklyn, New York City, calling for the passing of bills to increase police accountability throughout New York state on June 4, 2020. Scott Heins/Getty Images

In the early 2000s, two economic researchers conducted a simple yet revealing experiment. They submitted nearly 5,000 fictitious resumés to "help wanted" ads posted in Chicago and Boston newspapers. The jobs were for entry-level positions in sales, administrative support, clerical and customer service.

The resumés were all nearly identical — same levels of education, work experience, etc. — except for one difference: Half of the job applicants were given stereotypically Black names like Lakisha and Jamal, while the other half were given "whiter-sounding" names like Emily and Greg.

The result? Resumés with white-sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than resumés with Black names. In a separate experiment, even white job applicants with criminal records received more callbacks (17 percent) for the same jobs than Black applicants with no criminal record (14 percent).

So, what exactly is going on here? Is it that the hiring managers at hundreds of different companies were all avowed racists or card-carrying white supremacists? Not likely. In the case of the second experiment, in which white and Black job applicants applied in person, the researchers wrote that "few interactions between our testers and employers revealed signs of racial animus or hostility toward minority applicants."

The employers were not outwardly racist, yet the outcomes differed significantly across racial lines. Studies like these and others shine light on what's called "systemic racism," a type of baked-in racial bias that overwhelmingly benefits white Americans while disadvantaging Americans of color.

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Racism Is the 'Smog' We All Breathe

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum is author of the best-selling book "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race" and president emerita of Spelman College. Tatum believes that one of the first steps toward understanding systemic racism is to shed some of the fear, shame and defensiveness around the word "racist." She compares racist ideas and race-based prejudices to smoggy air in a big city.

"Whether you're white or a person of color, you've been exposed to smog; the smog of stereotypes, of misinformation, of biases and missing history," says Tatum. "All of that has been part of your socialization and it influences how you think about yourself and other people, whether you acknowledge it or not."

There's a tendency, especially among whites, to deny that systemic racism exists, because to accept that as truth feels akin to admitting that they are racist. Like the hiring managers in the employment study, most people would be devastated if someone labeled them as "racists."

"I think we should desensitize people to 'the R word,' as I like to say, because if you live in a smoggy place, you're going to be a smog breather," says Tatum. "That doesn't mean that you're a bad person; it's the only air available. It seems unrealistic to expect that you have not been infected by all the stuff you've been breathing in over the course of your lifetime."

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Systemic Racism in the U.S.A.

Tatum believes there should be a clear distinction between what she calls "individual racism" — the negative attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes that one person might project onto another — and how racism functions in society.

Racism in America is more than simple prejudice. It is "a system of advantage based on race," as sociologist David Wellman wrote in his book "Portraits of White Racism."

"If we understand racism as not just individual attitudes or individual behaviors, but as a collection of policies and practices that systematically advantage white people over people of color, then we can think of racism as 'a system of advantage based on race,'" says Tatum. "Does the United States have a system of advantage based on race? It does."

The term "systemic racism," also known as "institutional racism," has been around since the 1960s, to describe a phenomenon that is much older. In their 1967 book "Black Power: The Politics of Liberation," Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton wrote the following, as cited by The Conversation:

"When a black family moves into a home in a white neighborhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which most people will condemn. But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. The society either pretends it does not know of this latter situation, or is in fact incapable of doing anything meaningful about it."

The term came into broad usage after George Floyd's killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020. In an NPR interview from July 2020, Ijeoma Oluo, author of "So You Want To Talk About Race," explained why.

"What shocked many people, especially white people, was seeing four cops participate in this killing. It wasn't one bad apple acting against a Black person. It was one man taking the life of a Black man and three other officers of various races helping. These cops felt confident enough in their actions to work together in the murder of a Black man in front of cameras, in front of live bystanders. And that's when you say there's something bigger here."

The employment bias experiments we mentioned earlier are just one example of how the same system unfairly benefits whites over people of color. The disadvantages faced by people of color add up quickly and are passed on from generation to generation:

Amanda Alexander, Pre-K class
Interim Chancellor for District of Columbia Public Schools Amanda Alexander, right, sits in on a pre-K classroom at Wheatley Education Campus on May 8, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Studies have shown that in preschool, Black kids are 3.6 times more likely to be sent home for behavioral issues than white kids.
Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

It's important to recognize that for every disadvantage faced by people of color, there is an equal and opposite advantage afforded to white people. The built-in advantage that whites enjoy in school, the workplace, when applying for a loan or getting pulled over by the police is collectively known as "white privilege."

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Dismantling Systemic Racism

In her book, Tatum compares systemic racism to the moving walkway at an airport. When we're born, we're dropped onto that moving walkway and carried along by it. Even if we recognize the system is rigged, nothing will change if we stand still. If we're passive or silent, the walkway will just keep pushing us all forward and keep generating the same unfair and unequal outcomes based on race.

"It's only when you're intentionally taking action and walking in the opposite direction that you actually can begin to interrupt the process," says Tatum. "That kind of active, intentional behavior is what we might describe as anti-racist behavior."

What does it look like to be an anti-racist? On a practical level, Tatum says that it starts with collecting data. If you suspect that your workplace can improve the fairness of its hiring process, then collect data on the number of applicants of color who are called back for interviews compared to white applicants. If you're concerned that children of color at your child's elementary school are disciplined at higher rates than white kids, then ask the school for figures on suspensions and expulsions.

One of the arguments evoked against the term "systemic racism" by conservative critics is that it implies that any difference between say, the performance level of Black and white children in school must be ascribed to racism, when there could be other things to consider as well. But this is where data comes into play.

"How do you know there's differential treatment until you look at your data?" says Tatum. "And any time we find disparities between racial outcomes, we should be asking the question, what about this system is creating this disparity? Often, we're taught to think it's the individual's fault that they're not being successful, as opposed to asking, what's going on in the system that might be contributing to the disparities?"

It can feel overwhelming to combat something as pervasive as systemic racism, but Tatum says everyone can start with their own sphere of influence. Everybody has some kind of influence in the lives of others. At work, at school, as a parent or a child. On a personal level, there are conversations we can all have, and things we can all do, big and small, that will chip away at racist systems. It starts by opening our minds and hearts to the existence of systemic racism, and then opening our mouths to call it out when we see it.

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