In the ongoing debate about racism in our country, there seems to be a lot of confusion about basic terms. This is often a serious obstacle to any real dialogue. With that in mind, I thought I would share a few thoughts and try to clarify things a bit. To my mind, this is not a “partisan”: exercise. It is a matter of understanding history, linguistics, and some basic sociology and psychology.
We now frequently hear terms like racism, systemic racism, structural racism, systematic racism, and historical racism used a lot. Sometimes the use of these terms is careful, sometimes it is not. A common confusion is between the words “systemic” and “systematic.” Although they are similar, they are not the same thing. But before we come to that, there is a more important confusion.
American culture leans strongly towards individualism (as opposed to collectivism). That is not true of many other world cultures. This tendency leads us to look at racism as a very particular sort of individual behavior. So, many people believe that you are only really a “racist” if you personally insult or hurt a person of color, or deprive them of a job or do some other awful thing to them as an individual because of their race. It may be rare for many white Americans to do these sorts of things or even be in a position to do them. Many of us are simply not in personal contact with people of color or are not in any position to abuse them with police power or deprive them of a job or anything obvious like that. That makes it easy for most of us to believe we are not “racist.” It is nice to think that, but before you do, you should take time to understand the other kinds of racism that I mentioned. People who are subjected to racism tend to understand these things; people who are not, generally don’t.
To me, the term “systematic racism” just means that the racism is methodical and possibly planned. This may occur in small groups or limited, specific areas. It suggests there are deeper problems.
To me, the term “structural racism” would refer to racist ideas and stereotypes that are embodied in laws and other social structures. It would, therefore, include laws about segregation, apartheid, etc., laws that enable systematic racism (like biased tests about who can vote, and many other things that are actually established in law or policy.) This kind of thing is certainly “systematic” but it takes racism a step further. It is worse than racism which is merely personal or systematic.
Systemic racism is the most damaging kind of racism of all. It means racism pervades the whole system from top to bottom. It is a matter of deeply seated cultural and social values. For example, when the slaves in the US were emancipated by law, that was a blow against structural racism. Yet within a few decades, widespread racial prejudice had recreated (in fact) what was no longer acceptable in law. Over time the white majority then reinstated laws that reinforced their cultural practice. In Israel, for example, laws allow Palestinians to vote. There are even districts in which they can win seats in the parliament. It seems there is no “structural racism.” Yet, in fact and in practice, “systemic racism” steps in here. Hardly any other party will actually include Palestinians into a ruling (or even opposition) coalition. So, in reality, their votes are nullified—not by law, but by the social practices of the dominant majority.
Historical racism refers to all these other kinds of racism as they occurred in fact, through history. People who have been discriminated against know and feel this history deeply. People who imposed racism often don’t know the history or feel it and that is why they are so eager (when confronted with it) to “move on” and “not dwell on the past” and then fall back on the argument that people who were discriminated against should just “get over it.” We hear a lot of this these days. It is like saying, “Oh. Sorry you were raped. Just get over it.” Easy for some men to say, not so easy for most women to do.
All these forms of “racism” overlap and reinforce each other in many ways. Because systemic racism is now so firmly in place, they become hard to sort out. But taken together, racism is a daunting problem. People who deny this problem even exists because they have never done anything obviously racist “personally” are a major part of that problem.
What we call “culture” is really the sum of many personal choices, so if you personally have racist attitudes, you are part of that. When small groups share such beliefs, then they are easily introduced into their small group interactions—and so groups begin to practice “systematic racism.” When collections of such small groups join together, they can begin to pass laws and enact “structural racism.” When this takes hold, then the racism can become “systemic” and (over time) “historical.” We are now talking about a form of racism that pervades the whole structure of society—how wealth is earned and distributed, where people live, how schools are funded, who gets access to good education, who is subject to crime, who lives in environmentally endangered areas near toxic waste dumps, and who works jobs that are especially high risk when a hurricane or a pandemic strikes.
When people deny the existence of these well-established social facts, or vote for people who do so, they are engaging in an act of racism—even if they have never personally insulted a person of color. If you are part of a privileged group, it is easy to say everything is a matter of personal character and choices. People of privilege have choices; other people may not.
A personal, individual act of racism is one thing: systemic racism is quite another. It is infinitely more crippling. Many a black child experiences disadvantage even before they are born (lack of pre-natal care, and every other factor the mother and father are affected by). It is ridiculous to later blame the child for making “bad choices” as an individual when they are really the victim of choices made by others long before he/she was born. Tragically, people who deny the existence of systemic racism do this all the time.
Before stopping (because hopefully I have made my point by now), I must take up another kind of racism that is often referred to as “reverse racism.” Many people of privilege talk about this and it is important to note how absurd it is. It is certainly true that a person of color can be rude to me. It may be for purely personal reasons or because they have felt oppressed by white males like me. If I am subjected to this kind of personal insult, I may be offended—maybe deeply. But that doesn’t at all mean that I have been subjected to the real experience of being racially discriminated against. The person insulting me has no real power over me, and most of the real evils of racism come precisely from this imbalance of power. Also, because I have never suffered through the history of racism, all the pain involved there doesn’t immediately surface in my soul. A personal act like that is offensive, but it doesn’t help sustain a whole culture of discrimination and oppression.
Overall, the thing to keep in mind here is that when whites express “grievances” about “reverse racism” they are not really unhappy about being treated unequally, but because the privilege that raised them above other people in an unequal equation is slowly being chipped away.
Finally, anyone who tries to deny, minimize, or deprecate the impact of racism, or distract attention from it, is actually engaging in a racist act. They are a crucial part of keeping a racist status quo in place. There may have been times and places in America when perfectly nice people simply weren’t aware of racism or damage it causes. It seems to me that at this time, almost everyone has gotten a look at this issue. That is because so many people took it upon themselves to make a very public issue of it—often at risk to themselves. We should all thank them—and get on with solving the problem.
(to be continued…)
In a second part, I will discuss the attack on affirmative action programs, voting rights and some other related issues.