Systemic Racism: Clarifications on Provenance, Definitions, and Relation to CRT

A discussion developed online the other day surrounding Neil Shenvi’s blog post, “Does ‘Systemic Racism’ Exist?” I don’t intend to directly address the piece as I don’t think it fruitfully interacts with the subject matter. But the discussion did point up the need for clarification on the history of the concept, its definition(s), and its current presence, or lack thereof, in Critical Race Theory (CRT) scholarship. I intend to be brief, but will be sharing many quotes. 

Systemic “Race Prejudice” in Traditional Abolitionist and Civil Rights Discourse 

To begin with, I think it’s clear that racism, or “race prejudice” as it was called prior to the 1940s, was understood to be intimately related to systems for as long as there have been abolitionists and civil rights activists. This is primarily because racism has always been understood by activists to be a symptom of social, political, and economic exploitation. Frederick Douglass spelled this out 140 years ago (1881): 

During all the years of their bondage, the slave master had a direct interest in discrediting the personality of those he held as property. Every man who had a thousand dollars so invested had a thousand reasons for painting the black man as fit only for slavery. Having made him the companion of horses and mules, he naturally sought to justify himself by assuming that the Negro was not much better than a mule. The holders of twenty hundred million dollars’ worth of property in human chattels procured the means of influencing press, pulpit, and politician, and through these instrumentalities they belittled our virtues and magnified our vices, and have made us odious in the eyes of the world. … Out of the depths of slavery has come this prejudice and this color line. It is broad enough and black enough to explain all the malign influences which assail the newly emancipated millions to-day.  

As a result, Douglass saw race prejudice as endemic to American life—systemic, we might say: 

In reply to this argument it will perhaps be said that the Negro has no slavery now to contend with, and that having been free during the last sixteen years, he ought by this time to have contradicted the degrading qualities which slavery formerly ascribed to him. All very true as to the letter, but utterly false as to the spirit. Slavery is indeed gone, but its shadow still lingers over the country and poisons more or less the moral atmosphere of all sections of the republic. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 652) 

We see much the same, in terms of exploitation being the cause of racism, in W.E.B. Du Bois nearly 60 years later (1940): 

I think it was in Africa that I came more clearly to see the close connection between race and wealth. The fact that even in the minds of the most dogmatic supporters of race theories and believers in the inferiority of colored folk to white, there was a conscious or unconscious determination to increase their incomes by taking full advantage of this belief. And then gradually this thought was metamorphosed into a realization that the income-bearing value of race prejudice was the cause and not the result of theories of race inferiority; that particularly in the United States the income of the Cotton Kingdom based on black slavery caused the passionate belief in Negro inferiority and the determination to enforce it even by arms. (Dusk of Dawn, p. 65) 

Skipping ahead for a moment (we will return to this), Martin Luther King, Jr perfectly captures the underlying message: 

It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their acts in the garments of righteousness. And so, with the growth of slavery, men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable was morally justifiable. The attempt to give moral sanction to a profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 76-77) 

Accordingly, economist and sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox offers a decidedly “systemic” or “structural” understanding of “race prejudice” in his magisterial, Caste, Class, and Race (1948): 

Race prejudice … is a social attitude propagated among the public by an exploiting class for the purpose of stigmatizing some group as inferior so that the exploitation of either the group itself or its resources or both may be justified. (Loc. 10083) 

As the word “racism” came into use, following global condemnation of Hitler’s genocide, it appeared in a dictionary for the first time in 1953. This definition goes well beyond individual prejudice into institutions and systems: 

Racism: 1. a belief that human races have distinctive make-ups that determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others. 2. a policy of enforcing such asserted right. 3. a system of government and society based upon it. (American College Dictionary, as cited in “The Word ‘Racism’ in the Dictionary”) 

Racism as Institutional, Structural, and Systemic in the Civil Rights Movement Discourse 

Moving forward, into the height of the Civil Rights Movement, we come to Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s classic definition of “institutional racism,” often used as a cognate or synonym for systemic racism: 

By “racism” we mean the predication of decisions and policies on considerations of race for the purpose of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over that group. …

Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutional racism. The first consists of overt acts by individuals, which cause death, injury or the violent destruction of property. This type can be recorded by television cameras; it can frequently be observed in the process of commission. The second type is less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life. The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type. 

… When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city—Birmingham, Alabama—five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of power, food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutional racism. 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. (Black Power, pp. 3-4 (1967)) 

(It’s interesting to note that their definition of racism, whether individual or institutional, includes “for the purpose of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over that group,” emphasizing not race-consciousness as the racism, but the subordinating purpose.) 

Carmichael and Hamilton’s definition of institutional racism, importantly, centers the subordinated circumstances and inferior conditions suffered by Black Americans, rather than centering the racist ideas and racist acts of individual discriminators. This distinction roughly parallels Professor Alan Freeman’s “victim perspective” of discrimination. The victim perspective views racial discrimination from the perspective of those who have, as a group, suffered under the subordinated conditions of historic and modern racism, regardless of identifiable individual bad actors demonstrating racist intent. In this perspective, to suffer discrimination is to suffer under objectively discriminatory conditions

Next, as suggested above, Dr, King also understood racism to be a product of social, political, and economic exploitation, not the cause. He writes, 

What is racism? Dr. George Kelsey, in a profound book entitled Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man, states that 

Racism is a faith. It is a form of idolatry… In its early modern beginnings, racism was a justificatory device. It did not emerge as a faith. It arose as an ideological justification for the constellations of political and economic power which were expressed in colonialism and slavery. But gradually the idea of the superior race was heightened and deepened in meaning and value so that it pointed beyond the historical structures of relation, in which it emerged, to human existence itself. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 73) 

Accordingly, King understood racism to be systemic, often also using the term “structural.” A few examples: 

For the first time in their history, Negroes have become aware of the deeper causes for the crudity and cruelty that governed white society’s responses to their needs. They discovered that their plight was not a consequence of superficial prejudice but was systemic. (“The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement”) 

Depressed living standards for Negroes are not simply the consequence of neglect. Nor can they be explained by the myth of the Negro’s innate incapacities, or by the more sophisticated rationalization of his acquired infirmities (family disorganization, poor education, etc.). They are a structural part of the economic system in the United States. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 7) 

Among the forces of white liberalism the church has a special obligation. It is the voice of moral and spiritual authority on earth. Yet no one observing the history of the church in America can deny the shameful fact that it has been an accomplice in structuring racism into the architecture of American society. (p. 101) 

Joe Feagin’s “Systemic Racism” and Modern Definitions 

But it was sociologist Joe Feagin who coined the phrase “systemic racism,” or at least brought into public consciousness, in the early 2000s. He conceived the phrase “as a type of body metaphor,” a “shorthand term[] for the European American oppression of African Americans since the 1600s” as “manifested in all major societal institutions” (Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression, pp. XII – XIII). He explains that 

systemic racism encompasses a broad range of racialized dimensions of this society: the racist framing, racist ideology, stereotyped attitudes, racist emotions, discriminatory habits and actions, and extensive racist institutions developed over centuries by whites. (p. XII) 

In his 2001 book, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations, Feagin defines “systemic racism” in the following manner: 

Systemic racism includes the complex array of antiblack practices, the unjustly gained political-economic power of whites, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines, and the white racist ideologies and attitudes created to maintain and rationalize white privilege and power. Systemic here means that the core racist realities are manifested in each of society’s major parts. If you break a three dimensional hologram into separate parts and shine a laser through any one part, you can project the whole three-dimensional image again from within that part. Like a hologram, each major part of U.S. society—the economy, politics, education, religion, the family—reflects the fundamental reality of systemic racism. (Loc. 111) 

For Feagin, systemic racism is the whole complex of racist ideas, institutions, and social, political, and economic systems which entrench inequalities, owing to centuries of White racial oppression. In other words, it is racism embedded in the fabric of society. It is also essential to note that Feagin’s definition is grounded in socio-historical reality. It is not stipulative; it is descriptive and explanatory. As we will see, this socio-historic contextual definition fits more comfortably within the CRT approach discussed below. 

Following Feagin, definitions tended to move away from his obvious Black/White binary and also began to focus more on society-wide racial disparities, specifically amplifying disparate impact as a central defining feature.  

Law professor Vernellia R. Randall splits Feagin’s definition into an interlocking complex composed of Carmichael and Hamilton’s institutional racism and the embedded “value systems” that undergird Feagin’s systemic racism: 

Institutional racism involves policies, practices, and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities’ access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities. Systemic racism is the basis of individual and institutional racism; it is the value system that is embedded in a society that supports and allows discrimination. (“What is Institutional/Systemic Racism?”) 

For Randall, systemic racism is the basis for both individual and institutional racism, together operating quite similarly to Feagin’s unitary concept. Note also the emphasis on “disproportionately negative effect,” i.e., disparate impact, a basic feature of most current popularized accounts of systemic racism. But I want to make abundantly clear that none of the definitions/explanations given so far define systemic, structural, or institutional racism solely in terms of disparate impact. Even for Randall, the disparities of institutional racism are undergirded by the embedded value system of systemic racism. 

Institutional and Systemic Racism in Popular Level Discourse 

Things become less clear as we move to, for example, Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo’s popular explanations. While they do not offer a definition of systemic racism as such, they do define racism proper as fundamentally systemic. We read the following in Is Everyone Really Equal?

Racism: White racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination, supported by institutional power and authority, used to the advantage of Whites and the disadvantage of peoples of Color. Racism encompasses economic, political, social, and institutional actions and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources, and power between Whites and peoples of Color. (p. 124) 

We will not discuss narrowing racism to White racism—I’ve discussed this elsewhere. What I’d like to note here is that rather than seeing systemic racism as a result of the embedded nature of racism, due to our history, Sensoy and DiAngelo see systemic racism as simply the actions and beliefs which lead to unequal distribution. Racism just is a system with unequal racial distribution. I confess that I do see some value in this approach, but I also acknowledge it is easily susceptible to counter-narratives and functionally equivalent explanations for unequal distribution of some advantages (though usually trivial). We will return to this. 

Next, Ibram X. Kendi likewise seems to narrow his understanding of systemic racism to disparate impact in his popular accounts. Of course, he states that he does not like the term “systemic racism,” as it is too nebulous, and prefers the phrase “racist policy.” In his book How to be an Antiracist, he defines the latter: 

A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people. There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups. (p. 18) 

Again, “racist policy” is whatever causes disparate impact. And this is wholly stipulative, unlike Feagin’s socio-historic contextual definition. But to be fair, Kendi did later add that not all alternative explanations for specific racial disparities are themselves racist; rather, “[o]nly intellectual explanations of a racial gap that point to the superiority or inferiority of a racial group are racist” (“There Is No Debate Over Critical Race Theory”). I find this latter clarification hard to connect with his definition of racist policy, but it may be that he is using “racist” equivocally, which is fine when signaled. 

Systemic Racism in Critical Race Theory Discourse 

CRT scholars very rarely use the phrase “systemic racism” in their academic literature, and even more rarely define it. They of course often refer to racism, discrimination, and inequality as systemic, structural, and institutional, decrying the individual prejudice paradigm of post-CRM backlash liberalism (as did Dr. King).

To begin with, CRT scholars believe that racism is endemic to American life: 

Critical race theory recognizes that racism is endemic to American life. Thus, the question for us is not so much whether or how racial discrimination can be eliminated while maintaining the integrity of other interests implicated in the status quo such as federalism, privacy, traditional values, or established property interests. Instead we ask how these traditional interests and values serve as vessels of racial subordination. (Mari Matsuda et al., Words That Wound, p. 2) 

Note, consistent with Feagin and Randall, “traditional interests and values serve as vessels of racial subordination.” Further, they believe this entrenched racism produces the racial maldistribution that we see in our society: 

Critical race theory challenges ahistoricism and insists on a contextual/historical analysis of the law. Current inequalities and social/institutional practices are linked to earlier periods in which the intent and cultural meaning of such practices were clear. More important, as critical race theorists we adopt a stance that presumes that racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage along racial lines, including differences in income, imprisonment, health, housing, education, political representation, and military service. Our history calls for this presumption. (p. 2) 

But, again, note well: “… linked to earlier periods in which the intent and cultural meaning of such practices were clear.” CRT directly connects current maldistribution to our historical context, wherein racism was explicit. Maldistribution itself is not what defines racism. It is not stipulative. For example, in “The Id, the Ego, and Equal protection,” CRT co-founder Charles Lawrence III highlights the necessity of this socio-historical contextual component through a discussion of Washington v. Davis (1976). The case involved a written test used by the DC Metropolitan Police Department for hiring. And as the Court noted, “blacks failed [the test] at a rate roughly four times that of whites,” though the majority of justices nevertheless ruled in favor of Washington. Commenting on this outcome, Lawrence writes: 

The most obvious racial element is the exam’s racially disproportionate impact. One can argue that the government’s action racially stigmatizes because blacks fail the exam in larger numbers than whites. But not every case of racially disparate impact has racial meaning. An increased bus fare may burden a larger percentage of blacks than whites, but we do not think of the fare increase as a direct stigmatization of blacks. It does not convey a message of racial inferiority. Thus, if the governmental action in Davis conveys a racial message, it must derive that meaning from something other than, or in addition to, its racial impact. Like the traffic barrier in Memphis v. Greene, there must be something in the particulars of its historical and cultural context that causes us to interpret this action—at least intuitively—in racial terms. (p. 370) 

That is, disparate impact alone does not make a policy racist. Lawrence goes on to argue that the action or policy causing disparate impact should be judged in light of our shared, racialized, socio-historical context, in order to determine its public racial meaning, whether conscious or unconscious. This “cultural meaning test,” as Lawrence called it, is intended to determine whether the action or policy stigmatizes minorities with a mark of inferiority—the very basis for the Court’s overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, and in accordance with the Fourteenth Amendment’s requirement to remove all “badges of inferiority.” 

More recently (2012), CRT scholar Ian Haney Lopez has called on legal scholars to distinguish between “contextual intent” and “malicious intent” when adjudicating disparate impact cases, rather than adjudicating on the sole basis of either disparate impact or malicious intent alone. He writes, 

[contextual intent] focuses on motives only in the loosest sense (or sometimes not at all) and emphasizes instead a broadly informed inferential approach to evaluating possible discrimination; [malicious intent] declares direct proof of injurious motives a prerequisite and concomitantly declares contextual evidence irrelevant. (“Intentional Blindness,” p. 1796) 

Thus, rather than ignoring disparate impact and focusing on malicious intent to find illicit discrimination, or ignoring intent altogether and focusing on disparate impact, courts should “judge discrimination with due regard for local circumstances, relevant history, and broader racial dynamics ….” This “contextual approach,” Haney argues, would “provide[] a workable route for identifying racial mistreatment … [allowing] precisely the sorts of inquiries now commonly urged—those involving attention to the social science of racial discrimination, including evidence of unconscious bias, as well as to structural inequalities” (p. 1824). I have discussed this in detail elsewhere (see HERE); here I just want to emphasize that disparate impact alone is not able to determine the presence of systemic racism for CRT scholars. 

As such, CRT usage of institutional, structural, and systemic racism consistently accords with traditional definitions, rather than many popularized modern definitions. In fact, the few explicit definitions that I could find in academic CRT literature closely track with both Feagin’s definition and Randall’s complex of institutional and systemic racism. For example, we read in Dwanna L. McKay’s brilliant article, “Masking Legitimized Racism,” that

[s]ystemic racism is an ideology that attaches common meanings, representations, and racial stories to groups, which in turn become embedded within social institutions that serve to justify the superordination of white people and the subordination of nonwhite people. (p. 88) 

Institutional racism is the normalization of white supremacy in institutions, laws, policies, and practices that produce racially differential access to jobs, services, spaces, wealth, and so forth. (p. 117) 

And, finally, philosopher and CRT scholar Charles Mills defined racism as follows in his 2017 Black Rights/White Wrongs, not only consistently with Feagin and Randall, but quite similar to the 1953 dictionary definition quoted above:

“Racism” has been given various competing definitions and attributed competing areas of application. I would distinguish between racism in the ideational sense (a complex of ideas, beliefs, values) and racism in the socio-institutional sense (institutions, practices, social systems). For the first sense, I would favor this definition: racism is the belief that (i) humanity can be divided into discrete races, and (ii) these races are hierarchically arranged, with some superior to others. The second sense would then refer to institutions, practices, and social systems that illicitly privilege some races at the expense of others, where racial membership (directly or indirectly) explains this privileging. (p. 4)

Again, these definitions remain consistent with the traditional approach: racism is a symptom of socio-historical exploitation, is structurally embedded into society, and current racial maldistributions (and/or “privileges”) should be interpreted in this socio-historical racialized context. In this light, I would define “systemic racism” to be any historic and/or current system of ideas, social philosophies, institutions, policies, and practices which have created and/or continue to perpetuate the subordinated circumstances and inferior conditions of racialized people-groups, as understood in continuity with our explicitly racialized historical context. 

Or we could just go with Feagin’s. Or Mills’. I’m no expert. 

[For a fuller explanation of systemic racism from the perspective of CRT, please see, “‘Systemic racism,’ in the Key of CRT.”]

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