The Difference Between Systemic and Individual Racism

With large-scale street demonstrations, white supremacist rallies and ongoing kneeling protests against police brutality in the NFL, “racism” is everywhere.

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Racism has become something of a buzzword, both online and in public discourse. With large-scale street protests, white supremacist rallies and ongoing kneeling demonstrations against police brutality in the NFL, the term has captured our minds perhaps more than in recent times. Along with it, are discussions about systemic racism and individual racism, two interrelated subjects we attempt to break down below.

Individual Racism

Most people are familiar with individual racism, although it’s only recently been called that. For many, individual racism is just “racism.” It’s the idea that you treat other people differently based on nothing more than the color of their skin or ethnicity. Maybe you view yourself as superior to others. Maybe you attach different stereotypes to others to explain their behavior, which influences how you act toward them. Individual actions are different in each scenario, and depending on each person involved. At its core, racism involves a dominant party exerting power or influence over the offended group to the point of oppression and/or disenfranchisement of that group, which we get into more below.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the election and re-election of President Barack Obama have led some Americans to suggest that racism has diminished or even disappeared from the national landscape. Some even say the issue now is reverse racism—the idea that historically marginalized or oppressed minority groups have the power or influence to exert oppressive practices against a dominant group, in this case, Whites. The concept of reverse racism is generally dismissed. Despite a desire for it to be otherwise, racism remains a problem in America, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016.

Systemic Racism

Recent activism has shed light on another aspect of racism, this one much more insidious and difficult to combat. Systemic racism, or structural racism, refers to institutions that harm people of color more than other groups. It’s less about the individuals and more about the institutions that the individuals make up, and how those institutions influence the individuals on a widespread level.

Systemic racism is harder to combat because it isn’t explicitly stated that one group is being privileged over another—although previously in the United States white supremacist laws were quite explicit in identifying which ethnic groups would or would or would not be granted rights and privileges. Today, there are no laws that say African Americans should be arrested more often or given longer jail sentences than Whites. But statistics show that this is often the case. Additionally, Black Americans tend to die of unnatural causes while incarcerated—sometimes at the hands of police or other personnel. This injustice has inspired activists to mobilize in protest, pressure lawmakers for change and even run for elected offices.

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What You Can Do

Individual and systemic racism are both social scourges in the United States. Most people know and are repulsed by individual racism, although they may hold different views on how it’s affecting America today. Systemic racism is much more difficult to fully recognize and understand. Therefore, it’s much more difficult to combat.

When it comes to challenging and denouncing racism, what we can do is validate those who are affected. Listen to them, ally yourself with their cause and report those who perpetrate systemic racism in our culture. We can only find a solution to both forms if we are willing to talk about them, so don’t be afraid to say something. Have hard conversations with yourself when you notice patterns in your behavior or times when you make assumptions based on stereotypes. Have hard conversations with family members, friends, co-workers and others in your circles when you observe them doing or saying racist things. On a larger level, you can write your senators and Congress demanding an end to racist policies or practices in law enforcement. Just as important, you can also donate to institutions working to make our society more equitable for all, especially those historically marginalized or oppressed.

Photo by sdaponte


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