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What is Systemic or Structural Racism?

Since the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, so many more people have been asking questions about race, racism, racial bias, white privilege, racial justice, systemic racism, white supremacy, and so on.

Terms like “systemic racism” and “structural racism” are thrown around as if everyone understands what they mean. But some may be wondering, “What exactly is systemic racism, or structural racism?”

Wikipedia defines “systemic racism” or “institutional racism” as

“a form of racism that is embedded as normal practice within society or an organization. It can lead to such issues as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education, among other issues…. The term “institutional racism” was first coined in 1967 by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. Carmichael and Hamilton wrote that while individual racism is often identifiable because of its overt nature, institutional racism is less perceptible because of its “less overt, far more subtle” nature.

Beverly Daniel Tatum provides a relevant and still-prevalent example of systemic racism in the Prologue to her revised edition of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.

These excerpts provide an example of how systemic racism works (pp. 5-9). Tatum writes:

In her 2014 book, Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage, legal scholar Daria Roithmayr … [d]escribing practices that originated in Chicago in the first quarter of the twentieth century,… details how regional practices became national law and federal policy:

In a crucial historical moment that would pave the way for the rest of the country, the [Chicago Real Estate Board] put in place an ethics code provision that prohibited brokers from selling to buyers who threatened to disrupt the racial composition of the neighborhood. The move was so effective that the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) adopted an identical provision. Now brokers would have to risk their careers to sell across racial lines—state commissions were authorized by state law to revoke the state licenses of those brokers who violated this provision.

NAREB not only adopted the ethics code provision but also copied the Chicago use of the racially restrictive covenant, a legal instrument that served to prevent individual White homeowners from selling or leasing their property to Black residents, and spread the practice nationwide. For nearly three decades, these practices were not only legal but undergirded by federal policy.

The policies of the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), and the Federal Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC ) all converged to establish redlining as a national practice

In effect, the federal loans were issued to White families to buy homes in new suburban neighborhoods that were all White and in older White neighborhoods that were expected to remain homogeneous. Private lenders took on the same redlining practices of the federal government, making it very difficult for black families to obtain loans for property in the neighborhoods to which they were being confined. “The lack of loan capital flowing into minority areas made it impossible for owners to sell their homes, leading to steep declines in property values and a pattern of disrepair, deterioration, vacancy and abandonment.” (Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton)

The legacy of these policies and practices lives on in the present as past housing options enhance or impede the accumulation of home equity and eventually the intergenerational transmission of wealth

What difference does it make now? For people of color, living in a hypersegregated community increases one's exposure to the disadvantages associated with concentrated poverty and reduces access to the benefits associated with affluent communities (e.g., higher rates of voting, more political influence, lower rates of crime and delinquency, greater involvement with cultural and educational institutions, healthier lifestyles), regardless of your own socioeconomic status. Sociologists Massey and Tannen conclude the following: “Residential segregation continues to be the structural linchpin in America's system of racial stratification.” (bold-mine)

In everyday terms, Daria Roithmayr explains that racial segregation limits access to the helpful social networks needed for successful employment. Neighbors connect each other (or each other’s children) to employment opportunities and other needed resources. Keeping groups separated means that community helpfulness is not shared across racial lines. Because of residential segregation, economic disadvantage and racial disadvantages are inextricably linked.

Acknowledging the now centuries-long persistence of residential segregation and its consequences, school segregation, goes a long way toward explaining why the answer to the first question posed to me is still “Yes, the Black kids are still sitting together [in the cafeteria].” The social context in which students of color and White students enter academic environments together (in those few places where they do) is still a context in which their lived experiences are likely to have been quite different from each other, and in which racial stereotyping is still likely to be an inhibiting factor in their cross-group interactions.


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