What Does “Systemic Racism” Mean?

“Systemic racism” is a term that’s been heard a lot in recent weeks, as communities, regions, and societies confront long-standing ugly realities around race and inequality. But what’s lacking in many of the reports about these upheavals is an explanation of what “systemic racism” means.

My expertise on this issue is primarily around how systemic racism functions in the workplace, not how it operaties in policing or in other contexts. However, since the commissioner of Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has finally admitted that there is systemic racism within the RCMP itself, it’s worth remembering that what happens inside an organization or workplace can affect how the organization’s members interact with others. So understanding systemic racism within workplaces can also help to understand systemic racism elsewhere.

It’s also important to remember that organizations don’t make decisions or choices; people do. An organization doesn’t decide by itself to be racist or sexist or ableist. It’s decisions by people within the organization that cause those situations.

So when we talk about changing organizations to become less discriminatory and more inclusive – yes, we have to look at the policies and rules that guide how the organization operates, but we also have to look at the people within the organization, and the patterns of their decisions, and their attitudes. If people don’t change the way they act or think, then the organization won’t change.

To understand what “systemic racism” means, let’s startwith some basic definitions. Human rights law, in Canada and elsewhere, recognizes two forms of discrimination: explicit and implicit. You might see discrimination also called “bias” or defined in relation to a demographic characteristic, such as “sexism” or “racism”. Both explicit and implicit discrimination are illegal.

Explicit discrimination is a statement like “No Irish need apply”. It specifically excludes people from employment or other opportunities “normally available to the public” – such as renting an apartment or access to government services – on the basis of their personal characteristics. This kind of discrimination is usually only permitted if an essential part of a job requires someone to have certain characteristics. For example, correctional officers might have to be female to carry out certain tasks in a women’s correctional institution.

Implicit discrimination occurs when a workplace policy or practice has the effect of discriminating, even if it wasn’t intended to be discriminatory. This is why it is sometimes called “unconscious bias” or “unconscious discrimination”. In the past, the classic example of this form of discrimination was some jobs having a specified height requirement. This requirement was based on the assumption that taller people had other physical skills, such as greater strength, or would look more authoritative or intimidating.

However, requirements like these had the effect of excluding many members of certain ethnic groups. It also turned out that physical skills such as strength were not closely correlated with height, and that some jobs could be done better with improved communication rather than only with physical force. As before, though, implicit discrimination may be allowed if it relates to an essential part of a job; for example, flight attendants may need to be a certain height to operate some types of equipment on planes.

For an in-depth look at implicit discrimination involving gender, I highly recommend Caroline Criado Perez’ book Invisible Women, which points out an astounding number of things that are generally overlooked but which cause gender discrimination. For example, unisex clothing sizes are modeled on the average proportions of male bodies, resulting in clothes that not only don’t fit women but that can actually be dangerous for them to wear.

So how does “systemic” fit into these definitions? Usually, “systemic” has been used in the same way as “implicit”: referring to systems within organizations that indirectly cause discrimination. But more recently it’s also been used to describe  patterns of incidents or behaviours that on their own might not be explicit discrimination, but which collectively have the effect of “creat[ing] or perpetuat[ing] disadvantage”.

So “systemic racism” can be more than one thing. It can be policies or practices that indirectly discriminate against individuals or groups because of their race. For example, rules that employees must have “clean-cut” or “professional” hair at work can cause systemic racism, if those rules are based on how white people generally wear their hair. And systemic racism can also be a series of incidents, sometimes classified as “microaggressions” – for example, a non-white person being asked “where were you born?” – that over time cause individuals of certain races to feel excluded or demeaned.

For other examples of both forms of systemic racism  – and illustrations of how damaging it can be – I suggest taking a look at two research studies that I discussed in an earlier post. In the first study, job applicants with identical qualifications were much less likely to get a callback for an interview if they had Black- or Asian-sounding names. In the second study, applicants with identical educational qualifications were less likely to be asked for an interview if their personal interests were perceived as “lower class”. In follow-up discussions in the second study, employers expressed concerns about the lower-class candidates’ ability to “fit” into their organizations – in other words, “not one of us” even though the candidates had the qualifications needed to do the job.

Recently I saw a protestor being interviewed on TV during a Black Lives Matter event who said something to the effect of “we were told we needed to organize, we needed to participate, we needed to get educated, we needed to vote. We did all of that, and nothing has changed.” That statement shows the widespread impact of systemic racism. Defining “systemic racism” will not get rid of it, but understanding it can start the process of eliminating it.

One comment

  1. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and really wonder how we as a society can go about it. For one thing, there are sheer numbers. Blacks account for 12 percent of the population and as jobs are more highly competitive, skills, track record and connections are pretty much always going to favour the dominant culture (for instance, no North American could ever rise to prominence in the Chinese Communist government or even likely in a French or Italian company. They’re on the wrong end of the numbers. I agree that unconscious bias can be a huge issue. But in a post COVID world, employers will be trying their damndest to hire only top performers and contract out everything else. Public sector might be different. The barriers to social mobility are of course highly complex.

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