Civil rights leaders and advocates demand an end to systemic racism, a reference to the systems in place that create and maintain racial inequality in nearly every aspect of the lives of people of color.

Over the past two weeks, thousands of people have taken to the streets following the death of George Floyd to demand an end to police brutality and racism. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected African Americans in communities across the country, continues to spread.

“This is not an incident,” said NAACP Chairman Derrick Johnson. “It is the systemic and pervasive nature of racism in this nation that needs to be addressed.”

Here’s what you need to know about systemic racism.

What is systemic racism?

Johnson defined systemic racism, also known as structural racism or institutional racism, as “systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantage African Americans.”

Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward and publisher of Colorlines, defined it as “the complex interplay of culture, policies and institutions that holds in place the results we see in our lives.”

“Systemic racism terms the process of white supremacy,” Harris said.

Harris said systemic racism creates disparities in many “indicators of success,” including wealth, the criminal justice system, jobs, housing, health care, politics and education. He said that although the concept dates back to the work of civil rights researcher and pioneer WEB Du Bois, the concept was first named during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and was refined in the 1980s.

How Does Systemic Racism Affect People of Color?

Structural racism prevents or makes it more difficult for people of color to participate in society and the economy. While structural racism manifests itself in what appear to be separate institutions, Harris pointed out that factors such as housing insecurity, the racial wealth gap, education and the police are intertwined.

Harris used the example of housing, explaining that today a disproportionate number of people of color are homeless or lacking in housing security in part because of the legacy of redlining. Blacks make up nearly half of the homeless population, although they make up only 13% of the population, according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development report presented to Congress in January.

Redlining refers to the system used by banks and the real estate industry in the 20th century to determine which neighborhoods would get loans to buy houses, and neighborhoods where people of color lived – underlined in red ink – were considered the most risky in which to invest.

“Redlining basically meant that it was fundamentally impossible for blacks and browns to get loans,” Harris said. “It was an active way to enforce segregation.”

This practice prevented black families from amassing and maintaining wealth in the same way as white families, resulting in the growing racial wealth gap and housing insecurity that persists today, a Harris said. The net worth of a typical white family ($ 171,000) is nearly 10 times that of a black family ($ 17,150), according to the 2016 Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances.

Redlining was banned in 1968, but areas deemed “unsafe” by the Federal Home Owners’ Loan Corp. 1935 to 1939 are still much more likely than others to be home to low-income minority residents, according to a 2018 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition Foundation.

Harris said the demarcated areas also lack the necessary tax base to support strong public schools, health systems or transportation, resulting in public safety concerns and therefore excessive oversight.

“The system is put in place in this way structurally to lead to a continued result of divestment and therefore disproportionate results,” said Harris. “And at worst, those most heinous results of over-surveillance which ultimately leads to loss of life.”

Harris noted that this is only an example and that this type of analysis could also be applied to questions of voting rights, employment and health disparities.

How to fight against systemic racism?

Johnson and Harris both say insufficient progress has been made in tackling systemic racism.

Johnson described three steps people can take to tackle systemic racism. We need to “recognize that racism really exists”, get involved in organizations that fight it, and finally elect leaders and policy makers who will neither strengthen nor support structurally racist policies.

“Racism is not a partisan issue, and we need to stop making it a partisan issue,” Johnson said. “It’s a question of morality.”

Harris said people who do personal work to understand systemic racism are “necessary, but not enough.” He urged those who wish to make changes to join with those protesting in the streets and demand a fundamental change of the institutions in their own lives.

“It forces us to go beyond reform,” he said. “Make it clear that the current system is not working.”

Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg


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