What does “Systemic Racism” mean?

In a discussion on the topic of “Systemic Racism,” someone asked for a definition. Too many people hear this phrase and have no idea what it actually means. I offer this as my attempt to help bring about greater understanding as a basis for this essential dialogue.


A system, at its most basic, is the way something is organized and its behavior is determined. I offer these examples to demonstrate:


A system on a written page of music

“A vertical line drawn to the left of multiple staves creates a system, indicating that the music on all the staves is to be played simultaneously.” – Wikipedia

Systems are one part of how music is organized to insure that it can be played by musicians once the composer has finished writing the piece.


The water and sewer pipes in a home are connected in a system that allows for fresh water to be delivered to faucets, etc.; and dirty water to be delivered to a sewage treatment system.


A military unit has a “Chain of Command” that is its system for organizing a unit (group of individuals) to work together to accomplish a single goal or mission.


Nations have a system of government to organize the collective society and culture. America’s system of government is a “Representative Democracy.” Citizens of the nation are elected by the population to represent them in decision making processes that are governed by a set of specified rules.


Wherever 2 or 3 are gathered there is a system to organize their behavior. The system may be well defined or or simply organic in nature. There may be specified rules for their collective activities or the group members may fall into roles by virtue of their individual strengths and abilities. These systems typically have method for making decisions and carrying them out.

  1. Three friends decide to get together for coffee: decisions need to be made concerning where, when, how, and who. How those decisions are made is usually not governed by a specific set of rules, but organic roles into which the individuals fall.
  2. A community wants to organize itself into an incorporated town. They must determine policies and procedures for making decisions and conducting the business of the organization.
  3. A family wants to incorporate it’s business into an LLC. There are specific rules which the family group must follow in order to complete the task of incorporation and by which they must operate to continue to qualify for LLC status.
  4. Religions are organized by theological norms to which their adherents adhere.


Too often when the terms “Racism” or “Racist” are used the range of understanding among the group listening varies widely. For some racism is academic while others understand racism from bone deep personal experience.

In my years studying at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, IA, I was blessed to be able to attend a “Racism Workshop” led by C.T. Vivian. That experience had a profound effect on me. I learned that “racism” is not necessarily about hating someone with a different skin color, or nationality, or language, but about ways in which power is exercised by an individual or group of people. Don’t get me wrong, far too often hatred is part of racism as a micro-reality, but you don’t have to “hate” any specific racial group to be an active participant in and benefit from racially biased systems. Or, “Systemic Racism.”

I remember the moment at which it started to click for me. C.T. Vivian played a recording of a very dramatic reading. It was powerful and moving, about a man struggling to meet the basic needs of his family in a world that seemed all too eager to crush him underfoot.

Following the recording he asked us, “Who is the man in that recording?”

My classmates gave answers like, “He’s everyman.” “He’s the embodiment of the human struggle in a hostile world.” Some really cool answers. Profound even, maybe. But the entire time I was listening to the recording I was sure I recognized the voice.

Finally, I raised my hand and responded, “It sounds to me like the actor who played Rizzo in M*A*S*H.” He looked at me with a slight smile and without a word moved on to the next part of the workshop.

I have reflected on that experience often over the past 34 years of my ministry. I’m still not completely sure what our class was intended to gain from that exercise, but what it taught me was to see each person for who they are. The color of a person’s skin does not define a person in any other way than that they have a specific skin color. I don’t mean that race and culture mean nothing, but I cannot presume to know the reality of a person simply by observing their racial physical traits.

I believe the lesson he was trying to convey is the same one Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us when he said,

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

It is imperative that we white people begin to see each person for WHO they are rather than WHAT they look like. To value each one for the gift they were created to be, not the stereotype by which bigotry and fear have defined them.

How is this SYSTEMIC Racism?

The most blatant example is the American financial system, which is the foundation of all matters of life in our nation. For instance, school funding processes. Property tax is used to generate revenue to fund the education within each school district.

A Hypothetical Example (which is not far from reality):

School district A is located in the inner city. Its students are primarily Black and Latino who live in apartment buildings within the school district. Because of the level of property tax support, the school is unable to purchase new books, new computers, new anything. And the primary deficiency is in technology with internet bandwidth. Plus, many of the students do not have the capability to use the internet at home. Because of this deficiency the students are limited in their ability to access the amazing collection of knowledge, research, information that fills the internet. And that creates a very high hurdle for those students to achieve a better life for themselves and their families.

School district B is located a few miles away in an affluent suburb. Its students are primarily white who live in single family homes in gated communities. Because of high property values the school is able to buy new books, new computers, keep up with the fast paced developments in technology. The school has fiber optic access to the internet with high bandwidth. In addition, the students has fast internet access at home to be able to take advantage of all that the internet has to offer.

That is the way the system works. It is a system that, by design, gives greater privilege to white students in affluent communities. It is a system that was created by elected white officials a long time ago that perpetuates itself daily and into the future. The system itself is just a system, what makes it a “Racist” system is that it is supported and defended by a white majority and it provides advantages to white students and disadvantages to Black and Latino students. And that is systemic racism.

Another Example (which is reality)

The Oglala Sioux live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. They were forced to live there by the U.S. Federal Government as determined in the Indian Appropriations Acts of 1851, 1871, and 1889 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Appropriations_Act. The decision was made by white people where their tribe should live, and it happens to be the least fertile, desolate region of the country the white people could find.

The Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation is governed by the same financial system mentioned earlier. And a good example of how it impacts the lives of tribal members is attempting to qualify for a home loan. The items of reference and credit available to most white people are not available for tribal members, making it nearly impossible to establish a credit rating. Having a good credit rating is fundamental to qualifying for a loan. The system of mortgage lending was designed by white people, taking into account the needs and resources available to white people. The system assumes that all mortgage applicants live under the same set of rights, privileges, and opportunities. Which is not the case. And that is systemic racism.

A Political Example (From the State of Iowa in which I live)

Iowa House File 802 which went into effect July 1, 2021 from the Des Moines Register:

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a new law that she said will target the teaching of critical race theory and other concepts in government diversity trainings and classroom curriculum.

“Critical Race Theory is about labels and stereotypes, not education. It teaches kids that we should judge others based on race, gender or sexual identity, rather than the content of someone’s character,” Reynolds said in a statement. “I am proud to have worked with the legislature to promote learning, not discriminatory indoctrination.” 

Critical race theory, a decades-old legal theory that examines how slavery’s legacy continues to influence American society, is not specifically named in the new legislation. But the law would ban teaching certain concepts, such as that the U.S. or Iowa is systemically racist. 

Click to access HF802.pdf

Essentially the Iowa State House of Representatives (whose majority racially is white) passed a law saying,

“We are not racist, and you can’t say that we are.”

This is a governmental entity run by white people, dominated by white people, making laws restricting freedom of speech and public sharing of information to the advantage of white people and the detriment of racial minorities in our state. And just for good measure, they also declared that you cannot say the United States is systemically racist.

A system is racist when it is:

  • Created by members of a specific racial group
  • Fundamentally follows norms determined by that same racial group
  • Displays a distinct preference for members of that same racial group
  • Any change of which is prevented by processes designed by that same racial group
  • Continually renews and strengthens the power and privilege afforded that same racial group

The problem really is that too many white people are comfortable with the system the way it always has been and see no need to change. This willful ignorance and blindness is at the heart of systemic racism in America.


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