Foundations of Systemic Racism

A critical step in dismantling systemic racism is helping people understand that although individual level prejudice and discrimination is part of racism, it is just one piece of a much larger, more complex system of oppression. The following six conceptual foundations can serve as building blocks for understanding the breadth and depth of the system of racism. Click on the “Resources” links for more information about each one.   

  

  1. “Race” is not a biological reality, it is an ideology that was created to justify and normalize inequality. (Resources)

  1. Through the socialization process, we all consciously or unconsciously internalize racial ideologies that associate white people/whiteness with superiority and Black, Indigenous and People of Color with inferiority. (Resources) 

  1. Individual prejudice and discrimination is just one piece of a complex, interconnected, and self-perpetuating system that advantages white people and disadvantages Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

  1. The combination of past and present institutional racism (in education, business, the criminal legal system, healthcare, housing, etc.) shapes our society in profound and cumulative ways, including the continued segregation of neighborhoods and schools, as well as the discrepancies in wealth accumulation, incarceration rates, health outcomes, and life expectancy. (Resources)

  1. The concept of intersectionality helps us understand that although all white people benefit from racism they do not benefit equally. And, although all People of Color are targeted by racism, they are not targeted equally. (Resources)

  1. There is no such thing as “reverse racism.” Racism is a centuries-old system of oppression that benefits white people in the United States.(Resources)

S. Schmidt, 2019

Distinguishing Racism from Prejudice  

Prejudice: Learned beliefs about a social group or members of a group based on simplistic assumptions and stereotypes. Anyone can hold prejudices about other groups.  

Discrimination: The action of limiting access to goods, opportunities, or resources or negatively singling out someone for unequal treatment based on group membership. Discrimination is perpetuated by individuals and institutions and can happen whenever someone has the power to deny opportunity or resources.

Racism: A centuries-long, multi-faceted, and self-perpetuating system of oppression in which white people have had greater access to political, economic, and ideological power, and as a group have benefitted from the continued and cumulative impact of that power over time.

Racism = (Prejudice + Discrimination) X (Power +Time)

Prejudice is a belief

Discrimination is an action

Oppression is a system

(Prejudice + Discrimination) X (Power + Time)

The Role of Power

Power is 

the ability to achieve goals even when others oppose those goals.

Power is

not inherently bad. Think of it like fire, it can be beneficial or it can be destructive.

Power is

unequally distributed by race in the United States in (at least) three ways that result in systemic racism:

 

  1. Political Power: The ability to create and enforce laws and policies that govern the access and use of institutions, resources, and opportunities.

 

  1. Economic Power: The ability to access, distribute, and accumulate resources such as capital, trade, land, and production chains.

 

  1. Ideological Power: The ability to shape societal norms, values, and aesthetics in ways that determine what (and who) is considered to be normal, appropriate, just, right, or valuable.

 

Pieces of Systemic Racism

INDIVIDUAL prejudice and acts of discrimination combine with INSTITUTIONAL policies and practices to provide benefits for white people and limit access to resources and opportunities for People of Color. Discrimination at the individual and institutional levels is justified through widely-held IDEOLOGICAL assumptions that attribute greater value, normality, and humanity to white people and devalue People of Color. This ideology, which frames white people as superior, is so ubiquitous that it becomes INTERNALIZED by all of us through the socialization process, resulting in both explicit and implicit biases.  

S. Schmidt, 2018

Resources for Learning about Racism

Follow the links to learn more about each of these six conceptual foundations of systemic racism.

  1. “Race” is not a biological reality, it is an ideology that was created to justify and normalize inequality.
  1. One-page Handout: Ten things Everyone Should Know about Race. Summary sheet that outlines specifically why the concept of race is not based in biology and how it has justified inequality.
  2. Film Series: RACE: The Power of An Illusion Episode 1 “The Difference Between Us” explains that there is no biological basis for the socially constructed categories of race, and Episode 2 “The Story We tell” outlines how the notion of race developed in the US and was used to justify inequality. Purchase the film from PBS (2003). You can also stream all three episodes on-line via the “Facing History and Ourselves” website. The online companion to the series developed by the Othering and Belonging Institute  has a number of short clips from the film as well as articles and lesson plans. You can also watch two very relevant clips here: “America Created a Story about Race,”  (9 min). History of Scientific Racism,” (14 mins).  
  3. Podcast: Seeing White  by Scene On Radio. 14-part podcast tracing the creation and power of whiteness in America. Very well produced and informative. Episodes range from 20 to 50 minutes each.
  4. Book / Author Interview: Caste: The Lies that Divide Us by Isabel Wilkerson. The author outlines the history of a racial caste system in the US and argues that caste is a more comprehensive concept than simply race to understand the United States.
  5. Book: Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. By Ibram Kendi and winner of the 2016 National Book Award for non-fiction. This fascinating book provides an extensively detailed history of anti-black ideology and how that ideology serves as a justification for institutional inequality.

  1. Through the socialization process, we all consciously or unconsciously internalize racial ideologies that associate white people/whiteness with superiority and Black, Indigenous and People of Color with inferiority.
  1. TED TALK: “Immaculate Perception” Researcher Dr. Jerry Kang provides an interesting overview of implicit bias (14 minutes).
  2. Short Videos: Who, Me? Biased? POV series of short engaging videos about implicit bias.
  3. Book: Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What we See, Think and Do. By Jennifer Eberhardt. (2019)
  4. Website and on-line test: Implicit Associations Test, Project Implicit, Harvard University.
  5. Book: Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? And other conversations about race. By Beverly Tatum. Tatum’s classic text outlines systemic racism and racial identity development theory in clear and relatable language. This 20thanniversary edition includes a thoughtful new prologue with her analysis of how the conversations about race have changed, or not changed, in the last 20 years.
  6. Video Clip: What would you do? Watch the different reactions as three actors (a white male teenager, black male teenager, and white woman) attempt to “steal” a bike.
  7. Article: A White Anti-Racist Educator Looks Back on her Racial Socialization by Sheri Lyn Schmidt, National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), November, 2019.

  1. Individual prejudice and discrimination is just one piece of a complex, interconnected, and self-perpetuating system that advantages white people and disadvantages Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.  

  1. The combination of past and present institutional racism (in education, business, the criminal legal system, healthcare, housing, etc.) shapes our society in profound and cumulative ways, including the continued segregation of neighborhoods and schools, as well as the discrepancies in wealth accumulation, incarceration rates, health outcomes, and life expectancy.
  1. Film: RACE: The Power of An Illusion Episode 3: “The House we Live in” navigates through myths and misconceptions, making visible the social, economic, and political conditions that disproportionately channel advantages and opportunities to white people. Purchase from PBS (2003). You can also stream all three episodes on-line via the “Facing History and Ourselves” website. You have to set up an account but it is FREE and SIMPLE to do. The online companion to the series  created by the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley has video clips, articles and lesson plans. You can watch relevant clips here: ”Redlining,” “How the Racial Wealth Gap was Created,”
  2. Book/Podcast/ Short Video: The Book titled  The Color Of Law by Richard Rothstein (2017) outlines the history of government policies that have created and help to maintain segregation in the US. Watch the short film Segregated by Design (17 minutes) in which Rothstein summarizes the history, or lIsten to his interview with Terry Gross of Fresh Air The Forgotten History of how the U.S. Government segregated America  
  3. Short Video: The Disturbing History of the Suburbs by Adam Ruins Everything
  4. Book: The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How we can Prosper Together  by Heather McGhee (2021). Fresh Air interview with the author  ‘Sum of Us’ Examines The Hidden Costs of Racism - For Everyone.  (Feb. 17, 2021) (35 min)
  5. Short Article: Systemic Racism, Explained by Newton’s First Law of Motion. A clear and concise explanation of the cumulative impacts of historical housing discrimination.  
  6. Infographic: Government Boosts and Blocks to Building Wealth. Report: The Road to Zero Wealth: How the Racial Wealth Divide is Hollowing out America’s Middle Class. September 2017 report prepared by The Institute for Policy Studies and Prosperity Now.
  7. Book: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. By Michelle Alexander, (2010) Indispensable text for understanding racism in the U.S. criminal legal system. Watch Michelle Alexander’s Ted Talk about her research (23 minutes).  
  8. Compilation of Research: This Washington Post article, There is overwhelming evidence that the criminal justice system is racist, provides an informative summary of hundreds of research studies divided into 11 categories. Originally published in 2018 and updated in June 2020.  
  9. Film: 13th Directed by Ava DuVernay,  the documentary film outlines the ways the US history of racist policies has been the driving force behind high rates of incarceration.
  10. Informational website: Through videos, images, and lesson plans, The Equal justice Initiative (EJI) outlines the profound and lasting impact of this country's history of  racial terror lynchings. 
  11. Book: A different mirror: A multicultural history of America by Ronald Takaki (1993) Comprehensive history of the United States told through the lens of race.
  12. Video Clips: Unnatural Causes: Is inequality making us sick?  Outstanding multi-part documentary outlining the impacts of social inequality on health outcomes.
  13. Research Summary: This short article outlines results of a 2019 study showing that US Black and Hispanic minorities bear disproportionate burden from air pollution.

  1. The concept of intersectionality helps us understand that although all white people benefit from racism they do not benefit equally. And, although all People of Color are targeted by racism, they are not targeted equally.
  1. TED Talk: The Urgency of Intersectionality by Kimberle Crenshaw (18 min).
  2. Video Clip: What is Intersectionality? Kimberle Crenshaw for NAIS  (2 min)
  3. Video Clip What is intersectionality? Blue Cross Blue Shield:Center for Prevention  (1 min)

  1. There is no such thing as “reverse racism.” Racism is a centuries-old system of oppression that benefits white people in the United States.
  1. Video Clip: Comedian Aamer Rahman explains Reverse Racism (3 minutes).

Foundations of Racism • Sheri Lyn Schmidt • sherilynschmidt.com • sschmidt@mac.com