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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

Systemic Racism and Critical Race Theory: A Steelman

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

The idea of systemic racism really took shape in the 1970s amongst academics who were noticing that, despite advances in legal equality post civil rights movement, racial disparities across a variety of phenomena persisted. The notion of systemic racism or structural racism is different from interpersonal racism. In fact, many would argue the interpersonal racism, which was extremely common in prior generations, is much less widespread today. Though it certainly still exists. Instead, systemic racism points to systems that result in consistent disparate outcomes a long racial lines. When things like wealth inequality between blacks and whites persist, one could jump to the conclusion that blacks are simply inferior to whites (as many whites do), or they could be willing to consider that systemic or structural injustices are causing the continuation of these disparities along racial lines. The exploration of systemic racism began in law but soon spread to exploring education, culture, economics, politics and just about any other aspect of society where racism could be continuing to drive social disadvantage for people of color.

The academics and legal scholars exploring systemic racism in the latter half of the 20th century coined the term "critical race theory” (also known as CRT). Many people are hostile toward critical race theory without even being able to articulate what it is. Simply put, critical race theory is a paradigm and framework for exploring the diverse ways in which racism manifests at different levels of social, political and cultural systems. Many white people seem to have a strong aversion with taking such a critical approach to American history, systems and institutions. It can feel threatening to their sense of self identity. This is sometimes referred to as “white fragility” and it hinders our ability to have honest conversations about race. With that said, ideas for solutions to systemic racism proposed by some critical race theorist can be pretty radical. However, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater just because some ideas go too far. Critical race theory itself should be seen as an important tool to understand the history and systems in our society that are causing racial inequities to persist. In the end, critical race theory is an important system of thought which can identify and diagnose racial injustice that operates below the level of explicit behavior and law. We should not ignore these diagnoses even if it makes us uncomfortable and threatens our rosy colored view of our history and identity.

Critical race theory begins with the premise that race is a social construct. Biology may give us different genetic patterns but the ways in which we define race and racial groups do not map to any objective, consistent biological factors. In fact, prior to the age of exploration and white colonization, racial notions were far different than they are today and tribal/ethnic differences were the predominant focus. Even in more recent history Jews, Irish and even Mormons were not considered "white" in much of America. With this in mind, it stands to reason that the racial categories established by white society historically have not been about scientific facts, but rather were a tool for upholding social and political power dynamics. More specifically, during the age of European colonization, these racial social constructions were used by white colonial forces to justify invasion, aggression, genocide, usurpation, slavery, and control over black and brown peoples because in the minds of colonizers there race was destined to rule. Just look at poems like Kiplings "The White Mans Burden" for an example of this kind of thinking. For centuries these conceptions of racial supremacy baked deeply into the culture of white society and its institutions.

Very few people dispute the existence of racist systems in past centuries or even in the 20th century prior to the civil rights movement. However, if we look at the racial disparities between blacks and whites since the civil rights movement we see very little improvement. For instance, blacks have nearly 10X less wealth than white families, blacks are almost 3X more likely to get arrested for drug crimes despite whites and blacks using drugs at the same rates, black schools continue to have significantly less funding per student than schools in whiter areas, blacks get significantly longer sentencing for the same crime, and even in things as simple as job applications, black sounding names get less callbacks. Keep in mind that all of this is happening POST civil rights movement. This is why critical race theory postulates that the civil rights movement was insufficient. The civil rights movement only dealt with surface level explicit legal systems of racism without addressing the more subtle structural and systemic forms of racism embedded in our culture and institutions of power/influence. The reality is that we still live in a white world where those deemed "white" still hold the positions of control power and privilege. It's a world of systemic white supremacy rather than overt white supremacy. Our entire culture, language and systems of influence and thought have been built by white males over centuries. Studying the history of the way that white systems and culture came about with a critical lens allows us to see that they were designed to keep white males at the top either consciously or subconsciously. Hence, it is no surprise that white male dominance of our systems of power is what we still see today.

To better understand how this plays out in the real world, imagine you are a young black man who goes into a convenience store and you notice the clerk watching you more closely than the other customers. Perhaps, just the other day you heard about your friend who was pulled over and treated very harshly by police just because he "looked suspicious" in his hoodie. Perhaps later that evening you see a YouTube video and witness George Floyd’s murder. And that job you applied for? You did not get a callback because your name is Dontal, but a kid at your school named Brandon got the job. These are lived experiences that white people will never have to deal with. This is what is means to have white privilege. White people don’t realize that they live in a world made of systems and culture that was designed to be to their advantage. Conformity to white norms and traditions and ways of thinking and speaking grant us privilege in our society. These norms, systems and cultural values that favor whites and create white privilege are sometimes summed up in the term "Whiteness" by social scholars. "Whiteness" is like the water that black people are forced to swim in as they live their daily life. A water that is not conducive to their way of being as people of color. In society whiteness forces people of color to either conform to the dominant white culture (and abandon their authentic selves as people of color) or else face disadvantages. This is why black activists are so motivated. They want to bring down systems of white privilege. They want to liberate people of color from a society founded in systems of white supremacy and lift up voices from marginalized groups and root out systemic racism in order to create greater equity. Is this not a worthwhile and understandable goal?

In order to root out systemic racism and lift up the voices, experiences and talents of people of color we may need to question certain ideas that came from the civil rights movement. For instance, the idea of colorblindness does not address the reality of systemic racism. If, in a white system, we suddenly become colorblind, it just preserves the systemic and structural status quo (which is fundamentally geared toward whites). Also, the notion of integration is problematic because it forces people of color to integrate into a white society and culture. This "cultural genocide" is essentially asking people of color to abandon their own cultural identity and way of being as people of color in order to integrate into a society whose social and cultural systems are rooted in giving advantages to the dominant culture (white culture). Therefore, what is needed is not colorblindness and integration, but race consciousness.

Race consciousness is the ability to be aware of how race is playing into a given social structure or system in order to find out how racism is manifesting within that system and then working towards altering that system toward greater levels of equity. This is what the work of antiracism is. A person who maintains the status quo will be called racist by some. But that is not to say they are consciously racist, they just may be racist in that they are maintaining social structures and systems that have been shown time and again to disadvantage people of color. On the other hand, an Antiracist is someone working to change the status quo in order to fix the inequities by being race conscious and willing to take steps to make changes to systems that disadvantage people of color. When considered in this light, society is in a constant struggle between racists (those who would maintain the current systems and structures that advantage whites) and anti-racists (those working to create equity along racial lines by altering those systems). This is also why a black person can be called racist when they uphold and support white systems of power.

While overt manifestations of racism, such as KKK demonstrations, may have diminished since the civil rights movement, racism still thrives in the form of racially-based asymmetries in social, political, cultural, and economic power and opportunity. When people say that America is a racist country in 2021, some may get confused when they look around and see a lack of overt racism. However, when one considers the disparities between blacks and whites and how these are consistent over time and upheld by end entire cultural and systemic ecosystem founded in white society under their values and norms, we can begin to see how someone might call such a society "racist" in a systemic sense.

In summary, CRT provides a needed lens through which we can become more race conscious and explore why disparities continue exist between blacks and whites and why those disparities always seem to end up with blacks at the disadvantage. Those who critique ideas about systemic racism and the value of a critical theory of race in America are either ignorant or malicious. Some may be outright racists who simply are morally defective. However, others just don’t know what they are talking about. They are stuck in outdated notions of how racism manifests thinking that the civil rights movement was sufficient to overcome all forms of racial social injustice. They write off disparities as deficiencies in black culture (which itself implies they thing something is inherently defective about black people) while ignoring the lasting impact of systems of oppression and cultural dominance that created and maintain the white systems of power which have and continue to disadvantage people of color.

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