In the United States, there’s a political battle raging over the concept of systemic racism. One side claims that if racism exists at all, it’s isolated to individuals and one-off incidents, while the other side argues racism is woven into the fabric of the country’s systems. Who’s right? One can find evidence of systemic racism by taking a close look at areas of society like education, employment, housing, healthcare, the criminal justice system, and immigration policy. On the surface, a single stat may have more than one explanation but taken all together, the data paints a clear picture: someone’s race affects things like their education, how much money they earn, where they can live, what they eat, and the kind of medical care they receive. Here are ten examples of systemic racism in the United States.
#2. Employment and wealth
#4. Food insecurity
#6. Policing and surveillance
#7. The criminal justice system
#8. Environmental racism
#9. Digital inequity
#10. Immigration policy
In many ways, access to education lays the foundation for the rest of a person’s life. Without a good education, a person’s employment opportunities and income potential are limited. This has a ripple effect on every area of their life and their children’s lives. School discipline is another source of racial disparities. According to 2013-2014 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Black K-12 students are almost 4 times more likely than white students to get one or more out-of-school suspensions. Black girls in particular face discrimination. They’re 5.5 times more likely to be suspended compared to white girls, while Native American girls are 3.3 times more likely to face suspension.
Systemic racism affects education quality, as well. School districts with the most Black, Native, and Latino students get significantly less revenue than districts with fewer students of color. For districts with 5,000 students, that can mean losing $13.5 million. Less funding means fewer computers, fewer teachers, outdated textbooks, and run-down buildings. Even in schools with resources like gifted education programs, racial disparities are a problem. In one study, after adjusting for factors like standardized test scores, researchers found Black students were 54% less likely to be referred to gifted-education programs. Lower-quality education and fewer resources affect where – and if – a student attends college, how many loans they need, if they graduate, and more.
#2 Employment and wealth
Systemic racism’s effect on employment is well-documented. It begins with the hiring process. Black Americans with “white-sounding” names receive 50% more callbacks for their job applications. Having a college degree doesn’t necessarily help one’s chances. Between 2010-2012, one study showed that while only 6% of all engineering graduates were unemployed, 10% of Black college graduates with engineering degrees didn’t have jobs. Despite these numbers, is getting a degree still worth it? Studies show that while white college-educated households enjoy higher lifetime earnings and better economic achievements, this doesn’t apply to Black college-educated households. White college graduates are much more likely to get (and give) financial support for education and/or home ownership from their parents, while Black college graduates are more likely to be the ones supporting their parents.
What about income? Workplaces still discriminate against people of color, especially women. While white women earn about 79 cents for every white man’s dollar, Black women earn 63 cents while Hispanic/Latina women earn 58 cents. Black men earn about 71 cents per dollar. According to a Citi report, the Black pay gap alone equals about $2.7 trillion. All that lost income leads to higher rates of poverty within non-white communities. According to census data from 2019, Black and Hispanic Americans were overrepresented in poverty. There were improvements from years past, but the COVID-19 pandemic most likely undid that progress.
Systemic racism in housing has a long history. The National Housing Act of 1934 formalized redlining, which effectively restricted people of color from homeownership. Instead of getting to live in the newly-established suburbs, Black Americans and other people of color were segregated into urban housing projects. The government was not subtle. According to the Federal Housing Administration’s reasoning, if Black Americans bought suburban homes, the property values would go down and threaten the loans of white Americans. There was no evidence of this and, as Richard Rothstein explains, property values actually went up when Black Americans moved in because they were willing to pay more for housing than white Americans. The FHA’s justification was based in racism.
Redlining has lasting consequences to this day. Black homebuyers are more likely to be denied a real estate agent appointment, while housing lenders are more likely to recommend subprime loans to Black homebuyers even if they qualify for prime loans. According to real-estate brokerage firm Redfin, just 44% of Black householders own their homes as opposed to 73.7% of white householders. Compared to white neighborhoods, similar homes located in Black-majority neighborhoods are worth 23% less.
#4 Food insecurity
Food insecurity refers to a lack of access to adequate food. That could include a lack of grocery stores nearby or a lack of stores with high-quality, affordable food. In the United States, areas affected by food insecurity are often called “food deserts.” They are part of many low-income, urban neighborhoods. In 2014, a professor found that while poverty was a key component, Black and Hispanic neighborhoods had fewer large supermarkets than their white counterparts. Further research confirms the link between race and food insecurity. Using data from 2021, Feeding America found that while the Black population represents just 14% of the country’s population, it has a food insecurity rate of 19.7%. The Native population, which represents 1.9% of the population, has a food insecurity rate of 20%.
Food insecurity has many consequences on a community’s health and well-being. When the only options for food are places like gas stations, Dollar Stores, and fast food restaurants, the risk for serious health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and birth defects increases. Children without good nutrition may experience delayed development, asthma, anemia, and behavioral issues. Systemic racism is behind the prevalence of food deserts. Since the 1980s, premium grocery stores have prioritized white, wealthier customers in the suburbs while divesting from Black communities in cities. To this day, stereotypes about crime and poverty, both of which are highly racialized, have made supermarkets resistant to expansion.
The healthcare system has abused non-white people (especially Black Americans) for centuries. It’s so prevalent it has its own term: “medical racism.” Hiding behind the veneer of science and medicine, doctors and researchers in the 1800s promoted ideas like phrenology (which is the belief that the shape of a person’s skull relates to their moral character) and that Black people were naturally submissive and therefore meant to be enslaved. From 1932-1972, the US government promised to provide healthcare to Black men with syphilis, but instead secretly left the disease untreated to study its progress. The Tuskegee study is one of the most infamous examples of healthcare abuse.
Systemic racism in healthcare is still prevalent. It can show up in odd ways, such as the belief that Black patients feel less pain. Studies show that Black people are significantly less likely to receive pain medication and when they do get it, they get it at lower doses. When Batten professor and social psychologist Sophie Trawalter went to learn why, she found the belief isn’t always linked to negative feelings about race, but rather a belief that race is biological. This shows that even someone with good intentions can end up perpetuating systemic racism. How can the healthcare industry deal with its issues? A more diverse medical field can help. Only around 5% of doctors are Black. White doctors represent 56% of the field, while Asian doctors are 17% and Hispanic doctors are around 6%. These stats matter because research shows more ethnic diversity in the medical field leads to better outcomes and increased trust.
#6 Policing and surveillance
Racial discrimination begins early in the criminal justice system with policing and surveillance. Consider traffic stops. In 2020, a study using a dataset with 100 million traffic stops across the US found that Black drivers are 20% more likely to get stopped than white drivers relative to their residential population. Once pulled over, Black drivers are then 1.5-2 times more likely to be searched than white drivers, despite the fact they’re less likely to be carrying guns, drugs, or other illegal contraband. Are we sure race is the factor? That same study found that as the sun sets and it gets harder to tell the race of a driver, there’s a 5-10% drop in the number of Black drivers stopped.
Surveillance, which is becoming increasingly technology-driven, exacerbates systemic racism, too. Facial recognition provides a good example. Racial bias is baked into the technology. One 2019 study found that facial recognition was up to 100 times more likely to misidentify Black and Asian faces, while Native Americans experienced the highest false-positive rate. The solution isn’t better technology, however, as facial recognition would exacerbate systemic racism. Law enforcement has always targeted Black communities and other communities of color. According to an article on a Harvard University blog, the NYPD keeps a database of “gang affiliates,” nearly all Black and Latino, with no requirements to prove any gang affiliation.
#7 The criminal justice system
Once a person is in the criminal justice system, their race impacts what happens next. Black youth are more than 4 times more likely to be detained or committed to juvenile facilities compared to their white peers. According to a 2017 report, Black men got 19.1% longer sentences for the same federal crime than white men between 2012-2016. This accounted for factors like criminal history, age, citizenship, and education. The long-term effects of systemic racism? Despite making up just 13% of the US population, Black people make up 38% of the population in jails and prisons. In certain states (like Michigan, Virginia, Louisiana, and North Carolina), more than 50% of the prison population is Black.
The death penalty is racialized, as well. Early in the 20th century, when rape accusations were weaponized against Black men, 89% of those executed for the crime were Black. When executions were no longer applied to rape, but only to murder, 75% of cases involved the murder of white victims, even though around half of all homicide victims were Black. Since 1976, 43% of those executed have been people of color, while people of color make up 55% of those currently on death row. Throughout history, Black people are more likely to get the death penalty, while those who murder Black people tend to get less harsh sentences.
#8 Environmental racism
Environmental racism is a form of systemic racism related to the locations of landfills, hazardous waste disposals, chemical plants, and other environmentally-harmful structures. In the United States, these environmental hazards are disproportionately placed near communities of color. For years, research has shown that while many believe poverty is the #1 risk factor for high pollution exposure, it’s actually race. According to research outlined in a 2020 issue of Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health magazine, even middle-class Black Americans face higher pollution levels than white people with yearly incomes of just $10,000.
One of the prime case studies is Cancer Alley in Louisiana. This 85-mile stretch near the Mississippi River is packed with petrochemical plants and oil refineries. The air in a nearby town, St. Gabriel, has levels of cancer-causing chemicals higher than 99% of the country. ⅔ of St. Gabriel’s population is Black. Studies consistently show residents face much higher cancer risks than most of the country. In 2023, the EPA abruptly closed an investigation into Cancer Alley without releasing any findings or making any agreements with state agencies. Meanwhile, people near Cancer Alley continue to suffer, as do other communities of color around the country living near plants, landfills, and other environmentally-hazardous areas.
#9 Digital inequity
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines digital inequity as “the disparity in access, knowledge, and ability to use digital tools and technology, particularly harming lower-income individuals and minority communities.” We live in a digital world where people need tools like the Internet to apply for jobs, schools, scholarships, and career opportunities. Technology is also increasingly important for skill-building, completing homework, starting businesses, and much more. When it comes to who gets access, race is a factor. Around 31% of Black Americans don’t have a home computer while 38% don’t have high-speed internet access at home. Why? One reason is cost. The US charges more than other Western nations.
Digital inequity also exacerbates systemic inequalities. In 2019, a class action suit against Facebook claimed its targeted advertising algorithms discriminated against protected groups, such as women of color, who searched for housing on the website’s Marketplace. This practice is known as “digital redlining,” which is the use of technology to discriminate based on information like your race, gender, and age. It continues a legacy of discrimination against people of color looking for housing, jobs, and credit opportunities. The lawsuit was initially dismissed but was reinstated in 2023.
#10 Immigration policy
Race and immigration policies in the United States have always been closely aligned. It’s all about who the US considers worthy of citizenship. When the country was first deciding who could be a citizen in 1790, only “free white persons” with good character and who had lived in the US for two years were eligible. Eligibility expanded, but the US remained deeply invested in the type of person who entered the country. Millions of mostly white immigrants entered the country illegally from the early 1900s through the 1960s, but they were generally welcomed and lawfully employed. Non-white immigrants did not enjoy the same privileges. As more people from Asia, Africa, and Latin America began arriving, policies got stricter. Chinese immigrants were a favorite target early on. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the first comprehensive federal immigration legislation. It banned all immigration of Chinese laborers for a decade with few exceptions.
As the 20th century rolled in, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which set up a quota system to limit immigration. To keep “undesirable” immigrants out (like immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and Asia), the law used census data from 1890 when most immigrants were white Protestants from Western and Northern Europe. Policies like this shaped the population of the United States and helped stoke anti-immigrant and racist sentiments. Today, Mexican immigrants are a frequent target, but studies show Arab and Asian immigrants also experience higher rates of racial discrimination than white immigrants. This impacts access to education, healthcare, housing, civic participation, equitable employment, and more.