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5 Examples of Systemic Racism in the USA

In the United States, there’s a political battle raging over the concept of systemic racism. One side claims racism is the domain of individuals and isolated incidents – if it still exists at all – 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, and the kind of medical care they receive. Here are six examples of systemic racism in the United States:


In many ways, access to education lays the foundation for the rest of a person’s life. A lack of good schooling limits a person’s employment opportunities and income potential, which has a ripple effect on every area of their life and their children’s lives. School discipline is a big 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 are much more likely to be suspended compared to white girls, but it isn’t because they’re committing worse offenses. According to a report from the National Women’s Law Center, Black girls are 5.5 times more likely than white girls to be suspended. 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 Less funding means fewer computers, fewer teachers, outdated textbooks, and run-down buildings.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.

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. Even 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 were unemployed. Despite these numbers, is getting a degree still worth it for everyone? 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. The reason is tied to the fact that 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 are still discriminating 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 over-represented in poverty compared to their representation in the overall population. The data represented an improvement 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 provided housing to white families and left out people of color. 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. This would put the loans of white Americans at risk. There was no evidence of this and in fact, 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 racism pure and simple.

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.


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 recruited Black men with syphilis, saying they would treat them, but instead 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.

Surveillance and the criminal justice system

Like many examples, discrimination begins early in the criminal justice system with police surveillance. 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. Other forms of police surveillance, like wiretaps, aerial surveillance, and facial recognition, also target people based on their race.

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.

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 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 was based on 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.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.