Disclosure: Human Rights Careers may be compensated by course providers.

Systemic Racism 101: Definition, Examples, Ways to Take Action

Systemic racism refers to laws, policies, and institutions that give unfair advantages to some racial groups while harming others. In many places, such as the United States, South Africa, Europe, and South Korea, systemic racism remains a persistent issue.

Race doesn’t exist as a biological or genetic fact, but it is a social and political reality. Racism occurs when race is used to justify discrimination and prejudice. Most of the time, this discrimination is directed at people belonging to an ethnic minority or marginalized group. Racism has many forms, but the most pervasive – and most misunderstood – is systemic racism. In this article, we’ll define systemic racism, provide examples, and describe some of the best ways to take action against it.

How is systemic racism defined?

Systemic racism refers to the discriminatory policies and practices baked into society and institutions, including government agencies, the criminal justice system, corporations, and much more. Unlike the racism most people are familiar with, systemic racism does not require an intent to discriminate. That explains why laws and policies that don’t explicitly mention race or ethnicity can still contribute to systemic racism. How is systemic racism different from other forms of racism? To answer this question, we need to define the four main types of racism: individual, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic.

  • Individual racism: racist attitudes, beliefs, and actions of individuals, both conscious and unconscious
  • Interpersonal racism: racist interactions and expressions between individuals, such as slurs, discrimination, and hateful actions
  • Institutional racism: racism within an organization, such as unfair or biased policies and practices based on race
  • Systemic racism: racism within all levels of society

Institutional and systemic racism are often used interchangeably. Kwame Ture (then Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton coined the term “institutional racism” in 1967 in their groundbreaking book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. In this book, the authors define “Black Power” and explore the roots of racism in the United States. They write that institutional racism is harder to identify because it’s more subtle and comes from established and respected societal forces.

What does systemic racism look like?

Systemic racism is a complex, multi-faceted problem, but history provides many clear examples. Here are four to know about:

Segregation in the United States

After the American Civil War ended slavery, the country began a reconstruction project. It was meant to create a society where white and Black people could live together in peace, but it essentially failed. In the wake of this failure, Southern states began creating a system of racial segregation through “Jim Crow” laws. Public services were divided by race, and while the system was supposed to be “separate but equal,” Black citizens nearly always received worse quality schools, hospitals, housing, and more.

A series of laws in the 1960s (the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968) officially ended segregation in the United States, but systemic racism still exists today. According to a National Urban League report from 2022, Black Americans get 73.9% of what white Americans get. Their median household income is lower and they benefit less from home ownership. In fact, Black couples are more than twice as likely as white couples to be denied a mortgage or home improvement loan. These are just a few of the many examples of systemic racism in the United States.

Apartheid in South Africa

In 1948, the all-white National Party won the elections in South Africa and established apartheid, a system based on racial segregation. All non-white South Africans, who made up most of the population, were forced to use separate public facilities and live apart from white people. Interracial marriage was criminalized, millions of Black citizens were moved from their homes, and Black people weren’t given any political power or representation.

People rebelled against apartheid for years, and slowly, the international community took notice. By the 1980s, apartheid was failing. In 1994, the government finally caved and the country ended apartheid with a new constitution and leadership. Systemic racism is still a problem. According to the World Inequality Lab, South Africa’s wealth inequality hasn’t changed since apartheid. Black citizens still deal with an inadequate educational system, while many still live in the isolated townships built for Black citizens.

Anti-Roma discrimination in Europe

The Roma people, who are a traditionally-nomadic Indo-Aryan ethnic group, have faced discrimination for centuries. In Europe, they were often enslaved, forced to assimilate, and viewed as criminal, lazy, and deceitful. During WWII, the Nazis persecuted the Roma, stripped them of their citizenship, and eventually imprisoned them in concentration camps. It’s unknown how many were killed, but it could be as many as 500,000.

Systemic discrimination against the Roma in Europe continues. They’re the continent’s largest ethnic minority, and 80% of them live below the poverty line. Because of persistent stereotypes and institutional barriers, it’s harder for Roma people to find work, good housing, good healthcare, and educational opportunities. During the height of Covid-19, Roma people faced heightened risks, as well as a lack of resources. Hate speech against them also increased, as Roma are often blamed for spreading disease.

Minority discrimination in South Korea

South Korea has a strong national identity, which unfortunately has led to many examples of systemic racism against ethnic minorities. In the 2000s, immigration to South Korea increased. This led to an increase in discrimination as well. As a contributor to the Korea Herald explains, skin color matters. While Koreans are at the top of the racial hierarchy, white people are viewed more favorably than people with darker skin, including South Asian and Southeast Asian immigrants, Black people, and Middle Eastern people. The history of the American military in South Korea could help explain this preference for whiteness.

In 2022, Human Rights Watch reported “pervasive” discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities, as well as refugees and foreign migrants. During the early days of COVID-19, foreigners were initially excluded from relief funds. Mixed-race people also face significant discrimination. Because South Korea does not have an anti-discrimination law, systemic racism leaves those affected without legal recourse.

What are the best ways to take action against systemic racism?

By its nature, systemic racism is baked into every level of society, so taking action against it is challenging. It’s not impossible, however. Here are five ways to combat it:

#1. Identify the forms of systemic racism

To take effective action, we must first identify what systemic racism looks like. As experts have explained, systemic racism is more subtle than individual or interpersonal racism. This is often because the issues bleed over from old, overt forms of discrimination, such as racial segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. Laws undid the right for governments and institutions to directly discriminate, but the racist outcomes persist. Once we better understand what practices, laws, and policies are contributing to unequal, race-based outcomes, we can begin to change society.

#2. Donate to organizations fighting racism

Organizations and activists have fought systemic racism for as long as it has existed. Their work includes research, advocacy, aid, training, and much more. Unfortunately, they often struggle to find the funds they need to perform their work effectively. Anyone can participate in anti-racist work by donating their money, time, expertise, and other resources.

#3. Push for changes in laws and policies

Systemic racism survives through laws, policies, and other practices that create unfair outcomes. Because the laws are usually not clearly racist, they’re often ignored. Unequal outcomes are blamed on other factors. Those in power either don’t see the need for change or prefer the status quo where certain groups get more privileges than others. You can take action by drawing attention to these unfair institutions and demanding change. Protests, petitions, letter-writing, boycotts, and other steps can help raise awareness and put pressure on those in power.

#4. Advocate for equity

Undoing discriminatory practices and policies is an essential step, but something new needs to take their place. As places like the United States prove, ending segregation doesn’t miraculously lead to a utopia of equality and fairness. White people were given years of economic, political, and social advantages, leaving Black people and other ethnic minorities far behind. Laws that give everyone the same resources and opportunities ignore this fact and allow inequality to endure. To end systemic racism, society also needs to establish equitable systems that meet people where they are and serve them based on their needs.

#5. Build solidarity

Systemic racism targets a few specific groups, but it ends up hurting everyone. Collective action is essential, which means building solidarity across ethnic and racial lines. Anti-racist organizations and activists understand the importance of solidarity, which is why they often campaign and develop action plans with other groups. To get involved in solidarity work, you can start by educating yourself on the unique ways systemic racism hurts various groups, what activists have done in the years past, and what work is being done now. As the civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

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.