Systemic vs. systematic (for example, “systemic racism”)

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When you read about the protests about race and policing, you are sure to encounter the phrase “systemic racism.” Why that word “systemic?” Why not “systematic,” which, at one time, was a much more common word?

What is the difference between “systematic” and “systemic?”

I don’t even recall hearing the word “systemic” until about 15 years ago. Google shows 218 million hits for “systematic” and 92 million for “systemic.” But things flip when applying the term to racism: there are 6 million hits for “systemic racism” (in quotes) and only 800,000 for “systematic racism.”

According to Merriam-Webster, “systematic” means “relating to or consisting of a system.” An alternate definition is “methodical in procedure or plan.” You could imagine, for example, a systematic approach to editing a manuscript, or a systematic approach to preparing a house for sale. Systematic implies a thorough series of steps that you follow.

Systemic” means “of, relating to, or common to a system.” That sounds a lot like the definition of systematic. But in the context of racism, the appropriate subdefinition is “fundamental to a predominant social, economic, or political practice.” Where systematic applies to an approach, systemic applies to the system itself. Systemic is not related to a series of steps. It is a quality inherent in the system, not necessarily on purpose, but more “that’s just the way it works.”

Systematic racism vs. systemic racism

Let’s see how this applies to racism. I’ll use an example of hiring, because I think we can all agree that racial bias in hiring is wrong.

What would “systematic racism” in hiring look like? It might look like this:

  • Hiring managers explicitly reject resumes that appear to have “black-sounding” or Hispanic names. (I don’t mean to be racist myself, but if you read the passage on this in Freakonomics, you know that racist recruiters could pick out certain unique-sounding names and reject them.)
  • Recruiters reject resumes from historically black colleges and universities.
  • Recruiters do phone screening and reject people they believe “sound black.”
  • Black or Hispanic people get shorter interviews and never get called back for hiring.

Such a hiring program would be offensively racist. If you could prove such a program existed, you could probably sue the organization for racial discrimination.

What would “systemic racism” look like in the same context? It might look like this:

  • An AI-system trained on past hires screens resumes. The AI system inherits the bias in past hiring, and is therefore less likely to recommend resumes from minority candidates.
  • All the HR staff are white, and as a result, are more likely to hire people they feel comfortable with — that is, people like themselves.
  • Recruiters do phone screening and hire people who they feel are most articulate, not recognizing that they are perpetuating their own prejudices in hiring based on their evaluation of the way others speak.
  • All the pictures on the company’s Web site are pictures of white people, sending a clear message to any applicants that the company does not have any black or minority employees.
  • The company develops hiring relationships with universities that its senior managers graduated from, universities where the students are far more likely to be white.
  • Screening includes a credit report, which generates bias against less affluent candidates from lower-income families.
  • Because all of the staff at the company are white, they are likely to receive internal referrals from those they know or have been friends with, a group that is overwhelmingly white.

This system would certainly result in discrimination against minorities, even if none of the policies are explicitly racist. The hiring managers and executives would likely say, “We are obviously not racists, it just turns out that we tend to see and hire white candidates, even though we hire candidates based on merit.” But regardless of whether the staff are explicitly racist, they have created a racist system.

Systematic racism is a set of practices that discriminate on the basis of race. Systemic racism is a system that has racism inherent in how it operates.

Systematic racism is relatively easy to fix, if you care to try. Systemic racism requires a deeper level of thinking. I also think it demands including a racially diverse set of decision makers, because a diverse set of people can more easily identify racism in the systems that include racism within it, whether that racism is intentional or not.

How does this apply to policing?

Good question.

I’m not qualified to answer that question, I’m a word guy, not a policing expert.

But if there is one question the death of black men in police custody and the protests now happening make you ask, it is that question.

The system is the problem. Fixing the problem requires changing the system, not just the procedures. And that, basically, is why so many people are in the streets right now.

19 responses to “Systemic vs. systematic (for example, “systemic racism”)

  1. Hi, Josh,
    I love the topic, but please fix the typo in the fourth paragraph: “Where systematic applies to an approach, systematic applies to the system itself. Systemic is not related to a series of steps.”
    The example is really on point, too.

    1. I disagree. If you are practicing “systematic” racism, you are already racist. You may be taking a systematic approach to achieving excluding a certain race, but that’s because the issue is already systemic. That’s sysyemic racism. There’s no such thing as systematic racism. You are already racist, you can’t become something that you already are.

  2. Excellent explanation Josh. Really puts the differences into clear perspective. A lot of news outlets have been using the two interchangeably and I only recently noticed and wanted to understand why. Do you feel we should be talking more about systemic racism than systematic racism in our current political climate when grappling implicit and explicit racism? Furthermore, what are your thoughts on institutional vs. constitutional racism?

  3. Thank you for the article! Not only I understand the words better, but I also see the systemic racism problem clearer.

  4. Would you say that systemic racism is strictly an outworking of systematic racism, or can it occur independent of prior evidence of systematic policies, laws etc?

    Thank you.

    1. Any time people don’t acknowledge biases inherent in the system, there can be systemic racism. It doesn’t have to arise from systematic policies.

  5. I’m a farmer’s daughter, so I understand systemic because I know how systemic pesticides work. They’re absorbed by the plant so all parts of the plant are poisonous to the insects that feed on them. Your explanation further refines my understanding of the two words, which I’ve been noticing get misused. Thanks!

  6. Apartheid South Africa had laws granting whites rights that were not granted to non-whites. It was in the country’s legislation. This legislation served to institutionalize racial discrimination and the dominance by whites over all other races. (I am using S.Africa because Americans like to think that it is happening “over there.”) That was SYSTEMATIC racism.
    Any time a US citizen lets the race or colour of a person (Ahmed Aubry, Floyd George) influence his/her judgement, s/he is disobeying US law. S/he is committing an offence, all because of a subjective decision that goes against US law. This is systemic racism. The white man or men are now considered criminal.

    1. I see America as having a systematic racism problem. Just as the South African example, America’s thought, biases, stereotypes, practices (you name it) are derived from policies against minorities. Even if it is not overtly practiced, it is still ingrained in the system of the collective. The original plan is still carried out…

  7. This is for consideration for those of us who wish for a better society.

    Systemic racism is inherent as in “almost natural” to the society as it has evolved or constructed. An example will be the labels “white” and “black” being used automatically even though race is a human construct. It affects every aspect of the society in laws, choices (actions and neglect).

    Systematic racism is visible in the terrible laws and horrible loopholes in the so-called laws and acts to address injustice – such as poll tax, voter’s id cards, zoning, redlining etc. Also many in the many compromises by congress – “beyond reasonable doubt”, “preponderances of evidence”.

    Structural racism consists of deliberate designs that trap minorities in poor schools (local taxes for schools – but not for the military) , neighborhoods cut off by highways and pollution alleys. It standardizes meaningless metrics such as FICO scores, background checks, SAT scores, internships, superfluous requirements of “verbal and written” abilities etc

    Institutionalized racism is the type that was adopted into state, county and local laws and policies such as by Apartheid South Africa, the third Reich and Southern US States.

    Interpersonal racism is the damage done to us all that make us judge someone of different skin tone before we even have a chance to speak to them or know them. The media was partly responsible for this, so was the hypocritical church and parents. It manifests in our conversations when people of the “other” race are not around.

    Internal racism is the self-delusion that makes one person feels he or she is either superior or inferior to another as opposed to recognizing the roles played by opportunities, training, environment and motivation in our lives.

  8. Thanks for such a well written explanation of the difference in the to seemingly same meaning words. What i am struggling with is if we are truly trying to eliminate the barriers between all races, then why are double standards allowed and accepted?
    An example is that here in the Austin Texas area an entrepreneurial young man has developed an app that allows a user to access a list of Black owned businesses so that that user can support Black owned businesses. On the surface that seems to be a great idea, however, if in the aforementioned example, you change the word “Black” to “White” it clearly becomes offensively racist.

  9. Richard- Great point. There is tremendous hypocrisy in the current conversations. Racism is generally accepted as only a White VS Black problem, and also is ascribed as only pointing in one direction (White oppression of Black people). Racism is ingrained in every society, and it is never unidirectional. It is also ingrained among members within a racial group (Asians for example: Chinese VS Korean VS Japanese.. Tremendous racism exists..).
    This is a post about Systemic VS Systematic, so I apologize for going a bit off-topic. I understand where unconscious or subconscious comfort with members of your own race and social class can cause barriers, and this is where education can help. But let’s all be aware that the change has to go in all directions. In the example that Richard provides, An app for Black folks to use to find and support Black businesses is a great idea (Kudos!). But Black folks have to accept that an app for White people to find White businesses can’t therefore be described as ‘Racist’. This is where ‘Systemic’ can be modulated.

  10. Regarding white statements, racist possibility, and the black same statement not considered racist when issue/comments are aimed at whites. I have seen workplaces required to hire minorities, eventually outnumbering white Canadians, to the point of leaving qualified white people, whether a better fit or not. When this is reversed, its called racism. Racism is extremely important to address, but these people that look for words that were ever spoken within the slavery era, are ridiculous. A real estate company not using ‘master bedroom’ is a laughable means to get attention at a time when the protests are raging. The word master in that context just means the main bedroom, usually occupied by parents, thus being larger. Using this petty crap just draws attention away from the issue at hand, it doesn’t help it. When mechanics use the words ‘master’ cylinder, are they using a racist word? Master means so many things. Keep it real!

    1. The term was coined during slavery. That’s the reason it’s being discussed currently. Yes it speaks to the biggest room in the home which was “the masters” bedroom, a concept taught to the slaves and still used to date. So for you it may mean nothing, but for descendants of slaves it means a lot.

      1. We could go back and forth forever on this, but my point regarding different issues on any problem we are trying to address at this point in time, is that we will never get anywhere if we waste our precious resources on trying to erase 100 years of words/expressions. It seems like people are looking for things to bring up that most don’t even notice. We are in such a mess globally with this pandemic and resultant future economy and we need to focus on that first, or at least concurrently, as we are losing so many people, black/white or whomever. I whole heartedly support the black people and their issues. Probably most don’t associate the word ‘master’ with slavery but I realize what you are saying, and agree that is was used as the ‘boss’ of slaves.
        I also realize it’s difficult to change/move on without addressing the past. We just need to address people, now in-your-face, issues, to help with this movement. It would be difficult to search past expressions and history that didn’t hurt some ethnic peoples, including the ‘whites’. I do wish the black movement success, and agree it is so necessary. LJR

  11. There is a problem with the invention of the newer term: the accusation of “systemic” racism as opposed to “systematic racism.” The latter requires an identification of the steps that have to be changed, or even can be changed, to eliminate it. The former does not, and is an imprecise accusation that just stands out there with little chance of explanation or remediation.

    It assumes that the RESULTS are the consequence of systemic racism and that the possible causes of the results need not be identified. The only remediation possible, where the possible individual causal factors cannot be identified, is to remediate the results, i.e. discriminate to make the results as you would have them be. Thus, the accusations that the percentage of a minority’s incarceration, or murder rate, or arrests, etc. is different from its demographic proportion is due to systemic racism without looking for other causal factors such as family breakdown, cultural opposition to educational achievement, etc.

    This seems to justify affirmative action, quotas, and the whole category of special preferences based on race, which is the very definition of systematic racism.

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