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?
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.