Some Reflections on Systemic Racism and Capitalism


The system of exploitation that bore slavery remains, albeit without slavery, the very same system of exploitation.

“American capitalism cannot possibly be anything but racist.”

Since the death of Mr. G. Floyd on May 25th of this year, not only have the issues of police violence been at the forefront of the public discourses but the issue of racism has been raised specifically in terms of its systemic dimension, if not of police department across the country, then of the country at large. Clearly, as a headline has suggested, America is waking up to the issue of systemic racism, a trait pervasive of the culture of the United States. Racism is present all throughout our society and Americans can no longer escape that reality. America is a racist land. Some of course will keep on denying this. Not alone in such belief, few weeks ago, according to William Barr, Attorney General of the United States, systemic racism did not pervade across police departments in this country. Despite these kinds of disbeliefs, many in the country do accept that systemic racism exists and needs addressing. This racist system has to be cleansed of its racist tendencies and features in all possible ways or does it and especially can this system be free from such racist features?

And yet, even though “Systemic Racism” is at the fore of many speeches and commentaries on racism today; whether it is in the press or in the media in general and despite the fact that most seem to agree on the existence of Systemic Racism and that such a system needs modifying, the notion itself remains vague and somewhat unclear. We must ask then, what is Systemic Racism?

“According to William Barr, Attorney General of the United States, systemic racism did not pervade across police departments in this country.”

A host on NPR, Ifeoma Oluo at the beginning of July was explaining “the framing around racism has always been there is a white person who doesn’t like people of color or a Klan member, or someone, you know who is making their hatred and ignorance very obvious. But what’s actually been impacting our lives are systems that rely on subtle and not so subtle biases against people of color to disempower us and put us at risk.” For another writer (Worland, J. Time, 06/11/20) Systemic Racism finds its way “more insidiously into institutions, most Americans revere and seek to safeguard.” In an article published by USA today (06/15/20), N. Yancey-Bragg provides a series of definitions of Systemic Racism, as “systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantage African American” (Johnson), as “the complex interaction of culture, policy and institutions that holds in place the outcomes we see in our lives” (G. Harris).  Peggy McIntosh, who popularized the expression “white privilege” stated, over 30 years ago, in Peace & Freedom magazine, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance of my group”. E. Seaton, an associate professor at Arizona States University interviewed by ASU Now (06/23/20) explains systemic or institutional racism as follows:

“What is systemic or institutional racism? Institutional racism is when societal institutions engage in practices that favor the dominant group and practices that are biased against subordinate groups. It is important to acknowledge that institutional racism in one domain reinforces institutional racism in other domains, providing an interconnected system that constantly reinforces each other while reproducing racial disparities across the lifespan. I would argue that institutional racism is more dangerous than individual racism because institutional racism creates environments that dictates every aspect of life for subordinate individuals. Racism dictates where one lives and attend school, what types of jobs one is able to work, whether one has health care, whether one has access to healthy and nutritious food and whether one is treated fairly by the criminal justice system to name a few examples. The cycle repeats itself throughout the lives of individuals and across generations.”

These are few examples among many. The idea of Systemic racism was developed by a sociologist, Joe Feagin (Cole, 2020) and according to this author, 

„Systemic racism includes the complex array of antiblack practices, the unjustly gained political-economic power of whites, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines, and the white racist ideologies and attitudes created to maintain and rationalize white privilege and power. Systemic here means that the core racist realities are manifested in each of society’s major parts […] each major part of U.S. society—the economy, politics, education, religion, the family—reflects the fundamental reality of systemic racism.“

So, for these authors above and many more commentators, Systemic Racism is a pervasive system that relies on subtle and not so subtle racial biases. It is a system that is insidiously active in institutions; characterized by complex interactions of various segments of society or by invisible systems of dominance. It is an interconnected system promoting disparities or a complex array of antiblack practices. In short, Systemic Racism can be subtle, insidious, invisible, and definitely represented by an interconnected complexity. It seems that the notion of Systemic Racism is not easily grasped and quite difficult to define in practical terms, which from a political standpoint remains seriously problematic if one wishes to alter or do away with such system.

We will strive in this essay to analyze some reasons as to why this may be the case.

“Systemic Racism is not easily grasped and quite difficult to define in practical terms.”

Plausibly because of the elusive and complex aspects of Systemic Racism (SR), there appear to be an on-going confusion between SR and individual racism (IR). It is possible to illustrate this confusion that is pervasive across many commentaries on SR. For instance, Professor Seaton and Mrs. McIntosh mentioned above in their words and writing, both provide us with illustrations of a fundamental barrier to understanding SR. E. Seaton, in her interview, while specifically distinguishing the difference between individual and systemic racism, in order to illustrate systemic racism, refers to the well-mediatized encounter between a white lady walking her dog unleashed in a park and a Black gentleman asking her to keep her dog leashed. This woman’s assumption and belief that the police would automatically come to her “rescue,” while feeling “threatened” by a Black man illustrates SR for this writer. In a different fashion P. McIntosh claims explicitly that systemic racism, invisible systems of dominance, is not to be reduced to individual acts. And yet, she does away with that claim further in her article by introducing a series of questions for individuals, destined to self-examine, to identify on a daily basis, the effects of one’s own white privileges onto oneself in order to reduce racism. Push comes to shove, while attempting to illustrate what SR is or to redress SR, both Seaton and McIntosh do so by presenting an illustration based on the individual dimension of racism. Even Feagin ends up stating:

“A central argument of this book is that white-on-black oppression and its accompanying inequalities have been socially reproduced by the actions of white individuals and small groups set within critical institutional and community frameworks.” (Feagin; pp 270-271)

The explications and demonstrations of SR by all three authors illustrate the difficulty to grasp practically what SR is and the ensuing confusion can be seen to be prevalent among the general public in addressing systemic racism, namely, the subtle and not so subtle biases of institutions, the insidious and invisible systems of dominance, the complex interactions constituting systemic racism. All three, ultimately appreciate SR from the perspective of the individual. Although E. Seaton emphasizes activism as necessary to address systemic racism, like McIntosh who promotes self-examination of one’s own white privilege by individuals, she still lists a series of individual acts of acknowledgement of one’s racism and privilege (self-education, self-examination, homework assignments, etc.), while Feagin ends up attributing the origin of SR to behaviors of white individuals perpetuating and protecting their privileged interests within various contexts, familial, community, institutional and finally societal. Accordingly, the cause of SR lies mostly with individuals who can then be described as both the cause of SR — privileging one’s interest within networks — and the solution to SR – critical self-examination of one’s own racism and privilege. We end up in a conundrum leading to the very exclusion of the issue of SR now reduced in practice to IR; for one may ask, how is addressing the individual basis of racism facilitating the address and redress of the very invisible systems, i.e. the social systemic dimension characteristic of Systemic Racism? 

Systemic is defined per the Merriam-webster dictionary as follows: of, relating to or common to a system such as fundamental to a predominant social, economic or political practice. So, we can easily apply this definition and state that racism is a fundamental practice of American society at large. Thus, systemic racism is a social phenomenon characterized by the fact that the whole of society is fundamentally racist. It is not an individual phenomenon not can it be reduced to it. Even if it is possible to be fairly certain that instances of on-going racist exactions by individuals, such as chronic racist enactment by individual police officers can be affirmed to be born from SR, instances of IR alone are not necessarily symptomatic of SR; hence the confusion. 

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