With all that has transpired over the last few months, we have been having a great deal of much needed conversations. Some of these conversations have rendered us hopeless, some have left us feeling empowered and others have left us downright confused.
The murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 had me in a constant state of confusion. For one, I couldn’t understand how that had happened. How did a young man get murdered by a racist vigilante and then get demonized by the media because of the color of his skin? And then, I began to engage in conversations about what was going on around me, and I was even more confused. I started hearing and reading the phrase “systemic racism,” which at the time I constantly confused and used interchangeably with systematic racism.
Systematic Vs. Systemic
Admittedly I still have some questions, but after some extensive research here’s what I’ve come up with. Although very similar, these two phrases have two very different meanings and ways of attempting to rectify them. I’d go out on a limb and say I’m not the only one who was confused by the two words. I’ve been witness to various conversations both virtually and in person where these words are either used interchangeably or the word systemic is neglected all together.
According to Merriam-Webster, “systematic” refers to “relating to or consisting of a system.” An alternate definition is “methodical in procedure or plan.” For example, you might follow a systematic approach for solving a math problem. Systematic implies that a series of steps are followed.
How these Terms Relate to Racism
Systemic on the other hand, is “relating to or common to a particular system.” Sound like the same thing? I know, confusing. I told you. Stay with me. As it relates to racism, the appropriate sub definition is “fundamental to a predominant social, economic, or political practice.” In layman’s terms, as it relates to racism, systematic applies to the methodical steps within a system. Systemic, however, implies that a behavior, act, or quality is inherent in the system or structure and may or may not be on purpose. For example: Every Sunday for as long as you can remember, the whole family gather’s at Big Mama’s for Sunday dinner. That’s just the way it is and has always been. Systemic. There are no series of steps to follow.
Here’s where it gets murky (for me at least). I define systemic racism as the residue left over from systematic and overtly racist policies (or steps followed) from the past. This means that systemic racism is a result of systematic racism. An example of which would be redlining in real estate. A series of steps were put into place to keep African Americans in one area. Thus, creating an inherent belief that they should stay secluded from others.
Redlining in Atlanta (Circa 1935)
In my opinion, it is easier to rectify systematic racism than it is to rectify systemic racism. Policies or steps that are followed that exclude a group of people can be dismantled and replaced with more inclusive ones. Systemic racism however, which is more inherent in nature, requires changing the hearts and minds of people who believe that things are the way they are for a reason. And although it may appear that it would be an easier feat to change policies than it is to change people, what do you do when the people who are in charge of those policies are the people that need the change?