Systemic Racism

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(AS related to the criminal justice system in the U.S.)


  • Type 1:

First there’s racism as we generally understand it — prejudice and discrimination based on ideas of racial superiority and inferiority. Racist ideologies, originating as justifications for the dehumanization and exploitation of blacks, shaped laws and decision-makers in our criminal justice system for centuries. While the Civil Rights Act struck down most (but not all) overtly racist laws, the racists in the system didn’t disappear overnight. But racial attitudes have certainly changed over time, and explicit racism may play less of a role today in sustaining systemic racial bias. Subtle or implicit racial bias, in the form of heuristics, tastes, preferences, and negative stereotypes, may be more relevant, though evidence on whether implicit biases can be validly measured or “treated” is mixed (e.g., see criticisms here; but see here for a more adequate understanding of implicit biases, and here, here, and here on their relevance to law enforcement). When nationally representative data show that simply the darker one’s skin tone, the higher one’s likelihood of arrest and incarceration (controlling for crime rate, socioeconomic status, and so on), Type-1 mechanisms are likely at work.

Type 2:

Systemic disadvantages to blacks also result from laws, policies, norms, and institutions within the criminal justice system that may not be intrinsically racist. Type-1 racist intentions motivated the design and implementation of some of these laws and policies. For instance, historical research (e.g., see here and here) shows how felon disenfranchisement laws, poll taxes, changing classifications of crimes, and other measures were introduced strategically to suppress blacks. Policies such as the “War on Crime” and “War on Drugs” also shaped racial disparities through their effects on policing and mass incarceration. Other organizational and institutional factors, such as cultures of police departments, arrest quotas, and biases inadvertently built into policing algorithms also play a role in sustaining systemic racial disparities.

Type 3:

Structural and cultural factors outside the criminal justice system may contribute to racial disparities. Racist policies of the past have enduring and measurable effects on many of today’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, shaping the degree of social cohesion and violent crime in these communities. Potentially active mechanisms here include “cultural responses to chronic economic and racial subordination;” the “culture of poverty” thesis; effects of systemic injustice on the black family; the stigmatization of “blackness;” a range of institutional deficits and assets in urban black communities; indifference and apathy toward racial minorities; racial disparities in healthcare, education, employment, and so on.

All three types of causal mechanisms operate simultaneously. While the relative influence of these different mechanisms may change over time, African Americans experience these effects as the legacy of the same racist system that has endured over generations.

A weakness of the term “systemic racism,” however, is that it conflates the three types of mechanisms, making “racism” both the explanans and explanandum: it becomes both the explanation and the thing being explained. Such conflation also leads to distortions on both sides of the political spectrum, generating more heat than light.

For these reasons, it might help to use a more analytical (rather than pejorative) concept, such as a “racialized system” to refer to a complex of institutions that produces systemic racial biases and disadvantages. Doing so can avoid defensiveness and confusion around the term “racism,” while preserving the core reality of enduring patterns of racial disadvantage as the systemic outcome. Recognizing the range of mechanisms at work might also help us avoid the pernicious problem of confirmation bias—cherry-picking only those pieces of evidence that reinforce our ideological priors." (