Unpacking Systemic Racism Part 1: An Examination of Systemic Racism

Photo of signs from a peaceful protest for Black Lives MatterWritten by: Nicole Lagace

Photo by: Clay Banks on Unsplash

2020 has brought the topic of racial injustices to the forefront of social media. Sparked by the murder of George Floyd in late May, the Black Lives Matter movement took shape with newfound strength, fire, and passion. The global protests that ensued, along with the social media storm, brought a number of racial issues and injustices to the spotlight. All of a sudden, it was commonplace to talk about racial issuesWe started a discussion on the issue of systemic racism which is the way that our society - from schools to workplaces, to healthcare systems - create barriers for people of colour. For some, navigating and comprehending this information was a breeze, but to those of us who have never heard of systemic racism, these can be tricky topics to understand. In this article, we want to help everyone navigate these topics to have a better understanding of the current racial injustices in our world so that we can take steps to improve these issues. 

When people think of racism, most of them will think about a person of colour getting kicked out of a store, called a slur, being denied a service, or a person of colour being treated as though they are less than their white counterparts. They think of white people who hold prejudiced beliefs against members of the BIPOC community. However, this form of racism, called explicit discrimination, is just one form of racism and is becoming less and less common. After all, most of us no longer believe that a person of colour is any less of a person due to their race, and those who do act outwardly discriminatorily are heavily looked down upon. However, it does still happen and can be seen through the prejudiced actions of others from day to day, invalidating BIPOC experiences, and through trends in the media (think “all lives matter”). It is important to take a stance against these discriminatory actions in order to reduce racism and give power back to people of colour. 

While minimizing discrimination has been a huge shift towards a racism-free society, there is a much more nuanced and pervasive way in which racism persists in our society. This is called systemic racism. Systemic racism is not about one's individual actions, but rather how society is structured. Our society is organized in a way where people of colour have reduced access to opportunity, which is an oppressive force rooted in the structure of our society. This makes it so even in a world free of discrimination, systemic racism still persists.  

One avenue of systemic racism is the wealth distribution across racial groups. In Canada, non-racialized individuals have greater income from their wealth than racialized ones, and in the United States, the majority of the wealth is held by Caucasians. Consequently, there is a greater proportion of visible minorities living in poverty, as they hold a drastically reduced proportion of the nation’s wealth.  

This gap in wealth is an important contributor to the disadvantages that racialized groups face. While we all want to believe that if people work hard enough, they can make their way out of poverty, this is not the case. It is harder to gain wealth if you don’t have it, and life is more expensive when you’re poor because you are unable to do things like buy in bulk, invest in a house, and pay off debt. On top of this, financial stress, whether it’s about working multiple part-time jobs, food insecurity, or worrying about paying the bills, will reduce a person’s quality of life. These are all factors that disproportionately affect communities of colour because they hold less of the wealth, to begin with.  

Although redlining - the practice of refusing loans or insurance to people living in poor neighbourhoods - is now illegal, it left its mark through persisting inequalities in the housing industry. People who were refused a mortgage found it much more difficult to build wealth through investing in real estate, creating a wealth disparity that lasts to this day. There are clearly still communities with lower quality housing, services, parks, schools, hospitals, and more. These communities have much cheaper housing and are where many people of colour reside. The quality of services in these areas is decreased because they receive less government funding to the schools, hospitals, parks, and other amenities. This makes getting educated, staying healthy, and destressing much more difficult. In addition, these communities are often strategically placed in the more undesirable locations in a city, such as near highways, near landfills, or downwind of factories. This increases the amount of pollution in these areas, which can pose greater health risks to communities of colour. 

Education is another way in which systemic racism exists. If a person cannot afford to live in a good neighbourhood, then their kids will not be able to attend the more funded schools in those areas. Lower quality of education can reduce a child’s engagement in school, how much they learn, and whether they see it as a valuable opportunity. It makes it much easier to fall out of the typical educational trajectory - graduate high school, go to university, get a degree, and get a job.  

On top of this, many families of colour do not have a long history of going to university. They may have immigrated from a nation where this is not commonplace, or not had the resources to go to university in the first place. They also may have come from a long line of slaves who were cut off from accessing education for centuries. Without this history, people may not have role models who went to university and may not have the guidance to get there themselves. Without a university education, people miss out on the benefits such as higher-paying jobs, greater learning opportunities, and networking. These will all keep people who have not gone to university in the past stuck in the cycle of poverty and low paying jobs.  

With little income from a job, some turn to illegal means to survive. People will do what they need to do to stay alive, but it leads to an increased crime rate in poorer communities. This makes it easier for people to discriminate, and also makes it more likely for other members of the community to get involved in crime, simply by meeting others in their community. Furthermore, when a person is charged, the implicit bias of judges often leads to longer sentences for individuals of colour, even if they are not intending to discriminate. 

After examining some of the ways that racism exists in our society, you may be thinking – is there anything I can do to help fix this? While this is not as quick of a fix as telling someone not to discriminate, there are many steps you can take to combat systemic racism. Stay tuned for part two to learn more about what you can do! 

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