What is Systemic Racism? (Excerpt: James Cone in Plain English)

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to my new book, James Cone in Plain EnglishI felt it was important to begin the book with a clear definition of systemic racism, since it is such a controversial subject, and one often misunderstood. This definition is not exhaustive, as I spend the remainder of the book working out what it means in practice, but in the most general sense, it is a great place to start.


Systemic Racism

White privilege and systemic racism are two of the most contentious issues in discussions about race. I want to take the time to unpack these terms because they will be vital for understanding James Cone and his theology. 

I would define systemic racism as the political policies, economic institutions, and social structures that uphold white supremacy by oppressing non-whites and distributing the power, resources, and opportunities in society to white people. “Institutional racism” was coined by Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and Charles V. Hamilton. Their definition remains one of the best for clarifying the distinctions between personal and systemic racism, so I quote it at length: 

By ‘racism’ we mean the predication of decisions and policies on considerations of race for the purpose of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over that group. […] Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutional racism. […] When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city—Birmingham, Alabama—five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally, and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutional racism. […] ‘Respectable’ individuals can absolve themselves from blame; they would never plant a bomb in a church; they would never stone a black family. But they continue to support political officials and institutions that would and do perpetuate institutionally racist policies. Thus acts of overt, individual racism may not typify the society, but institutional racism does—with the support of covert, individual attitudes of racism. 1

Racism is not primarily about the overtly racist acts of white supremacists. It is about the political policies which organize and structure society. Systemic racism, then, is the prevalence of policies that oppress persons of color. People are racist when they do racist things, but it is primarily by supporting racist policies that racism is systemically established as the norm. Individuals may try to excuse themselves from racism personally, but if they support racist policies, they are promoting racism, whether they realize it or not.

A white person born into a white supremacist society cannot not be racist because they unavoidably benefit from racist policies. That is why I said I am and have been racist. I was born white and am guilty of white supremacy. It is an inherited sin. Whenever a white person silently accepts the racist norm, they are guilty of upholding white supremacy. Personal and systemic racism are interconnected, with the latter often informing and establishing the former, and so we must expand our definition of racism to include both.

This interplay explains why Cone concluded that no white person in the world today can feign racial innocence; to be white is to be guilty of white supremacy irrespective of personal actions. It is what he calls “whiteness.” A white person is born into a world that benefits them significantly by offering them better advantages and opportunities because of their skin color. But what a white person chooses to do with their privilege, whether they acclimate to whiteness or fight against it, makes all the difference; we can either be racist by our silence or antiracist by working to overthrow white supremacy. There is no third option.

So the question becomes: What is a racist policy? A policy is deemed racist not according to its intended outcome but by its actual results. For example: the war on drugs is arguably the most racist modern policy in America, especially if we include its offspring, the prison-industrial complex. Drug crimes are enforced more harshly on black people than white people, leading to a sizable statistical disparity in America’s bloated prison population, even though white people are just as likely to commit the same crimes. 2 Furthermore, white drug offenders are often met with leniency, while black offenders guilty of the same crimes are punished harshly. 3 Whatever the initial aim was for the war on drugs, and despite its claim to color-blindness, it is verifiably racist. 

Racist policies such as these then reinforce racist stereotypes on a personal and social level by creating the conditions for them. When more black men are criminalized for drug use, black people are stereotyped as drug addicts, black families as broken, black fathers as absent, and black neighborhoods as dangerous ghettos. But these are all symptoms of a policy that systemically discriminates against black people. In this sense, racist policies are like self-fulfilling prophecies; the policy creates the circumstances that then re-enforce and verify racist stereotypes with statistics, but these stereotypes would not exist if it were not for the racist policy. This same cycle surrounds every racist policy, such as those tax policies which systemically rob adequate funding from schools in black neighborhoods. That policy reinforces the stereotype of the lazy, under-performing black student by creating the circumstances necessary for that outcome by denying black schools the funds they need to provide quality education. If black students struggle to meet the same standards of white students, it is not because black students have failed to learn. Rather, it is because our society has altogether failed black students.

Systemic racism is a collection of policies that reinforce and often create personal biases and social stereotypes; in other words, racist policies give birth to racist ideas. Racist ideas verify themselves by the results of racist policies. It is a vicious cycle. It is a pattern that will be broken only by abolishing racist policies. That is what we must focus our attention on changing if we want to be antiracist. Personal prejudices are, of course, a problem, but the more significant issue is always the policies that reinforce and often create those biases. The history of segregation is a great example. Before the policy changed, most Americans were for segregation; but after the policy changed, a few years later, the majority of white people were against segregation. 4 When the policy changes, the racist idea it produced will have no ground to stand on. 

One racist policy does not necessarily result in systemic racism. But there is not just one such policy in America; there are many. Black people can face discriminatory policies in nearly every aspect of their lives, from housing, employment, banking, law enforcement, incarceration, health care, social services, and education. But they also face the prejudicial biases and expectations of society, which limits black success, health, wellness, and wealth by denying the same advantages and opportunities white people receive by default. These expectations are often the result of the stereotypes originally created by racist policies. Systemic racism is a massively convoluted trap designed to keep black people in bondage and white people in power.


  1. Black Power, 4-5; italics original. New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1967.
  2. According to Michelle Alexander: “Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.” If anything, studies show white teens are more likely than their black peers to engage in drug-related crimes. See the studies cited in The New Jim Crow, 7n10-11. New York: The New Press, 2010.
  3. See the studies cited ibid., 207n67.
  4. See Kendi: Stamped From the Beginning.

Tell me what you think