You are not being “oppressed” when another group gains rights that you always had.
The word “racism,” alone, connotes something bad, insidious and deeply sinister. Yet, when an adjective precedes the word, we realize that there are various manifestations of racism. We see how artful, pernicious and hateful racism can be expressed. We’ve seen racism expressed by individuals in blatant or covert terms. When people display racist attitudes and behaviors, we think the challenge is to change the way they think.
However, one form of racism — systemic — does not require or need people to express racist views. Systemic racism represents the successful transformation of words, attitudes and behaviors into a pervasive and structural reality impacting every aspect of our social, political and cultural lives.
So exactly what is a good operational definition for systemic racism? According to the dictionary, systemic is defined as “relating to a system, especially as opposed to a particular part; for example, “the disease is localized rather than systemic.” Consequently, when systemic is used as an adjective to describe racism, we are acknowledging that while isolated or localized instances of racial animus and bigotry may be reprehensible, they are not pervasive.
Unfortunately, racism, like an aggressive virus, has mutated into every facet of society as well as the body politic. Individuals with racist ideologies do not need to fight the system — instead the socio-political system based on debunked racial superiority theories supports and emboldens them. Additionally, the system presents an impenetrable barrier to those seeking to dismantle it. In a phrase, systemic racism is based on access to privileges accorded to one group and denied to another group because of both their hue and view.
To the favored group, systemic racism sets aside certain rights that are taken for granted. For example, systemic racism affords non-minorities in America some of the following rights:
• The right to succeed without inferences of special treatment [affirmative action] being the reason
• The right to exist without the need to justify said existence
• The right to be judged as an individual without being associated with the worst of their group
• The right to fail without racial implications for the rest of their group
• The right to live wherever one chooses without incident
• The right to be outraged because of unfair treatment
• The right to define who is patriotic and who is not
• The right to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without constant agitation, protest and the specter of state-sponsored terrorism
Today we are witnessing a bumper crop of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) positions within corporate America. Corporate leaders have become experts at promulgating and issuing soundbites that “talk the talk” but don’t necessarily “walk the walk.” Too often, non-minority employees are herded into workshops and encouraged to confess that they harbor racist sentiments. The unintended consequence of these workshops is the increasing of social distance between minority and non-minority employees. Similarly, powerful executives have delegated the task of explaining organizational reluctance or lack of progress to the newly minted, mostly minority, DEI executives.
While it might appear that I am throwing shade on these diversity initiatives, I am not. I am just saying, the dismantlement of systemic racism will require more.
Effective DEI will necessitate a massive and fundamental culture shift both within society and the workplace.
In summary, what is needed to replace systemic racism is simply systemic justice.