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What is it? Systemic racism is an idea, and a daily reality for everyone, especially those living in the United States. A man named Joe Feagin, a sociologist, and professor, developed systemic racism to help define and understand how racism impacts our individual worlds. Systemic racism is the total sum of all anti-black policies, practices and processes that give white people an advantage – whether that advantage is social, economic, political, educational, medical, access to resources, etc. Because slavery was a part of the development of the United States back in the 1700s, as laws and human rights were being developed, Blacks weren’t given the same rights or the same status as White people, so the institutions that make our country work – the government, educational systems, healthcare system, financial systems – all favored Whites. It’s taking a really long time, and a lot of struggle to change long-standing ideas and practices from favoring Whites to being equal for all. Another challenge for systemic racism is that it has existed for so long now, that the people living in the US today were raised and educated in a system that is inherently racist – and Whites especially have a hard time seeing systemtic racism because they have always benefitted from the ways that laws and policies were written and how systems function. That’s called privilege. For White people, it’s like not being able to see a problem with something because they’ve never experienced the problem. 

While the idea of systemic racism was developed specifically to address the unequal treatment of Black people, the theory can be used to illustrate how any group of people are marginalized by the very systems designed to support society. 

So, how do you recognize systemic racism? Consider that most of the people that make up Congress in 2021, 77%, are non-Hispanic White Americans. But only 60% of the US population is White (source: The changing face of Congress in 7 charts | Pew Research Center). Until 1968, Black families were targeted using a process called “redlining.” Banks and real estate companies marked maps of areas where Blacks lived with red ink. Families that lives in those red areas were most often denied loans, and subsequently denied opportunities to advance their family wealth and assets. Homes in those areas were worth less, which trickled down to how much funding educational systems serving those areas would receive. Without the money they need, school systems can’t hire qualified teachers or buy the supplies they need to help kids learn the best way they can. (source: What are structural, institutional and systemic racism? – Bing video). You can also see systemic racism in our jails. Black males make up over 35% of the jail and prison population, but they are less than 10% of the US population. Black youth are placed in juvenile residential placements over 4 (four) times more often than Whites (source: Visualizing the racial disparities in mass incarceration | Prison Policy Initiative). 

Those are just a couple examples, big examples, but do you see what we’re getting at? Kids can’t help where they grow up or where they go to school or what opportunities they have until they get older – but, by then, have they already missed out on better living, better schooling, better chances for a better job? A better life? 

Young people are the future, and have the chance to pick up where older generations leave off – continuing to right wrongs that are even hundreds of years old just by making daily choices. Choices to understand and embrace equal rights for all.