Systemic vs. systematic (for example, “systemic racism”)

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When you read about the protests about race and policing, you are sure to encounter the phrase “systemic racism.” Why that word “systemic?” Why not “systematic,” which, at one time, was a much more common word?

What is the difference between “systematic” and “systemic?”

I don’t even recall hearing the word “systemic” until about 15 years ago. Google shows 218 million hits for “systematic” and 92 million for “systemic.” But things flip when applying the term to racism: there are 6 million hits for “systemic racism” (in quotes) and only 800,000 for “systematic racism.”

According to Merriam-Webster, “systematic” means “relating to or consisting of a system.” An alternate definition is “methodical in procedure or plan.” You could imagine, for example, a systematic approach to editing a manuscript, or a systematic approach to preparing a house for sale. Systematic implies a thorough series of steps that you follow.

Systemic” means “of, relating to, or common to a system.” That sounds a lot like the definition of systematic. But in the context of racism, the appropriate subdefinition is “fundamental to a predominant social, economic, or political practice.” Where systematic applies to an approach, systemic applies to the system itself. Systemic is not related to a series of steps. It is a quality inherent in the system, not necessarily on purpose, but more “that’s just the way it works.”

Systematic racism vs. systemic racism

Let’s see how this applies to racism. I’ll use an example of hiring, because I think we can all agree that racial bias in hiring is wrong.

What would “systematic racism” in hiring look like? It might look like this:

  • Hiring managers explicitly reject resumes that appear to have “black-sounding” or Hispanic names. (I don’t mean to be racist myself, but if you read the passage on this in Freakonomics, you know that racist recruiters could pick out certain unique-sounding names and reject them.)
  • Recruiters reject resumes from historically black colleges and universities.
  • Recruiters do phone screening and reject people they believe “sound black.”
  • Black or Hispanic people get shorter interviews and never get called back for hiring.

Such a hiring program would be offensively racist. If you could prove such a program existed, you could probably sue the organization for racial discrimination.

What would “systemic racism” look like in the same context? It might look like this:

  • An AI-system trained on past hires screens resumes. The AI system inherits the bias in past hiring, and is therefore less likely to recommend resumes from minority candidates.
  • All the HR staff are white, and as a result, are more likely to hire people they feel comfortable with — that is, people like themselves.
  • Recruiters do phone screening and hire people who they feel are most articulate, not recognizing that they are perpetuating their own prejudices in hiring based on their evaluation of the way others speak.
  • All the pictures on the company’s Web site are pictures of white people, sending a clear message to any applicants that the company does not have any black or minority employees.
  • The company develops hiring relationships with universities that its senior managers graduated from, universities where the students are far more likely to be white.
  • Screening includes a credit report, which generates bias against less affluent candidates from lower-income families.
  • Because all of the staff at the company are white, they are likely to receive internal referrals from those they know or have been friends with, a group that is overwhelmingly white.

This system would certainly result in discrimination against minorities, even if none of the policies are explicitly racist. The hiring managers and executives would likely say, “We are obviously not racists, it just turns out that we tend to see and hire white candidates, even though we hire candidates based on merit.” But regardless of whether the staff are explicitly racist, they have created a racist system.

Systematic racism is a set of practices that discriminate on the basis of race. Systemic racism is a system that has racism inherent in how it operates.

Systematic racism is relatively easy to fix, if you care to try. Systemic racism requires a deeper level of thinking. I also think it demands including a racially diverse set of decision makers, because a diverse set of people can more easily identify racism in the systems that include racism within it, whether that racism is intentional or not.

How does this apply to policing?

Good question.

I’m not qualified to answer that question, I’m a word guy, not a policing expert.

But if there is one question the death of black men in police custody and the protests now happening make you ask, it is that question.

The system is the problem. Fixing the problem requires changing the system, not just the procedures. And that, basically, is why so many people are in the streets right now.

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  1. Hi, Josh,
    I love the topic, but please fix the typo in the fourth paragraph: “Where systematic applies to an approach, systematic applies to the system itself. Systemic is not related to a series of steps.”
    The example is really on point, too.

    1. I disagree. If you are practicing “systematic” racism, you are already racist. You may be taking a systematic approach to achieving excluding a certain race, but that’s because the issue is already systemic. That’s sysyemic racism. There’s no such thing as systematic racism. You are already racist, you can’t become something that you already are.

    2. Can someone please tell me how not hiring candidates who are not ‘articulate’ is racist? Doesn’t that belief in itself assume that black people are not articulate? It seems to me that the ‘systemic’ examples of racism are unintentional, but based on previous behavior. If that’s the case, the crux is defining previous behavior. It seems this behavior is defined as whatever criteria is used to hire someone. Being articulate, dressing appropriately, good hygeine, etc. By assuming these things are unconsciously used to not hire black people, the person who points this assumption out is in fact being racist – they assume black people shouldn’t be held to the same standards as white people (e.g. being articulate). Can someone please explain how this logic is flawed?

      1. Sure, I’ll explain it.

        When you define articulate as “expresses themselves just as I do,” you are creating a standard that is implicitly requiring a workforce that talks as you do.

        There are certainly people who could never express themselves clearly and without profanity in the workplace. They can’t be hired.

        But there are plenty of others who can speak clearly, but don’t sound exactly like the interviewer. They deserve a chance to be hired, too.

        1. So any third party to try and fix this is of itself part of the system and now becomes part of the problem. A fix to the system is a part of the system. And this is systematic of all response. To be more direct. This is absolutely systematic like all response.
          Push. PULL. How can we tell.

        2. Josh Bernoff, you start your explanation saying: “When you define articulate as ‘expresses themselves just as I do'”. However, that is not how articulate is defined. Articulate is defined as “having or showing the ability to speak fluently and coherently”.

          Speaking in an articulate manner implies more than simply speaking clearly (see your 4th paragraph). “Speaking clearly” is vague in that it could mean enunciating, but does not necessarily imply speaking coherently.

          I believe your whole argument falls because it is based on a faulty premise — the premise that “articulate” means something it does not mean.

          1. The passive in your “how articulate is defined” gives the lie to your whole argument.

            The question is not the meaning of “articulate.” It is which meaning of “articulate” prevails in a company. When companies see only one type of expression as “articulate,” they systematically discriminate against those who speak differently from how they do — even if those people speak, as you say “having or showing the ability to speak fluently and coherently.”

            A big problem with systemic racism is the inability of people who are part of it to see it. People in a system evaluate every quality based on their experience — which perpetuates a system in which the participants are just like they are.

          2. Josh, how can this be a lie if he is expressing his opinion. There is not just one answer to this. If I am giving a phone interview in terms of a technical job. If the person can not express themselves in a technical way, then I will not hire them. In other words if they can articulate and explain their experience and abilities in the correct manner then there is no way I will hire this person.

          3. ”A big problem with systemic racism is the inability of people who are part of it to see it.” – That isn’t the problem. The problem is that so-called ”systemic racism” is just systemic bias that can have a disproportionate effect on a minority, but which isn’t actually racist. It’s a misnomer. That’s important beyond just questions about vocabulary, lexicography, or etymology. It’s a problem because racism is something everyone understands to be immoral, but a non-racial bias that just happens to disproportionately affect a minority group isn’t necessarily even bad. Using an incorrect term in this way is a hijacking of historical tragedy just to avoid having to make a convincing argument that the thing you find objectionable is unethical.

          4. Let’s get this straight. An easily identifiable ethnic group was brought to America as slaves. 250 years later, they were expelled from slavery in abject poverty and subject to racism built up over hundreds of years, racism that continued for another 150 years throughout society. Even now there are plenty of racists. And yet it’s inaccurate to call the system that created this a racist system? What else would you call it?

          5. Yes, I agree that we do need to get this straight.

            Again, I’m arguing that using the term systemic racism to describe systemic bias that can have a disproportionate effect on a minority is wrong. It’s wrong linguistically. The label ought to describe a subset of racist biases and it’s being applied to biases that aren’t racial &/or unfair. It’s also wrong ethically. It’s manipulating people by exploiting their moral revulsion to racism to reject something that’s not even unfair.

            Your reply didn’t address the argument I am making at all. You just asked me a question that depends on the ambiguity of the word “system.” By conflating different types and examples of systems, your question appears to be sensible on a surface level, when in context it isn’t reasonable at all.

            You point out the fact that a systematically racist system was used in the past, and how it caused a great deal of harm. Then you ask if it’s accurate to call, “the system that created this a racist system?” What does ‘this’ refer to? If it refers to harm, then the system that caused it was a systematically (not systemically) racist system, which misses the point. Maybe ‘this’ refers to a system.

            Did the systematically racist system of the past create our current system and therefore determine that by dint of its origins, it must necessarily systemically racist? We’re still working with a very vague conception of ‘system’ and now we’re using ‘create’ in a dubious way too. Besides, this is really an argument about the moral nature of American society based on it’s particular history, and not a case for a definition of the term “systemic racism.”

            Frankly, your answer to my complaint just reads like a case for reparations. That’s odd when you consider that my complaint is that misuse of terminology, and how is damaging the culture and public discourse by hijacking a historical tragedy.

        3. ”Sure, I’ll explain it.” – No, you didn’t. You just described a regarding how people express themselves. You didn’t connect it to race. Your description would apply to my bias against my cousins from Kentucky, who are just as white as me but speak with a different dialect.

          1. Dan, even if we accept your bias as just a bias, the bias of millions of others against people based on how they look, speak, and act is built into the system.

          2. Josh, that doesn’t explain how the bias in favor of being articulate is systemic racism. You just elaborated on biases being systemic bias. Systemic racism needs to be a systemic bias that’s both unfair and racial. The comments before mine pointed out to speak articulately is a skill and it’s not unfair to have a bias against selecting people based on absence of a skill. My comment made the point that even if we assumed (and there’s no reason we should) that this bias is being applied in an unfair way, that still lacks the racial element.

    3. So any third party to try and fix this is of itself part of the system and now becomes part of the problem. A fix to the system is a part of the system. And this is systematic of all response. To be more direct. This is absolutely systematic like all response.
      Push. PULL. How can we tell.

  2. Excellent explanation Josh. Really puts the differences into clear perspective. A lot of news outlets have been using the two interchangeably and I only recently noticed and wanted to understand why. Do you feel we should be talking more about systemic racism than systematic racism in our current political climate when grappling implicit and explicit racism? Furthermore, what are your thoughts on institutional vs. constitutional racism?

  3. Thank you for the article! Not only I understand the words better, but I also see the systemic racism problem clearer.

  4. Would you say that systemic racism is strictly an outworking of systematic racism, or can it occur independent of prior evidence of systematic policies, laws etc?

    Thank you.

    1. Any time people don’t acknowledge biases inherent in the system, there can be systemic racism. It doesn’t have to arise from systematic policies.

  5. I’m a farmer’s daughter, so I understand systemic because I know how systemic pesticides work. They’re absorbed by the plant so all parts of the plant are poisonous to the insects that feed on them. Your explanation further refines my understanding of the two words, which I’ve been noticing get misused. Thanks!

  6. Apartheid South Africa had laws granting whites rights that were not granted to non-whites. It was in the country’s legislation. This legislation served to institutionalize racial discrimination and the dominance by whites over all other races. (I am using S.Africa because Americans like to think that it is happening “over there.”) That was SYSTEMATIC racism.
    Any time a US citizen lets the race or colour of a person (Ahmed Aubry, Floyd George) influence his/her judgement, s/he is disobeying US law. S/he is committing an offence, all because of a subjective decision that goes against US law. This is systemic racism. The white man or men are now considered criminal.

    1. I see America as having a systematic racism problem. Just as the South African example, America’s thought, biases, stereotypes, practices (you name it) are derived from policies against minorities. Even if it is not overtly practiced, it is still ingrained in the system of the collective. The original plan is still carried out…

  7. This is for consideration for those of us who wish for a better society.

    Systemic racism is inherent as in “almost natural” to the society as it has evolved or constructed. An example will be the labels “white” and “black” being used automatically even though race is a human construct. It affects every aspect of the society in laws, choices (actions and neglect).

    Systematic racism is visible in the terrible laws and horrible loopholes in the so-called laws and acts to address injustice – such as poll tax, voter’s id cards, zoning, redlining etc. Also many in the many compromises by congress – “beyond reasonable doubt”, “preponderances of evidence”.

    Structural racism consists of deliberate designs that trap minorities in poor schools (local taxes for schools – but not for the military) , neighborhoods cut off by highways and pollution alleys. It standardizes meaningless metrics such as FICO scores, background checks, SAT scores, internships, superfluous requirements of “verbal and written” abilities etc

    Institutionalized racism is the type that was adopted into state, county and local laws and policies such as by Apartheid South Africa, the third Reich and Southern US States.

    Interpersonal racism is the damage done to us all that make us judge someone of different skin tone before we even have a chance to speak to them or know them. The media was partly responsible for this, so was the hypocritical church and parents. It manifests in our conversations when people of the “other” race are not around.

    Internal racism is the self-delusion that makes one person feels he or she is either superior or inferior to another as opposed to recognizing the roles played by opportunities, training, environment and motivation in our lives.

  8. Thanks for such a well written explanation of the difference in the to seemingly same meaning words. What i am struggling with is if we are truly trying to eliminate the barriers between all races, then why are double standards allowed and accepted?
    An example is that here in the Austin Texas area an entrepreneurial young man has developed an app that allows a user to access a list of Black owned businesses so that that user can support Black owned businesses. On the surface that seems to be a great idea, however, if in the aforementioned example, you change the word “Black” to “White” it clearly becomes offensively racist.

  9. Richard- Great point. There is tremendous hypocrisy in the current conversations. Racism is generally accepted as only a White VS Black problem, and also is ascribed as only pointing in one direction (White oppression of Black people). Racism is ingrained in every society, and it is never unidirectional. It is also ingrained among members within a racial group (Asians for example: Chinese VS Korean VS Japanese.. Tremendous racism exists..).
    This is a post about Systemic VS Systematic, so I apologize for going a bit off-topic. I understand where unconscious or subconscious comfort with members of your own race and social class can cause barriers, and this is where education can help. But let’s all be aware that the change has to go in all directions. In the example that Richard provides, An app for Black folks to use to find and support Black businesses is a great idea (Kudos!). But Black folks have to accept that an app for White people to find White businesses can’t therefore be described as ‘Racist’. This is where ‘Systemic’ can be modulated.

  10. Regarding white statements, racist possibility, and the black same statement not considered racist when issue/comments are aimed at whites. I have seen workplaces required to hire minorities, eventually outnumbering white Canadians, to the point of leaving qualified white people, whether a better fit or not. When this is reversed, its called racism. Racism is extremely important to address, but these people that look for words that were ever spoken within the slavery era, are ridiculous. A real estate company not using ‘master bedroom’ is a laughable means to get attention at a time when the protests are raging. The word master in that context just means the main bedroom, usually occupied by parents, thus being larger. Using this petty crap just draws attention away from the issue at hand, it doesn’t help it. When mechanics use the words ‘master’ cylinder, are they using a racist word? Master means so many things. Keep it real!

    1. The term was coined during slavery. That’s the reason it’s being discussed currently. Yes it speaks to the biggest room in the home which was “the masters” bedroom, a concept taught to the slaves and still used to date. So for you it may mean nothing, but for descendants of slaves it means a lot.

      1. We could go back and forth forever on this, but my point regarding different issues on any problem we are trying to address at this point in time, is that we will never get anywhere if we waste our precious resources on trying to erase 100 years of words/expressions. It seems like people are looking for things to bring up that most don’t even notice. We are in such a mess globally with this pandemic and resultant future economy and we need to focus on that first, or at least concurrently, as we are losing so many people, black/white or whomever. I whole heartedly support the black people and their issues. Probably most don’t associate the word ‘master’ with slavery but I realize what you are saying, and agree that is was used as the ‘boss’ of slaves.
        I also realize it’s difficult to change/move on without addressing the past. We just need to address people, now in-your-face, issues, to help with this movement. It would be difficult to search past expressions and history that didn’t hurt some ethnic peoples, including the ‘whites’. I do wish the black movement success, and agree it is so necessary. LJR

  11. There is a problem with the invention of the newer term: the accusation of “systemic” racism as opposed to “systematic racism.” The latter requires an identification of the steps that have to be changed, or even can be changed, to eliminate it. The former does not, and is an imprecise accusation that just stands out there with little chance of explanation or remediation.

    It assumes that the RESULTS are the consequence of systemic racism and that the possible causes of the results need not be identified. The only remediation possible, where the possible individual causal factors cannot be identified, is to remediate the results, i.e. discriminate to make the results as you would have them be. Thus, the accusations that the percentage of a minority’s incarceration, or murder rate, or arrests, etc. is different from its demographic proportion is due to systemic racism without looking for other causal factors such as family breakdown, cultural opposition to educational achievement, etc.

    This seems to justify affirmative action, quotas, and the whole category of special preferences based on race, which is the very definition of systematic racism.

    1. OMG you are so absolutely correct. I posted a comment saying the same things (only I got the system and
      sysematic twisted around a bit).
      But my point was the same mindset as yours. I’m a truth seeker and will do the research to get to it. There are sooo much more I learned about the BLM movement with all the violence and their crazy crazy demands, and none of it was good. None of it.
      Thanks for posting!😉

      1. The BLM movement does not have any ‘crazy crazy’ demands. All we demand for is our basic human rights that we should rightly so be guaranteed and to diminish the ongoing target on every black person’s head.
        Re-research because your resources clearly are not reliable as the BLM movement is not driven by violence at all. x

        1. Clue: One says what the other tried to say but for having twisted the terms.
          One skillfully dances around their argument identifying the problem with the implemented cure. The other simply misidentifies a side effect.
          “The black community is looking for ‘good and fair policing’.” Check it out at “Obama says ‘snappy’ slogans like ‘defund the police’ alienates people”
          A tall order given that some 74 million Americans voted for you-know-who.

        2. right. we been doing this for decades and its gotten to a point that we feel like “violence” is the only key

  12. What an informative article. I went looking on the internet for just this information and was so pleased to find information without a bias. Also gratified by the most of the comments. Rational people still exist! Yay.

  13. Here’s my question: if the racism is systemic, and the method of reversing it is to implement systematic anti-racism policies, arent we defeating the purpose?

  14. Thought-provoking.
    Systematic is what is happening on the outside while systemic is how those happenings permeate and affect the inside. Like the example of regularly or systematically spraying herbicides on vegetation which then becomes internally or systemically intoxicated.
    It seems like a simple concept/process made complex by the fact that human reasoning attaches personal, emotional significance to otherwise neutral facts. I watched Michelle Singletary talk about it last night on PBS which is why I find myself here, now. Take a look. “Michelle Singletary Gets Personal About Race and Finance”

  15. The accuracy of this description is rhetorically empirical, respectfully neutral, refreshingly progressive.
    Methodological solutions rather than inflamatory drama.
    Irrefutable logic.