The Idea of Systemic Racism
The word ‘systemic racism’ has gained remarkable currency since the 2020 police murder of George Floyd. It is not uncommon nowadays for people to speak of “systemic racism” in contexts in which they would earlier have spoken simply of “racism.” The notion that systemic racism exists (and presents a significant social problem) has become a fixture of antiracist commonsense. The noun phrase ‘systemic racism’ has made it into the dictionary. From a philosophical point of view, however, what systemic racism is remains unclear. Characterizations found on the internet are remarkably unhelpful. One can easily get the impression that systemic racism is a hodgepodge notion—that the term’s referent is nothing more than a miscellany of racial ills. Writers who devote their energies to articulating systemic racism’s substantive dynamics do so without clearly articulating what the concept is. Analytical philosophers such as Lawrence Blum and J.L.A. Garcia have been skeptical of the idea, preferring to work with other, simpler, and more tractable racism concepts. Sally Haslanger and Tommie Shelby represent two notable exceptions. Neither uses the term ‘systemic racism’ but each, arguably, works with the concept, and each provides insights that must be taken on board. My aim in this talk, then, is to provide a philosophical characterization of systemic racism.