Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Understanding Systemic Racism: An Introduction

The United States is the only major Western European nation-state “that was explicitly founded on racial oppression[1]." 

For the first 350 years of American history (from 1619 when the first African slaves were purchased in Jamestown, Virginia until the last piece of Civil Rights legislation in 1968) racial oppression, in the forms of slavery and legal segregation, was legally protected. Stated in another way, explicit racial oppression has only been “illegal” for roughly 10% of our nation’s history.

The racist American system was created by powerful white men and continues to exist “because of the recurring actions of a great array of human actors, but especially those of powerful white decisionmakers.”[2] 

The ideologies of white supremacy and black inferiority were imbedded in the political, economic, and legal institutions. Throughout history, these institutions and their legitimating ideologies have served to protect the system of racial oppression and the wealth and privilege of the elite white males that created them and continue to benefit from them.

"Historically, most whites have not been content to exploit African Americans and other Americans of color and then to just admit candidly that such action is crass exploitation for their own individual or group advantage. Instead, white Americans have developed a strong racial frame that interprets and defends white privileges and advantaged conditions as meritorious and accents white virtues as well as the alleged inferiority and deficiencies of those people of color who are oppressed.[3]"


Racial oppression and the governing racist ideologies were rationalized according the enlightenment philosophy of natural law and justified by the philosophy, science, and theology that governed the beliefs of elite and ordinary whites.

In the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement 

(in which the Civil Rights Act of 1968 officially and legally prohibited overt racial discrimination) 

white political elites, such as Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, developed new forms of coded racial rhetoric (promising to protect traditional family values, enforce law and order, get tough on crime) designed to explicitly communicate their commitment to white Americans but, that also, provided a discursive canopy of denial to deflect accusations of discrimination and institutional racism.
Racism remains systemically imbedded in the basic beliefs, routines, and operations of all major American institutions. Although much of the explicit and overt forms of racism have become taboo, they continue to be performed in explicit and coded forms in public frontstages and in the safety of all white social backstages. Some public acts of racism are condemned by elite and ordinary whites but are excused as isolated incidents of individual actors and aberrations to an otherwise “post-racial” or “color-blind” society[4].
Today, the persistence of institutional forms of racism[5] are explained, justified, and addressed in economic terms and as the result of the moral failure of black culture and individual black Americans, rather than as systemic problems.

Mainstream Approaches to Contemporary Racism

Systemic racism counters mainstream approaches to contemporary racism that use a limited prejudice/stereotyping or individual/small-group discrimination theoretical framework[6]

Mainstream analysts conceptualize American society a relatively healthy democratic and open society and analyze whites as one ethnic group competing amongst a complex mix of other racial and ethnic groups[7]

Mainstream approaches downplay “the centrality and injustice of white wealth, power, and privilege” and “do not assess how deep, foundational, and systemic this racial oppression has been historically and remains today.”[8] 

Further, mainstream approaches do not account for the institutionalized hierarchy of wealth and power that benefit whites and the “centuries-old social reproduction processes of unjust [white] enrichment and [black] impoverishment that lie just beneath the surface of the recognized disharmonies.”[9] 

Finally, mainstream approaches fail to place the powerful elite white men that dominate the key decision making positions in the political, economic, legal, and cultural institutions and whose decision reinforce and reproduce racial inequality and protect white privilege.

One such approach to contemporary racism is the concept of symbolic racism. Symbolic race theorists, relying on survey data in which whites self-report their racial attitudes, focus on how individual whites have adjusted to the structural and cultural changes of the post-Civil Rights era by moving from old forms of overt racial prejudice based on “negative feelings toward blacks and a belief that blacks are inherently inferior to whites,” to new covert racial prejudice “conveyed through white opposition to black demands and resentment at their special treatment.”[10] 

Symbolic race theory, Feagin argues, is incomplete because it plays “down old-fashioned blatant racism” that continues to exist “among many whites and is directly connected to negative views of substantial government programs to eradicate racial discrimination.”[11] 

Further, the self-reporting survey methods, used by many symbolic race scholars, fail to uncover “[c]ertain common racial ideals and images” that “become part of a collective white consciousness and unconsciousness – the ‘collection of widely shared individual memories, beliefs, and understandings that exist in the mind at the nonreporting level.’”[12]

According to Feagin (2010), “the apparent decrease in certain anti-black images, prejudices, and stereotypes among whites from the 1930s to the present,” that symbolic race scholars reference to argue the decline in overt “old-fashioned” racism, “likely reflects to a significant degree increased concern for social acceptability.”

"Clearly, it is less socially acceptable to publicly avow strong racist attitudes today, so many whites reserve their more blatantly racist comments for the privated spheres of home, locker room, club, or bar. Indeed, social science researchers have found that many white respondents alter comments on racial issues in order to appear unprejudiced.[13]"
In reaction to the decreasing social acceptability of explicit public racism, Feagin argues, the racist beliefs, language, and inclinations to act have not necessarily become covert as much as they have moved from the public frontstage to the safety of the white backstage. Picca and Feagin (2007) refer to this explicit but hidden racism as “backstage racism.” Picca and Feagin argue:

Once many blatantly racist performances moved to the backstage, and many whites’ frontstage performances became more racially polite, it became much harder to argue that U.S. society was still deeply racist. Today this society often, but certainly not always, appears to be ‘colorblind’ in its everyday contours and operations. Frontstage politeness by whites, many commentators argue, indicates that racial matters have improved greatly, that discrimination is no longer serious, and that racial groups mostly get along fine. At least, this is how a majority of whites seem to read the contemporary situation[14].
Symbolic racism and backstage racism theories provide important explanations of contemporary racism because they represent the white reactions to the hard fought victories of black Americans prior to and during the civil rights movement. 

However, to gain a more complete understanding of how racial oppression operates in the United States today, we must develop a fuller understanding of how racist ideologies and practices are imbedded in the basic fabric of our political, economic, legal, education, labor, and law enforcement institutions. 

Further, we must understand how these institutions form an interlocking system of racial oppression that is dialectically dependent on and independent of the racist actions of individuals.

"A striking feature of systemic racism in the United States is how long it has persisted with a strikingly inegalitarian hierarchy firmly in place. A useful concept here is that of the social reproduction of racial hierarchy. The perpetuation of this hierarchical system has required a constant reproducing of major inegalitarian institutions and their discriminatory arrangements and processes. For systemic racism to persist across so many generations, white individuals and small groups have had to participate actively in the ongoing collective and discriminatory reproduction of the family, community, legal, political, economic, educational, and religious institutions that undergird this inegalitarian system.[15]"

Systemic Racism Theory


Systemic racism is not simply a system of racial oppression but, more importantly, Feagin and O’Brien (2003) explain: “the material and ideological construction of the dominant white group.”[16] 

The ideologies of white supremacy and black inferiority “were built into the foundation of this society in the 17th century and have been manifested for centuries in its basic institutions – including the legal and political system, the mass media, the educational institutions, the labor market, and other economic institutions.”[17] 

Racial prejudices, stereotypes, emotions, acts of discrimination, and ideologies embedded in the fabric of American institutions continue to protect and reproduce an inegalitarian system of white social privileges and unjust enrichment.[18] 

Thus, white racism is “endemic and foundational,” not simply an incidental, “undesirable component of an otherwise healthy” American society[19].

Historically, racist ideologies and institutions have been justified through science (biology, psychology, mathematics, economics, social science), anti-black stereotypes (blacks as inherently violent, criminal, dangerous, hypersexual, lazy, uncontrolled, immoral), and liberalism (individualism, free-markets, work ethic, thrift, morality). Further, the racist system has been reinforced by violence, elite rhetoric, every-day discourse, family, religion, and entertainment[20].
The economic effect of systemic racism, according to Feagin (2000), is the unjust enrichment of white Americans and impoverishment of black Americans. 

As the benefactors of unjust enrichment, “white are strong stakeholders in a centuries-old hierarchical structure of opportunities, wealth, and privileges that stems from a long history of racial exploitation and oppression.”[21]
The racial hierarchy created and maintained by the white ruling class also provides economic and social benefits to ordinary whites. Today, as throughout the history of the United States, most ordinary whites are invested in the identity of whiteness “bought into the identity of whiteness, thereby binding themselves collectively to the white racial group.”[22] 
Thus, the collective “interests of the white racial group” include a material interest in maintaining the economic and social privileges “inherited from white ancestors.”[23]

The White Racial Frame


Central to the persistence of systemic racism is the white racial frame. The white racial frame is an organized set “sincere fictions, stereotypes, images, emotions, interpretations, and discriminatory inclinations that legitimize systemic racism and incline or allow whites to participate in the routine exploitation of people of color” – consciously and unconsciously[24]

By “sincere,” Feagin means, “these racial fictions are generally thought to be faithful representations of societal realities by those who adopt them.”[25] 

The white racial frame operates as the cognitive filter by which whites organize and interpret everyday experiences, information, and facts[26], and, as Feagin (2006) explains: “If facts do not fit in a person’s frame, that person typically ignores or rejects the facts, not the frame.”[27]

The white racial frame includes pro-white and anti-black (and anti- other racialized “others”) subframes. 

The pro-white frame contains "assertively positive views of whites and white institutions”[28] and positive images and feelings about the “white self and white society.”[29] 

In contrast, the anti-black frame includes negative stereotypes, images, metaphors, and emotions about black Americans that often prevent whites “from seeing, or seeing clearly, that their society is pervaded by widespread racial prejudice and discrimination.” [30] 

According to Feagin, the “anti-black subframe of the dominant white racial frame was fully in place by 1700” and white elites “are the ones, most centrally, who polished, established, proclaimed, and circulated this white frame to the larger population, which in turn used the ideas in their own ways.”[31] 

Early commentaries focused on at least 10 “major emotion-laden stereotypes and images of black Americans, who are alleged:
1.     to have distinctive color, hair, and lips;
2.     to be bestial and apelike;
3.     to be unintelligent;
4.     to have a disagreeable smell;
5.     to be uncivilized, alien, and foreign;
6.     to be immoral, criminal, and dangerous;
7.     to be lazy;
8.     to be oversexed;
9.     to be ungrateful and rebellious;
10.  to have disorganized families.”[32]

Black Resistance and the Evolution of the White Racial Frame


Continual resistance to racial oppression, by black Americans (and other Americans of color) is a constitutive element of systemic racism. As Feagin explains:

Oppression in each historical epoch has dialectically triggered distinctive anti-oppression efforts” and “The omnipresent resistance of oppressed African Americans has shaped the character of white oppressors’ retaliatory actions and thus the social contours of the larger society itself.[33]
In the four major epochs of American racial history (slavery, Jim Crown, Civil Rights, and post-Civil Rights), in response to black resistance, the dominant white racial frame has “been added to, subtracted from, or rearranged in its emphases” to deal black resistance movements and pressures for change, “particularly in regard to government remedial and antidiscrimination policies.”[34]

In each epoch, the adaptive racial frame has had a cyclical affect: it has legitimated and shaped “societal institutions and individual actions” and in turn has been shaped by those institutions and individuals[35]

Elite whites justified the enslavement of African Americans with pseudo-scientific theories of biological inferiority. For example, in Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson (1785) speculated:

Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and the scarf-skin… whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature….[36]
During Jim Crow, elite whites justified the legal segregation and violence against black Americans with a mix of cultural and biological explanations of black inferiority. 
In this period, more anti-black stereotypes and prejudices were integrated into the white racial frame, including assumptions and characterizations of blacks as: hypersexual, mentally inferior, culturally inferior, child-like, carefree, disease ridden, susceptible to vagrancy, crime, and prostitution. 
Alabama Governor George Wallace asserted that blacks were naturally prone to the “most atrocious acts of rape, assault, and murder.”[37]
The Civil Rights act of 1964 “formally dismantled the Jim Crow system of discrimination in public accommodations, employment, voting, education, and federally financed activities.” 
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 “rendered illegal numerous discriminatory barriers to effective political participation by African Americans and mandated federal review of all new voting regulations so that it would be possible to determine whether or use would perpetuate voting discrimination.”[38] 
And, for a short period, “some influential members of the white elite” strongly supported civil rights laws and “their interpretive discourse abandoned the blaming of black Americans for racial problems, and some even adopted” civil rights terms such as white racism and institutional racism[39]
However, the change in some elite white rhetoric and “apparent support for dramatic antidiscrimination intervention in society soon evaporated” as a majority of elite and ordinary whites never fully accepted such rhetoric or intervention[40].

In the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, in which the Civil Rights Act of 1968 officially and legally prohibited overt racial discrimination, white political elites, such as Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, developed new forms of coded racial rhetoric (promising to protect traditional family values, enforce law and order, get tough on crime) designed to explicitly communicate their commitment to white Americans but, that also, provided a discursive canopy of denial to deflect accusations of discrimination and institutional racism.
Racism remains systemically embedded in the basic beliefs, routines, and operations of all major American institutions. Although much of the explicit and overt forms of racism have become taboo, they continue to be performed in explicit and coded forms in public frontstages and in the safety of all white social backstages. Some public acts of racism are condemned by elite and ordinary whites but are excused as isolated incidents of individual actors and aberrations to an otherwise “post-racial” or “color-blind” society[41]
The persistence of institutional forms of racism[42] are explained, justified, and addressed in economic terms and as the result of the moral failure of black culture and individual black Americans, rather than as systemic problems.

Today, as in the past, elite whites react to the black resistance, social movements, and legal victories with new laws and public policies, new forms of racial rhetoric, and violence to protect their privileged position in American society[43]

Further, the elite white males that dominate the decision-making positions of media and entertainment corporations continue to produce content that perpetuates anti-black stereotypes, reproduces notions of black inferiority and white superiority, and protects the economic and social privilege of white Americans. 

This reproduction of white supremacy is legitimized, consciously and unconsciously, according to the positivist, market based, profit maximization principles of the white culture industry.





[1] Feagin 2006, 2
[2] Feagin 2013, 36  “Our racist system exists because of the recurring actions of a great array of human actors, but especially those of powerful white decisionmakers.”
[3] Feagin 2010, 25
[4] Picca and Feagin 2007; Bonilla-Silva 2003
[5] (the continuation of economic, political, legal, educational, employment and income, and social inequalities, residential segregation, health disparities, and disproportionate incarceration rates)
[6] Feagin 2006, 4, 5; Feagin 2000, 27
“This mainstream approach tends to view persisting racial-ethnic tensions and conflicts today as being matters of prejudice and stereotyping or of individual and small-group discrimination mainly directed against Americans of color. Racial-ethnic inequality is periodically discussed, but it is typically presented as something that is not fundamental, but rather an unfortunate socioeconomic condition tacked onto an otherwise healthy society.” Feagin 2006, 4, 5
[7] “Today mainstream analysts of the racial-ethnic history and contemporary reality of this society usually adopt some variation of an ‘understanding race and ethnicity’ approach that ignores or downplays the centrality and injustice of white wealth, power, and privilege and instead accents the buzzing complexity of U.S. racial-ethnic groups and their socioeconomic demographics, geography, recent history, attitudes, or patterns of sociocultural adaptation and assimilation.” Feagin 2006, 4
“… leads to well-intentioned analyses of these divisions that accent the need for a societal ‘vision’ that will promote the ‘values of racial and intergroup harmony.’” Feagin 2006, 5
[8] “Even many social analysts who recognize the still difficult conditions faced by certain racial groups, such as contemporary discrimination against African Americans, do not assess how deep, foundational, and systemic this racial oppression has been historically and remains today.” Feagin 2006, 5
[9] Feagin 2006, 5
[10] Huddy and Feldman 2009, 425
[11] “… it has been criticized for playing down old-fashioned blatant racism, when the latter still exists among many whites and is directly connected to negative views of substantial government programs to eradicate racial discrimination.” Feagin 2010 – Racist America - 123
[12] Feagin and O’Brien 2003, 23
[13] Feagin 2010, 101,102
[14] Picca and Feagin 2007, xii
“Indeed, the omnipresent white pretense of colorblindness increases the difficulty of protesting whites’ racist behavior in many societal settings.” Picca and Feagin 2007, xii
[15] Feagin 2013, 35, 36
[16] Feagin and O’Brien 2003, 6, 7
[17] Wingfield and Feagin 2010, 7
This system of racism includes: “racial stereotypes and prejudices”; “racial ideology”; “powerful racialized emotions”; “a range of discriminatory practices”; “and the institutions in which the fore going are imbedded.” Feagin and O’Brien 2003, 6
[18] “It is not a natural reality, but rather a construction that provides privileges to whites over black Americans and other Americans of color.” Feagin and O’Brien 2003, 7
“The racially inegalitarian system has long included general privileging and unjust enrichment of white Americans, and an unjust disadvantaging and impoverishment of those Americans who are viewed by whites as darker-skinned and inferior. Thus there is only one racialized system, and it was created by white Americans to be applied to all people of color.” Feagin and O’Brien 2003, 8
[19] “Specifically, the systemic racism perspective developed by Joe Feagin and his colleagues suggests that white racism is not an incidental part of this society, but is endemic and foundational. It is much more than an undesirable component of an otherwise healthy whole.” Wingfield and Feagin 2010, 7
[20] “Consciously or unconsciously, a majority of whites have long extended language and misunderstandings from the patriarchal model and patriarchal family setting to discuss, defend, and prescribe the hierarchy on which whites are generally dominant and people of color are generally subordinated. They have accented and honed the common folk model of a ‘natural’ social order, what has historically been called the ‘great chain of being.’” Feagin 2006, 29
“…’American society’ typically means white-controlled social institutions; the phrase ‘social values’ (or ‘family values’) typically means white-determined values; and the word ‘Americans’ typically means ‘White Americans.’” Feagin 2006, 30
“For centuries, white religious official have been leaders in developing the ideology that rationalized slavery and the subsequent societal oppression in more or less patriarchal terms.” Feagin 2006, 29
[21] Feagin 2000, 12
“Understanding how this unjust impoverishment and enrichment gets transmitted and institutionalized over generations of white and black Americans is an important step in developing an adequate conceptual framework for U.S. racism. Black labor was widely and unjustly used for building up the wealth of this white-dominated country from the 1600s to at least the 1960s – the slavery and Jim Crow segregation periods. Black Americans as a group were proletarianized to build up white prosperity. Racial classes (groups) are the rungs on the racist ladder and have divergent group interests.” Feagin 2000, 12
[22] Feagin 2000, 12
[23] “The interests of the white racial group have included not only a concrete interest in labor and other exploitation during the slavery and segregation periods, but also a concrete interest later on in the maintaining the substantial economic and other social privileges inherited from white ancestors.” Feagin 2000, 12
[24] “Central to the persistence of systemic racism has been the development of a common place white racial frame – that is, an organized set of racialized ideas, stereotypes, emotions, and inclinations to discriminate. This white racial frame generates closely associated, recurring, and habitual discriminatory actions. This frame and associated discriminatory actions are consciously or unconsciously expressed in the routine operation of racist institutions of this society. At an early point in colonial history, the highly structured reality of white-on-black oppression generated the first incarnation of this color-coded framing of society – a composite that has been maintained, albeit with some reworking, to the present day.” Feagin 2006, 25
“As Feagin has explained this new concept, the dominant white racial frame consists of sincere fictions, stereotypes, images, emotions, interpretations, and discriminatory inclinations that legitimize systemic racism and incline or allow whites to participate in the routine exploitation of people of color.” Wingfield and Feagin 2010, 13
[25] Feagin and O’Brien 2003, 10
[26] “… this white racial frame operates somewhat like a house, for it provides a structural skeleton on which much else is built. It organizes and structures much thought and action and tends to be deeply held, with numerous bits of stereotyped knowledge and many racist understandings. Everyday experiences are interpreted within it. As whites make use of essential bits of the frame to interpret daily events, and as they apply racial stereotypes, emotions, images, and interpretations in their discriminatory actions, they embed this frame ever more deeply in their minds.” Picca and Feagin 2007: 245
[27] Feagin 2006, 26
[28] Feagin 2006, 26
[29] Feagin and O’Brien 2003, 96
[30] Feagin 2006, 26; Feagin and O’Brien 2003, 96
[31] Feagin 2013, 55
[32] Feagin 2013, 55
[33] Feagin 2006, 31, 32
[34] Periodically, the dominant racial framing developed in the first century of North American development has been added to, subtracted from, or rearranged in its emphases. Powerful whites have periodically dressed it up differently for changing social circumstances, although much of its racist reality has remained the same. New ideas and interpretations have been added to deal with the pressures for change from the oppressed, particularly in regard to government remedial and antidiscrimination policies. After World War II, as we will see below, certain aspects of the dominant racial framing were altered a bit to fit new circumstances of the 1950s and 1960s, during which era blacks increasingly challenged the established patterns of compulsory Jim Crow segregation.” Feagin 2010, 77, 78
[35] “The white racial frame legitimates and shapes societal institutions as well as individual actions, and it is in turn shaped by those institutions. For example, sociologist Wendy Moore describes how the legal system systemically advantages whites through policies, rulings, and interpretations that deny full participation, citizenship, and opportunity to Americans of color. Similarly, a white racial framing shapes much of the operation of the mainstream news media, as is evidenced in the frequent depiction of black people as less honest, forthright, and moral than whites.” Wingfield and Feagin 2010, 15
[36] Feagin 2006, 91 quoted from Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. Frank Shuffelton (new York: Penguin Books, 1999 [1785]), 145.
[37] Feagin 2006, 178-186
[38] Alexander 2011, 38
[39] Feagin 2006, 227
[40] Feagin 2006, 228
[41] Picca and Feagin 2007; Bonilla-Silva 2003
[42] (the continuation of economic, political, legal, educational, employment and income, and social inequalities, residential segregation, health disparities, and disproportionate incarceration rates)
[43] “… Their rebellion brought great fear of black revolts into white minds, especially in southern areas, and new laws and repressive policing systems were developed by whites in response. This aggressive white response indicates how the action-reaction ‘law’ of social motion works for this society.” Feagin 2006, 32
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