Three steps towards dismantling systemic racism

After a tumultuous 2020, marked by the disproportionate impacts of Covid-19 on racially minoritised populations and the murder of George Floyd, we have been reminded how racism shows up in painful, sometimes deadly ways.

However, these manifestations of racism are, ultimately, symptoms of a deeper problem; they are the consequence of a system.

What’s in a system, anyway?
While it has become commonplace to say that the problem of racism is systemic, this term is often ill-defined.

Systemic racism is the condition where society’s laws, institutional practices, customs and guiding ideas combine to harm racially minoritised populations in ways not experienced by white counterparts.

Systemic racism means that people who are racially minoritised are over-scrutinised, over-sanctioned, under-served and under-valued in various settings, such as in schools, by the police, by social and health services, and in the jobs market.
And critically, systems thinkers remind us that systems outcomes are not by accident they are by design. In other words, if systems consistently deliver negative outcomes for particular populations such as racially minoritised people, then that is a design choice. These outcomes happen ‘on purpose’.

Repurposing systems
Systems are not easily dismantled and repurposed. The lattice of laws, institutional practices, customs and ideas are resilient and those invested in maintaining the existing order will tend to ‘self-stabilize around the status quo and reject any tendencies for systemic change’.

It is also the case that systemic racism generates so many crises, such as Grenfell, the Windrush scandal, and Covid-19, that those working for racial justice are often flat out trying to support and protect populations in the here and now. There is, understandably, often little time, resource or energy left for addressing the system that generates the damage in the first place.

However, if we want to move decisively and irreversibly towards racial justice then those committed to progress must develop a relentless focus on systems change. In particular, we need racial justice advocates and activists to target three objectives to make systemic headway.

1. Build systems literacy
As a society, our gravitation is to what individuals do rather than contextual factors that shape actions and outcomes. This takes us away from seeing harmful and unjust systems. Advocates and activists need to better illuminate how systemic racism works. This can be done with imagination and creativity, perhaps through storytelling and art, in order to make systems more vivid and life-like and less abstract.

2. Invest in positive mental models to challenge racial hierarchy
Despite scientific evidence debunking ‘race’, a significant proportion of people think that some ‘races’ are ‘better’ than others. Advocates and activists need to expose racist thinking as it is broadcast and also to target some of the ideas that support race hierarchy.
One such idea, is the idea of scarcity of resources. Scarcity and resource competition discourages affinity between relatively privileged populations and their marginalised counterparts. It keeps the ‘haves’ invested in existing, unjust ways of organising society.
Instead of scarcity, perhaps we need to raise into prominence ideas of sufficiency and sharing. We can emphasise that our lives are interdependent, not independent. It also means that we invest in intrinsically anti-racist mental models that emphasise parity of esteem of all people, mutual care and radical kinship. An example is the work of John A Powell to lay down ideas on expanding the circle of human concern.

3. Show how ‘alternative’ systems might operate in practice
Though we believe it possible, none of us has lived in a world without racism. This means it is a leap into the unknown. As advocates and activists, we must do more to blueprint what systemic re-arrangements for racial justice look like. This may help to reassure and reduce resistance to change and, as importantly, provide clear and tangible goals for advocates to work towards.

Examples include work in north America to design a system that does away with reliance on endemically racist modes of policing. This alternative model is based on already-existing practice that better serve and protect racialised populations and address conflict by supporting mental health, peacebuilding and family services.

It takes a different system
Greater focus on securing systemic change itself requires considerable shifts in how racial justice advocates and activists operate. We need to attune ourselves towards the goal of shifting systems. But we also need funders that will invest both in the ‘fast work’ of dealing with the symptoms of racism and the ‘slow work’ of long-term systems change.
Without rebalancing, the risk is that efforts for racial justice become reduced to surviving crises and securing marginal gains when what we really need is meaningful change.

Dr Sanjiv Lingayah is the author of It takes a system: The systemic nature of racism and pathways to systems change.


[1] I. Scrase and A. Smith (2009), ‘The (non‑)politics of managing low carbon socio-technical transitions’, Environmental Politics 18(5): 707–726.