What does systemic racism mean to you?

Disagreements over phrases like “systemic racism” can make it difficult for opposing sides to notice when they share common values.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP/File
A protester calls out to police during an anti-racism demonstration at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington on June 2, 2020.

Does critical race theory belong in the classroom? That’s become a contentious question for communities as more schools have incorporated into curriculum the idea that residual racism continues to shape modern America. In many states, the debate has shifted from schools to legislatures, as education writer Chelsea Sheasley explored earlier this month.

Both sides bring distinct worldviews to the discussion, and even defining terms such as “systemic racism” has become a stumbling block. 

For Andrew Gutmann, a New York parent, “Systemic racism, properly understood, is segregated schools and separate lunch counters,” he wrote in a letter to parents at the elite Brearley School that was later published online by former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss. “We have not had systemic racism against Blacks in this country since the civil rights reforms of the 1960s,” he added.

Therein lies the rub for Americans on both sides of the debate. While white conservatives acknowledge the historical examples Mr. Gutmann listed, they prefer to focus on the progress made and chafe at the notion that systemic or institutional racism undergirds American institutions today. To them, the words systemic and institutional imply an overt and intentional effort to enact policies that discriminate based on race.

But to Boston-area teacher Jo Persad, systemic racism is “this ever-present force, kind of like gravity. You can’t see it but you can experience its effects,” she told “Today.” “It ‘holds’ the world together.”

From this vantage point, racism remains systemic, despite the abolition of overtly racist policies. Redlining practices relegating people of color to less desirable neighborhoods, for instance, have largely been repealed. But a 2018 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that 74% of redlined communities of the 1930s remain low-to-moderate income today. “It’s as if some of these places have been trapped in the past, locking neighborhoods into concentrated poverty,” Jason Richardson of NCRC told The Washington Post.

Ironically, most everyone would agree that opportunity is a right, regardless of race. For many conservatives, however, erasing discriminatory laws leveled the playing field enough that progress becomes a matter of individual agency. The other camp cares deeply about agency, too. But for them, the ongoing impact of those laws has stymied advancement uniformly enough that the lack of progress must be addressed as a systemic problem, not individuals’ failure.

For columnist Ramesh Ponnuru, disagreements over phrases like “systemic racism” prevent opposing sides from even noticing when they share common values, such as individual agency.

“Well-meaning Americans have been calling for a ‘national conversation on race’ for decades, but the participants in it remain determined not to hear each other,” he writes in a Bloomberg Opinion column. “It doesn’t help when we agree with each other at the top of our lungs.”

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