Systemic Racism: Is It Based On An Inadequate Analogy?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

In 1967 Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton coined the term “institutional racism” in their book Black Power. The authors stated: Racism takes two forms. Individual racism, individual whites acting against individual blacks, and institutional racism, acts by the total white community against the black community. The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces of society and relies on the active and pervasive operation of anti-black attitudes and practices.

The explanation for the second type of racism was vague.

Therefore, the term institutional racism didn’t enter the national discourse as a working definition, it entered as a concept that was self-explanatory. Over the decades the synonym — systemic racism — emerged because people started to defend American institutions against the charge of institutional racism. The skeptics asked how could the institutions be racist with policies like affirmative action? The rebuttal was these institutions may have equalized opportunity but there were still disparate outcomes like the wealth gap between blacks and whites. Historian Ibram X. Kendi, author of — How to be an Antiracist — stated, when he sees disparities, he sees racism. Therefore, disparity statistics reveal the existence of systemic racism, but there’s an obvious problem, that doesn’t mean systemic racism caused the disparity.

Also, there’s been an important factor overlooked in the book Black Power.

The term institutional racism was invented in a chapter called: White Power, The Colonial Situation. The chapter begins with this quote, “In the age of decolonization, it may be fruitful to regard the American Negro as a unique case of colonialism, an instance of internal imperialism, an underdeveloped people in our very midst.” Carmichael and Hamilton wrote, “To put it another way, there is no “American dilemma” because black people in this country form a colony, and it is not in the interest of the colonial power to liberate them. Black people are legal citizens of the United States with, for the most part, the same legal rights as other citizens. Yet they stand as colonial subjects in relation to white society. Thus, institutional racism has another name: colonialism.” The authors admitted, “Obviously, the analogy is not perfect.” But they continued to make their case, drawing similarities between the plight of black America with the decolonization movement in Africa, a movement that heavily influenced the authors.

But the colonial analogy had no practical application in the United States.

Now, in 2020, the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer became the catalyst for national protest against systemic racism. During this time, Kennedy Mitchum, a 22-year-old black woman and graduate from Drake University, was involved in conversations about racism and injustice. Mitchum said people were defending themselves by pointing to the definition of racism in the Merriam-Webster dictionary to prove they were not racist. The Merriam-Webster dictionary’s first definition of racism states “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Mitchum complained the people she conversed with used the dictionary definition to dismiss her concerns about racism and overlook the broader issue of racial inequality. Mitchum concluded the dictionary definition was inadequate because the definition is not representative of what is actually happening in the world. So, Mitchum wrote the Merriam-Webster dictionary and asked them to resolve her problem.

The editor of the Merriam-Webster dictionary pointed out the second definition of racism in their dictionary states, “A doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and design to execute its principle or a political/social system founded on racism.” The editor said these definitions covered systemic racism, but the dictionary can express this more clearly to bring the idea of an asymmetrical power structure into the language of this definition.”

Now, the Merriam-Webster dictionary will define systemic racism “clearly”, but the inadequacy of the colonial analogy still remains.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store