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What Systemic Racism Is and How to Overcome It

Racism is systemic when it depends on explicit or implicit institutional values.

Key points

  • Philosopher Mario Bunge characterizes systems as consisting of compositions, environments, structures, and mechanisms.
  • Changing a system is more than just changing the individuals in it.
  • Systemic racism results from implicit values, norms, and routines that operate in institutions.
  • Reducing systemic racism requires institutional change in implicit values, norms, and practices.

Racism directed against Black people, indigenous people, and other groups is often said to be systemic in a way that amounts to more than the prejudices of individuals. Understanding and evaluating such claims requires a deep understanding of systems and institutions.

The most careful characterization of systems is due to the philosopher Mario Bunge. His CESM model of a system has it consisting of composition, environment, structure, and mechanism:

  • Composition: Collection of all the parts of the system.
  • Environment: Collection of items that act on components of the system.
  • Structure: Collections of relations, such as bonds among components or relations among components and items in its environment.
  • Mechanism: Collection of processes that makes the system behaves the way it does.

In social systems such as families and schools, the composition (set of parts) consists of people, but the parts can also be other social systems, for example when the United Nations includes numerous agencies such as the World Health Organization and UNESCO. The environment consists of items in the world with which people interact such as the buildings in which they live or work.

The structure of a social system is all the relations among people such as being married and external relations such as living in a house. Social mechanisms are combinations of connected people and institutions whose interactions produce regular changes.

How does this apply to systemic racism? Individual racism occurs when particular people have beliefs and emotions that are prejudicial against people of different races. Such localized racism might best be treated by changing the beliefs and emotions of the relevant individuals, through a combination of information correction, critical thinking, and motivational interviewing.

But a social system is not just an aggregate of individuals because its operations depend on:

  1. interactions between the individuals consisting of their communications with each other;
  2. whole groups of individuals organized into institutions such as families, schools, police departments, hospitals, companies, and government agencies; and
  3. environments in which the individuals operate including substandard housing, unavailability of good food stores, ineffective hospitals, etc.

Sometimes institutions are explicitly racist as indicated by their public policies and practices, but they can also be implicitly racist through unwritten values, norms, and practices.

Sociologist Joe R. Feagin describes how the United States has had three stages of systemic racism, two explicit and one implicit. Slavery and legal segregation after the Civil War both legally legitimized damaging treatment of Black people with respect to employment, housing, education, housing, and transportation. U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1950s and 1960s eliminated such explicit discrimination.

But the operation of institutions is not determined purely by their explicit rule-based policies. Values, norms, routines, practices, and goals may not be part of the written policies of an institution for them to have causal influences on the behaviors of its members. Racism does not stop just because it is illegal, and the practices of institutions such as police departments, schools, companies, and housing agencies can continue despite legal changes.

How individuals communicate with each other depends on the institutions to which they belong, because groups such as families and workplaces provide channels of interaction. Institutions do not reduce to their members because they have emergent properties including explicit written-down policies and rules, but also implicit values and norms.

Values are emotionally-charged concepts that emerge from the interactions of individuals. For example, that a country values democracy is more than that its individuals have a positive emotional attitude toward the concept of democracy. Individuals acquire these emotional attitudes in part through interaction with the agents of the country such as politicians and employees. Moreover, the value of democracy is instantiated in written polices such as constitutions and laws that decree free elections.

To make matters even more complicated, social systems can involve interactions between institutions such as governments, government agencies, police departments schools, and hospitals. These interactions often consist of interactions between individuals—for example, when a political leader gives orders to a police chief. But the interactions between institutions that determine their polices can also depend on whole groups of individuals interacting—for example, when a group of politicians from the federal level meet with a group of leaders from the state or provincial level.

Now we can see why systemic racism is more than individual racism because it involves (1) the interactions that are controlled through institutions and (2) the emergent properties of institutions in the form of policies, rules, values, and norms. Overcoming racism, therefore, is more than just changing the minds of individuals but also requires institutional modification.

Racism cannot be defeated without modifying governments, police departments, schools, and even families. Destruction of families has often resulted from racism—for example, when slavery separated children from their parents and parents from each other. The residential schools in Canada and other countries took indigenous children away from their parents and caused longstanding family problems resulting from the abuse that the children suffered.

In general, systemic reforms are more than individual reforms because they require changing how people communicate and how they are affected by the policies, values, rules, and norms of institutions. These reforms require changing the properties of institutions, including not only explicit policies but also implicit values and norms that influence behaviors.

The account of institutions as systems generates insights into the different kinds of change:

  1. Creation of new institutions, such as the 1945 formation of the United Nations.
  2. Destruction of institutions, such as the abolition of the residential schools for indigenous children.
  3. Alteration of the composition and structure of an institution by adding or subtracting its members including people and possibly other institutions.
  4. Revision of the explicit policies and routines of an institution by changing its written rules through adding, deleting, or editing.
  5. Revision of the implicit properties of an institution by identifying and changing unwritten values, norms, and routines that affect the behaviors of its members. For example, police departments can adopt policies that eliminate discriminatory practices of stops, arrests, and incarcerations.

All of these measures can contribute to institutional change and help to overcome systemic racism.


Braveman, P. A., Arkin, E., Proctor, D., Kauh, T., & Holm, N. (2022). Systemic and structural 5acism: Definitions, examples, health damages, and approaches to dissmantling. Health Affairs, 41(2), 171-178.

Bunge, M. (2003). Emergence and convergence: Qualitative novelty and the unity of knowledge. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Feagin, J. (2013). Systemic racism: A theory of oppression. New York: Routledge.

Thagard, P. (2019). Mind-society: From brains to social sciences and professions New York: Oxford University Press.

Findlay, S. D., & Thagard, P. (2012). How parts make up wholes. Frontiers in Physiology, 3. doi:10.3389/fphys.2012.00455.

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