In a video that circulated on social media two weeks after George Floyd’s death, 14 white celebrities gathered to take responsibility for “every not so funny joke” they’d laughed at and each time they’d “explained away police brutality.” As a mawkish piano theme twinkled in the background, they directed viewers to an organization, I Take Responsibility, whose website states: “We cannot sit idle while systemic racism and police brutality continue throughout our country. Racism is personal, it is local.” When we describe racism as “systemic,” we are supposed to be making a distinction between the bigoted attitudes of individuals and the routine workings of a society constructed on racist foundations. The video hopelessly conflated these things. It decried “systemic” problems, while cataloging personal deeds of racial malice and sins of obliviousness for which, it seems, one can atone through ritual acts of public confession.
Since May, such empty denunciations of “systemic racism” have become all too common. The CEO of Taco Bell announced that “we have a lot of work to do to combat systemic racism in America”; the company that makes Tasers, of all things, wants to fight “systemic inequity, racism, and injustice”; and George W. Bush recently wondered, “How do we end systemic racism in our society?” (He pledged to “listen” more.) By invoking a system without naming one, they had managed to say as little as possible, and do even less.
Systemic racism has various synonyms, notably “institutional racism,” the phrase made famous by Charles V. Hamilton and Stokely Carmichael in their 1967 book, Black Power. “Racism,” they wrote, “takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutional racism…. When a black family moves into a home in a white neighborhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which many people will condemn—at least in words. But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks, and discriminatory real estate agents.”
Hamilton and Carmichael had hoped the idea of “institutional racism” would compel people to name the guilty institutions. “Systemic racism,” on the other hand, offers little more than a gesture of recognition that racism is deeply rooted in American life. It alludes to a system as ubiquitous as oxygen, conjuring something pervasive and placeless, and hence blameless. This is perhaps why corporations feel comfortable using it. But if a problem has deep roots, then it needs to be attacked there, and not just with words. No listening tour, lip-quivering confession, or strongly worded statement about “systemic racism” can topple the institutions that sustain a racist society—schools, where police enforce discipline with violence; prisons, the backbone of a vast carceral economy; shuttered public hospitals; dilapidated city parks; or segregated, unaffordable housing.