One will often read statistics like: "Black Americans are dying from the coronavirus at more than twice the rate of whites." The obvious inference, here, is that blacks have less access to healthcare than do whites. The story is the same when it comes to the wealth and income gaps, as well as access to education and so on. The disparities are simply undeniable.

It remains to be explained, however, whether this lack of opportunity is owed directly to economic circumstances, or whether it is a result of an ongoing and active kind of current racism. A black person who cannot afford healthcare is in a very different situation than a black person who is denied a job in favour of a white worker directly in virtue of his race.

In most conversations, it seems to me that people conflate these two perspectives. Without a doubt, the economic disparities we observe between blacks and whites has everything to do with America's history of racism. But if this is the case, it seems to me that the term systemic racism is slightly misleading because it does not mean that racism is currently systemically enforced. If, when people refer to systemic racism, they mean that people are actively pursuing the maintenance of these disparities, then they have a more difficult case to make. Generalized statistics certainly do not seem sufficient to support this narrative because of the economic layers.

Now, of course, this picture is complicated by the idea of implicit bias. Sure, there may not be as many vicious, believing and committed racists running around the US as there once was. You might say, then, that these disparities are deeply aggravated by an underlying psychological bias. But again, how are you supposed to demarcate the extent to which this bias is present versus other factors?

Defenders of the term are thus left with the unfalsifiable claim that implicit (and sometimes explicit) bias contribute significantly to the data, while denialists can simply argue that everything can be chalked up to "past racism." What are the best ways to get around these generalizations and further (and more precisely) parse what is obviously a complex issue?

EDIT: Let me put this another way for those who are confused. We observe disparities in many areas (wealth, education, healthcare, policing, etc.) between black people and non-black people. My question is this: How might we measure how much current/ongoing explicit and implicit prejudice accounts for maintaining these disparities versus other factors (cultural, sociological, economic, etc.)?

Here is a crude example. It could be the case that more black people are arrested than whites because cops are generally racist (implicitly or explicitly). But it could also be the case that black people just commit more crimes because of cultural and economic factors. Now, obviously the issue here is nuanced, it's not going to be a one or the other answer. How can we approximate the degree to which each is responsible for the statistical disparities we observe?

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    I think you're misunderstanding what systemic racism is. From wikipedia: "Institutional racism (also known as systemic racism) is a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions. It is reflected in disparities regarding wealth, income, criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power and education, among other factors". The fact that African Americans are, on average, poorer than white Americans is not a counter-argument to the existence of systemic racism, it's a key part of it.
    – divibisan
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 20:08
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    @divibisan Okay, so be it. But again, there must be different kinds of systemic racism, here, because being disadvantaged by virtue of class is quite different from being suppressed by virtue of race. My question revolves around how much credence we lend to each given the disparities we observe.
    – natojato
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 21:21
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    I think you also might have something of a misunderstanding about where those relarive death rates come from. It's not really different medical treatment, since there really IS no good treatment for the COVID-19 virus. Instead, it reflects a greater likelihood of catching the virus in the first place, and this in turn seems likely to be a consequence of crowded living conditions, which in turn is usually a reflection of poverty and/or living in urban areas.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 4:38
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    @divibisan: But neither does the fact that blacks are poorer than whites, on average, prove that the disparity is due to racism.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 4:39
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    You seem to be missing @divibisan 's point. The outcome "Black people overwhelmingly belong to a different class than white people" is evidence of systemic racism. You can't separate race from class the way you're trying to.
    – user141592
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 5:24

4 Answers 4


Some of the strongest evidence we have about currently existing racial bias with economic consequences comes from resume studies and other kinds of carefully controlled field experiments. It has been shown again and again over decades that if you send employers the exact same resumes with either stereotypically white or stereotypically black names on them to similar kinds of companies, the response rates are measurable different. Likewise, it is well-documented that similar candidates with similar qualifications have different results from job interviews based on racial identity. Here is a meta-study which finds that from 1989 through 2017, "whites receive on average 36% more callbacks than African Americans, and 24% more callbacks than Latinos." Keep in mind that this is already controlling for education, experience and other relevant variables. Obviously, that level of racial discrimination will have some degree of impact on people's earnings.

However, it's unclear why the question is framed so explicitly in terms of present discrimination. Why is the past not relevant? There are even greater economic disparities in terms of wealth then in terms of income. Wealth accumulates in families over generations, so past forms of discrimination have lasting effects. Housing discrimination is an important example. It still exists today, but was even more widespread when formal and overtly racist redlining was still legal. Here and here are just a few of the many studies that have been done on this recently. Past wrongs cannot be corrected by fixing the immediate issue by reducing or eliminating ongoing discrimination; the lasting impacts of past discrimination must also be addressed before we can claim the playing field is level.

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    Re "stereotypically black names", is this really racist, or is it "culturist"? That is, those names probably indicate that the person was raised in a culture which devalues the qualities that would make a good employee. Rather the same effect as if your white candidate sported a name like Galadriel Moonbeam. It also begs the question of why, if parents want their children to be financially successful, they insist on giving them such names. Compare for instance to the Asian community, where children are commonly given western names (at least for public use).
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 18:47
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    @jamesqf What you call culturalism is what others call "color-blind racism". If non-whites need to emulate whites to be treated as equal members of society, I think it's perfectly fair to call that society racist.
    – Brian Z
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 19:48
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    @Joe I don't understand your assertion. If whites receive on average of 36% more callbacks across many different experiments, how could this possibly be the fault of any "single, identifiable person"?
    – Brian Z
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 0:26
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    @Brian Z: That's where you - and the people inventing the "color blind racism" nonsense - are wrong. (Or perhaps "not even wrong" applies here?) First, why should people be locked in a particular culture because of their skin color? Second, you have pretty much the same thing happening everywhere. Certainly I would never have been successful in my field if I'd insisted on behaving according to the norms of my (white hillbilly) birth culture.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 15:41
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    @jamesqf These are non-sequitirs. Who said "people [should] be locked in a particular culture because of their skin color"? Does the worldwide prevelance of anti-black racism make it somehow inherently not racist? Discrimination against white people based on rural/ working-class/regional accents is real too, so what's your point?
    – Brian Z
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 16:11

This question seems to stem from some amount of confusion, that discrimination operates on two mutually exclusive axes, one describing race and one describing class. In reality, the two are closely related.

A quick example from wiki

The Pew Research Center's analysis of 2009 government data says the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households.[11]


Data has shown that “among racial and ethnic groups, African Americans had the highest poverty rate at 27.4%” [18].


In 2017, the homeownership rate was 72.5% for non-Hispanic Whites, 46.1% for Hispanics, and 42.0% for Blacks.[30] From this data, non-Hispanic Whites own homes at a much higher rate that all other races, while Hispanics and Blacks own homes at much lower rates. This means that a high percentage of Hispanic and Black populations do not receive the benefits, such as wealth accumulation and insurance against poverty, that owning a home provides.

Progressive issues focused on class tend towards Marxism, but again, this is heavily influenced by issues of race.

On one part of that spectrum, as Briahna Gray writes in The Intercept, Democratic Senator Kamala Harris targets the Left’s supposed “class reductionism”; on another, socialists debate if and how the fundamental Marxist insight of class centrality can be used to formulate strategies to fight racial and gender oppression. In a recent review of Asad Haider’s book Mistaken Identity, Melissa Naschek writes that Haider rightly points to the ways in which “the ideology and rhetoric of ‘identity’ has been used as a weapon against the working class.” But while Marxists must defend class politics from both the radical and mainstream variants of what Gray in her piece calls “race reductionism,” fights for universalist class-wide demands and fights against particular racial oppressions are not mutually exclusive (as Naschek’s piece seems to imply). Indeed, in order for the socialist project to succeed, socialists must link these struggles together.

Here is a paper on education outcomes, where the abstract concludes "Interventions to eliminate achievement gaps cannot fully succeed as long as social stratification caused by gender and racial discrimination is not addressed."

This report out of Ohio University is worth reading (38 page pdf warning). It's a memo about progressive politics, and the need to identify racial issues in politics. They point out some examples where a "race-neutral" platform loses support, compared to platforms where racial issues are acknowledged. But what I want to point out is this paragraph in the opening section. I think it's relevant to OP's question that seems to want to extract out racial issues and just address "what's left":

People who assert the race-neutral position are usually basing their claim on a very inadequate definition of race and the work it has done and is doing in society. This limited understanding of race assumes that it is primarily about people of color and that racism is primarily about discrimination and therefore is a special pleader. Under this view, race or racism is primarily understood to be a psychosocial event that occurs between individual persons or prejudice directed at non-whites. Accordingly, disparities may be addressed by identifying bad, discriminatory actors and particular victims, and transferring resources between whites and non-whites. The assumption is that this is to be done by taking from whites. There is little examination in this model as to what we need for a secure, healthy life. Instead, we frame the solution as a zero sum game. It is not surprising that whites resist. To the extent that race is only about the grievances of non-whites, whites are less likely to join the discourse.

It would probably also be clarifying to discuss the concept of race in the United States. People get grouped together based on physical characteristics. But there is also a kind of social construction of race. At various points, Catholics and Jews have been considered non-white. At various points, white European immigrants have been considered non-white. At various points, South Asian immigrants with dark skin have been considered white. (There are better sources 1 but here's a pdf discussing these claims). Keeping this racial history in mind might help understanding the context of class issues.

This is not to say that race and class are the same thing. There are many poor white people and 57% of homeless veterans are white. But do keep in mind the problem of Intersectionality. Being Black, and being a woman, cannot be combined to describe the experience of being a Black woman. In the same way, issues of poverty cannot be discussed without also taking into account issues of race.

  • See my edit for general comments.
    – natojato
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 20:31
  • 2
    @natojato you are assuming it is possible to clearly distinguish between "explicit and implicit prejudice" and "cultural, sociological, economic" factors. This answer discusses why that belief is mistaken.
    – BurnsBA
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 20:52

I think some of the confusion here stems from what is meant by the term "racism". Consider the following reasonable and not even mutually-exclusive definitions of racism:

  1. Racism is an intention to cause harm or a judgement of inferiority solely on the basis of ethnicity.
  2. Racism is an implicit bias for or against particular ethnic groups based on anecdotal experience and cultural zeitgeist.
  3. Racism is a social outcome that negatively impacts a certain ethnic group or groups disproportionately compared to the background rate for the general population or compared to what one would expect based on population composition.

Note that these are as I said not mutually-exclusive, it's not that one of these is the "correct" definition and the others are wrong.

Now consider the coronavirus example you gave.

The first, as you've noted, is impossible to say, and unlikely. Like, so many healthcare workers are explicitly racist that they are outright denying care to African Americans on a massive scale because of it? Hard to prove, and seems implausible. The third definition applies, well, definitionally.

While like the first definition the second is difficult to prove, it's not impossible, and unlike the explicit racism case it's very much plausible that people (including healthcare workers and hiring decision-makers and police officers) are walking around with implicit biases regarding ethnic groups.

So when people reference systemic racism they may or may not be implying that persons of power or cultural influence hold explicitly racist beliefs, but they are almost always referencing the kind of racism captured by definitions 2 and 3 above.

  • 2
    Here's an interesting article backing it up: aamc.org/news-insights/how-we-fail-black-patients-pain About half of all medical students believe things like "Black people's nerve endings are less sensitive" or "Black people have thicker skin". Black patients's pain and symptoms are not taken as seriously, likely because of such biases.
    – user141592
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 16:44
  • 3
    @natojato after reading your edit, I just don't think you can pull apart those kinds of things: they're too interwoven. It's a feedback loop: racism causes black people to be worse off, black people being worse off causes people to incorrectly infer that black people are inferior (even if subconscious) which is racism, which causes black people to be worse off...and while you might be able to figure out which came first, the chicken or the egg, dozens of generations in it doesn't make sense anymore to ask if eggs cause chickens or chickens cause eggs, the answer is yes. Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 22:04
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    Where do you get these definitions? And def. 3 seems to be wrong..If not then the Amish people have 4 fingers (Ellis-van-Creveld-Syndrom) because of racism? Commented Jun 28, 2020 at 9:47
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    @CuriousIndeed no, but Black males being shot by police at 2x the background rate is. Ditto for resumes with typically African-American names getting fewer interviews calls than resumes with identical credentials but "whiter" names. Attributing an obviously wrong position to someone who didn't espouse it so you can dismiss them is called strawmanning, and I don't appreciate it. If that was not your intent and you meant it as a legit question about what I meant, I'm sorry if I took it the wrong way. Commented Jun 28, 2020 at 13:02
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    @JaredSmith Can you elaborate why it would not be called racism? If racism is an "outcome" I don't see why it would not fit that case...Also please cite your source of this defintion, because it does not fit the definition put forward for example by oxford dictionary or merriam webster.. Commented Jun 28, 2020 at 15:30

The meta-analysis cited by user Brian Z seems to support the contention that racial discrimination exists in the job market. Quilian et al. 2017

However due to affirmative action policies the odds of being admitted to US universities is about 15 times higher for African Americans compared to Asian Americans.

After controlling for grades, test scores, family background (legacy status), and athletic status (whether or not the student was a recruited athlete), Espenshade and Radford found that whites were three times, Hispanics six times, and blacks more than 15 times as likely to be accepted at a US university as Asian Americans. Affirmative Action in the United states

So does systemic / institutional racism exist? Unfortunately, due to affirmative action policies we cannot know. For example the meta analysis listed above seems to support that contention. However due race-based university admission the educational achievement cannot be directly compared between two different races.

If an Asian American has to work much harder to get a university degree than an African American due to Affirmative Action it is very likely that employer would choose an Asian American over an African American with the same education. That's racism yes, but it is also a consequence of Affirmative Action.

  • 5
    Can you be a bit more clear on your point? This sounds like evidence that systemic racism does exist, and that it affects Asians too, despite their status as a "model minority"
    – divibisan
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 16:10
  • Could you also be clearer about how this is "in the context of poverty", as specified in the question? I'm not seeing how poverty factors into the equation here, especially given that impoverished families in the US are less likely to be able to apply for university.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 16:18
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    'Unfortunately, due to affirmative action policies we cannot know'? This whole answer reads more like a screed against affirmative action than anything else. There are MANY ways of measuring and studying systemic racism; college admissions are just one relatively small piece of the puzzle, and even within that piece there are plenty of ways of compensating for effects from admissions policies. Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 18:14
  • 2
    While affirmative action is racist according to most definitions of racism, I fail to see how this is answers the question
    – Peter
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 18:31
  • @StevenStadnicki "and even within that piece there are plenty of ways of compensating for effects from admissions policies." Can you cite studies that actually do this?Not saying it's not possible, but account for confounding needs data which AFAIK does not exist. Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 7:06

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