News·14 min read

Systemic Racism in the US

black lives matter sign
April 19, 2021

The Story

The recent violence and deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police and others have once again pushed the US to reckon with systemic racism that dates back to the founding of this country.

Where to start?

With being upfront about the fact that systemic racism is so expansive and deep-rooted that no guide will be able to accurately depict the hundreds of years of injustice it’s caused Black people in the US. But let’s start by getting on the same page about what defines systemic racism. It refers to systems and practices that create and maintain racial inequality. Even though slavery was officially abolished in the 1860s, racism and discrimination have continued to persist throughout nearly every facet of American life. In the years and decades immediately following the end of slavery, certain policies sanctioned discrimination against Black people. Probably none more so than Jim Crow laws. 

I’m angry just thinking about it.

Good. Between the late 1800s and mid-1900s (yes, nearly three quarters of a century), southern states implemented a set of laws that segregated Black and white people in all aspects of life: education, housing, public transportation, restaurants, prisons, drinking fountains, bathrooms, the list goes on. This system was sanctioned by a Supreme Court decision that upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine. In reality, the spaces Black people had access to were rarely equal to those of white people, if they existed at all. During this time, Black people were frequently terrorized and killed by whites and white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan – with more than 3,000 Black people being lynched, according to the NAACP. While segregation in public places was banned with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Jim Crow laws reinforced a systemic structure of inequality that we still see today. Let’s get into the areas of our society where we see this playing out…

Housing Discrimination

Home ownership can be a significant way to build wealth in the US. But Black Americans have long been left out. First, because they weren’t legally allowed to own property as enslaved people. And later, because of a series of federal and local policies, including segregated federal housing projects and redlining.

Can you expand on that?

Redlining is a practice that started in the 1930s to determine which neighborhoods were worthy of mortgage loans. Neighborhoods that were considered a higher credit risk were outlined in red. Guess who mostly lived in those neighborhoods? The practice kept Black people from being able to buy homes and it wasn’t banned until the 1960s.

What happened then?

The federal gov passed the Fair Housing Act. It bans discrimination when it comes to buying or renting a home, applying for a mortgage, or receiving public housing. But experts say the effects of redlining are still visible today.


In 2019, Black home ownership fell to a record low since the Census Dept began keeping track. At one point that year, the homeownership rate among white people was 73%, compared to 40.6% among Black people. One study from 2018 found that three out of four neighborhoods that were redlined decades ago are low-to-moderate income today, and more likely to be made up of minority residents. On the flip side, the study found that neighborhoods that were considered a safe investment during the redlining era now have higher incomes and are predominantly white. And all of this affects not just where Black Americans live, but the type of schools they go to as well. Which brings us to… 


In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional with the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. But most schools weren’t actually integrated for years. And data shows that US schools have become more, not less, segregated in recent decades.

How is that possible?

After the Brown case, some school districts made voluntary efforts to integrate. But not all. A subsequent 1971 Supreme Court decision upheld mandatory busing programs to integrate schools. That was the practice of transporting kids outside of their neighborhood to achieve diversity in schools. Both white and Black students were bused, but it was more common for Black students to have to travel. But people fought it.


Many white parents fled to the suburbs or to private schools, making it harder to maintain racially-diverse schools. Some groups of kids were confronted with violence, including crowds throwing bricks at school buses holding Black children in Boston. And in the ‘90s, a number of court rulings against busing were issued, saying it had worked and didn’t need to continue. But a 2019 study found that since 1988, the number of schools that enroll 90-100% non-white students has more than tripled. And minority students are increasingly concentrated in schools with higher rates of poverty. 

What's the crux of the problem here?

A lot of it has to do with the fact that school districts rely heavily on local taxes and poorer areas have less tax income. Meaning that communities with low-income households are automatically getting less money dedicated to their local schools. One study found schools that mostly serve students of color got $23 billion less funding than mostly white school districts, or about $2,200 less per student. And with fewer resources comes an achievement gap, where minority students typically have lower standardized test scores than white students. Research shows that the gap narrows when schools are integrated. But until then, it means that millions of Black students are facing a disadvantage – especially when it comes to...


There's a history of discrimination setting Black Americans back in the workforce. After slavery was abolished, “black codes” – laws that restricted work opportunities – became the precursor to Jim Crow laws. For example: South Carolina’s black code reportedly said Black people could only work as farmers or servants unless they paid an annual tax. If anyone violated the laws, they could be arrested or face fines.

Doesn’t sound like freedom.

No. And laws like this lasted for decades...until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned employment discrimination based on people’s race, among other things. And set up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which oversees enforcement of civil rights laws in the workplace. 

Where do things stand today?

Black people continue to face discrimination in hiring and at work. 

  • Studies show that companies are more likely to call back a candidate who has a name that’s more commonly associated with white people.

  • Black workers reportedly account for 26% of EEOC discrimination claims...but only make up 13% of the workforce. Many of these claims detail racism, from the specific work employees are assigned (eg: getting more difficult assignments than white coworkers) to how much they’re paid compared to white counterparts.

  • Black Americans are more likely to be unemployed or have low-paying jobs compared to white Americans. That’s in part due to education disparities. But studies show Black workers earn less than white workers even when they have the same education. That brings us to the fact that…

  • There’s also the racial wage gap: the Economic Policy Institute says that in 2017, Black men made about 70 cents for every $1 their white counterpart made. The gap is especially large when it comes to Black women, who in 2017 made about 61 cents for every $1 a white man made.

How do we fix this?

The EEOC says discrimination is more likely to happen in a less diverse workspace. Diversity and inclusion experts say employers need to make a more conscious effort to hire Black workers. Retention is also key, because that’ll help Black employees grow and develop their careers and get promoted into high-level positions, where they can be part of companies’ decision-making processes. Referrals can also make a difference. Research shows that one-third of jobs have been filled by referrals. But one study found women of color are 35% less likely to receive a referral than whhite men. One thing that’s certain is that inequality in employment also leads to…

Wealth Inequality

Disparities in housing, education, and employment have all contributed to the large wealth gap that exists today between Black and white Americans. In 2016, the median wealth of white households = $171,000. That’s 10 times higher than the median wealth of Black households, which = $17,100. Yes, 10 times. US census data from 2018 shows that about 1 in 5 Black people in the US live in poverty. Inheritance also contributes to the wealth gap. The Federal Reserve says that not only are white Americans twice as likely to receive an inheritance than Black Americans, but it’s also usually much larger. This sets up the next generation of Black Americans to fall financially behind.

Is there anything we can do to spread the wealth?

Activists say that closing the wealth gap is key to addressing systemic racism in America. There’ve been a few ideas thrown around, like…

  • Reparations for slavery. Which would compensate the descendants of enslaved people. Lawmakers have intro’d legislation to start studies on it – something President Biden has backed. Supporters say reparations would help give Black Americans a chance at equality after being set back for centuries. Opponents say it would likely be a huge cost and say Americans today shouldn’t be held responsible for slavery.

  • Adjusting tax cuts. Many tax cuts benefit the wealthy, since they focus on things like home ownership and investments. But economists argue that providing tax cuts for poorer families could help them have a better standard of living, save money, and increase their wealth.

  • Upping the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage has remained $7.25/hour for over a decade – and there's been a push to increase it to $15/hour amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While many states have a higher minimum wage, raising it nationally would help boost wages for low-income jobs. And studies show it could decrease poverty and reliance on public assistance programs like food stamps.

Health Care 

There are major racial disparities in access to health care in the US and in the health of US citizens. Black Americans have higher rates of chronic health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease than white Americans. Black women are three to four times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related death than white women. And the death rate from COVID-19 is disproportionately high among Black Americans. Some of the health disparities can be linked to institutional racism in living conditions and higher poverty rates. Black Americans are also nearly twice as likely as white Americans to be uninsured, making them less likely to get care. There's also an underlying factor of discrimination and bias in the care Black Americans receive.


The US health care system was segregated for much of the 20th century. Example: Black patients were denied entry to white hospitals or forced to stay in different wards and wings. That began to change after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the passage of Medicare in 1965. The Civil Rights Act banned segregation in programs and at institutions that got federal money. So hospitals that wanted federal funding from Medicare quickly integrated. But other racist practices continued.

Like what?

The Tuskegee Study. It was a 40-year experiment by the US Public Health Service. Starting in 1932, it tracked hundreds of Black men in Alabama with untreated syphilis. The patients weren’t told the truth about the study and were denied proper treatment for the disease. That led to some of them passing syphilis on to their families and suffering needlessly, until the study was publicly exposed in 1972. It’s still linked as a reason why some Black Americans distrust the US health system to this day.

Makes sense.

Yep, especially since disparities in care haven't stopped. Studies have shown Black patients are less likely to get proper treatment for pain management or heart issues than white patients. And are misdiagnosed more frequently with schizophrenia. One study even found half of white medical students and residents believed at least one myth about physiological differences between Black people and white people – like that Black people have a higher tolerance for pain. But some things are changing.

How so?

Since key parts of the Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2014, studies show more Americans have access to health care and insurance. And that coverage rates went up the most among Black and Hispanic Americans. Disparities in coverage still exist, but the law helped narrow them.

Criminal Justice

Since the end of slavery, the US legal system has been used over and over again to sanction racial discrimination. Studies show there are still racial disparities in every step of the criminal justice system – Black people are disproportionately stopped by police, arrested and unlikely to make bail. And they receive disproportionately higher sentences and are less likely to receive parole. Pew Research Center says 33% of the people sentenced to prison are Black, even though Black people make up about 12% of the adult population in the US. And the US has the largest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2 million people imprisoned in 2016.

How did we get here?

The US prison population has exploded in the last few decades. Drug-related and violent crimes in the US went up dramatically in the late 1960s, and could be due in part to increased urbanization and rising homicide rates among African Americans. Both the feds and states started adopting stricter sentencing laws. Some created racial disparities in punishments. For instance, a 1986 drug law mandated harsher punishments for crack cocaine possession (used more commonly by Black defendants) than powder cocaine (used more commonly by white defendants) – even though it’s two versions of the same drug. Meaning: Black defendants were punished more harshly.

What about now?

There have been changes. In 2010, President Obama signed a law to reduce the penalty disparity between crack and powder cocaine charges. And in 2018, President Trump signed another law to apply those changes retroactively. That law also reduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. Data also shows the racial disparity in incarceration rates has declined somewhat in recent years, but it’s still high. Researchers say that could be due to a number of things, including criminal justice reform and falling crime rates. But the disparities in our criminal justice system still exist. And one area that's been getting a lot of national attention lately is...


The police killings of Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have sparked nationwide protests. But their deaths weren’t isolated cases. Research shows police are more likely to use force against and kill Black Americans. And there’s also a history of racism in policing in the US.

I'm listening...

Some of the first police forces in the country were “slave patrols.” They were groups of men who would hunt down enslaved people who ran away and suppress rebellions. And during the Jim Crow era, Black communities were heavily policed. Some law enforcement officials were also members of the KKK.

So what’s happening now?

There’s a growing push for police reform. Some have called to defund the police, which generally means shifting funds from police to social services. The Minneapolis City Council has pledged to disband its police force, and a number of cities have already moved toward defunding their police force. On the federal level, the House has passed sweeping police reform legislation. It would ban chokeholds and certain no-knock warrants, and make a national database to track police misconduct. Unclear if or when the Senate will take up that bill.

Voter Suppression

The 15th Amendment technically gave Black men the right to vote in the US in 1870. (Women got the right to vote in 1920.) But in reality, Black voter suppression continued for nearly another hundred years. In the Jim Crow era, southern states put up all kinds of barriers to prevent Black Americans from voting. They included poll taxes, literacy tests (and so-called “grandfather clauses” that exempted white voters from complying with these rules), intimidation, and outright violence. This began to change after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Remind me.

It’s considered one of the most important civil rights laws ever passed in the US. The Voting Rights Act banned the use of literacy tests, called for Federal examiners in counties with a history of voting discrimination (who would register qualified citizens to vote), and required those areas to get “preclearance” before they could change voting rules. And it was hugely effective. The US Commission on Civil Rights found the voter registration rate among non-white citizens in Mississippi was 6.7% in 1964. By 1967, it was nearly 60%. 

What about now?

Since 2010, about half the states in the US have enacted tighter rules on voting like voter ID laws, cutting early voting hours, and voter roll purges. Supporters say the rules are meant to prevent voter fraud. But studies show voter fraud is rare, and critics point out the disproportionate impact some of these laws have on Black Americans and other minorities. Also, a Supreme Court ruling appeared to have made matters worse.

Meaning what?

In 2013, the Court essentially ruled that states with a history of discrimination no longer had to get the federal gov’s ok before they changed voting laws – giving states a lot more leeway. States had argued that the rule was based on decades-old data and was outdated, and the court agreed. Critics said it was still needed to prevent discrimination.

So it’s still a problem.

Yes. Studies show Black Americans are less likely than white Americans to have a government-issued ID (which experts say can be expensive and difficult to obtain) – making it harder to comply with voter ID laws. States like North Carolina put restrictions on early voting, which was disproportionately used by Black voters. That law was later struck down. The 2018 Georgia governor’s race had major allegations of suppression of Black voters because of voter roll purges and an “exact match” law that blocked someone’s voter registration if the name on the voter roll didn’t exactly match the name on their government-issued ID. And early 2021, Georgia and Arkansas passed voting restriction bills that do things like cut the time people have to request an absentee ballot, require a signature match for absentee ballots, limit the use of ballot drop boxes, ban handing out food and water in poll lines, and more.


Racism has been part of our country since its founding and there’s no simple fix to reversing centuries of discrimination. But here's what you can do to start: Educate yourself. Educate others in your life. Support organizations and lawmakers – both on the local and national level – who are working to craft and pass policy changes. Call out racism in everyday interactions, social circles, and at work. And demand better representation in all aspects of life.

Last updated on April 19 – Updated to include new hyperlinks and latest news on reparations studies, the federal minimum wage, police reform legislation, and state voting laws.

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