So what should we mean?
If we’re going to use the term systemic racism, we can mean only this: that the aftermath of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and segregation has left us with a system that is not racist with respect to policy but racist with respect to the reality of our social structure.
If a child grows up in poverty, without a supportive family structure, in a substandard school system where academic achievement and discipline are not only undervalued but actively disparaged, of course, that child will end up profoundly disadvantaged for competing in a meritocracy.
And the less prepared disadvantaged children are to compete, the more obstacles and resistance they will face as adults seeking equitable treatment and opportunity.
It would be so much easier if it were a policy problem because we could fix that. Trillions of dollars have been spent in the United States since the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 to repair the inequities that stem from slavery and its aftermath. But in some ways, African Americans are even worse off today than they were then.
At the same time, the war on poverty hasn’t improved the plight of the poor, regardless of color.
It’s arguable that racism per se is not the root cause of these inequities, but rather a symptom of the cause. I would propose that what our society really suffers from is a culture of systemic otherism.
Who am I? Who are You?
Too many of us simply aren’t comfortable around people who are different from us. And that’s largely because we aren’t comfortable with ourselves. We’ve lost our sense of identity, of values, of direction. The values that enable us to transcend our ethnic and cultural differences have vanished beneath the waves of personal autonomy and libertinism. We no longer know who we are.
That’s why anyone different from us, anyone we see as the other, reminds us of our own insecurity.
Men and women are insecure around each other, blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, city dwellers and townsfolk, rich and poor, young and old. So we indulge our suspicions, or our resentment, or our pity, or our self-righteousness, all of which widen and deepen the social chasms that are splitting our society into irreconcilable ideological camps.
And the really bad news is that there is no easy solution. Needless to say, nobody wants to hear that.
So what can we do?
Just this: We can slowly, intentionally, and painstakingly expand our connections guided by the principles of E.T.H.I.C.S: empathy, trust, humility, inquisitiveness, courage, self-discipline, and service.
Identify with others to feel their joy and pain. Act honestly and forthrightly to command trust, and be prepared to trust others. Remember that we are all imperfect, that we all need to learn and grow, that we all need each other. Be genuinely curious and interested to encounter unfamiliar ideas and explore undiscovered territory. Be brave enough to be vulnerable by considering new possibilities and new points of view. Develop the discipline of intellectual integrity and commit yourself to the service of others.
If we make the effort to treat others with respect and engage those who are different from us, we can begin to see our differences not as cause for division as a source of strength and unity. And if that sounds like a pipe dream, go watch the TED Talk by Daryl Davis, the black musician who befriended a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a story that will make you believe in miracles.
With vision and determination, we can forge new partnerships, alliances, and friendships, we can expand them throughout our communities, and we can start to heal the spiritual and cultural virus of systemic otherism so that we can begin to build, together, a better world.
Adapted from remarks delivered at an online panel discussion on systemic racism as part of the Global Workplace Wellness Summit.