How Should We Define “Systemic Racism”?

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.

Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with leaders to create a culture of ethics that builds trust, sparks initiative, and drives productivity. He is director of Ethical Imperatives, LLC, a keynote speaker, and TEDx presenter, community rabbi, repentant hitchhiker, recovered world traveler, former newspaper columnist, and retired high school teacher in St. Louis. He’s the author of hundreds of articles applying ancient rabbinic wisdom to the challenges of the modern world and six books including “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.”


  1. Thank you for your words Yonason. You are a wonderful man of great wisdom.Your term “otherism” is exactly why I despise generalities. We’re able to place other people in buckets, when if we talked to them, we’d find out how individualistic they all are.

    I’m grateful to have exposure to your teachings. Thank you for using your voice so powerfully.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, JoAnna. Labels are useful as starting points, but they are wicked when we use them to imprison one another. Getting to know people as individuals is hard work, sometimes scary, but often surprising and frequently serendipitous.

      I’m glad we’re allies in the culture wars.

  2. Yonason, great insights!

    And in point of fact . . . action . . . all doing . . . happens in the present. So . . .

    We can only begin in the present moment…

    And if we fail to do so, the troubles will continue to grow, passed from now’s generations to the next. Ever onward.

    Looking at “Who are we?” has great impact. For when you know your own values — you can be open to connecting.

    Connecting can deepen respect. And lead to a level and span of communication that’s been lacking due in part to the oh-so-many -isms of society.

    Otherism is a good word here…

    Your historical background examples help show difficult problem in view of growing forward to solve the environment that keeps it going.



  3. Yonason, your article is enlightening and much to the point. I don’t know if our society will ever become unified in the way that I remember growing up in the 50’s, where you could ride your bike without fear, perhaps the screen door was never locked, that what was taught in school was the history of our existence, not blaming anyone who disagreed with us, where sitting down at the table with the family brought converstaiton and teachings. Where you looked and saw how others suffered, and yet Americans were willing to help those outside the US, even those within, but now the mindset that has evolved is one of selfishness, greed and power. That will change things not for the good, but for the evil. Still, with all that being said, many of us who carry the faith in God have hope and know that good will overcome evil. Still, compassion, love and kindness needs to come from all who want peace.

    • Thanks for your lovely comment, Lynn. We need faith in the Almighty and faith in ourselves. I believe that things are not as bad as the media portrays them, but their vision of chaos and intractable division may become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we don’t reclaim the values you describe. All we can do is our best. I’m grateful for voices like yours that move the needle in the right direction.

  4. Dear Yonason,

    That was one of the most direct, straight to the point; a strong but gentle description of reality. There is still much that needs talking about, addressing and openly aired and you have opened a door; not wide open, but sufficiently to create a dialogue. An understanding; genuine empathy. Thank you for sharing such wisdom. Having read your other articles, you certainly do fly a flag of Peace and Kindness and where there is an overall longing for those ideals they could become a reality.







"No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it."