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Systemic Racism — Explained

NOTE FROM EDITORS: As Skeptic Publisher Michael Shermer wrote in his Introduction to Skeptic magazine’s special issue on Race Matters (27.3), the issues outlined in this article documenting the continuation of systemically racist social structures—even as racist attitudes have improved dramatically over the past half century—mean that race still matters very much in the USA. It is thus incumbent on all of us to properly understand the causes of these issues so that we may implement a rational and science-based response to them.

To explain systemic racism, we start with the historical origins of race in the U.S.—that is, the social, political, and economic mechanisms that have maintained it over time. Race is baked into the history of the U.S. going back to colonial times1, 2, 3 and continuing through early independence when slavery was quietly written into the nation’s Constitution.4 Although the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution ended slavery and granted due process, equal protection, and voting rights to the formerly enslaved, efforts to combat systemic racism in the U.S. faltered when Reconstruction collapsed in the disputed election of 1876, which triggered the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.5

The absence of federal troops to enforce Black civil rights enabled states in the former Confederacy to construct a new system of racial subordination known as Jim Crow.6 It rested on a simple principle: in any social encounter, the lowest status White person was superior to the highest status Black person. By law and custom, Black voting rights were suppressed, and Black Americans were socially segregated from Whites, relegated to menial occupations, inferior schools, dilapidated housing, and deficient facilities throughout Southern society. Any challenges to the Jim Crow system, perceived or real, were met with violence, often lethal, both within and outside the legal system.7

Segregation is Key to Explaining Systemic Racism

From 1876 to 1900, 90 percent of all African Americans lived in the South and were subject to the dictates of the repressive Jim Crow system; 83 percent lived in poor rural areas, occupying ramshackle dwellings clustered in small settlements in or near the plantations where they worked. Although conditions were somewhat better for the 10 percent of African Americans who lived outside the South, anti-Black prejudice was widespread, racial discrimination was common and, as in the South, the prospect of racial violence was never far away.8

Before 1900, few African Americans lived in cities, and levels of urban racial residential segregation were modest. Black workers and servants generally lived within walking distance of their workplaces, and social contact between the races was common.9 At that time, the share of Blacks among city residents was small, and they were not perceived to be a threat to White hegemony, obviating the need for spatial segregation. The Great Black Migration of the 20th century changed this status quo and transformed race relations in the U.S., making race truly a national rather than regional issue.10

Between 1900 and 1970, millions of African Americans left the rural South in search of better lives in industrializing cities throughout the nation. As a result of this migration, by 1970 nearly half of all African Americans had come to live outside the South, 90 percent in urban areas.11 It was during this period of Black urbanization that the ghetto emerged as a structural feature of American urbanism, making Black residential segregation into the linchpin of a new system of racial stratification that prevailed throughout the U.S. irrespective of region.12

The imposition of strict immigration restrictions in 1921 and 1924 guaranteed that Black workers and their families would continue to pour into cities during the economic boom of the 1920s.13 The entry of everlarger cohorts of impoverished Black laborers and sharecroppers into the nation’s cities unnerved White urbanites, prompting them to organize collectively by creating “neighborhood improvement associations.” These organizations pressured landlords not to rent to Black tenants and tried to convince Black home seekers that it was in their best interest to locate elsewhere, using persuasion and payoffs when possible but resorting to violence when these blandishments failed.14

In 1924, the National Association of Real Estate Brokers adopted a code of ethics stating that “a Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”15 In 1927, the Chicago Real Estate Board devised a model racial covenant to block the entry of Blacks into White neighborhoods and offered it to other cities for adoption throughout the country.16 A racial covenant is a private contract in which property owners within a defined geographic area collectively agree not to rent or sell to African Americans. Once approved by a majority of property owners, the contract became enforceable, and violators could be sued in civil court.

The exclusively private auspices of Black residential segregation ended with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. When Franklin Roosevelt came to power with his New Deal in 1933, the nation was in the midst of a catastrophic banking crisis. Millions of middle-class homeowners had lost jobs and were in danger of defaulting on their mortgages, putting both their homes and their bankers at financial risk. In response, the Roosevelt Administration created the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) to help middle-class homeowners refinance their mortgages using long-term, federally insured, low-interest loans.17 Together the federal guarantees and extended amortization periods reduced monthly mortgage payments to affordable levels, saving both the banks and the homeowners from financial losses through foreclosure.

To qualify for the federal guarantees, however, HOLC loans had to meet certain government-mandated criteria. In addition to low interest rates, minimal down payments, and long amortization periods, lenders were obliged to consider the riskiness of the neighborhoods in which properties were located. To this end, HOLC officials worked with local realtors and bankers to create a series of Residential Security Maps for use in cities throughout the nation. These maps color-coded neighborhoods according to their creditworthiness. Green indicated a safe investment, yellow indicated caution, and red indicated excessive risk and hence ineligibility for HOLC lending. Black neighborhoods were invariably coded red, along with adjacent neighborhoods perceived to be at risk of Black settlement.18

In 1934 the Roosevelt Administration created a much larger loan program under the Federal Housing Authority. The FHA offered long-term loans to prospective home buyers, not just owners. Reflecting the prejudices of the realtors, bankers, and builders who helped to design the program, FHA underwriters were also required to make use of the HOLC’s Residential Security Maps, formally institutionalizing the practice of redlining in real estate and banking and systematically cutting off investment in Black neighborhoods for decades to come. The FHA Underwriter’s Manual explicitly stated that “if a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” In addition to requiring the use of Residential Security Maps, the manual went on to advocate the use of racial covenants to protect FHA-insured properties.

The anti-urban biases and discriminatory practices built into federal loan programs had little effect on housing patterns during the 1930s and 1940s owing to the tiny amount of new residential construction that occurred during the Great Depression and Second World War. In the postwar period, however, FHA and VA lending drove forward a massive wave of suburban home construction that made new homes widely accessible to White but not Black households. Given high rents and home prices in central cities owing to the influx of workers during the war years, in the late 1940s and early 1950s it was cheaper to buy a brand-new house in the suburbs than to rent an apartment in the city.19

The end result was a government-subsidized mass exodus of middle-and working-class White families from central cities to suburbs, creating a distinctly American urban configuration of Black cities surrounded by White suburbs. The homes left behind by the departing Whites seeking their piece of the American Dream in the suburbs were quickly occupied by Black in-movers coming to the city to take jobs in the still-vibrant urban manufacturing sector. Neighborhood turnover accelerated, and the nation’s urban Black ghettos rapidly expanded, both demographically and geographically.20

As Black ghettos expanded during the 1950s and 1960s in cities such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis, they ultimately came to encroach on zones in which White elites had placebound investments in universities, hospitals, museums, and business districts. In desperation, local politicians and civic leaders turned to state and federal agencies for help. Drawing on funding from the National Housing Act, they created locally controlled Urban Renewal Authorities with the power of eminent domain, thereby enabling White interests to gain control of the Black neighborhoods threatening their place-bound investments.21, 22 Once in control of the land, they evicted the residents, razed their homes, and demolished neighborhood businesses, replacing them either with large-scale middle-class housing projects or institutional developments that strategically blocked the expansion of the ghetto toward the threatened White properties, prompting James Baldwin to quip that “urban renewal means Negro removal.”23

Because of a “one-for-one rule” embedded within the National Housing Act, for every unit of housing torn down in the name of renewal, planners had to identify another unit into which the displaced tenants could theoretically move. To satisfy this rule, local elites once again turned to the federal government, garnering additional funds authorized by the National Housing Act to construct large public housing projects for families displaced by renewal. Given that the displaced families were Black, it was politically impossible to build the housing project in a White district, so another Black neighborhood was targeted for renewal and torn down to build dense collections of high-rise projects that now had to house two neighborhood’s worth of displaced families.24

This pairing of urban renewal and public housing did not itself increase the level of Black residential segregation.25 Segregation levels were already high in the cities where this pairing occurred; but it did dramatically increase the spatial concentration of poverty within the ghetto by replacing relatively class-diverse Black neighborhoods and business districts with tightly packed blocks of high-rise projects in which being poor was a criterion for entry, yielding neighborhood poverty rates of 90 percent or more.26

By 1970, high levels of Black residential segregation were universal throughout metropolitan America.27 As of 1970, 61 percent of Black Americans living in U.S. metropolitan areas lived under hypersegregation,28 a circumstance unique to Americans. Although in theory, segregation should have withered away after the Civil Rights Era, it has not.

In 2010, the average index of Black–White segregation remained high and a third of all Black metropolitan residents continued to live in hypersegregated areas.29 This reality prevails despite the outlawing of racial discrimination in housing (the 1968 Fair Housing Act) and lending (the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act).

Why Does Modern Segregation Persist Despite Improved Racial Attitudes?

Accompanying these legislative changes was a pronounced shift in White racial attitudes. In the early 1960s, more than 60 percent of White Americans agreed that Whites have a right to keep Blacks out of their neighborhoods. By the 1980s the percentage had dropped to 13 percent.30 The fact that discrimination is illegal, and White support for segregation has plummeted, begs the question of why segregation persists.

Although overt discrimination in housing and lending has clearly declined in response to legislation, covert discrimination continues. Rental and sales agents today are less likely to respond to emails from people with stereotypically Black names31, 32 or to reply to phone messages left by speakers who “sound Black.”33, 34 A recent meta-analysis of 16 experimental housing audit studies and 19 lending analyses conducted since 1970 revealed that sharp racial differentials in the number of units recommended by realtors and inspected by clients have persisted and that racial gaps in loan denial rates and borrowing cost have barely changed in 40 years.35

Audit studies, conducted across the social and behavioral sciences, include a subset of resumé studies in which researchers send the same resumé out to apply for jobs, but change just one item: the candidate’s name is Lisa Smith or Lakisha Smith. Then, they wait to see who gets the callback. The bias is clear: employers avoid “Black-sounding” names.36 6 In fact, in both Milwaukee’s and New York City’s low-wage job market, Black applicants with no criminal background were called back with the same frequency or less as White applicants just released from prison.37, 38

That is, in the minds of hiring managers whose mental make-up is expected to be no different than the readers of this article, a White felon is equivalent to a Black non-felon. The same housing application, the same bank loan application, the same health data, the same behavior, lead to different outcomes depending on the race of the applicant, even though the decision-makers believe they are paying attention to the merits of the case and explicitly not to race, which most decision makers in these studies regard to be irrelevant to the decision.

What makes the problem of systemic racism so perverse is that “good people” with no explicit expression of what we would call “racism” are the contributors to such decisions that produce widespread and unnoticed bias, resulting in systemic racism.39 Racial discrimination continues because, although White support for Black segregation may have declined in principle, Whites nonetheless continue to harbor negative racial stereotypes about Black people, which limit their tolerance for integration in practice.

Indeed, the willingness of Whites to enter or remain in a neighborhood declines steadily as the percentage of Black neighbors rises.40, 41 The “correlated characteristics heuristic” relies on a single salient neighborhood trait—in this case racial composition—to represent an area’s acceptability. In White social cognition, the mere presence of Blacks denotes lower property values, higher crime rates, and struggling schools, irrespective of what the objective neighborhood conditions are.42, 43, 44 Although Whites in surveys and interviews say they welcome the presence of Black neighbors, in practice Whites avoid neighborhoods containing more than a few Blacks and confine their searches to overwhelmingly White residential areas exhibiting White percentages well above those they report in describing their “ideal” neighborhood on surveys.45

Owing to the persistence of discrimination, Black Americans are far less able than other Americans to translate their income attainments into residential mobility, greatly compromising their ability to access more integrated and favored neighborhoods.46 As of 2010, the most affluent Black Americans were still more segregated from Whites than the poorest Hispanics.47

No other group in the history of the U.S. has ever experienced such intense residential segregation in so many areas and over such a long period of time.48, 49 Systemic racism in federal housing policies,50 real estate,51 banking,52 and insurance53 has ensured a vicious cycle of racial turnover and neighborhood deterioration for most of the past century. As a result, many Black Americans have been compelled to live in societally isolated, economically disadvantaged, physically deteriorated neighborhoods produced and sustained by powerful external forces beyond their ability to control, the precise embodiment of systemic racism.

Because of racial residential segregation and the blocked mobility and spatial concentration of poverty it produces, neighborhoods have become the key nexus for the transmission of Black socioeconomic disadvantage over the life course and across the generations.54 Half of all Black Americans have lived in the poorest quartile of urban neighborhoods for two consecutive generations, compared with just seven percent of Whites, a gap that cannot be explained by individual or family characteristics.

Whereas in the 1960s Black poverty was transmitted across generations by the inheritance of race and the discrimination and exclusion that came with it,55 in the 21st century Black poverty is transmitted by the inheritance of place and the concentrated poverty it entails.56, 57, 58, 59, 60 Black disadvantage with respect to income and social mobility is explained almost entirely by the poor neighborhood circumstances they experience.61, 62 Racial residential segregation has become linchpin for systemic racism in the U.S. in the 21st century.63, 64

What’s Wrong with Stereotyping?

As a scientific question, a skeptic might ask, what’s wrong with differentiating by stereotypes? Given its racial history and ongoing systems, societal patterns and cultural stereotypes prevailing in the U.S. tend to associate Blacks with low status and Whites with high status. To the extent this race–status association has a kernel of statistical accuracy (Blacks are over-represented in low-status jobs), it fails several tests as an argument for using stereotypes as a constructive strategy of intergroup relations.

First, it ignores variability, individuality, and (especially) Black diversity. Second, category-based thinking exaggerates perceived between-group variability and minimizes perceived within-group variability.65, 66 So “nouns that cut slices” (Allport’s felicitous phrase for category labels67) do violence to the human data. What’s more, society has civil rights laws protecting people from being judged by their group membership, so the consensus is that this is not only wrong, but illegal.

A Way Forward

Generally, White Americans—because of the segregation perpetuated to sustain their advantage—have limited exposure to Black Americans, so their knowledge is indirect, and based on cultural caricatures. Segregation allows White people to be clueless about race, and because racial bias is more automatic, ambiguous, and ambivalent than people think, they fail to detect it in themselves and others. As a result, White people have many unexamined biases, undergirded by earlier stages of information processing (e.g., attention, perception, learning, memory, reasoning) that sustain such a lack of awareness. These cognitive errors and biases stem from lack of exposure, lack of the accurate evidence, and a lack of necessary knowledge.

The assumption here is that if people were simply made aware of the facts that have been described, they would slap their palm to their head and immediately vote for reparations. But as readers may no doubt deduce on their own, confronting accurate data and internalizing it is not a smooth or pretty process. That our minds resist information that challenges certain types of prior beliefs is a fundamental discovery from the mind sciences. Basic cognitive processes such as motivated cognition help to maintain a lack of awareness of racial experiences as they exist on the ground. But no lack of awareness need exist.

The human ability for conscious awareness, deliberate thought, and the motivation to link values to behavior cannot be underestimated as vehicles of change. We have accomplished this regarding how we understand the relationship of Earth to our Sun, so we know it is not as it seems. If we choose, we can similarly put our minds to derive the best evidence to learn about the presence or absence of systemic racism. If we can acquire the appropriate knowledge (often hidden from our conscious perception), we will be more likely to remain open to evidence that shows its presence.

If we do not undertake this effort, it is at our own peril. If, in the 21st century, we cannot mount a new struggle to see the social world for what it is, we are by choice dooming ourselves to extended ignorance that will be costly to us, our society, and the world we inevitably leave to our descendants. Earlier we provided evidence about unexpected (by scientists) decreases in implicit sexuality bias (massive drop) and race bias (more modest change) since 2007. These data provide optimism that mental content that we cannot change at will is nonetheless capable of movement toward racial neutrality across the U.S.

In other words, who-we-have-been need not be the future-selves-we-are-becoming. Here, we demonstrated that grappling with the correct data is a necessary step on the path to understanding our role in the creation of systemic racism. Among the blind spots that we will need to shake off, once and for all, is the belief that racism is the product of a few bad people in our society, and that removing them from power will suffice to deal with the issue. END

This essay is excerpted from “Systemic Racism: Individuals and Interactions, Institutions and Society,” originally published by Springer Nature in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications. Reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License © 2021, Mahzarin R. Banaji (Harvard University), Susan T. Fiske (Princeton University) and Douglas S. Massey (Princeton University). In appreciation of the publisher and authors.

About the Authors

Mahzarin R. Banaji is an experimental psychologist who studies implicit social cognition. With colleagues, Banaji is known for the development of a method known as the Implicit Association Test with which she has probed the automatic reliance on social category knowledge in judgments of individuals. Banaji was born and raised in India. She received her PhD from The Ohio State University, served as an NIH postdoctoral fellow at University of Washington and taught at Yale University for 15 years. Since 2002, she has been Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. She has served as President of the Association for Psychological Science, recognized as William James Fellow of APS for contributions to the basic science of psychology, and received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association.

Susan T. Fiske is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Professor of Public Affairs, Princeton University (PhD, Harvard University). She is the author of Social Cognition, on how people make sense of each other. She has written more than 250 articles and chapters, as well as editing many books and journal special issues. Notably, she edits the Annual Review of Psychology and the Handbook of Social Psychology. She also wrote an upper-level integrative text, Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology and edited Beyond Common Sense: Psychological Science in the Courtroom.

Douglas S. Massey is Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, with a joint appointment in The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, he is the current president of the American Academy of Political and Social Science co-editor of the Annual Review of Sociology. Massey’s research focuses on international migration, race and housing, discrimination, education, urban poverty, stratification, and Latin America, especially Mexico.

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  33. Massey, D.S., & Fischer, M. . (2004). The Ecology of Racial Discrimination. City and Community, 3(3), 221–243.
  35. Quillian, L., Lee, J.J., & Honoré, B. (2020). Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Housing and Mortgage Lending Markets: A Quantitative Review of Trends, 1976–2016. Race and Social Problems, 12(1), 13–28.
  39. Banaji, M.R., & Greenwald, A.G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Random House.
  40. Charles, C.Z. (2003). “The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation.” Annual Review of Sociology, 29, 167–207.
  41. Emerson, M.O., Chai, K.J., & Yancey, G. (2001). Does Race Matter in Residential Segregation? Exploring the Preferences of White Americans. American Sociological Review, 66(6), 922–935.
  45. Krysan, M., & Crowder, K. (2017). Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification. Russell Sage Foundation.
  46. Massey, D.S., & Denton, N.A. (1985). Spatial Assimilation as a Socioeconomic Outcome. American Sociological Review, 50(1), 94–105.
  48. Massey, D.S., & Denton, N.A. (1993).
  50. Katznelson, I. (2006). When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. W.W. Norton.
  51. Helper, R. (1969). Racial Policies and Practices of Real Estate Brokers. University of Minnesota Press.
  52. Ross, S.L., & Yinger, J. (2002). The Color of Credit: Mortgage Discrimination, Research Methodology, and Fair-Lending Enforcement. MIT Press.
  53. Orren, K. (1974). Corporate Power and Social Change: The Politics of the Life Insurance Industry. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  54. Sharkey, P. (2013). Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality. University of Chicago Press.
  55. Duncan, O.D. (1969). Inheritance of Poverty or Inheritance of Race? In D.P. Moynihan (Ed.), On Understanding Poverty: Perspectives From the Social Sciences (pp. 85–110). Basic Books.
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  57. Massey, D.S., & Brodmann, S. (2014). Spheres of Influence: The Social Ecology of Racial and Class Inequality. Russell Sage Foundation.
  58. Peterson, R.D., & Krivo, L.J. (2010). Divergent Social Worlds: Neighborhood Crime and the Racial-Spatial Divide. Russell Sage Foundation.
  59. Sampson, R.J. (2012). Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press.
  60. Sharkey, P. (2013).
  62. Massey, D.S., & Brodmann, S. (2014).
  64. Massey, D.S. (2020). Still the Linchpin: Segregation and Stratification in the USA. Race and Social Problems, 12(1), 1–12.
  65. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J.C. (1979). An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict. In W.G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The Social Psychology of Inter-Group Relations (pp. 33–47). Brooks/Cole.
  67. Allport, G. (1954). The Nature of Prejudice. Addison-Wesley.

This article was published on December 13, 2022.

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