Black Lives Matter and Systemic Racism: A Short Introduction

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

'Black Lives Matter' is a statement which has become an important way for people to show their support for members of the black community who have experienced discrimination simply because of the colour of their skin.

'Black Lives Matter' has become an important statement phrase for many following the death of an African-American man called George Floyd, but it was first used widely back in 2013 after a teenage boy called Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighbourhood watch volunteer who did not face any punishment.

Lots of people took part in protests following Trayvon's death and many turned to social media to speak out against what had happened. They felt upset about the injustice that was taking place in America and that the lives of black people did not have the same value as other people's lives. This led to the birth of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

Since then, as well as a phrase of support, Black Lives Matter has grown into a campaigning organisation too.

The discrimination black people face dates all the way back to slavery and colonialism and many charities and campaign groups have been challenging racial inequality for years.

However, racism still affects many black people today.

Systemic Racism

“Systemic racism”, or “institutional racism”, refers to how ideas of white superiority are captured in everyday thinking at a systems level: taking in the big picture of how society operates, rather than looking at one-on-one interactions.

These systems can include laws and regulations, but also unquestioned social systems. Systemic racism can stem from education, hiring practices, or access. Systemic racism assumes white superiority individually, ideologically and institutionally. The assumption of superiority can pervade thinking consciously and unconsciously.

One most obvious example is apartheid, but even with anti-discrimination laws, systemic racism continues. Individuals may not see themselves as racist, but they can still benefit from systems that privilege white faces and voices.

Anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh popularised the understanding of the systemic nature of racism with her famous “invisible knapsack” quiz looking at white privilege.

The quiz asks you to count how many statements you agree with, for items such as:

  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented

  • I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race

  • I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

The statements highlight taken-for-granted privileges, and enable people to understand how people of colour may experience society differently.

Under systemic racism, systems of education, government and the media celebrate and reward some cultures over others.

In employment, names can influence employment opportunities. A Harvard study found job candidates were more likely to get an interview when they “whitened” their name. Only 10% of black candidates got interview offers when their race could be implied by their resume, but 25% got offers when their resumes were whitened. And 21% of Asian candidates got interview offers with whitened resumes, up from 11.5%.

Systemic racism shows itself in who is disproportionately impacted by our justice system. In Australia, Indigenous people make up 2% of the Australian population, but 28% of the adult prison population.

The United Kingdom’s literature, theatres and art galleries are all disproportionately white, with less than 10% of artistic directors from culturally diverse backgrounds.

Moving forward?

Systemic racism damages lives, restricting access and capacity for contribution. It damages the ethical society we aspire to create.

When white people scoop all the awards, it reinforces a message that other cultures are just not quite good enough. Public advocacy is critical. Speaking up is essential.

Racism is more than an individual issue. When systemic injustices remain unspoken or accepted, an unethical white privilege is fostered. When individuals and groups point out systemic injustices and inequalities, the dominant culture is made accountable.

At Universities Without Borders, we are actively fighting systemic racism by focusing on implementing a diverse, decolonised and multicultural curriculum. We believe that this is a small step in the fight against systemic racism.