What Is Structural Racism, and Why Does It Matter?

Although racism in the United States is often seen as the infliction of individual biases and hatred, racial disparities and inequities are products of something bigger than a few bad apples. Instead, societal structures can perpetuate racial and ethnic inequity.[3] Structural or systemic racism occurs when public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations and other norms work to perpetuate and often reinforce inequity.[4] Therefore, structural racism is not something chosen by a few people to practice. Rather, as the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change explains, structural racism “has been a feature of the social, economic, and political systems in which we all exist.”[5]

In an effort to understand how race and racism are intricately linked to our biggest social problems, REI has come up with a helpful groundwater metaphor to explain structural racism. Imagine that you have a lake in front of your house. If you find one dead fish and you want to understand what caused its illness, you might analyze the individual fish. But if you come to the same lake and half the fish are dead, then you might wonder if there is something wrong with the lake and analyze that. But what if there are five lakes around your house, and in every lake half the fish are dead? Then it might be time to consider analyzing the groundwater to find out how the water in all the lakes ended up with the same contamination.[6]

With this in mind, REI organizers like to point out that structural racism is the problem—it’s in the groundwater—and that the racial disparities and inequity we see in virtually every issue, from education to healthcare to housing and beyond, are manifestations of that problem. In addition, the National Equity Project explains, it is critical to consider that, because structural racism has become normalized, policies and practices routinely ensure access to opportunity for some and exclude others.[7]

As a result, race is one of the most reliable predictors of life outcomes across several areas, including life expectancy, academic achievement, income, wealth, physical and mental health, and maternal mortality. Furthermore, as Heather McGhee illustrates in her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, the structural racism that infects our society hurts not only people of color, but also white people. By documenting some of the nation’s history of discriminatory policy, she argues that, although there is no denying that such racism hits communities of color “first and worst,” the same practices that disproportionately do harm to people of color eventually engulf white communities, too.

In practical terms for funders, what all this means is that philanthropy can’t expect to achieve the lasting social change it seeks without addressing the structural racism at the root cause of our inequities.

What Do Interventions That Address Structural Racism Look Like?

There are many efforts at various stages across the United States currently engaged in work to achieve equitable structural change. We found that such work often exhibits seven critical characteristics:

  • Build a shared analysis
  • Leverage the expertise of communities
  • Bring in the institutions you seek to transform
  • Take time to establish trust
  • Engage with and learn through conflict
  • Treat the system
  • Maintain momentum

Read the full article about addressing structural racism by Britt Savage, Cora Daniels, and Peter Kim at The Bridgespan Group.