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Systemic Racism and Its Impact on Development


Topics such as xenophobia, chauvinism, ethnocentrism, extremism, terrorism have become firmly established in modern discourse; both specialists and the public are actively involved in their discussion. However, the problem of racism is clearly out of the focus of public attention. However, racism is still on the periphery of scientific research, and scientists are reluctant to enter into discussions on this issue. Meanwhile, modern latent racism is increasingly acquiring the features of systemic or institutional racism. This phenomenon is expressed in the practice of social and political institutions and is reflected in the unequal distribution of wealth, income, criminal justice, employment, housing affordability, health care, political power and education, as well as in a number of other factors. The problem of systemic racism is extremely complex and multifaceted and requires complex solutions.

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How does Systemic Racism Impact Development

Speaking about the impact of racism on the person’s development, first, it should be emphasized that, traditionally, racism is understood as a concept that is boiling down differences in culture, behavior, perception of the world to racial traits, supposedly found in such physical peculiarities as skin color, nose and eye shape, etc. Secondly, it proclaims on this basis the eternal inequality of races, insisting on its legal form. Such racism, engendered by the era of colonialism, proceeded from the concept of superior and inferior races and, contrary to all available scientific evidence, argued that namely racial differences determine the course of history. In turn, social practices fix these distorted beliefs, affecting the whole life span of systemic racism subjects, that is, their physical, cognitive, and psycho-social development.

The influence of racism on all aspects of person’s development directly refers to the so called cultural racism described below. According to Joseph Birdsell, classical racism was based on the following tenets (Birdsell as cited in Elias, 2016):

  • Belief in the real existence of separate races;
  • Belief that races differ sharply in their genetic basis;
  • Conclusion that some races have significant advantages over others;
  • References to intelligence tests, allegedly proving that whites differ from blacks in more developed mental abilities;
  • The statement that the brain of blacks is anatomically underdeveloped;
  • Belief that whites are distinguished by the ability to create high civilizations;
  • Striving to maintain the “purity” of the white race by preventing interracial marriage.

In a similar way, Tsvetan Todorov sees in racist doctrine the following elements (Todorov as cited in Elias, 2016):

  1. Recognition of the real existence of races, that is, groups clearly differing from each other in terms of somatic characteristics, and these differences are recognized as essential for the fate of mankind;
  2. Belief in the inextricable link between physical type and moral qualities, the construction of cultural differences to physical;
  3. Belief in the “racial-cultural (ethnic)” predetermination of individual behavior;
  4. Adherence to the idea of a universal (in fact, ethnocentric) hierarchy of values, which predetermines the unequal position of individual “races”;
  5. Striving to translate all these postulates into political practice (“racism in action”).

The exclusion of at least one of these provisions, according to Todorov, deprives the racial doctrine of vitality. For example, the rejection of the first postulate means a transition from “racism” to “culturalism” – a doctrine that puts culture, and not the race, at the forefront (Todorov as cited in Elias, 2016). Meanwhile, precisely “culturalism” (or, as it is sometimes called, “cultural fundamentalism”) elevated to an absolute has become a kind of metamorphosis of racism in the United States over the past decades. Today, racists are not the same as they were at times of slavery and segregation enshrined in the legislation. Black and Hispanic people face racism not because they belong to a specific race but because they are representatives of different culture. These cultural patterns penetrate both white and ‘color’ communities, leading to the fact that people are educated in specific social environment which affects them from the first stages of their development.

In more or less veiled forms, racism, including everyday racism, has spread quite widely in some regions and social strata and manifests itself in a variety of forms. While whites mostly grow up with the attitudes to achieving success, care about own health, law abiding, blacks, at the same time, are raised with inferiority complex, deprived of possibilities for normal cognitive development due to low quality of teaching in many schools located in black areas. However, most white Americans rarely go to the ghetto. They do not know anything about the real life of blacks, and they react to what they see on TV – African American gangs and so on. Thus, their chidren develop in the atmosphere of alienation from the huge part of society, forming distorted and unjust believes about minorities.

Modern racism ceases to refer to the thesis of the inequality of races or groups of people; it does not imply a mandatory hierarchical classification of the “racist type.” It replaces the dogma of the inequality of races with the statement about the difference between cultures or civilizations, fatalizes and absolutes cultural differences. For example, according to poll results, three out of four white Americans are convinced that black and Hispanic citizens of the United States are less intelligent and patriotic, but lazier and violent than white citizens (Tourse et al., 2018). These beliefs come from the childhood – a child raising in the environment of ‘cultural humiliation,’ adopts these distorted patterns, and his/her social behavior during life span development will correspond to them. For example, a stereotype that ‘blacks are mostly criminals’ pushes black adolescents to joining criminal communities.

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Hence the emergence of a new racist argument that justifies the rejection of “others” on the grounds that “their” cultures are incompatible with “our” culture” (Feagin, 2013). It is quite obvious that the cognitive and psycho-social development of citizens under conditions of racist ideas about cultural differences rooted in society occurs initially in a distorted way, with shaping strong sustained stereotypes and biases.

Over the past decades, the term “racism” has lost its traditional content and has become more vague. Therefore, in order to effectively combat this phenomenon, it is necessary to first clearly define what is meant as racism. The definition of racism used by its fighters in the past assumed that human races were an objective reality. Even today, there is an opinion among liberal-minded intellectuals and even among human rights defenders that models of human behavior and specific features of thinking are predetermined by race or ethnicity. However, namely such perceptions serve as a breeding ground for racism. Such a position is morally vulnerable, knowingly condemning any struggle against racism to failure.

Systemic racism represents the norms that manifest themselves in the structure of society. So called ‘normative conformity,’ or the desire to be approved by others, as well as the striving to “get along in a group” forces a person to follow stereotypical ideas assimilated already in childhood, and not challenge them. Contemporary racism is an example of a change in conventional prejudice today: an invisible and hidden form of prejudice is revealed because people hide their prejudice to avoid situations where they may be called racist. Open racism is persecuted legally, but neo-racism acts very subtly, gradually pushing back the black community increasingly more far out from the field of social development, using ideological as well as economic means.

In practice, however, racial segregation continues to exist on a large scale in all American cities with significant black populations. In particular, the existence of racial discrimination in residential areas still plays an important role in the choice of housing. The image of a dangerous city center is carried over to the entire black population (Thompson-Miller & Ducey, 2017). Whites and blacks work together, but after work, each of them returns to their own “circle”; they hardly communicate together.

In addition, the trend towards racial segregation persists in the US education system (O’Brien et al., 2020). According to the results of the report presented by researchers from the University of California, in 73% of public schools in New York, the number of white students is less than one percent. At the same time, there is an extremely low percentage of black students in elite schools in New York. Thus, in 2019, only seven black students out of a total of 895 places were able to enroll in the special school Stuyvesant High School (Smith, 2020). School segregation undermines the learning opportunities for children and is a clear injustice for minorities and other vulnerable groups, which also perpetuates marginalization. In addition, the proportion of non-white citizens in the poor in the United States is very high. The negative systemic effect of all the above factors on the development of a person belonging to a group that is a subject of latent systemic racism is quite obvious. Although I cannot say that systemic racism impacted me personally (I am white), I was a witness of several cases of evidently biased attitude of teacher towards black students – a teacher alluded that they cannot show high performance due to lower intellectual abilities that in whites. This was not said directly but allusion was quite evident, and it was outrageously, all the more so all other students heard it – thus, the teacher contributed to fixing racial biases in their cognition.

The above-mentioned actual cultural separation negatively affects cognitive and psychosocial development. At school, black and hispanic children are not encouraged to manifest and develop their abilities. Living in ghetto, children and adolescents learn as a norm a low standard of living, lack of interest in learning and often criminal behavior (The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, 2018). In turn, poverty and lack of necessary access to high-quality healthcare services negatively affect health of minority community members, especially children in their physical development. As it was mentioned above, many representatives of minorities have no medical insurance. Moreover, the culture of care about own health is not inherent in them. This is partially because of the fact that high-quality expensive food is not affordable for them.

What Can Be Done to Change/Improve the Situation with Systemic Racism

Of course, racial bias in the United States is still strong and it is impossible to clean up all that has developed over 400 years of US history at once. However, society must first of all come to understand that race is more of a social construct than a biological reality. Today’s racists prefer to operate in terms of not biological, but cultural superiority, and, in their interpretation, culture appears as a kind of “genetic heritage.” On this basis, ‘alien’ cultural communities are supposedly endowed with inherently lower cultural qualities that determine the attitude towards them. Namely in this context, the idea of “clash of civilizations” became widespread, which means communities with disparate value systems (Tourse et al., 2018). This idea also belongs to the arsenal of “cultural racism.”

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To successfully overcome racist stereotypes, a lot has to be changed in the worldview of modern inhabitants. However, the main field of opposition to systemic racism must be the school – both primary and higher, as well as cultural convergence. The concept of cultural convergence is a program for overcoming the sociocultural crisis of systemic racism, and can contribute to the achievement of sustainable, stable, harmonious development. At the same time, an orientation towards the values of the open world does not necessarily lead only to the unification of culture, but also allows maintaining the situation of cultural pluralism and ethnocultural diversity by creating fields of value interaction.

A well-thought-out and transparent policy of countering intolerance is needed, including the adoption of an appropriate state program, the creation of public control over the functioning of social and political institutions intended to counteract latent racism. In particular, a lot of work is needed to overcome ghettoization in large cities. Without institutional reforms and the creation of a climate of trust, systemic racism will remain not only a product, but also an instrument for the functioning of American society. In our opinion, a policy aimed at fight against ghettoization of ethnic communities in large cities is needed, as well as the above-mentioned changes in cultural policy, with special emphasis on cultural diversity – for example, conducting various ethnic festivals on the base of public-private partnership.


Elias, S. (2016). Racial theories in social science. Routledge.

Feagin, J. (2013). Systemic racism: A theory of oppression. Routledge.

O’Brien, R., Neman, T., Seltzer, N., Evans, L., Venkataramani, A. (2020). Structural racism, economic opportunity and racial health disparities: Evidence from U.S. counties. SSM Population Health, 11, 1-6.

Smith, A. (2020). Systemic racism: The root to racial injustice and the path to ending it. CRC Press.

Thompson-Miller, R., & Ducey, K. (2017). Systemic racism: Making liberty, justice, and democracy real. Palgrave Macmillan.

Tourse, R. W., Hamilton-Mason, J., & Wewiorski, N. (2018). Systemic racism in the United States: Scaffolding as social construction. Springer.

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The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine (2018). Racism and its harmful effects on nondominant racial -ethnic youth and youth-serving providers: A call to action for organizational change. Journal of Adolescent Health, 63, 257 -261.

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