An illustration of a Black man trapped on a grid, drawn by a white hand.

Racism isn’t about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people – it’s about systemic power

Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and author of The Purpose of Power: How To Build Movements for the 21st Century, on how we need to rethink the stories we tell each other about racism.

Alicia Garza

Too often, the stories we tell about racism are stories about good people and bad people, people who deserve good things to happen to them and people who create their own devastating circumstances. These stories are, of course, racialised, gendered, and classed.

Rather, racism is a set of rules designed to allocate resources and power unequally. It is embedded in institutions, like schools, workplaces, and government, and it is also embedded in culture, via the stories we tell on television, or the stories we learn in our places of worship, about why some people have and why some people don’t. Racism gives people who are designated as white power and privilege over those who are not designated as white. Those rules are further established and popularised by culture to entrench the rules that are written in the policies that govern our lives. Racism is systemic.

A recent study by Color of Change Hollywood describes how the stories we tell culturally assert that Black communities are more prone to criminality, and shape the public’s understanding of who is responsible for crime and violence, and who are victims of crime and violence – and the actions we take to address those challenges. If we believe that Black communities are largely responsible for crime and violence, because everything we see on television, for example, reflects that, we are more likely to believe that it is true in our own communities – despite credible evidence to the contrary. If we believe that is true in our communities, we are more likely to advocate for harsher penalties in Black communities, like mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, or increased funding for policing. 

In the United States, Black communities are a mere 12% of the overall population, and yet we represent more than 34% of the prison population in the United States. Black communities are on the losing end of most of the disparities that exist in our society: in our democracy, and in our economy. We make up the majority of suspensions in schools and are the least likely to graduate from high school, much less college. The gap between white wealth and Black wealth is astonishing: as of 2016, white household wealth is nearly 12 times that of Black household wealth – numbers that reflect the wealth gap of 1968.

It would be easy to place the responsibility for gross disparities like this on the actions of ‘mean’ or ‘bad’ people. But that is one of the ways that racism endures – it’s seen as ‘a shame’, something out of our control. Yet racism is more than ‘a shame’ or ‘too bad’: it is deliberate, designed, and strategic, and its purpose is to establish and maintain hierarchies of power.

Power is the ability to make the rules and shape the rules. It is the ability to determine where resources go and where they don’t, the ability to shape the stories of who we are and who we can be, and the ability to determine who represents you and along what agenda. All of these are shaped by policies and reinforced by culture, and whoever controls the ability to make the rules is who has power.

Culture and policy are intricately linked. To address racism, we must understand it first as a function of power.

In the US, Black women make 64 cents to every 80 cents that white women make to every dollar that white men make.

Then we must work simultaneously to change culture and to change rules. It is not enough to prioritise one over the other, as both are designed to reinforce one another. We must analyse the stories we tell about who we are, and intervene to ensure that they are not plagued by stereotypes that uphold unfair and imbalanced hierarchies. This can happen through schools and universities, through the media. Who determines the stories that are highlighted on television? Who is in the writers rooms? Who are the actors and what are the stories they’re telling? Who are the heroes and who are the villains? Who are the survivors and who are the victims? Who determines the curricula for our schools, and what does that curricula teach?

As part of a democratic society, we get to decide who makes the rules. Who represents you and who decides how much money goes where, and for what purpose? When we are addressing problems in our economy like wage inequality, or the climate crisis, or citizens’ voting accessibility, are we ensuring that no one is left behind? We must analyse the challenges we face in complex ways so that we are designing solutions that are multifaceted. Addressing the Black/white wealth gap cannot leave out addressing the gender wage gap too – in the US, Black women make 64 cents to every 80 cents that white women make to every dollar that white men make, and Black women are, overwhelmingly, the primary wage earners in households across America. 

All of this becomes more possible when we stop seeing racism as a cult of personality, and for what it is: a system of rigged rules that determine our lives and, via the stories culture tells, our understanding of how we even got here in the first place. Knowing that racism is strategic and not just ‘a shame’ can empower us to actually do something about it, rather than just lament it. The rules of racism are strategic – we can be too.

This essay is part of's 'Small idea, big impact' series. 

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Illustration: Bianca Bagnarelli for Penguin

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