Systemic Discrimination: Definition, Types, Examples

systemic discrimination examples and definition, explained below

Systemic discrimination refers to the inherent and often unconscious biases that exist within a society’s systems, policies, and institutions.

These forms of discrimination are normalized and embedded in our social institutions, so much so that both marginalized groups and their allies often feel powerless to weed it out of the system (Bonilla-Silva, 2017).

Marginalized groups that tend to face systemic discrimination at higher rates include racial and ethnic minorities, women, indigenous people, and people of low socioeconomic status.

Overcoming systemic discrimination, therefore, often requires interventionist policies and procedures that come through government policy and cultural change within institutions (DeCuir-Gunby & Schutz, 2014).

Systemic Discrimination Definition and Overview

Systemic discrimination, as defined by sociologist Joe Feagin (2013), is a:

“…system of discriminatory practices, policies, and norms that result in unjust distributions of resources, services, and opportunities, favoring dominant groups over marginalized ones.”

Systemic discrimination can be distinguished from individual discrimination because it doesn’t occur on a person-to-person level; rather, it is characterized by its pervasiveness, being embedded within institutional and societal systems and rules rather than being perpetrated by ill-willed social actors (Feagin & Bennefield, 2014).

The concept has been embedded within our social systems since they were established; yet it is only in recent decades that serious attention has been placed on identifying and addressing these practices. Its origins can be traced back to historical power structures, many of which were overtly discriminatory when our institutions were established. 

Entrenched biases, established long ago, continue to persist, often subtly and covertly, across social institutions and structures to this day (Powell, 2015).

Types of Systemic Discrimination

1. Systemic Racism

Systemic racism, often also referred to as institutional racism because it’s embedded in our institutions, refers to systemic and pervasive racial discrimination that is deeply embedded in societal institutions (Kendi, 2019).

According to scholars of systemic racism, it manifests through policies, practices, and societal norms that unfairly sustain white power and social hierarchies where people of color are marginalized within institutions (Kendi, 2019).

The roots of systemic racism can be traced back to the era of colonization, where racial hierarchies were explicitly implemented through practices like redlining and racial steering (Alexander, 2012). Such policies have caused intergenerational disadvantages that are systemic, meaning they have been baked into society over time.

Examples of Systemic Racism

An overt example of systemic racism is racial profiling in law enforcement, where people of color are found to be disproportionately targeted and ‘over-policed’, such as when a person of color is looked upon with suspicion when walking into a supermarket or walking down a street in a majority-white town (Alexander, 2012).

Another clear example is in education policies that explicitly ban African-American hairstyles in an attempt to force African-Americans to ‘act white’ in educational spaces.

2. Systemic Sexism

Systemic sexism refers to deeply ingrained practices that maintain male dominance in workplaces, politics, and other public spaces (Connell, 2014).

We see this in numerous areas such as income, job opportunities, political representation, and healthcare, where women hold disproportionately lower levels of power and esteem.

Historically, patriarchal societies explicitly and overtly preferenced men over women for job roles (e.g. because it was seen that men should have the job over women because they’re the household bread winners). This has led to an imbalance whereby men hold positions of power within our institutions (Connell, 2014).

As society has liberalized, women have been increasingly normalized in workplaces, but positions of power often remain men’s clubs, where deals and decisions about promotions are made on all-male golf outings, etc. and women continue to be subtly overlooked for promotions. This has led to the pervasive glass ceiling phenomenon.

Example of Systemic Sexism

One clear example of systemic sexism is the gender wage gap, where in many countries, women continue earn less than men for performing the same work. This is often caused by a culture where discussion of wages between staff is banned, and individuals need to negotiate for their wage (Blau & Kahn, 2017). More explicit wage structures within workplaces can be one step to help reduce this practice.

3. Systemic Ageism

Systemic ageism refers to discrimination embedded in institutions that work against individuals based on their age (Ayalon & Tesch-Römer, 2017).

Generally, this includes practices that position people over the age of 60 as ‘too old’ for promotion or a new job in a new company.

Systemic ageism tends to manifest in stereotypes about cognitive decline perpetuated by HR departments and interviewers who hold prejudices against elderly people during the hiring process.

Systemic ageism can be traced back to societal norms and practices that devalue the contributions and worth of older adults while favoring youth (Ayalon & Tesch-Römer, 2017).

Example of Systemic Ageism

The most common example of systemic ageism is discrimination in employment practices, where older adults face difficulties securing jobs due to their age (Neumark & Button, 2014). However, it can also occur when younger employees are bullied or told to ‘know their place’ by older staff members who want to exert power over others based upon a perceived age hierarchy within the institution. When this becomes a part of an institution’s culture, we can consider it to be systemic.

4. Systemic Homophobia and Transphobia

Systemic homophobia and transphobia occur when individuals face discrimination within institutions and social systems based on their sexual orientation or gender identity (Sears & Mallory, 2011).

Historical stigmatization and criminalization of LGBTQ+ identities have fueled systemic homophobia and transphobia (Sears & Mallory, 2011), which tends to be based on nonsense moral panic about LGBT people causing a threat to the moral fabric of society.

One common example, which was the subject of significant policy change in the early 2010s, was the practice of denying same-sex partners the right to visit their partners in hospital.

We also see it today in transphobic practices where trans people are denied jobs not based on skills and abilities, but based upon their non-normative hairstyles and clothing choices.

Example of Systemic Homophobia and Transphobia

A core example refers to policies that discriminate against same-sex couples including their rights to family life and being recognized as partners. Similarly, systemic transphobia is seen when the rights of transgender individuals to access healthcare services are curtailed by social policies.

5. Systemic Ableism

Systemic ableism is the systemic discrimination against individuals with disabilities, such as failure to make reasonable accommodations, which can be seen when institutions fail to be proactive about creating inclusive spaces (Nario-Redmond, 2020).

Ableism manifests as biases, stereotypes, and systemic barriers (which may even include physical barriers), which limit the opportunities and rights of individuals with disabilities.

Historically, people with physical and cognitive disabilities did not have rights to participate in mainstream classrooms and rules were not in place to ensure the physically disabled could access public spaces.

As societal norms have changed (thanks in large part to the rise of the social model of disability), attempts have been made to compel businesses and institutions to become more inclusive for the physically disabled. Nevertheless, the mentally disabled continue to face systemic discrimination due to the vulnerability of people with mental disabilities – see my example below (Nario-Redmond, 2020).

Example of Systemic Ableism

A common example of systemic ableism is seen in the higher rates of abuse of disabled people within care homes than that of the non-disabled. Here, people with disabilities are more vulnerable to abuse, so structures need to be put in place within policies and cultural practices within institutions in order to protect them.

6. Systemic Classism

Systemic classism occurs when people who are of lower socioeconomic status face barriers within social institutions (Leondar-Wright & Yeskel, 2007).

This can manifest in disparities in access to quality education, where schools and hospitals in poorer regions end up with less resources, and people are overlooked for jobs based upon their social class.

One key scholar of social class, Piere Bourdieu (1984), extensively studied this, finding that working-class people have less social capital (knowing less people who can help them get jobs) and less cultural capital (such as seemingly undesirable accents) which can cause barriers to social mobility.

Example of Systemic Classism

An elite university may have policies in place that make it harder for people of working-class backgrounds from getting access. They may, for example, artificially inflate prices to generate a veneer of prestige, pushing out the poor, or during the application process, implicitly consider people of working-class backgrounds as a ‘bad cultural fit’ for the institution (Reardon, 2013).

The Causes of Systemic Discrimination

Systemic discrimination is so pervasive because its causes are very much engrained in institutional practices. This means that no individual can address it alone. Some causes include>

  • Societal Norms and Values: Societal norms, passed down through generations and perpetuated in everyday conversations and media texts, help to maintain negative stereotypes and cultural biases towards marginalized groups. This, in turn, influences the behaviors and attitudes of decision makers and policy makers (Nelson, 2009).
  • Institutional Policies and Practices: Institutional policies often uphold or exacerbate inequalities (Bonilla-Silva, 2017). For example, hiring practices that have the intended or, usually, unintended effect of privileging a particular demographic or housing policies that perpetuate residential segregation are often subtly baked into an institution’s procedures.
  • Unconscious Bias and Stereotypes: Unconscious bias is pervasive specifically because we aren’t personally aware of it. This means that institutional discriminations are unconsciously adopted(Greenwald & Krieger, 2006).
  • Historical Legacies and Power Structures: Systemic discrimination is often a baked-in aspect of historically designed social institutions and policies. This has put in place power structures that have perpetuated disparities over time (Alexander, 2012). To address this, constant policy review is required.

Strategies to Address Systemic Discrimination

While it is often hard for individuals to effect change on their own, some identified ways to address, minimize, and one day eradicate systemic discrimination include:

  • Policy Review: Systemic discrimination tends to be prolonged through cultures and policies of institutions (Rawls, 2009). In order to reveal this discrimination, studies of the effects of policies need to be conducted, which can lead to policy reforms to create fairer policies.
  • Promoting Diversity and Inclusion: Many institutions have attempted to address systemic discrimination by implementing active diversity and inclusion policies which can disrupt systemic discrimination (Mor Barak, 2016). This can involve consciously creating environments that value diversity, and can even include affirmative action policies designed to consciously attract marginaized groups into institutions.
  • Acknowledging and Understanding Privilege: An important step in addressing systemic discrimination is acknowledging and understanding one’s own privilege (McIntosh, 2018). This means recognizing the advantages that one may have due to their race, gender, class, or other attributes, and how these advantages may contribute to systemic discrimination.
  • Becoming an Ally and Advocate: Individuals can also contribute by becoming allies and advocates for marginalized groups (Brown, 2017). This involves supporting, advocating for, and amplifying the voices of those who are disadvantaged by systemic discrimination.


Systemic discrimination is an insidious but hard to see practice that remains a contemporary issue to this day. It’s often baked into our institutions due to historical practices, cultural norms, and social practices. Addressing this takes time and vigilance with a focus on creating equality of opportunity for all.


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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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