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“Racism” is defined as a system—consisting of structures, policies, practices, and norms—that assigns value and determines opportunity based on the way people look or the color of their skin. This system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks results in conditions that unfairly disadvantage some and advantages others in society.

Structural racism does not have an official definition, although many exist. The various definitions converge upon how racism is not only a product of individual prejudices, but also a combination of public policies, institutional practices, social forces, ideologies and processes that generate and perpetuate inequities among races. Structural racism affects the entire racial diaspora. It goes beyond the individual level to the economic system, cultural and societal norms, and is produced and reproduced by laws, rules, and practices.

Structural racism is not a chosen practice, but it is a result of persistent inequality over time that has become ingrained into the social, economic, and political systems in which we live. It manifests in societal conditions and the capacity for influence. This is observed in differential access to housing, transportation, education, medical services, clean air or water, and a healthy environment, as well as differential access to information, resources, and voice. It also provides opportunities to certain groups over others and undermines the full potential of certain communities, as their contributions are not valued and not allowed to fully develop.

Structural racism stretches across institutions and economies, breeding within our cultural practices. The durability of structural racism calls for involvement from the whole of society in redefining and reexamining policies, structures, and our own engagement with race. Learn more about how structural racism presents in the examples and resources cited below.

Structural Racism in Healthcare

Structural racism is intimately connected to observed health inequities. When the epidemic of racism remains unaddressed, the health of minority communities will be disproportionately affected. Racial health disparities stem from differential care within the health care system, differential access to health care services, and differences in exposure and life opportunities. This unequal distribution of services and opportunities intensify disease burden in certain communities. Diseases become embedded disruptors of equality, playing on and exacerbating longstanding vulnerabilities in health systems. This has been demonstrated in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color.

Redlining in Housing Creates Structural Racism

In 1933, the housing industry began to use racial composition to determine whether a neighborhood was a good investment and whether its residents would receive home loans. Industry decision-makers would draw “red lines” geographically around neighborhoods, hence the name redlining. This lack of access to home ownership would prevent the option of intergenerational wealth transfer. Redlining also supported the narrative that these residents were bad neighbors who would bring down property values and increase crime. The legacy of redlining can be found today in neighborhoods that are densely populated and lack healthy food options, green spaces, recreational facilities, and lighting and safety.

These are only two examples of structural racism; many more exist. Does structural racism impact your research and lab environment? If so, how, and what can you do? For more information about what role you can play to address structural racism, please reach out to the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Consulting Guidance Team.

Additional Learning

“Media Statement from CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, on Racism and Health.” CDC Newsroom. Accessed August 16, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2021/s0408-racism-health.html.

“Racism is a Serious Threat to the Public’s Health.” CDC Health Equity. Accessed August 16, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/healthequity/racism-disparities/index.html.

“APA Presidential Task Force on Structural Racism Glossary of Terms.” American Psychiatric Association. Accessed August 16, 2021. https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/structural-racism-task-force/glossary-of-terms.

“Racism and Black Mental Health.” American Psychiatric Association. Accessed August 16, 2021. https://education.psychiatry.org/diweb/catalog/item?id=5913368.

Bailey, Z. D., Feldman, J. M., & Bassett, M. T. (2021). “How Structural Racism Works — Racist Policies as a Root Cause of U.S. Racial Health Inequities.” New England Journal of Medicine, 384(8), 768–773. https://doi.org/10.1056/nejmms2025396.