Anti-Racist Systems Thinking

Pierce Gordon, Ph.D.
Mar 2 · 8 min read

Everyone loves to talk about systemic racism. Why not use systems thinking to better understand how to address it?

Sometimes, it feels like history is repeating itself.

In our world where the unprecedented is the norm, there are still a few things that remain consistent:

  • Every day, we wake up.
  • (Some of us) brush our teeth, have breakfast, and check the news for the next unprecedented catastrophe.
  • We drive (or walk twenty feet) to your place of work.
  • You eat some food, talk to some colleagues, and then leave. Hopefully, you enjoy a bit of rest, and prepare to repeat everything again until the pandemic is over.

The world has operated in cycles for longer than humanity’s been alive. Every living thing on Earth wakes and sleeps with the rising and setting of the sun, we’re used to expecting summer, winter, and spring, and fall in sequential order, and we’re used to predictable celebrations like family birthdays and national holidays. These cycles keep us grounded, and keep us looking forward to events in the future.

However, many unsavory parts of our society also operate in cycles. People are still affected by racism across the globe in countless ways: vaccine apartheid, redlining, and environmental racism. There’s been a seemingly unstoppable increase in wealth inequity across the world that’s been accelerated by the pandemic. The dangerous effects of climate change wreak havoc across the world because of constant human effects on the environment; from the Texas blizzard to the California wildfire. These issues aren’t grounding; they're suffocating. They make the world feel like it’s impossible to change.

Fortunately, that’s not entirely true. These cycles all have an underlying structure that keeps the cycle consistent. Sure, humans have forever changed the world in big and small ways, but many of these man-made systems aren’t beyond our understanding. Where there’s a pattern, there’s a structure that we can surface to figure out how it works. Sometimes, even by learning more about the underlying ‘physics’ of these systems, we might find ways to shift them towards healthier and more equitable alternatives.

But, where do we start?

How many times have you heard the phrase ‘systemic racism’?

In short, it means that the actions, processes, and consequences of racism aren’t housed simply in the minds of evil men and women, who believe in caste hierarchy ranked by skin color. Sure, some might, and that might have been the case at one point in time. Instead, it means racism was imagined, designed, institutionalized, and mythicized so deeply that it no longer needs people’s consent to support itself. Practically, it means that explaining why Black Lives Matter to your racist uncle at Thanksgiving, your boss, or President Biden won’t affect racism on its own

The problem is that most people don’t know what it means for a problem to be systemic. Systemic to most people means the topic is all-encompassing, formless, and nearly impossible to influence. Issues like racism, sexism, and inequity are big, nebulous, and cyclic, and have been around longer than we’ve been alive. Why should we even try to change it?

If we take a closer look, however, we’ll recognize that’s not the case. Systems are being built, amended, and affected every single day. There are many examples of how systems were shaped before our very eyes:

  • Systems affect who benefits economically from the pandemic. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, communities failed to feel safe (at least the smart ones) when connecting to each other in physical spaces. Therefore, companies and organizations with rigorous digital services thrived. Yes, this includes juggernauts like Amazon and Netflix, but smaller businesses, like Twitch and Youtube creators and delivery companies like Doordash and UberEats, profited from the digital acceleration.
  • Systems support the advocacy of Black Lives. When Mike Brown was killed in 2014, a litany of newly radicalized activists took to the streets and began the Black Lives matter movement. The program took on police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and a litany of federal and community topics across the nation (and the globe). However, unlike the Civil Rights movement before it, the movement did not serve a single hierarchy of support; instead, multiple communities built knowledge, research, organizing power, and community agency to support the resilient development of a connected network of multidimensional engagement. That way, the movement can’t be cut off in one fell swoop.
  • Systems are keeping societies across the world from completely healing from COVID-19. SARS COV-2 is a virus that, across the world seems impossible to control. As a virus transferred by aerosols, even a small amount of the virus in open spaces can transfer the sickness. The effects of the virus can be both delayed and invisible: you only experience the cause days after you’ve been exposed, so there’s rarely a reliable way to tell who exactly got you sick. However, because most human connection, experience, and commerce happens through physical interaction, communities feel compelled to return to daily life — regardless of whether it spreads the virus or not. Unfortunately, due to misinformation, apathy, pandemic fatigue, and social and economic pressures to return to daily life — the most prolific superspreaders rarely care enough to change their lives.

Each of these issues signals a much larger social arrangement than any one of us can change by ourselves. Though it seems impossible — at first — for any one person to affect the larger system, with a deeper look, these systems become predictable. We also know there are certain relationships — and actions — that help us recognize how these smaller parts coalesce into a larger whole. And, once we know these structures and how they interact, we can apply methods to affect the larger systems to shape them to our will.

Roughly, when you know which cog to affect, the network becomes much easier to navigate.

Where to Start

The structure of Systems Thinking was popularized in the Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, is a tool that recognizes how different parts connect, behave, and support the actions of the whole. In the text, he outlined the rules of understanding systems:

  • how many events we see operate in cycles,
  • how there are patterns of behavior that underly these events,
  • and how you can learn about the underlying structures that determine these patterns — and affect them towards your benefit.

Let’s look at a simple example:

Overpolicing of Black People.

It’s clear to anyone who shouted Black Lives Matter — in practice or simply in name — that there’s an epidemic of police brutality that’s affecting black citizens in the United States. Any sane person would say, if asked, that needless death is never the answer to a healthy society. So, why does this keep happening?

  • Police officers are trained to treat their environments like warzones. Histories, myths, and systems of racism let them see the world as a space of danger and hazard, They’re culturally trained to see their world as a battleground; where danger is around every corner.
  • When they see conflict, they can escalate the situation by their training. Reaching for the gun, raising their voice, calling for backup; these and other activities make an already difficult situation even more stressful.
  • Black citizens, untrained in coping with stressful environments, are also put on edge because of police presence. They’re likely to react through an adrenaline response; fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
  • The two stakeholders are now adversaries. Legal and punitive systems protect police from harm and vulnerable communication. Both are rarely rational, constantly combative, and the risk increases — and increases — until a black citizen becomes another statistic.

This relationship is so predictable, it has a name. This systems archetype, called escalation, is similar to a relationship built between warring nuclear powers, or between two neighbors feuding about who has the better garden. On a micro-scale, each conflict has the potential to explode into a catastrophe — and many of them have. When zoomed out, the adversarial communities — police unions and Black Lives Matter protestors, for instance — spend their time preparing for the next conflict by building preparing for the next conflict: by supplying resources, and building strategy for their cause.

There’s more to this system than meets the eye, however. Clearly, there’s more power on the side of the police: police are rarely held accountable for their malpractice, and rarely recognize how the past affects their impact on the situation. Additionally, there’s rarely a way for community members to hold the people accountable for their actions. Because people in power are apathetic to the system’s effects, there’s not enough real pressure to change it.

However, we can learn more by including other stakeholders and their effect on the system as well.

  • the legal system that holds Black people more accountable than the police,
  • Political Action Committees that fund politicians apathetic about police violence,
  • attorney generals that are chosen by — and held accountable by — the people,
  • and many more.

Each system has a potential solution pathway that becomes more visible when you create the right model. For instance, the escalation model’s solution is to change the relationship from adversarial to cooperative; meaning, you introduce a mutual goal or enemy the communities come together to address. (Of course, it’s not as simple as finding a problem that BLM activists and police officers can team up to address.)

More complicated systems also offer ways to change the underlying structure as well. By naming each relationship, we can name the deep structure that keeps this system afloat. and figure out which ways we as a community can defuse the Black genocide. If we can learn about what motivates it, we can find ways to change it.

You might be a bit overwhelmed. Trust me, I would be too.

As you might expect, systems thinking is a tool that’s grown, adapted, and evolved towards countless topics across the world. It’s not perfect, but it offers a new way to look at our world. It’s taught at top academic institutions across the world, and it’s a toolkit you deserve to use to address systemic oppression.

So, how do we start?

Look for patterns of behavior.

Build communities looking to build ecosystems of change.

Determine a useful system: its interconnections and boundaries.

Build and iterate on your system to see if it can be described better.

Look for places where small tools causes big effects.

Recognize that systems thinking doesn’t work everywhere.

Tools of science, as powerful as they might be, are just that: tools. We can’t use systems thinking to address every problem, just like we can’t use a hammer to attack every nail. Useful Systems Thinking practice takes time, guidance, resources to do well. But, in a world where people understand so many problems as parts of larger systems, why not use every tool at our disposal to change them?

Put another tool in your toolbox. Let’s see how you’ll see your world differently.

Where do you need systems thinking for your organization, institution, or community? Let us know by emailing us at equityinnovation@thinkrubix.com.

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Think Rubix

Think Rubix is a social innovation consultancy. We help nonprofits, businesses, and governments to engage in systems change to transform culture. We are political strategists, researchers, creatives, and equity innovators.

Pierce Gordon, Ph.D.

Written by

we think about transformation + liberation.

Think Rubix

Think Rubix is a social innovation consultancy. We help nonprofits, businesses, and governments to engage in systems change to transform culture. We are political strategists, researchers, creatives, and equity innovators.

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