Systemic vs. systematic?

The adjective systemic describes something that exists within or affects an entire system. The adjective systematic relates to a system’s methodical, habitual, or intentional practices.

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What is the difference between systemic and systematic?

The adjectives systematic and systemic derive from the word system, which is either a ‘set of interdependent things that form a complex whole’ or a ‘set of organized principles or procedures for a specific purpose.’ 

Daily routines, calendar reminders, or color-coordinated wardrobes are examples of systems. But for larger, authoritative organizations, the word “system” can carry a heavier connotation. For instance, when people refer to “the system,” they are citing a “prevailing political or social order,” particularly one that is oppressive and enforced through violence. 

Such connotations are relevant for systematic vs. systemic because it is within this understanding that writers often misuse these terms. For example, in the United States, “systemic” is the more relevant and common word to use. Still, people often use “systematic racism” and “systemic racism” as though they are interchangeable (spoiler alert: they are not). 

It’s also important to realize that something can be “systemic” or “systematic” without involving political or social orders. For example, the human body is a system that consists of many physiological apparatuses, such as the “cardiovascular system” or “the digestive system.” 

In either context, we can distinguish systemic vs. systematic in two ways: 

  • Systemic” relates to an entire system instead of one particular part. 
  • Systematic” describes how something occurs according to a specific methodology.  

Metastatic tumors, global climate change, mass extinction, and institutional racism are broad examples of “systemic” issues because they affect an entire system, rather than a localized area. Amber alerts, automatic payments, or taxonomic classifications are “systematic” because they involve a system’s fixed procedure.

What does systematic mean?

According to The New Oxford English Dictionary, the adjective systematic describes how something occurs when it aligns with a fixed procedure or methodology (“Systematic” 1763). 

Example sentences: 

  • “Surgeons use a systematic approach to removing brain tumors.”
  • “Prejudiced laws employ systematic discrimination to disparage specific groups of people.”
  • “The pandemic required systematic closures for clinics that provided non-essential health care services.” 
  • “The program systematically locates malicious software to protect data.” 

Synonyms of systematic

Careful, coherent, consistent, efficient, fastidious, formal, logical, methodical, meticulous, neat, orderly, organized, planned, practical, regular, routine, precise, standard, standardized, structured, systematized. 

Antonyms of systematic

Chaotic, confused, disorderly, disorganized, haphazard, irregular, patternless, planless, systemless, unmethodical, unsystematic. 

Etymology of systematic

The adjective systematic entered the English language in the early 18th century from French systématique. Before the 17th century, French systématique originated from late Latin systematicus and Greek sustēmatikós (‘to combine as a whole’) via Greek sustēma (‘system’).

What does systemic mean?

The adjective systemic describes something that affects or relates to a system as a whole instead of one particular part. 

Example sentences: 

  • “A systemic disease affects the entire body.” 
  • Systemic pesticides enter systemwide tissues to fight infections and parasites.”
  • “Political practices often cause systemic change.” 
  • “New York citizens want to address systemic problems within their police department.” 

Synonyms of systemic

Configurational, constructional, constitutional, extensive, formational, fundamental, ingrained, inherent, institutional, integral, intrinsic, organizational. 

Antonyms of systemic

Extrinsic, local, particular, piecemeal, secondary, supplemental, specific, unnecessary. 

Etymology of systemic

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, English speakers didn’t use the word systemic until the early 19th century, where it was an irregular formation of ‘system’ + ‘-ic’ (“Systemic” 1764). 

How to use systemic vs. systematic in a sentence?

There’s no need to over-think the correct use of systemic vs. systematic. When you’re in a pinch, follow three simple protocols laid out by Garner’s Modern English Usage

#1. Use “systematic” to describe a practice or method that is regular, intentional, or performed in an organized manner.

  • “… The task force conducted a systematic review of the literature, factoring in several modeling studies from the cancer…” –– International Business Times
  • “Nxivm leadership accused of illegal psychological experiments and systematic abuse in federal lawsuit.” –– CNN
  • Systematic efforts and a clear structure are decisive factors in the transition to person-centred health care.” –– Science Daily
  • “… a crime against humanity is defined as an act committed as part of a ‘widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.’” –– AP News

#2. Use “systemic” to describe how something exists systemwide or affects an entire system.

  • “Sustainable capitalism requires ‘outside-the-box’ thinking and systemic change, panelists say at WEF in Davos.” –– Business Insider
  • “… removing this one individual from his job will not remove the systemic gender bias that permeates the STEM fields.” –– The New York Times
  • “Barr has repeatedly denied the existence of systemic racism in law enforcement…” –– NBC News
  • “Racism isn’t about ignorance. Some highly educated people have upheld systemic inequality.” –– The Washington Post

FAQ: Is it “systemic racism” or “systematic racism”?

The first step to understanding systemic or “systematic racism is to have a solid understanding of the word “racism.” According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, racism is:

  1. A belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
  2. “The systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.”
  3. “A political or social system founded on racism and designed to execute its principles.”

But since we’re discussing racism in regards to systematic vs. systemic racism, it’s prudent to define “institutional racism”––the original concept of “systemic racism” first defined within Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmicheal) and Charles V. Hamilton’s “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America.” 

According to Ture and Hamilton, racism is “the predication of decisions and policies on considerations of race for the purpose of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over that group” (Hamilton 17). The authors follow-up this definition with three characteristics of racism

  1. Racism is a practice taken by dominant powers or systems against people of color.
  2. Racism is either overt or covert.
  3. Racism takes the form of individual racism (an individual’s overt and violent actions) or institutional racism (subtle, organized practices of an established system). 

Systematic racism vs. systemic racism

With our definitions in mind, there’s a consensus that racism can be systematic or systemic, and we can break down their differences as such: 

  • Systematic racism occurs when a racist system or power implements discriminatory policies or fixed procedures to harm a particular race of people. 
  • Systemic racism or institutional racism involves the subtle or explicit, normalized attitudes and practices of a society, where there is no fixed procedure in mind and no single individual or organization to blame. 

What does systematic racism look like?

To call something “systematically racist,” one has to prove that a system exists and operates to harm a specific race of people. Real-life examples include:

  • Southern police forces (1704): law enforcement created to preserve slavey by capturing runaway slaves and preventing slave revolts. According to Time, southern sheriffs continued to regularly “disenfranchise freed slaves” and enforce segregation after the Civil War. 
  • Jim Crow laws (1870s-1964): the legal enforcement of racial segregation after the Civil War to undermine economic and educational opportunities for Black Americans. 
  • The Indian Removal Act of 1830: the forced removal and displacement of indigenous populations from their homelands to smaller parcels of land (i.e., reservations). 
  • Federal Housing Administration (1934): Federal program established to ensure housing to white people, and systematically uphold segregation by denying mortgage insurance to anyone from or near a Black neighborhood (i.e., redlining). 
  • William Levitt’s “Levittown” (1950s): a ‘white-only’ suburban community that consisted of over 17,000 homes for returning WWII veterans.

Sentence examples

  • Former Rep. Watts: ‘I believe in systematic racism, but I don’t believe that all racism is systematic.” –– MSNBC
  • “The University of Louisville’s law school is offering a class on systematic racism titled ‘Breonna Taylor’s Louisville.’” –– CNN
  • “The resolution will provide a glossary of terms to describe instances of systematic racism and how it can affect health.” –– AP News

What does systemic racism look like?

Systemic racism is upheld by implicit biases, which are attitudes and stereotypes that explicitly or implicitly affect one’s judgment and decision-making. Even with the best intentions, subconscious assumptions about someone’s education, family, wealth, personal interests, or spirituality all lead to forms of systemic racism or discrimination.

As noted by Act.tv’s helpful video, “Systemic racism explained,” systemic racism also occurs because of past systematic practices, such as enforced segregation, white-only colleges, redlining, or the inability to secure employment and a living wage. 

With these elements combined, systemic racism often looks like: 

  • The absence of diverse representation within leadership roles, politics, and mass media. 
  • Geographical displacement from gentrification, housing discrimination, and prejudiced lending practices. 
  • Wealth disparities in families with parents or grandparents who were denied equal opportunities for education and employment. 
  • The defunding of public schools that serve low-income students.
  • The high incidence of police stops and subsequent violence against Black people. 

Sentence examples

  • Systemic racism takes a physical, existential toll on communities of color.” –– Vox
  • “Many Latinos are pushing for an acknowledgment of the systemic racism they face…” –– The New York Times
  • “The office will drive the work to dismantle systemic racism and embed equity in all planning and operations…” –– The Boston Globe

Test Yourself!

Are you feeling confident about your understanding of systemic vs. systematic? See how much you’ve learned with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: the words systemic and systematic have different meanings.
    a. True
    b. False
  2. The word systemic entered the English language in the _____________. 
    a. Early 1600s’
    b. Early 1700s’
    c. Early 1800s’ 
    d. Early 1900s’ 
  3. Words like systematic or systemically originated from which term? 
    a. French systématique
    b. Greek sustēmatikós
    c. Greek sýstēma
    d. Greek sustēma
  4. Which of the following is not a synonym of “systematic”? 
    a. Methodical
    b. Consistent
    c. Irregular
    d. Standardized 
  5. Which of the following is not a synonym of “systemic”? 
    a. Ingrained
    b. Local
    c. Organizational
    d. Institutional

Answers

  1. A
  2. C
  3. D
  4. C
  5. B

Sources

  1. Anderson, T., et al. “Mayor Walsh to form equity cabinet office to fight racial injustice.” The Boston Globe, 25 June 2020. 
  2. Amiri, F. “Ohio Democrats push to declare racism a public health crisis.” AP News, 3 June 2020. 
  3. Clark, D. “Barr denies systemic racism in police shootings of Black men.” NBC News, 2 Sept 2020.
  4. Collins, S. “Why the George Floyd protests are about more than police killings of black men.” Vox, 4 June 2020. 
  5. Digon, S. “New Lung Cancer Screening Guidelines To Benefit Women And Black People.” International Business Times, 7 Aug 2020. 
  6. Garner, B. “Systematic; systemic.” Garner’s Modern English Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 887. 
  7. Hamilton, C.V., Kwame Ture, (1967). “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America.” Vintage Books, pp. 17-18, Mygaryislike, Dec 2016. 
  8. Harper, D. “Systematic (adj.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, 2020. 
  9. Keaten, J. “Experts cite ‘crimes against humanity’ in Maduro’s Venezuela.” AP News, 16 Sept 2020. 
  10. Luxembourg, S. “The Forgotten Northern Origins of Jim Crow.” Time, 12 Feb 2019. 
  11. Marshall, C. “Levittown, the prototypical American suburb.” The Guardian, 28 Apr 2015. 
  12. Medina, J. “Latinos Back Black Lives Matter Protests. They Want Change for Themselves, Too.” The New York Times, 3 July 2020. 
  13. Phillips, K.W. “Gender and Racial Bias Is Systemic in the Sciences.” The New York Times, 11 June 2015.
  14. Racism.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  15. System.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  16. “Systematic.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 1763.
  17. “Systemic.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 1764.
  18. Systemic.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  19. Systemic Racism Explained.” Act.tv, YouTube, 16 Apr 2019. 
  20. University of Gothenburg. “Systematic approach crucial for person-centred care.” ScienceDaily, 10 Sept 2020. 
  21. Waxman, O.B. “How the U.S. Got Its Police Force.” Time, 18 May 2017.