In a Remarkably Crude Election Cycle, the Nuanced Term ‘Systemic Racism’ Blew Up

By Statistics by Dominique Apollon. Text by Akiba Solomon Nov 14, 2016

In an election cycle full of wild moments, something major happened with little fanfare: "Systemic racism," a term racial justice workers use every day, moved from the margins into the mainstream.

Think about it: After a slow start on addressing race, Bernie Sanders put "structural and institutional racism" in his official platform. Hillary Clinton, who had been criticized for her dog whistling about young Black "super predators" used "systemic racism" during her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. After she used it again, at the first debate with Donald Trump, a conservative website called PoliZette responded with a headline that actually increased its visibility, "Hillary Clings to Myth of Systemic Racism in First Debate." Other news media, including CNNNPR and The Guardian, used it in headlines as well. 

Of course candidates and the media covering them didn’t start using "systemic racism" in a vacuum. Our theory? The candidates were responding to embarrassing confrontations with The Movement for Black Lives activists.

Nerds that we are, we asked Dominique Apollon, research director for our publisher, Race Forward, to make sure we weren’t imagining what looked like an explosion. Apollon—or as we know him, "Dom"—ran searches of election coverage by CNN, MSNBC and FOX News and a group of more than 650 U.S. newspapers and wires. 

Three key findings:

  • "Systemic racism” was used in 773 articles and cable news programs during the last year (November 8, 2015 to Nov. 8, 2016). In 2012, there were only 14 mentions.
  • Taken together, three major national newspapers—USA Today, The Washington Post and The New York Times—didn’t use "systemic racism" a single time in the George W. Bush election years of 2000 or 2004. They didn’t use it 2008 when the nation elected its first Black president, Barack Obama. In 2012, Obama’s re-election year, USA Today used "systemic racism" once. In 2016, the three papers used it in 91 articles.
  • In a search of “systemic racism” and 11 similar terms (see below) the five most popular in 2016 were racial profiling (1,182), racial discrimination (1,142), racial justice (1,045), racial disparities (818) and systemic racism (773).


Search terms: Institutional racism, racial bias, racial discrimination, racial disparities, racial equality, racial equity, racial inequality, racial inequity, racial justice, racial profiling, systemic racism and structural racism.

Methodology: Race Forward counted instances of the 12 racial terms above by conducting searches in election years from 2000 to 2016 within the database. For example, we searched "election and ‘systemic racism’" in the database’s "US Newspapers and Wires" group for each election year. We conducted the same searches for CNN, FOX News and MSNBC, the three main cable news networks in the database. We combined the newspaper and cable news results figures to produce the totals reported. Direct questions to research director Dominique Apollon at