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Racism and racial discrimination: Systemic discrimination (fact sheet)

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Racial discrimination can result from individual behaviour as well as because of the unintended and often unconscious consequences of a discriminatory system. This is known as systemic discrimination.

Systemic discrimination can be described as patterns of behaviour, policies or practices that are part of the structures of an organization, and which create or perpetuate disadvantage for racialized persons.

The Commission is very concerned about systemic discrimination.  Assessing and tackling systemic discrimination can be complex.  Nevertheless, the Commission expects organizations to be aware that their “normal way of doing things” may be having a negative impact on racialized persons.

The Commission has set out three considerations that will help the Commission and organizations identify and address systemic discrimination:

1. Numerical Data: Numerical data such as statistics may show that racialized persons are not being equally treated by or within an organization.  In some instances, numerical data will suggest that there may be systemic discrimination because too few racialized people are represented, for example in positions of leadership. In other situations, it may show that too many racialized people are represented, for example in police stops.

Numerical data alone isn’t likely to be proof of systemic discrimination.  However, it serves as an indicator or a “red flag” that there is a problem.  An organization may be able to challenge the data or show that there is a non-discriminatory explanation for the numbers.

2. Policies, Practices and Decision-Making Processes:  Formal and informal policies, practices and decision-making processes can result in barriers for and exclusion of racialized persons.  The use of informal or highly discretionary approaches are particularly problematic as there is more room for subjective considerations, differing standards and biases to come into play.  It is also important not to design policies, practices and decision-making processes in a way that does not account for individual differences or that uses the dominant culture as the norm.

3. Organizational Culture:  Organizations can have their own internal cultures which, if not inclusive, can marginalize or alienate racialized persons.  For example, an organization that values a particular communication style based on how people from the dominant culture tend to communicate may undervalue a different, but equally effective, communication style used by a racialized person.  Similarly, social relationships and networks that are an important part of success may sometimes exclude racialized persons.

Organizations must ensure that they are not unconsciously engaging in systemic discrimination. This takes vigilance and a willingness to monitor and review numerical data, policies, practices and decision-making processes and organizational culture.  It is not acceptable from a human rights perspective for an organization to choose to remain unaware of systemic discrimination or to fail to act when a problem comes to its attention.

Because of the challenge in establishing a link between an individual’s experience and a discriminatory system, if evidence of systemic discrimination is found to exist, the Commission will require the organization to produce information to show that the discriminatory system did not contribute to the individual’s experience.

For further information:  Policy and Guidelines on Racism and Racial Discriminationplease visit our Web site at or call 1-800-387-9080 (toll-free), (416) 326-9511 (in Toronto), 1-800-308-5561 (TTY toll-free), (416) 326-0603 (TTY Local).