Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that racism was not only a problem of individual attitudes and practices in society. He knew that is was also and more fundamentally a systemic problem. A whole network of systems, structures, laws, customs, and institutions promoted, condoned, and sustained a culture of racism and inequality. Although it was important to change the hearts and minds of individual persons, it was even more important to break down the walls perpetuated by these systems. The civil rights legislation of 1960’s (recently weakened by one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in my lifetime) was one of the hallmark achievements in addressing the systemic nature of our racist society.
The challenges faced during our time (and racism is unfortunately still one of those great challenges) are also systemic in nature and require systemic approaches and solutions. We need new civil rights legislation to address the unequal treatment of minorities in our justice systems. Given the recent Supreme Court decisions weakening the Voting Rights Act, we need new Voting Rights legislation to insure all persons have equal access to the political process. Legislation to repeal the Citizens United Supreme Court decision is also called for to protect equal access to the political process for all citizens. We need new civil rights legislation to insure the equal rights of all persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender and to provide systems that protect marriage equality. We also need legislation to provide all persons more equal access to educational and economic opportunities to address the systemic perpetuation of poverty in our society and the decreasing opportunity for social mobility, These are all systemic issues that require systemic approaches in order to insure sustained long-term progress for social justice in our society.
Systemic approaches are also needed to address the challenges of creating and sustaining peace in our society and in the world. This is not in any way to downplay the importance of cultivating peace in our individual lives and families (this is a part of cultivating peace in general), but we also must address peace, or the lack thereof, as being connected to a wide a array of systemic problems and issues that have economic, religious, and cultural components. If we do not address these more systemic issues, progress related to creating a more peaceful society will be unlikely.
Our global ecological challenges are also systemic in nature. The ecological crisis is not only created by our individual unsustainable practices. It is perpetuated by a vast array of systems that make it difficult for even the most committed environmentalists to live in sustainable ways. Our transportation system, our energy production and delivery systems, our food production and distribution systems, and our economic system in general all contribute to and perpetuate an unsustainable society that cannot simply be transformed by changes in individual practices. Our ecological crisis requires a systemic response.
As we address all of our local, regional, national, and global challenges and as we prepare others persons to do so as well; we will certainly need to employ and cultivate critical and creative thinking coupled with sustained individual commitment, but more importantly we will need to cultivate and apply systemic thinking and systemic action to transform the very systems and structures that stifle rather than foster change for a more peaceful, just, and sustainable future.