Few studies exist and little has been written about systemic bias.
Yet, it is real and it can be harmful to its victims. One group that
suffers from systemic bias is American Indians, particularly in
education. Many American Natives can tell stories of racism and how
it has affected them. In fact much of the racism they identify may be
One glossary describes systemic bias is "the inherent tendency of a
process to favor particular outcomes." It refers to human systems,
while systemic error refers to non-human systems (i.e. scientific
observations). Systemic bias may be the "result of underlying, often
invisible mechanisms or unconscious perceptions by individuals in the
One way to look at systemic bias is to consider the practices or
policies of an organization. Inherent in these practices may be
biases that favor or discourage one group or another. They don't take
into account the differences among groups or individuals. Generally,
all people are treated the same. Attitudes and beliefs as well as
culture, both individual and organizational, may be factors that
create systemic bias. Often systemic bias is manifested in the failure
of some students to be able to meet the established standards while
the dominant group meets those standards.
From a consumerism viewpoint, systemic bias involves the shared
beliefs of those who participate. For instance, in a project run and
used mostly by Americans, there will be a systemic bias towards
American products. In a project run and used mostly by Internet users
there will be a systemic bias towards technological solutions as being
"good". This form of systemic bias arises from how people work
together rather than from who participates.
A side effect of systemic bias may be oppression, but it is not the
intended result. Racism, on the other hand, entails oppression which,
along with its opposite "privilege," affects a range of people
characterized by gender (sexism), sexuality (heterosexism), physical
and mental able-ness (ableism), age (ageism), class (classism),
nationality, body size/shape, criminality, religion, and
language/accent among others (Paradies, 2006). Racism can be expressed
through stereotypes, prejudice or discrimination.
Many supposedly impartial practices have a tremendously discriminatory
impact on racial and ethnic minorities, as well as women, girls and
other groups. They also can adversely affect dominant groups in a form
of reverse discrimination. Isabelle Katz Pinzler writing in the
Chicago Tribune (May 20, 2001) listed racial profiling by police,
placing potentially toxic plants or waste treatment facilities in
minority neighborhoods, height and weight requirements for employment
and other selection procedures as examples of systemic bias. Other
examples are career selection and choice of major in college, the wage
gender gap, dealing with the mentally ill in prison and court systems,
and English-only language requirements for immigrants. In the
education system, systemic bias exists in funding mechanisms, meeting
special needs, testing and delivery approaches. Systemic bias
permeates North American society in one form or another. For each of
these instances exists an example of racism, thus we see the inherent
danger of systemic bias.
System bias directed toward American Native peoples
Systemic bias affects the teaching and delivery of programs to Native
people. Poor performance and high dropout rates among indigenous
students may be a result of American education being so different from
and apart from the lives of Indian people. According to Deloria, "The
education that Indians receive today is the highly distilled product
of Christian/European scientific and political encounters with the
world …. [E]ducation has become something different and part from the
lives of [Indian] people, and is seen as a set of technical beliefs
that, upon mastering, admit the pupil to the social and economic
structures of larger society" (1999, p. 138).
Not only does it affect the teaching of Indians, but systemic bias
also occurs in the teaching (or lack) of Native history and culture to
non-Native populations. What is taught about Indian history and
culture distorts the facts. Starnes (2006) states: "It is not
surprising that most schools – even schools on reservations –
emphasize a history and culture that does not include American
Indians." However, he continues, "American Indian cultures are filled
with great thinkers and doers and with histories at least as complex
and exciting as those included in the largely Eurocentric body of
knowledge acquired by America's graduating seniors. And whether or
not we can name Indian contributions to our democracy and our daily
lives, they do exist."
Because of cultural stereotyping, often created in Hollywood, and
misinformation in schools, most people think that there is only one
Indian culture and one Indian language. In fact, more than 500 tribal
nations exist in the United States, each with its own unique history,
culture and language.
Often the poor educational outcomes among indigenous students are
blamed on Native peoples for not responding to opportunities or on
racist motives by government or educational authorities. However, De
Plevicz (2007) claims a partial explanation for poor performance is
the less obvious educational policies and practices of government
agencies. While these policies and practices may appear to be
race-neutral, they are "based on underlying assumptions that are not
in accordance with indigenous experience or culture, and … therefore
disadvantage the indigenous students who struggle to comply with
As Deloria (1999, p. 137) points out, "European civilization has a
determined and continuing desire to spread its view of the world to
non-European countries." This includes indigenous peoples in North
America and elsewhere. Even though the policy of assimilation was
officially abandoned in the 1970s, according to De Plevicz (2007),
this is still the aim, although unconscious, of government. "While
they are apparently being offered the same educational opportunities
as other students, indigenous students may be experiencing the
unintentional consequences of historical policies or economic
practices." The most striking example of systemic bias is the
operation of the Eurocentric model of education which, by its nature,
fails to endorse indigenous core values and understandings. According
to De Plevicz (2007), "indigenous people who are successful in
mainstream terms have learned to live in two worlds." White people
don't have to live in two worlds. Yet it seems to be a primary goal
of education for indigenous students, writes De Plevicz.
According to Deloria (1999, pp. 138-139), education today trains
professionals; it doesn't produce people. The separation of learning
into professional expertise and personal growth is "an insurmountable
barrier for many Indian students and raises severe emotional problems
as they seek to sort out the proper principles from these two isolated
parts of human experience." In traditional Indian society there is no
separation. In fact, the goal in traditional societies is "to ensure
personal growth and then to develop professional expertise."
Professor Jim Bates, a Lakota/Nakota, has noted how he has had to
re-educate American-Indian graduates from accredited social work
programs to function competently in tribal social services. Professor
Bates noted that many tribes did not want to hire professional social
workers for tribal services as they were not viewed as effective with
Indian people, in that they were "just too complicated" for Indians to
trust. Bates speaks about the need for a "shadow curriculum" for
native indigenous students, a curriculum that would be grounded upon
core indigenous values and traditional philosophical assumptions; a
curriculum that would more appropriately prepare traditional Indians
for social work in their respective tribes within the framework of
their own traditional heritage (Voss, 2005).
Can anything be done about systemic bias?
While racism may exist in school systems toward Indian children,
systemic bias is also apparent. Much of what is called racism is in
fact systemic bias. Because it is possible that systemic bias supports
racist thinking and behaviors, reducing problems of systemic bias may
in fact lead to a reduction in racism. However, in addition, further
measures may need to be instituted to deal with the problems of
racism. Changing the system will not completely eradicate racism.
Re-education and changing attitudes will be needed to change racist
thinking and behaviors.
Systemic bias may be a major reason that so many Native students fail
to complete school. Recognizing systemic bias may be a first step in
eliminating the problem. A declaration of bias may help reduce
systemic bias by making it visible. Part of the declaration would
recognize that traditional education doesn't work well with Indian
children. We are trying to teach Native students using white cultural
standards and teaching methods. We can change this situation by
bringing native teachers into classrooms, by emphasizing affective
teaching methods over cognitive, and by developing a caring atmosphere
where the students learn by experience and are evaluated that way
instead of with standardized tests.
Montana has passed legislation, called Indian Education for All
(IEFA), which may do much to reduce systemic bias and lessen racism.
Under IEFA every child in the state will learn about Indian history
and culture. Instituting similar programs in the other states and
provinces of Canada might begin to deal with the problems of systemic
bias and racism in both countries. Teachers would learn about native
culture and how to present it. A program about Native history and
culture would signal the importance of Indian education and thus help
reduce systemic bias. It might help re-educate teachers and students
alike and assist in changing racist attitudes.
In the context of social work, Professor Bates spoke about the need
for a "shadow curriculum" for Native students, "a curriculum that
would be grounded upon core indigenous values and traditional
philosophical assumptions," that would "appropriately prepare
traditional Indians for … work in their respective tribes within the
framework of their own traditional heritage" (Voss, 2005).
However, "offering classes on indigenous culture is only a beginning,
not a solution. Underlying policies need to be tested to see whether
they are racially discriminatory," writes De Plevicz (2007). While
dealing with systemic bias may not solve the complex problems related
to Indian education, they may provide a place to begin.
The Montana Indian Education For All legislation suggests that if
anything is to be done about racism and individual prejudice we must
first attack systemic bias.
Deloria, Vine, Barbara Deloria, Kristen Foehner, Samuel Scinta and
Wilma Pearl Mankiller. Spirit and Reason. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum
De Plevicz, Loretta. Systemic Racism: "The Hidden Barrier to
Educational Success for Indigenous School Students." Australian
Journal of Education, 51, (1), 2007, 54+.
Paradies, Yin. "Defining, conceptualizing and characterizing racism
in health research." Critical Public Health, 16, (2), 2006, 143-157.
Pinzler, Isabelle Katz. "Indirect bias, direct threat: Court ruling
may reverberate for women, girls" Chicago Tribune, May 30, 2001, 6.
Starnes, Bobby Ann. "Montana's Indian Education for all: Toward an
education worthy of American ideals." Phi Delta Kappan, 88, (3)
November, 2006, 184-189.
Voss, Richard W., Albert White Hat Sr., Jim Bates, Margery Richard
Lunderman, Alex Lunderman. "Social Work Education in the Homeland:
Wo'lakota Unglu'su'tapi." Journal of Social Work Education, 41, (2),
*This article summarizes an article by Fisher and Oludaja, entitled
"Native people and systemic bias in the public education system," that
appeared in the 2009 Business Research Yearbook.