Systemic Racism, Explained by Newton’s First Law of Motion

Those who deny its existence might as well deny inertia

Tim Wise
8 min readJul 15, 2020


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Newton’s First Law holds that an object in motion tends to remain in motion unless acted upon by another force that can arrest its forward trajectory.

We understand this as a description of inertia, and readily see how it applies to the physical universe.

We slide a book across a table, understanding that it will only stop moving when it falls to the floor or when the friction created between the upward force of the table and downward force of gravity is sufficient to bring its motion to a halt.

But the concept of inertia applies not merely to the physical world. It also applies to the socio-economic world and the forward motion of historical events.

Life is not a series of single-day occurrences, followed by a re-set to the beginning, like a video game. Instead, that which happens today will impact that which happens tomorrow, and so on.

Indeed, the inertia of history lasts far longer than that of the book sliding across the table.

Historical events and patterns leave legacies.

Inertia is a concept that can help us understand systemic racism — a subject about which many have been speaking lately, but about which just as many remain confused.

Contrary to what some think, systemic racism is not a concept that suggests horrible racists predominate in every HR department, police station, or classroom.

Systemic racism doesn’t require any such persons to exist at all.

Obviously, some do, but they are mostly irrelevant to a discussion of systemic racism because systemic racism is, well, systemic. As such, it is concerned with the functioning of institutions and structures and how racism becomes sedimented in the operations of society, with or without deliberate and bigoted intent. It describes the process by which unequal opportunities, life chances, and outcomes obtain depending on one’s race.

As a prime example of how it works, consider the American housing market in the 20th century, and its relationship to other institutional settings that impact our lives…



Tim Wise

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)