Systemic vs. Systematic: What’s the Difference?

Here's the difference between these two words that are often used interchangeably even though they have different meanings.

Language in the modern world

Protests erupted across the United States when George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020. Thousands of people in the United States and in countries around the world from Canada to Germany to Japan joined in, demanding to be heard and demanding social change, which can be seen in these 21 powerful protest photos that show global solidarity against racial injustice. Now that people are making changes out in the world, it’s time to look at the words in which we talk about racism—like systemic racism. But what does “systemic” really mean? And why are “systemic” and “systematic” often used interchangeably?

A system in place

Before diving into the words “systemic” and “systematic,” let’s look into the word “system.” According to Dictionary.com, “First recorded in the early 1600s, system ultimately derives from the Greek sýstēma, ‘a whole compounded of several parts.'” Both systemic and systematic are based on the word system. There are a few different definitions and meanings for system. One definition Merriam-Webster has defines a system as “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole” which can include something like the number system. Another way Dictionary.com states the word can be used is “a coordinated body of methods or a scheme or plan of procedure; organizational scheme” like a system of government. These are the 12 grammatical mistakes that even smart people make.

What does systematic mean?

The adjective systematic dates back to the late 17th century, around 1670. Dictionary.com defines systematic as “having, showing, or involving a system, method, or plan.” Their example is to think of cleaning a house. You would clean it in an orderly way, perhaps room by room as opposed to starting at random with no plan. A few synonyms of systematic include organized, standardized, and methodical. Here are 50 words you might think are synonyms but actually aren’t.

What does systemic mean?

Systemic is a newer word compared to systematic and arrived more than 100 years later between 1795 and 1805. Merriam-Webster defines systemic as “relating to, or common to a system” in various ways, such as “affecting the body generally” like systemic diseases or “fundamental to a predominant social, economic, or political practice” like systemic poverty. This could also be applied to systemic racism. Here are 10 more sneakily similar word pairs that everyone screws up.

What is the difference between systemic and systematic?

Now that you know the meanings of systematic and systemic, it’s important to note that while there is some overlap between the two words, they’re not interchangeable, according to Mignon Fogarty, or the “Grammar Girl.” Fogarty’s examples of using systematic and systemic in a sentence are shown below:

If you want to say something is methodical, organized, and intentional, call it systematic.

If you want to say something is widespread and affects many parts of something, call it systemic.

Why is it systemic racism?

Systemic racism affects various aspects of society including education and school curricula, representation in businesses and corporations, and sports/recreation access. Systemic racism, as Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward and publisher of Colorlines, told USA Today, is “the complex interaction of culture, policy, and institutions that holds in place the outcomes we see in our lives.” It’s important to be active in your community and know the small ways you can fight racism every day. As you’re researching and doing the work, here’s what it really means to be an ally in the move toward equality.

For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

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Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com