This Is What Institutional Racism Actually Means

It's so much more than dirty looks and a nasty N-word. Institutional racism is a racial caste system that continues to elevate White while diminishing Black and everything else.

Most Black people in the United States have at least one unforgettable story, a moment in time when someone who wasn’t Black attacked them with a six-letter word. Sticks and stones may break our bones, and although words will never physically hurt us, the six-letter one beginning with “N” can leave lasting emotional scars. Cutting just as deep are the wounds yielded by institutional racism. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, when you are anything other than White, you often must spend your life dealing with this less-tangible beast than individual bigotry. At the institutional level, racism has the power not just to insult but also to control the lives of people in minority groups by destroying their hopes and dashing their dreams.

Black people can choose to brush off the N-word, but institutional racism is a thorn in the side that has replaced whips and chains as a crippling force. It’s not just personal. Institutional racism encompasses the many ways in which one-on-one racism has expanded to create a society in which our institutions—schools, businesses, housing, laws, and even holidays—reward Whiteness with preferential treatment. The Aspen Institute, a global nonprofit organization committed to realizing a free, just, and equitable society, defines it as “policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor, or put a racial group at a disadvantage.” Moving from broad to specific, it continues: “Poignant examples of institutional racism can be found in school disciplinary policies in which students of color are punished at much higher rates than their White counterparts, in the criminal justice system, and within many employment sectors in which day-to-day operations, as well as hiring and firing practices, can significantly disadvantage workers of color.”

Institutional racism is an unavoidable fact of Black Lives

Even if a Black person never has to deal with racism on an individual basis, even if they are never called the N-word by a hostile White person, they will be affected in some way by institutional racism over the course of their life. It permeates our society in ways that may or may not always be obvious, whether it’s in higher-paying jobs and more inherited wealth for White people, a legal system that treats them less harshly than Black and Latino people, or a pandemic that kills them at half the rate. It rears its ugliness in board rooms, in classrooms, in contract negotiations, and on casting couches, creating an entertainment industry that continues to “other” Black, Latino, and Asian talent, pushing them into the background while holding up White talent as the gold standard. Whitewashing is another example of how institutional racism pervades life in the United States.

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Don’t confuse it with systemic racism

Institutional racism covers discrimination in a much broader sense than the individual. Meanwhile, systemic racism gives institutional racism historical context. In a sense, systemic racism has made institutional racism possible. “It’s historically specific, meaning the systems maintaining racial injustice change over time (and sometimes based on location),” Natasha Piñon wrote in a June 2020 article on Mashable. “While racial orders (the beliefs and institutions that arrange relationships between races) often share attributes across countries and cultures, the systems that uphold them adapt to changing conditions,” she continued.

Systemic racism involves the specific ways in which society puts White on a pedestal while banishing other groups to the basement, but it digs deeper, burrowing down to the roots of racism. It reflects how racism is embedded in the DNA of our country, acknowledging the cumulative effect of slavery and the segregation that followed and how they fostered a system based on White privilege and the delusion of White supremacy. Black Lives Matter exists because systemic racism has bred institutional racism, which, in turn, has cultivated a society that deems Black lives less important than White ones.

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Institutional racism began with slavery and continued with segregation

“Chattel slavery had particular practices and rules necessary for its maintenance as a system, which were different than the practices and rules necessary for Jim Crow Laws, which were different than the practices and rules necessary for ongoing racist housing policies, and on and on,” Piñon continued in her piece that featured an interview with Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke University sociologist. “These were all particular to historic moments, but ultimately had the same effect: The violent disenfranchisement of Black people.”

Slavery is the oldest component of institutional racism in the United States. It was a form of servitude that sprung from individual ideas about the status of African-descended Black people in relation to European-descended White people. Black people were considered to be less than 100 percent human—in fact, in 1787 when it was ratified, the U.S. Constitution defined them as being three-fifths of a person, and therefore not worthy of being in control of their own bodies and lives. Individual racist ideas about Black people informed the racist attitudes of the U.S. founding fathers, which, in turn, gave birth to a system based on institutional racism that kept Black people legally enslaved for nearly a century after the Revolutionary War.

Even after Black people won their freedom after the end of the Civil War, individual racism continued to fuel institutional racism, and following the failure of Reconstruction, Blacks remained enslaved in a symbolic sense for another century via Jim Crow laws of segregation. Ferris State University describes this development in the section of its website devoted to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia: “During the Jim Crow period, African Americans were confronted by institutional discrimination and acts of individual discrimination, and generally treated as second-class citizens.” The concept of race has evolved over time. This is where it comes from.

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Despite progress, institutional racism lives on

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in the United States, but institutional racism persists in our country to this day. It spent decades hiding in plain sight, visible, it often seemed, only to those it affected most. The high-profile murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, the rise of alt-right groups, and an American president who is reluctant to denounce White supremacy have put an unprecedented spotlight on institutional racism this year, making it impossible to ignore. It has illuminated the ever-widening gulf between different races in the United States and the White supremacy and White privilege that has made “all men are created equal” the devastating lie of the American dream.

In his 2019 essay in TIME magazine “How Reconstruction Still Shapes American Racism,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote, “But what also seems clear to me today is that it was in that period that White-­supremacist ideology, especially as it was transmuted into powerful new forms of media, poisoned the American imagination in ways that have long outlasted its origin. You might say that anti-Black racism once helped fuel an economic system, and that black crude was pumped and freighted around the world. Now, more than a century and a half since the end of slavery in the U.S., it drifts like a toxic oil slick as the supertanker lists into the sea.” Here is some insight into why desegregation didn’t end racism in the United States.

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Structural racism makes institutional racism possible

The scope of communal racism extends well beyond the institutions that reward Whiteness. Structural racism refers to our entire system of White supremacy and White privilege as well as the normalization of both, encompassing systemic racism, institutional racism, interpersonal racism, and even internalized racism. The Urban Institute describes it as “the historical and contemporary policies, practices, and norms that create and maintain White supremacy.” It can manifest in subtle and more aggressive ways and doesn’t always operate with intent. People who might never use the N-word or actively seek to hold back those in minority groups can perpetuate it without even realizing what they’re doing. While institutional racism is specific and easily identifiable in the institutions of our society, structural racism might be barely perceptible to the naked eye, influencing people on an almost subconscious level.

It has evolved over the course of American history and pervades society at every level. Structural racism may lead them to deem White beauty more desirable than everything else or to think of all Black or Latino or Asian or Muslim people as collective entities rather than diverse individuals within a larger group. It creates an environment in which people make tone-deaf comments like “I don’t see color” and “All Lives Matter” while engaging in various everyday microaggressions that place a higher premium on all things White. According to the Aspen Institute, “it identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with ‘Whiteness’ and disadvantages associated with ‘color’ to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead, it has been a feature of the social, economic, and political systems in which we all exist.” Structural racism is also built into our language, as these 12 everyday expressions show.

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This is how to fight institutional racism

How do we put a significant dent in the scourge that has been dehumanizing and decimating non-European-descended people on the American continents from the very start, from Native Americans to Blacks to Latinos and Asians to Muslims? It will require actions at both the individual and societal level. Changing people’s attitudes is important, which is why the visibility of Black Lives Matter protesters and the way they span various ages and racial demographics is so important. But so much more has to be done. We must also exercise the power of our votes and elect officials with progressive agendas who intend to shake up a crusty status quo that, for too long, has promoted and enabled White supremacy.

The first step is acknowledging that the system needs to be fixed. “Amid escalating clashes between protesters and police, discussing race—from the inequity embedded in American institutions to the United States’ long, painful history of anti-Black violence—is an essential step in sparking meaningful societal change,” Meilan Solly wrote in Smithsonian Magazine in June 2020. The same week, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III wrote an essay in which he laid it down with elegance and brevity: “The past is replete with examples of ordinary people working together to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. History is a guide to a better future and demonstrates that we can become a better society—but only if we collectively demand it from each other and from the institutions responsible for administering justice.” Don’t know where to start? Here are 14 small ways you can fight racism every day.

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

Sources:

  • Aspen Institute:”11 Terms You Should Know to Better Understand Structural Racism”
  • Mashable: “What You Need to Know About Systemic Racism?”
  • TIME Magazine: “How Reconstruction Still Shapes American Racism”
  • Smithsonian Magazine: “158 Resources to Understand Racism in America”
  • Smithsonian Magazine: “Secretary Lonnie Bunch: It Is Time for America to Confront Its Tortured Racial Past”
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Jeremy Helligar
Jeremy Helligar is a former staff writer and editor at People, Teen People, Us Weekly, and Entertainment Weekly. He has covered entertainment, pop culture, travel, politics, race, and LGBTQ issues for Reader's Digest, HuffPost, Queerty, The Root, Variety, and The Wrap, among other websites and publications. Before returning to New York City in 2019, he spent 13 years living and working in Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Bangkok, Cape Town, Sydney, and across Europe while writing his two travelogue memoirs, Is It True What They Say About Black Men? And Storms in Africa.