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Institutional Racism by Non-Racists? Part 1


Institutional racism by non-racists no longer requires having open, expressed hatred toward anyone because of the color of their skin. Race* makes a great difference in how people are treated in the United States of America, nonetheless. It has for over 400 years, and it continues now. I believe most Americans consider overt racial discrimination repugnant and agree such discrimination must be illegal.

Baseline Discussion: Racism Isn’t Just Hatred

Racism in this blog series does not require having open, obvious, and expressed hatred and hostility for people because of the color of their skin.  I don’t think it’s hard to find a consensus about that definition describing something indecent and immoral.  Few Americans will openly appreciate the aims of the Ku Klux Klan.  Blatant racism like that is beyond the intention of this blog because defending such racism indicates to me the defender is beyond the scope of reason and civil discussion.

Most Americans don’t believe they are racists and would find it upsetting to be considered racist in even the slightest way.  Racial discrimination is directly opposed to our highest aspirational values as Americans, an affront to our cherished national notions of fairness, decency, and equality. 

Racism includes attitudes, opinions, and beliefs which affect perceptions about people.  Racism includes those processes, traditions, practices, laws, cultural norms, and any other influence in society creating or perpetuating unequal racial treatment and persistently unequal outcomes on more than an individual scale.

Racism Is More Than Just Personal

These mechanisms may seem innocuous, equal, even-handed, and benign, but the superficiality of such an analysis belies the underbelly of ugly truths. We must root out institutional racism by taking a serious look at ourselves and by taking bold steps toward truly living our national creed of “equality”.

An individual who is labeled a racist in America bears a major stain on his/her character. To admit to being a racist is a sure way to alienate yourself from most desirable groups and associations. How, then, can public polices and laws in America be racist?

Racism is Ingrained In Our Country

The answer is racism is deeply ingrained in our society over the course of many generations.  It’s not debatable on a factual basis. (For some, that statement makes me anti-American, a communist, a socialist and a whole lot of other nonsense. This isn’t written for them because their minds are already closed. They are not interested in getting to the truth of the matter, challenging their beliefs, or even considering the possibility they could be wrong.)

Subtle Racism Is Harmful

Racism need not be explicit and open to be real. It can be subtle and muted. Not calling back a job applicant for an interview because his/her name sounds “black” is a far cry from burning a cross in his/her front yard, but it’s still racism. 

Both kinds of racism are harmful. Overt intention and express purpose to harm based on race is certainly unacceptable in every context. Cross-burning is terrorism, plain and simple. Subtly preventing a qualified black applicant from being able to climb up social and economic ladders by discarding his/her application is also harmful. The latter can have life-long negative consequences which reverberate through future generations. One need not wear a sheet and claim racial purity to be a racist and do racist things.

How can those behaviors be unacceptable, yet institutional rules and practices which accomplish the same effect be acceptable?  The answer is the effects, intended or unintentional, shouldn’t be acceptable, and we need to make changes to eliminate racially disparate effects.

Institutions Are Not Independent of Society

Obviously, an institution cannot harbor such attitudes and beliefs because it has none.  Institutions bear indirect (and sometimes direct) testimony to those who create and operate it, and no aspect of institutions exist in a sterile atmosphere of pollyannish ideals.  Our institutions are still run by people with long-established expectations and guidelines to conduct.

Much like a tail bone in humans still exists as a vestigial reminder of our past, our institutions still reflect the racism which has run as a common thread through our country’s history.  It’s in us, whether we think we have it or not. We don’t live in a vacuum of abstract ideals.  We live in contexts.

Landmark Events Didn’t End Racism

Slavery was outlawed about 160 years ago.  It took a Civil War to reach that point.  The loss of life and tearing of social fabric was on a scale we can scarcely imagine and have since not matched in any war.  How far removed are we from the Civil War? It seems like ancient history. Does any American support slavery now? Does any American believe slavery was anything other than inhuman and disgusting? How many Americans would want to serve in a war to support slavery? How many Americans would want their sons and daughters to die in such a war? It is so antithetical from our national consciousness now, it’s barely conceivable.

The Civil War ended slavery, but not racial discrimination.  When left to their own devices, white people in power dealt with freeing of slaves with open and hostile racism.  They (WE, if we claim credit for any part of our past, we have to accept blame, too) enacted explicitly racist Jim Crow laws, which prevailed another 100 years. Jim Crow is far from the end of racism, and it was explicitly and literally directly based upon race.

It took a national consensus to force the outlawing of that contemptible institution.  Removing explicitly racially discriminatory language from laws, while an important step, did not suddenly make laws and institutions “equal”, however. 

Laws Do Not Instantly Change Us

Racial discrimination wasn’t cheerfully and voluntarily removed from the laws. Change was met with open hatred, violent force, and defiant claims of racial superiority. Segregation “forever” was a rallying cry. The laws were changed under force and threat of force, dragging us kicking and screaming all the way.

Who could possibly be so naïve as to believe that bold, palpable, blatant racism somehow became a forgotten relic of an ancient past the day laws no longer explicitly made black people second class citizens by plain language?  Of course, racism did not end simply because laws couldn’t openly say so any longer.

The very same people who were fighting tooth and nail to preserve Jim Crow didn’t embrace the changes. They didn’t cease to exist. Their influence didn’t end.  They remained in power and had households of children who had children. It would be ludicrous to conclude their attitudes and beliefs were not passed on to their lineage. That’s not to say all of their attitudes and beliefs were readily accepted by their progeny. Racism is not solely a problem for the Southern states, either.  We deny our current racism because we still haven’t had a true reckoning about our past, much less our present.

Racism Is Not Gone

Some people point toward the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Right Act of 1968 as bellwethers of the end of racism. Their passage is testament to the fact racial discrimination certainly existed and had to be actively combated.  Much like segregation being outlawed was not the actual end of segregation, racially discriminatory attitudes, customs, laws, and practices didn’t end with the passage of those laws. 

Similarly, the election and re-election of Barak Obama as President of the United States did not prove racism was dead and gone. Obama’s presidency does not disprove this truth, nor do his policies embody all black perspectives.  In fact, many of his policies necessarily sated white needs, lest he not get or keep their support.  His ascendancy was definitely a major milestone for our country, but it doesn’t equal the end of racism.

Decision-makers are still routinely and overwhelmingly white in America. This is truer the higher the decision-making goes. 

There Is Hope

Has some progress been made? Yes. It is no longer legal to exclude black people from businesses, employment, schools…. IF that exclusion is expressly because of race.  However, if you don’t openly ADMIT your decision is because of race, you are protected and insulated.  Stating a policy as race-neutral or “color blind” does not automatically mean the policy is not racist.

Colorblindness is a goal, not reality. I’m not colorblind about race.  Neither are you, nor is anyone you know.  The very use of the term is a tacit admission we must attempt not to see it. Recognizing we are “different races” doesn’t mean we are racists.

Passing anti-discrimination laws and the issuance of landmark Supreme Court cases do not change reality instantly. What’s wrong in people’s minds, hearts, and behaviors is not miraculously reversed, either.

Removing explicit racial discrimination from laws and rules officially governing society is merely a good step.  The substance and spirit of such discrimination remains until it is consciously identified and eradicated.  The next blog post in this series will explore how even unintentional racist polices manifest themselves.


*Yes, yes, we are all one “race”, the human race. I get it.  That recitation is factually correct, and superiority/inferiority of the “races” is thoroughly debunked.  As much as I’d like that to be the end of the subject, that scientific conclusion adds little to nothing to the conversation about racial disparity.  The topic at hand is not dependent upon a biological, evolutionary understanding we are all the same race with outward differences merely being superficial.  Beliefs about relative superiority and inferiority of people based on color most definitely exist, are long-established, and simply aren’t ended because they are scientifically debunked. Black people are consequently treated differently than white people in America, and it must be addressed directly without deflection or distraction.  Otherwise, we simply aid and abet racism.