Institutional racism in the United States is real. Patriotic pride doesn’t negate it. A “colorblind” self-identity doesn’t negate it. Having black friends doesn’t negate it. It is older than anyone alive, so none of us is to blame for starting it.
Colorblindness defies reality, and we need to see color to fight racial inequality and injustice. Having black friends should be universal in America, not an impotent claim meant to disprove racism. We didn’t start institutional racism, but we need to end it.
Racism will not stop itself. Pointing out flaws needing correction in our great country is patriotic.
Discussing the issue is usually derailed by what people think is meant by the words. Defensiveness and close-mindedness result when we perceive the discussion as a personal attack. It’s not about you, and it’s not about me. It’s about all of us and our context.
The word racism itself is a stumbling block. It bears repeating from my most recent blog entry: 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.
Another misunderstanding is limiting “institutions” to laws or official governmental organizations. In sociological contexts like this discussion, institutions include anything which may constitute a strand in the fabric of society, such as customs, practices, churches, and private organizations.
Institutionalized racism is simply a collective, cooperative form of racism. No official, explicitly racist anthem or decree is necessary. How we are expected to behave and what is established in our culture is “institutional”.
“In many ways, these social norms are the invisible rules that guide your behavior each day. You’re always keeping them in mind, even if they are not at the top of your mind. Often, you follow the habits of your culture without thinking, without questioning, and sometimes without remembering. As the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote, ‘the customs and practices of life in society sweep us along’”. We don’t have to think about these customs in our culture. We perpetuate them because they already are deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society.
Most Americans recoil from the very notion they are racists. Intentionally practicing or supporting racism is not a conscious desire of most Americans. That’s a good thing. Our rejection of open racism demonstrates progress. For most of our history, most Americans embraced racism and openly practiced racism, even as we espoused ideals incompatible with our behavior.
Evil intent to support racism is not required to perpetuate racism. People don’t even need to be aware they are supporting racism. People today did not create our cultural norms and traditions, yet those institutions still often perpetuate unequal racial treatment. It’s all around us, built into what we do. That’s the pernicious insidiousness of institutional racism.
I believe most Americans, including white ones, don’t want to support racism. In principle, Americans would like to see racism eradicated. I believe lack of awareness of institutional racism leads to a failure to recognize it.
Blatant racism is easy for everyone to understand and requires no training. However, our personal experience is an unreliable way to assess institutional racism.
Individual experiences give us no way to accurately understand the big picture. Asking for experiences of those you personally know is similarly inadequate. The scale of a societal problem like institutional racism requires gathering of and interpretation of immense data. Recognizing institutional racism requires an understanding of how to examine the “bigger picture” of trends in society.
Patterns of persistent racial discrimination can be seen by trends in large numbers. Examples of racial inequality are not necessarily due to racism. Such a determination does not mean institutional racism is not present. Individual stories cannot refute the institutional racism.
Institutional decision-makers frequently have substantial discretion. When minorities regularly and persistently get the “losing” end of that discretion, we must face the fact the institution itself is discriminating against minorities. It may not be due to conscious, intentional racial discrimination, but it is still racism on a large scale.
Racism need not be explicitly proclaimed to be present. To require open admission of racism to prove racism is an absurd standard. Using such a standard enables even the most extreme racists a free pass to discriminate.
For the vast majority of our nation’s history, explicitly racist laws were numerous and passionately asserted. We rightfully rejected all such laws. After all, those laws perpetuated unequal racial treatment and persistently unequal outcomes. (Refer back to the definition of racism early in this blog post.) There is no clearer institutional racism than that written into law.
Such blatantly racist laws persisted into the 1960s. It took federal legislation to ban the practice of writing and enforcing explicitly racist laws. That legislation was necessary because lawmakers would not stop doing it; they had to be forced to stop. To conclude racism ended with that legislation is to willfully disconnect one’s self from rational discussion of the topic.
Stating a policy as race-neutral or “colorblind” does not automatically mean the policy is not racist. If the language of the law is neutral as to race, but effectively discriminates by race, the law is still racist. Otherwise, one could conclude a law was racist only if openly ADMITTED within in its own terms. Such a standard is beyond absurd. Using that standard, even a blatantly racist law would not be racist, as long as it contained a disclaimer saying it wasn’t racist.
We must look to effect to determine whether a law is in furtherance of institutional racism. “Colorblind” language in a law is merely a first step. It is not the same as equal application, nor is it equal protection.
We must not expect institutions to acknowledge the racism they perpetuate. An institutional building or monument need not bear a plaque extolling the virtues of racism to perpetuate racism. People associated with the institution can perpetuate racism without admitting their complicity, much less intent. In fact, those people may hate racism, yet still participate in a racist context. Regardless of intent, harmful effects can occur. In civilized society, we want to prevent harmful effects, no matter the cause. It should be no different about racism.
If consumers of a company’s product suddenly started dying and becoming ill, and the common thread was the company’s product, the deaths and illnesses would be our focus. We would want to know how this could happen. We would be upset about it. Learning the harm was suspected, known, or tolerated by the company would greatly exacerbate our upset. Learning the harm was intended would rightfully enrage us. Would we deny the harm existed because the company denied responsibility or intent? The same is true about racial discrimination in laws, even those written in race-neutral language.
Lawmakers and their staffs are aware of much more information than the average person. Like other considerations, their decisions are not in a made in a vacuum. They are routinely provided data which demonstrate disparate racial impacts of various laws.
Some of this research data is provided by their own legislative agencies, such as the Legislative Reference Library of Texas .
Some information and research are provided by organizations with interest in various legislation. Said organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, routinely provide extensive research findings and data to lawmakers to demonstrate the racially disparate impacts of certain laws.
Frequently, such information is absolutely disregarded because it is not politically feasible or desirable to follow the information to a logical conclusion.
Courts give great deference to passed laws. This is part of the checks and balances within our system of government. Regrettably, all too often this deference enables racist policies to continue and even to be exacerbated.
If laws create racially discriminatory situations or fail to ameliorate them, I contend they have no place in a free society. We should not give unfettered deference to demonstrably racist law, no matter the intent.
We are not truly “color blind”, nor are our laws. Criminal statutes don’t explicitly require black people to be treated differently. Nonetheless, overwhelming data supports the conclusion black people and other people of color are treated much worse than white people under the same criminal laws. The impetus for such discrimination is not the letter of the law, but institutionalized racism.
From street level decisions by police to prosecutor decisions to sentencing courtrooms, the disparity of treatment by race is clear. One would have to disregard mountains of evidence to dispute this fact.
Racial disparity in treatment under law is no sheer coincidence, nor is it tolerable. Persistent, broad-based, and thorough racial disparity across many areas of life doesn’t support that far-fetched notion our laws are applied in a non-racist manner. No other area of law is more important to reform than criminal law. Racial disparity must be addressed, and disparate treatment under so-called “equal” laws must be prohibited.
Ending individual racism may be impossible, but eradicating institutional racism is within our grasp. Doing nothing is passive acceptance of and participation in racism. Actively opposing measures to combat institutional racism is supporting institutional racism.
We should live up to our national creed and honestly attempt to live out our magnificent ideals. Institutional racism must be identified in all its forms for us to ruthlessly eliminate every cell of it like we treat cancer. To do so, we must be aware of it in order to identify its every manifestation. Only then can we end it.
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