Institutional racism is the process by which racial oppression is imposed on subordinate racial groups by dominant racial groups through institutional channels. While individuals carry out single acts of discrimination, societal institutions are the primary settings where patterns of racial discrimination are established and perpetuated toward subordinate peoples. Central to the operation of institutional racism is a racial hierarchy of power, and, despite differences in historical development and racial-ethnic group composition among the world’s countries, institutionalized racism tends to be prevalent in countries that have both dominant and subordinate racial groups.
Stokely Carmichael (later, Kwame Ture) and Charles V. Hamilton introduced the concept of institutional racism in their pioneering Black Power (1967), thus moving the scholarly understanding of racism beyond the traditional— yet still widespread—focus on individual bigots. While many race scholars now accept the systemic operations of racism, many people still view racism as a feeling of ill will directed toward any racial out-group. Thus, a common notion is that a person either is, or is not, a racist. Understanding that racism occurs at the institutional level adds a layer of complexity to the simple idea that racism is a feeling each individual can choose to either possess or deny.
All societies include institutional inequalities, but, as Louis L. Knowles and Kenneth Prewitt (1969) explain, “no society need use race as a criterion to determine who will be rewarded and who punished. Any nation that permits race to affect the distribution of benefits from social policies is racist” (p. 6). Knowles and Prewitt provide an illustrative example of institutional racism in U.S. history, claiming that the 1964 murder of civil rights workers by Ku Klux Klan members and white police officers in Mississippi was an act of individual racism, while the killers’ acquittal, involving various state agencies in Mississippi, was an example of well-institutionalized racism. Even this delineation, however, is contested; other scholars would argue that the actions of the police officers should also be considered institutional racism because they acted within the police structure and with the support of the all-white police culture.
Institutional racism does not arise spontaneously, but rather develops as institutions themselves are created and/or modified over the years. For example, in the United States, all major institutions, including education, government, and the economic and legal systems, were formed and underwent substantial entrenchment and evolution during the extreme racial oppression and inequality from the 1600s to the 1960s, eras of slavery and legalized segregation. According to Joe R. Feagin, in Systemic Racism (2006), each institution has embedded, maintained, and enhanced the unjust impoverishment of people of color and the unjust enrichment and privilege for whites. Indeed, the U.S. economic system was originally created to center around the exploitation and oppression of African Americans via enslavement and, to a lesser extent, the exclusion and discrimination of North American indigenous peoples. Thus, racial oppression is truly part of the bedrock of the United States, forming part of the country’s foundation.
Most European countries differ markedly from the United States in that their racial oppressions and inequalities have historically been less rooted in national origins, less openly contested on the domestic front, and thus less visible to the world. Nevertheless, Europe too has a long history of racist ideology and practice, including the colonization of indigenous peoples across the globe and the support for slavery in many of these overseas colonies.
Central to institutional racism is the power differential whereby patterns of discriminatory practices reward those of the dominant group (typically whites and lighter-skinned peoples) and harm subordinate groups. White elites in many white-dominant countries, such as the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, have firm control of the political, corporate, media, and academic arenas, and they are able to generate and reproduce racism through these powerful channels, consciously or unconsciously (Dijk 1993). This occurs not just through the establishment of discriminatory institutional practices but also through the creation of a white supremacist ideology, which gives people rationalizations for outcomes of even extreme levels of racial inequality.
According to Joe R. Feagin and Clairece Booher Feagin (2003), institutional racism takes two major forms: direct and indirect institutionalized discrimination. The former type involves overt actions prescribed by dominant-group organizations that have a discriminatory impact on subordinate racial groups, such as legalized exclusion from certain types of well-paying jobs. The latter consists of less overt racialized acts that harm members of subordinate groups without the perpetrators necessarily having malicious intent. For example, when local tax bases are used as the basis for public school funding, communities of color—whose residents tend to be poorer—are more likely to wind up with the less-funded, often inadequate, schools. Students of color disproportionately receive meager educations, which in turn hinder their ability to compete in the higher education and employment arenas. By contrast, white students receive better than average educations and, therefore, receive unearned benefits from institutional racism practices. Thus, institutional racism in one area (e.g., education) can have substantial effects in another (e.g., employment) and interact with forms of direct and indirect institutional racism there, which results in a cumulative dynamic.
Importantly, indirect institutional racism is hardly reducible to class inequalities working themselves out in racial ways. Contemporary social science research strongly indicates that, even when controlling for all other possible factors (such as class status, education, experience, skills, and location), discrimination against people of color tends to occur at significant rates. These numerous studies include the areas of housing (e.g., Yinger 1995), employment (e.g.,
Bertrand and Mullainathan 2004; Pager 2003), education (e.g., Oakes 2005), and criminal justice. Notably, a 2005 study conducted by Devah Pager and Lincoln Quillian lends support to the assertion that individuals need not be aware of the racism in their actions for discrimination to be the effect: Employers who had favored white job applicants with criminal records over black applicants with clean records claimed to have no awareness of their recent discriminatory hiring decisions, when interviewed later.
If using the racism-as-feelings perspective, it can seem counterintuitive that the agents of racism can sometimes be oblivious of the discriminatory implications of their actions. Nonetheless, institutional racism can operate with or without the awareness of dominant group members, or their representatives, and does not require malicious intent. However, while institutions need not operate in an explicitly racist manner for the effects of their actions to be discriminatory, the persistence of institutional racism does rely on the active operation of negative attitudes toward people of color in the society (Carmichael and Hamilton 1967).
In the United States, overt racism, for the most part, is no longer inscribed in law. Nevertheless, this does not mean that racism is not still institutionalized. According to extensive research done by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project (2003), there is a striking “pipeline” leading from schools to prison. This funneling of students of color into prisons occurs through the systematic tracking of “high-risk” children of color and includes such practices as high-stakes testing, disproportionate special education placements, resource inequities, and stringent disciplinary procedures. This treatment of students of color (most significantly black and Latino boys) combines with law enforcement trends that treat these same juveniles with increasing harshness for both major and minor offenses (see also Oakes 2005).
Here again the cumulative impact of racial discrimination comes into focus. Because of institutional racism in the education system combined with discrimination by law enforcement, a young male of color is likely to enter the criminal justice system and then experience institutional racism there. An abundance of social science research shows that people of color (especially black men) are racially profiled and harassed by police, are likelier to be arrested and charged with crimes, receive harsher sentences, and have more difficulty achieving parole than their white counterparts. Additionally, beyond the prison, in the employment sector, a black man with a criminal record will have extreme difficulty finding a job, compared to his white counterpart (Pager 2003).
In education, institutional racism can also be seen operating through standard classroom materials, where textbooks omit or skew the truth about racial histories and seriously neglect any discussions of racism and anti-racism (Loewen 1995; Dijk 1993). Virtually all mainstream textbooks are controlled by elites, who most often have an interest in upholding the racial status quo and offering a “whitewashed” perspective on difficult matters such as slavery and colonization, a perspective that will play down the unfair advantages whites have gained through centuries of racial oppression.
All of these institutionalized racist practices are supported by a white supremacist ideology, including insidious stereotypes that rationalize these serious oppressions of people of color. Although media cannot be blamed for creating harmful, racist images of people of color, they certainly project them to the mainstream for consumption and, thus, fuel white conceptions of the goodness of whiteness and the criminality of people of color (Russell 1998). Also often overlooked is the extent to which American (and, to a lesser extent, European) media forms are broadcast to a global market. The world’s populations consume the white supremacist ideology and images and receive ready-made rationalizations for racial inequality that leaves the darkest-skinned peoples at the bottom of a global racial hierarchy through the worldwide operation of institutional racism.
Bertrand, Marianne, and Sendhil Mullainathan. 2004. “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” American Economic Review 94 (4): 991–1,013.
Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles V. Hamilton. 1967. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Random House.
Dijk, Teun A. van. 1993. Elite Discourse and Racism. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Feagin, Joe R. 2006. Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.
_____, and Clairece Booher Feagin. 2003. Racial and Ethnic Relations, 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Harvard University. Civil Rights Project. 2003. “School to Prison Pipeline: Charting Intervention Strategies of Prevention and Support for Minority Children.” Available from http://www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu/convenings/schooltoprison/synopsis.php.
Knowles, Louis L., and Kenneth Prewitt, eds. 1969. Institutional Racism in America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Loewen, James W. 1995. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: New Press.
Pager, Devah. 2003. “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” American Journal of Sociology 108 (5): 937–975.
_____, and Lincoln Quillian. 2005. “Walking the Talk: What Employers Say versus What They Do.” American Sociological Review 70 (3): 355–380.
Russell, Katheryn K. 1998. The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment, and Other Microaggressions. New York: New York University Press.
Yinger, John. 1995. Closed Doors, Opportunities Lost: The Continuing Costs of Housing Discrimination. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Kristen M. Lavelle
Joe R. Feagin