Institutional racism is a term which describes practices in the United States nearly as old as the nation itself. The term, however, appears to be of recent coinage, possibly first used by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in their widely read book,
Institutions have great power to reward and penalize. They reward by providing career opportunities for some people and foreclosing them for others. They reward as well by the way social goods and services are distributed-by deciding who receives training and a skills, medical care, formal education, political influence, moral support, productive employment, fair treatment by the law, decent housing, and the promise of a secure future for self and children, which can lead to self respect and self confidence. No society will distribute social benefits in a perfectly equitable way. But 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.
With desegregation in the armed forces and the passage of various civil rights bills in the 1960’s, institutional racism no longer has the status of law. It is perpetuated nonetheless, sometimes by frightened and bigoted individuals, sometimes by good citizens merely carrying on business as usual, and sometimes by well-intentioned but naive reformers. An attack on institutional racism is clearly the task for Americans, who hope to obtain for their children a society less tense. To detect institutional racism, especially when it is unintentional or when it is disguised, is a very different task. And even when institutional racism is detected, it is seldom clear who is at fault. How can we say who is responsible for residential segregation, for poor education in schools, for extraordinarily high unemployment among black men, for racial stereotypes in history textbooks, for the concentration of political power in white society? Institutional racism may not necessarily involve intent because it may be submerged in the history, structure, and function of the institution. The fact that there are, for example, institutionalized white suburbs and black ghettos does not necessarily mean that dwellers in either are racists. It is to be sure, conceivable and highly probable that an ample share of racists live in both. Most dwellers would have no intent or knowledge of their being so, and would resent being called racists. Yet institutionalized racism exists and has existed in the structure and function of residential housing in the United States.
Affluent directors of an insurance companies who live in the suburbs would be likely to frown on the ghetto as a poor business risk. But, they may have no intent to practice any kind of racism. The fact that the economics of racial discrimination has prevailed and does prevail in the ghetto may be viewed as an institutionalized way of life. Thus, it may be defined as institutional racism.
It seems that too much time is spent on the separateness of our people, which leads to tension and misunderstandings. The Supreme Court landmark decision in 1954,
Brown v. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education
-which examined the impact of the desegregation of America’s public schools-forces us forty years later to look at how Brown benefited blacks in modern times. Brown of course was suppose to strike down the legal structure of American apartheid and its effects. Although it was an education case, its implications go well beyond education. It was the case that broke the back of American apartheid.
From the first Supreme Court school desegregation decision in 1954 to President Johnson’s War on Poverty, the federal government has compiled a record of civil rights action with an impressive appearance. The use of federal troops in Little Rock and the forcible desegregation of southern schools in several other areas convinced many Americans that the government was ready to put force behind its pronounced policies. In 1964, President Johnson committed the nation to an “unconditional War of Poverty” to conquer it.
In the private sector of American life, business, labor, religious organizations, and other national institutions have echoed in their statements the government’s concern to eliminate segregation and discrimination. Virtually all openly racist clauses have been removed from union charters and real estate contracts. The large industries have committed themselves to equal opportunity hiring practices and in some cases to job training programs for the unemployed.
With all the legislation and policy changes of the past years the country appears to have made major progress toward solving the racial problem. But appearances are deceptive; behind the highly publicized victories for racial justice there exists a vast reservoir of ineffectiveness.
The impact of the series of civil rights laws has been greatly reduced from what it could have been because many of the individuals and institutions affected by the laws have refused to comply. There is sufficient evidence to demonstrate change on the part of local centers of power is aided and abetted by a corresponding reluctance within the federal government to enforce its own laws.
Examples of paper decrees are numerous in every area associated with human and civil rights-in justice, welfare, law enforcement, and employment, to name a few. A good example of non compliance can be found in the campaign for integrated schools, the issue that first brought civil rights to national attention.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that separate facilities were inherently unequal and that segregated schools would no longer be legal. Another generation of children passed through the schools before Congress finally admitted that nothing was being done and passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. According to the 1964 Act, a school district that did not desegregate was subject to the penalty of loss of all federal funds.
The Brown Case
is still relevant in the sense that school boards or governmental agents cannot intentionally segregate African American students in public education. We’ve moved well beyond
in some respects as the practices that deprive black students or any student of equal education and opportunities have become much more subtle and much more complex.
Our experience in this country has been that most segregation, whether it is in schools or residential areas, is not the choice of black people. It is something that is imposed upon us by others. If one looks at black communities across the country, one will basically find the same thing: black people disproportionately poor, living in inferior housing, segregated schools and segregated communities. There are some exceptions, but all of this is not the result of circumstance. It is the consequence of years or more of social engineering on the part of white people in government, in collusion with those in the private sector, that has created the pattern that we see today.
An example of this is public housing. Public housing was required to be segregated by the federal government when it first got into the business of building public housing in the 1930’s. That continued well into the 1950’s.
Many states enforced restrictive covenants up until 1948 when the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional. Restrictive covenants are agreements that run with the deeds when somebody buys a piece of property that you’re not going to sell that piece of property to someone of African American or Jewish descent. Those restrictive covenants contributed to how communities developed.
After World War II, the whole surbanization process took place. The suburbanization process was underwritten very heavily by the federal government which insured most Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgages at the time. The FHA had a policy that did not allow the federal government to underwrite mortgages or insure mortgages in heterogeneous areas. So in a word, it underwrote segregated suburbanization in the United States.
Discrimination and segregation practices that occurred 50 years ago and, in many instances, have either never been adequately addressed or have snowballed. This continues to produce problems today: blacks in poor communities in our country have been locked out of educational opportunities, locked out of upward mobility, consigned to inferior housing and inferior job choices. The result is one that creates an economy that allows minimal and/or negative kinds of opportunities. For urban areas that economy has been a drug economy.
Desegregation is a desirable goal because public school education should be a process of preparing young people to live in a multiracial society. And when African American students are isolated in public schools, they are isolated from opportunity. School desegregation, in some senses, makes it more likely that African American students will not be given a different and more inferior education than white students are receiving.
The Supreme Court in 1973 said two things, both of which are very important and unrealized by most people. First is that education is not a fundamental right. Therefore, education does not receive the highest degree of Constitutional protection. Secondly, wealth or class is not a suspect classification. That means that it is unconstitutional to discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, religion,etc. However, it is not unconstitutional to discriminate against people on the basis of their economic status. As a consequence, what one sees is at least extensive lack of protection for poor people under the Federal Constitution.
The Case Milliken v. Bradley
involved the Detroit Public Schools and made it very difficult to desegregate across school district boundary lines. In other words, suburban schools can not be forced into a desegregation plan. Given this, it is almost guaranteed that separate and unequal education will exist in many of these urban and northern school districts.
One of the major issues that we face in terms of providing black children with equal opportunities in is tracking. Labeling children is a form of discrimination. We have got to change this system. But even in 1994, we do not want to send cases to the Supreme Court because it is a conservative court that’s not inclined to do much for us in these areas.