Institutional racism is a form of racism that occurs when institutions (such as governments, schools, workplaces, etc.) discriminate through their policies and practices.
Unlike racial slurs or hate crimes, institutional racism is not overt. Instead, it is usually quite “invisible” and perhaps even “unintentional”, which is why it is more difficult to address.
It is embedded in the systems, written/unwritten policies, and practices of various institutions.
Despite its less overt nature, institutional racism oppresses and leads to the unfair treatment of people of color. It can manifest in the form of workplace discrimination, residential segregation, police violence, etc.
Definition of Institutional Racism
Sir William Macpherson defined institutional racism as:
“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, and behaviour that amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.” (1999).
Macpherson’s definition was part of a public inquiry about the murder of a black British teenager named Stephen Lawrence. MacPherson concluded that this was a racially motivated attack and found London’s Metropolitan Police Service guilty of “institutional racism”.
The term had originally been coined in 1967 by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. They discussed how, unlike individual racism, institutional racism is “less overt” and “far more subtle” (1967).
Writing in the context of the 1960s Black Power movement in the US, they argued that institutional racism comes from the “operation of established and respected forces in the society”. It, therefore, receives far less public condemnation than individual racism.
The concept also led to studies of other forms of institutional discrimination, such as gender and class-based discriminatory practices.
Institutional Racism Examples
- Workplace Discrimination: Workplace discrimination occurs in various ways, such as unequal pay, underrepresentation, biased hiring, etc. In the United States, African American workers, on average, earn 26.5% less than their White counterparts (EPI, 2021). People of color are significantly underrepresented in leadership positions, constituting only 10% of executives in Fortune 500 companies. Even hiring practices are unfair: resumes with White-sounding names are more likely to receive a callback.
- Residential Segregation: Racial residential segregation is another form of institutional racism (see: racial steering). Despite laws against discrimination (such as the Fair Housing Act of 1968 in the US) in housing, most countries are highly segregated. People of color are forced to live in certain neighborhoods, which are almost always characterized by economic disadvantage. They also have limited opportunities for upward mobility as they lack good employment opportunities and good schools (De le Roca, 2014).
- Bank Lending Policies: Closely associated with residential segregation are the unfair lending practices of financial institutions. Banks would see the racial-ethnic composition of areas and practice “redlining”—denying loans to certain neighborhoods that were deemed “hazardous”. White homeownership and wealth increased due to federal loan programs, while those of Blacks remained low. Predatory financial services also disproportionately target people of color (Faber, 2018).
- Political Disempowerment: People of color are politically disempowered through practices like voter suppression and gerrymandering. In the US, the legal right for all men to vote was established in 1870. However, in the subsequent 100 years of the Jim Crow era, African Americans were discouraged from voting through violent intimidation and unfair laws. Even as late as 2021, gerrymandering—unfair redrawing of electoral boundaries—has been used to restrict the voting rights of minorities (Wilder, 2021).
- Unequal Criminal Justice: The racial composition of prions indicates the discriminatory nature of the justice system. In the United States, people of color represent only 39% of the population, but they make up 60% of the incarcerated people. Incarceration harms them even after release, as they face limited employment opportunities throughout their lives, and in some states, are even denied political rights.
- Education: White students consistently outperform students of color due to various structural factors. These include inadequate funding of schools in low-income areas (Black neighborhoods), unequal access to study resources, and the implicit biases of teachers. There is also a phenomenon called the “school-to-prison pipeline”, which describes how children of color are disciplined more harshly than other children, and police are more likely to get involved in their acts of misbehavior.
- Racial Profiling: Racial profiling occurs when law enforcement or other authorities target individuals based on their race instead of actual evidence. It can manifest as suspicion, harassment, and even violence. In the US, Black drivers are more likely to be pulled over by police officers while also being more likely to get searched & arrested during these stops. After 9/11, Arabs and Muslims were disproportionately targeted, and they continue to face additional searches at airports.
- Representation in Media: The media both reflects and perpetuates the racial stereotypes of society. Racial caricatures are quite common, and people of color are typically misrepresented or underrepresented. In Hollywood, for example, only 22% of the leading roles in top-grossing films are performed by people of color (Smith & Pieper, 2020). News media is more likely to report on crimes committed by people of color while often using language that reinforces negative stereotypes
- Healthcare: Racially disadvantaged groups suffer from poor healthcare, both in terms of access and quality. Economic disadvantages and housing discrimination increase their exposure to health-harming environments (air pollution, toxic waste, etc.). Because of financial constraints, they also have limited access to treatment.
- Police Violence: In the United States, the leading cause of death for Black young men is police violence—approximately 1 in every 1,000 black men is killed by the police. Moreover, Black victims killed by the police are more likely than White victims to have been unarmed, as demonstrated in the infamous murder of George Floyd. While being abhorrent in themselves, such killings also reflect the norms of society—the lives of people of color (especially Black men) are valued less than those of others.
How to Combat Institutional Racism
To dismantle institutional racism, we need to enforce better laws, advocate for fairer systems, and promote affirmative action.
We can combat institutional racism in the following ways:
- Enacting and Enforcing Better Laws: New legislation can help fight institutional racism. For example, voter suppression can be addressed by placing trained personnel at polling booths to ensure fairness, providing transportation and food to voters, etc. But simply enacting new laws will be inadequate. Instead, we need to work on their enforcement as well, ensuring that both old and new laws actualize in the real world.
- Advocacy for Fairer Systems: Through advocacy, we can build public support for creating systems that are fair and give equal opportunities to all. Various organizations (such as civil rights, academic, and business) can make their agenda equitable, advocate for policy changes, and support their enforcement.
- Affirmative Action: Through affirmative action policies, we can promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. It will help us address the disparities in employment, job promotion, and educational institutes, allowing a greater representation of people of color. Affirmative action is not discriminatory to the majority; instead, it tries to take into account the obstacles faced by minorities and give them a fairer chance.
- “Healing-Centered Approaches”: These approaches aim to “heal” the damage that has been caused by years of institutional racism (Scott-Jones, 2020). They include “truth and reconciliation” interventions, which involve telling the history of discrimination (slavery, White supremacy, etc.) in schools, religious places, and other public platforms. Providing reparations to African Americans, say in the form of free education, can be another method.
Institutional racism refers to discrimination that is ingrained in the structures, policies, and practices of the “respected forces in society”, such as the government, police, workplaces, etc.
Unlike individual racism, it is less overt but incredibly harmful. It denies fair treatment in various fields, from education to criminal justice. We can combat institutional racism by enforcing better laws, advocating for change, and promoting affirmative action.
Carmichael, S. & Hamilton, C.V. (1967). Black Power: Politics of Liberation. New York City: Vintage Books.
Faber, J. W. (2018). Cashing in on distress: The expansion of fringe financial institutions during the Great Recession. Urban Affairs Review, 54(4). Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1078087416684037
Home Office. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: report of an inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny. London.
De la Roca, J., Ellen, I. G., & O’Regan, K. M. (2014). Race and neighborhoods in the 21st century: What does segregation mean today?. Regional Science and Urban Economics, 47, 138-151. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.regsciurbeco.2013.09.006
Scott-Jones, G., & Kamara, M. R. (2020). The traumatic impact of structural racism on African Americans. Delaware journal of public health, 6(5), 80. doi: https://doi.org/10.32481%2Fdjph.2020.11.019
Smith, S. L., Choueiti, M., & Pieper, K. (2020). Inequality in 1,300 popular films: Examining portrayals of gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ & disability from 2007-2019. Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. https://assets.ctfassets.net/whjqfbjh7z7d/2WV7vxdT1AMiV7T0n2ay4M/4e3131a6b7f9a924c6e1d6ef782f6a07/Inequality_in_1_300_Popular_Films_-_Full_Report.pdf
Wilder, W. (2021). Voter Suppression in 2020. Brennan Center for Justice, 20.