The Myth of Institutional Racism

Institutional or systemic racism may in fact be happening, but not against black and brown people. Ironically, if it is happening, the main victims are whites (excepting many Hispanics) and those of east Asian descent. 

Stokely Carmichael calls for “Black Power!”

Definitions are important, so I will weave them into my comments here. 

First, what is racism? In (pseudoscientific) terms, racism, a term that appears in the early twentieth century (around the same time the term “racialism” appears), refers to theories (ideology) that assume as valid the divisioning of humans into racial types that predict grouped differences in aptitude (and appetites), behavior/conduct, character (and conscience), and intelligence, and then organizes these hierarchically.

While it is true that intuitive racial groupings map over populations genetics globally, there is no evidence that these groupings either constitute genotypes or are predictive of behavior, intelligence, or personality. Differences among racially defined groups are cultural and subcultural, not biological. Culture is not race. (Science only records two genotypes in our species, i.e., sex or gender, and this is true in all mammals and most other animals—and plants as well.) So, although it is possible to talk about phenotypic differences that mark racial groups (anthropologists have offered the term “clines” to replace race), they cannot be ranked. 

Relatedly, racism is the practice of stereotyping based on constellations of socially selected phenotypic characteristics (skin color, hair texture, eye shape) and (this is crucial) subsequent action based on those stereotypes.

For example, judging all whites to be guilty of thoughts and actions perpetrated by any individual identified as white (alive or dead) is racist. White privilege is an instantiation of stereotyping. If institutional actions are taken that deny any individual identified as white opportunities on the grounds that he (presumably) enjoys a racial advantage (which is what is meant by privilege), policy often organized and carried out on the name of “social justice,” i.e., rectifying historic social disparities (blood libel and collective and intergenerational guilt and responsibility), then racism is manifest.

This brings us to these notions of “institutional” and “system” racism. Flipping the words around is useful: racist institution(s) and system(s). 

What’s an institution? An organization founded upon and ordered around an educational, legal, political, religious, or social function/purpose. Racist institutions in America—except for affirmative action and other social justice policy—were dismantled in the 1960s. Not only were those institutions abolished, it is in fact illegal in the United States to discriminate against black Americans on the basis of their race.

A lot of people don’t know this, but the term “institutional racism” appears after the dismantling of racist institutions. The term was coined by black nationalist Stokely Carmichael in his book Black Power (published in the latter 1960s). The term “systemic racism” was also invented later, pushed by critical theorists in the academy in the 1990s. Academic publishers, the culture industry, and corporate media then began pushing out these terms obsessively starting around 2010, framing the manufactured claim that racism explains fatal police encounters, which in turn contributed to a rise in crime and violence (looting and rioting as primitive rebellion or street-level reparations). 

(In fact, white men are overrepresented in the fatal police encounters. One theory for this is that despite their drastic overrepresentation in crime and violence and threat posed to the officers, the police are reluctant to shoot black men for fear of being accused of racism. More research needs to be conducted to explain why officers are more likely to shoot and kill white men, who comprise half or more of the victims of police shooting each year, but the explanation is intuitive.)

What is a system? A constellation of things, in this case institutions, working together as parts of an interconnecting network, as well as a set of principles or procedures dictating how something is done accomplished—that is, an organized framework or methodology. Since racist institutions have been abolished and discrimination against blacks based on race made illegal, what would a racist system look like? 

If you say that disparities between racialized demographic categories is what it looks like, then you will have fallaciously substituted for an explanation of disparities the mere fact of disparities. That which needs explaining cannot be its own explanation. There are many reasons blacks as-a-group trails whites as-a-group (average age, family structure, geographical locations, occupational representation, educational outcomes). The evidence that these disparities are explained by institutional or systemic racism requires institutional and systemic racism. Again, these institutions and systems (save for affirmative action and other reparations type programs) were abolished more than half a century ago. 

Scientifically speaking, group-level differences are abstractions. They tell us nothing about individuals. For example, whereas blacks are in the aggregate more likely to be poor, there are more poor whites than poor blacks. There are, moreover, black capitalists who enjoy immense wealth and power, and many more blacks who enjoy affluence as experts, managers, and professionals. At the same time, there are tens of millions of poor whites, hungry and homeless. There are white employees who work under the thumb of black managers, workers whose fate rests in the hands of the persons over them.  

Of course, it shouldn’t matter that it’s a black man telling a white man to do all day at his play of employment. That’s not the way I think about it. Nor does it matter that a white man is telling a black man what to do all day at his place of work. Yet there are a lot of people who do think that race relations in this arrangement matter.

These people commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness by treating individuals as personifications of abstract demographic categories. It’s no accident that the prevailing formulation of the fallacy works in one direction, namely that blacks can’t be racist (at least not against whites and apparently Asians).

One must assume systemic racism to make any of this work. It’s all based on circular logic. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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