5 Examples of Institutional Racism in the United States

Institutional racism is defined as racism perpetrated by government entities such as schools, the courts, or the military. Unlike the racism perpetrated by individuals, institutional racism has the power to negatively affect the bulk of people belonging to a racial group. 

While individual Americans may harbor racist feelings about certain groups, racism in the United States would not have thrived if institutions hadn’t perpetuated discrimination against people of color for centuries. The institution of slavery kept blacks in bondage for generations. Other institutions, such as the church, played roles in maintaining slavery and segregation.

Racism in medicine has led to unethical medical experiments involving people of color and to minorities still receiving substandard treatment today. At present, a number of groups—blacks, Latinos, Arabs, and South Asian —find themselves racially profiled for a variety of reasons. If institutional racism isn’t wiped out, there’s little hope that racial discrimination will ever be erased in the United States.

Slavery in America
Slave Shackles. National Museum of American History/Flickr.com

Arguably no episode in U.S. history has left a greater imprint on race relations than slavery, commonly referred to as the “peculiar institution.” 

Despite its far-reaching impact, many Americans would be hard-pressed to name basic facts about slavery, such as when it began, how many slaves were shipped to the U.S., and when it ended for good. Slaves in Texas, for example, remained in bondage two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The holiday Juneteenth was established to celebrate the abolition of slavery in Texas, and it is now considered to be a day for celebrating the emancipation of all slaves.

Before legislation was passed to end slavery, slaves across the world fought for freedom by organizing slave rebellions. What’s more, the descendants of slaves fought against attempts to perpetuate racism after slavery during the civil rights movement. More »

Operating room
Mike LaCon/Flickr.com

Racial bias has influenced U.S. health care in the past and continues to do so today. The most shameful chapters in American history involved the U.S. government funding of syphilis studies on poor black men in Alabama and on Guatemalan prison inmates. Government agencies also played a role in sterilizing black women in North Carolina, as well as Native American women and women in Puerto Rico.

Today, health care organizations appear to be taking steps to reach out to minority groups. One such outreach effort includes the Kaiser Family Foundation’s landmark survey of black women in 2011. More »

Navajo World Code Talkers
Navajo Code Talkers rank Chee Willeto and Samuel Holiday. Navajo Nation Washington Office, Flickr.com

World War II marked both racial advancements and setbacks in the United States. On the one hand, it gave underrepresented groups such as blacks, Asians, and Native Americans the opportunity to show they had the skill and intellect necessary to excel in the military. On the other hand, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor led the federal government to evacuate Japanese Americans from the West Coast and force them into internment camps for fear that they were still loyal to the Japanese empire.

Years later, the U.S. government issued a formal apology for its treatment of Japanese Americans. Not one Japanese American was found to have engaged in espionage during World War II. More »


Every day untold numbers of Americans are the targets of racial profiling because of their ethnic background. People of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent report being routinely profiled at the nation’s airports. Black and Latino men have been disproportionately targeted by the New York City Police Department’s stop and frisk program.

Moreover, states such as Arizona have faced criticism and boycotts for attempting to pass anti-immigrant legislation that civil rights activists say has led to racial profiling of Hispanics. More »

Race, Intolerance, and the Church

Church interior
Justin Kern/Flickr.com

Religious institutions have not been untouched by racism. A number of Christian denominations have apologized for discriminating against people of color by supporting Jim Crow and backing slavery. The United Methodist Church and the Southern Baptist Convention are some of the Christian organizations that have apologized for perpetuating racism in recent years.

Today, many churches have not only apologized for alienating minority groups such as blacks but have also attempted to make their churches more diverse and appoint people of color in key roles. Despite these efforts, churches in the U.S. remain largely racially segregated.

In Summation

Activists, including abolitionists and suffragettes, have long had success in overturning some forms of institutional racism. A number of 21st-century social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, seek to address institutional racism across the board—from the legal system to schools.