5 Examples of Institutional Racism in the United States

Illustration representing institutional racism definition

ThoughtCo./Hugo Lin

Institutional racism is defined as racism perpetrated by social and political institutions, such as schools, the courts, or the military. Unlike the racism perpetrated by individuals, institutional racism, also referred to as systemic racism, has the power to negatively affect the bulk of people belonging to a racial group. Institutional racism can be seen in areas of wealth and income, criminal justice, employment, health care, housing, education, and politics, among others. 

The term "institutional racism" was first used in 1967 in the book "Black Power: The Politics of Liberation" written by Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) and Charles V. Hamilton, a political scientist. The book delves into the core of racism in the U.S. and how the traditional political processes can be reformed for the future. They assert that while individual racism is often easily identifiable, institutional racism is not as easy to spot due to the fact that it's more subtle in nature.

American Slavery

Photograph of slaves on a plantation.

YwHWnJ5ghNW3eQ at Google Cultural Institute/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Arguably no episode in U.S. history has left a greater imprint on race relations than slavery. Before the legislation was passed to end slavery, slaves across the world fought for freedom by organizing slave rebellions. In addition, the descendants of slaves fought against attempts to perpetuate racism after slavery during the civil rights movement.

But even once the legislation was passed, it didn't fully mark the end of slavery. In Texas, slaves 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.

Racism in Medicine

A darkened operating room.

Mike Lacon/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Racial bias has influenced U.S. health care in the past and continues to do so today, creating disparities among different racial groups. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many black veterans were denied disability pension by the Union Army. In the 1930s, the Tuskegee Institute conducted a syphilis study on 600 black men (399 men with syphilis, 201 who did not have it), without the patients' informed consent and without providing adequate treatment for their disease.

Not all instances of institutional racism in medicine and health care are so clearly defined, however. Many times, patients are unfairly profiled and denied health care or drugs. Monique Tello, M.D., MPH, a contributing editor to the Harvard Health Blog, wrote about a patient denied pain medicine for her condition in an ER, who believed it was her race that caused such poor treatment. Tello noted the woman was probably right​ and pointed out, "it is well-established that blacks and other minority groups in the U.S. experience more illness, worse outcomes, and premature death compared with whites."

Tello notes that there are numerous articles addressing racism in medicine, and they suggest similar action to fight racism:

We all need to recognize, name, and understand these attitudes and actions. We need to be open to identifying and controlling our own implicit biases. We need to be able to manage overt bigotry safely, learn from it, and educate others. These themes need to be a part of medical education, as well as institutional policy. We need to practice and model tolerance, respect, open-mindedness, and peace for each other.

Race and World War II

Group of Navajo code talkers gathered together decades after WWII.

Marines from Arlington, VA, United States/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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.

In July 1943, Vice President Henry Wallace spoke to a crowd of union workers and civic groups, aligning with what came to be known as the Double V campaign. Launched by the Pittsburgh Courier in 1942, the Double Victory campaign served as a rallying cry for black journalists, activists, and citizens to secure victories not only over fascism abroad in the war but also over racism at home. 

Racial Profiling

Group of policeman close up.


Racial profiling has become an everyday occurrence, and it impacts more than just the people involved. An article by CNN uncovered three instances of racial profiling resulting in police being called on unsuspecting black women playing golf too slowly, two Native American students when a mother claimed her children were nervous, and on a black student napping in a dorm at Yale. 

In the article, Darren Martin, a former Obama White House staffer, said racial profiling is "almost second nature now." Martin recounts when he had a neighbor call the police on him when he was trying to move into his own apartment and how often, when leaving a store, he's asked to show what's in his pockets — something he says is dehumanizing. 

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.

In 2016, Stanford News reported that researchers had analyzed data from 4.5 million traffic stops in 100 North Carolina cities. Their findings showed that police were "more likely to search black and Hispanic motorists, using a lower threshold of suspicion, than when they stop white or Asian drivers." Despite the increased instances of searches, the data also showed that police were less likely to uncover illegal drugs or weapons than with searches of white or Asian drivers. 

The study is being conducted in other states to reveal more patterns, and the team is looking to apply these statistical methods to other settings, like employment and banking, to see if there are patterns related to race. 

Race, Intolerance, and the Church

Church interior as seen looking down the aisle.

Justin Kern/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Religious institutions have not been untouched by racism. Several 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.

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.

Churches alone aren't the only entities in question here, with many individuals and business owners using religion as a reason why they feel they can deny service to certain groups. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that ten percent of Americans believe business owners have the right to deny service to black people if it falls under the umbrella of a violation of their religious beliefs. Men were more likely to support this denial of service than women, Catholics were more likely to support it than Protestants, and Hispanics stood as the biggest outlier, agreeing with the right to refuse service to blacks. 

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.


Andrews, Edmund. "Stanford researchers develop new statistical test that shows racial profiling in police traffic stops." Stanford News, June 28, 2016.

Delmont, Matthew. "Why African-American Soldiers Saw World War II as a Two-Front Battle." Smithsonian, August 24, 2017.

Greenberg, Daniel. "Increasing Support for Religiously Based Service Refusals." Maxine Najle, Ph.D., Natalie Jackson, Ph.D., et al., Public Religion Research Institute, June 25, 2019.

Tello, Monique, M.D., MPH. "Racism and discrimination in health care: Providers and patients." Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, January 16, 2017.

Ture, Kwame. "Black Power: The Politics of Liberation." Charles V. Hamilton, Paperback, Vintage, November 10, 1992.

Yan, Holly. "This is why everyday racial profiling is so dangerous." CNN, May 11, 2018.