The Definition of Institutional Racism

The History and Implications of Institutional Racism

Protesters March On Washington To Mark 50 Year Anniversary of Brown vs. Board Of Ed

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The term "institutional racism" describes societal patterns and structures that impose oppressive or otherwise negative conditions on identifiable groups on the basis of race or ethnicity. Oppression may come from business, the government, the health care system, the schools, or the court, among other institutions. This phenomenon may also be referred to as societal racism, institutionalized racism, or cultural racism.

Institutional racism shouldn't be confused with individual racism, which is directed against one or a few individuals. It has the potential of negatively affecting people on a large scale, such as if a school refused to accept any Black people on the basis of color. 

The History of Institutional Racism 

The term "institutional racism" was coined at some point during the late 1960s by Stokely Carmichael, who would later become known as Kwame Ture. Carmichael felt that it was important to distinguish personal bias, which has specific effects and can be identified and corrected relatively easily, with institutional bias, which is generally long-term and grounded more in inertia than in intent.

Carmichael made this distinction because, like Martin Luther King Jr., he had grown tired of white moderates and uncommitted liberals who felt that the primary or sole purpose of the civil rights movement was white personal transformation. Carmichael's primary concern—and the primary concern of most civil rights leaders at the time—was societal transformation, a much more ambitious goal.

Contemporary Relevance 

Institutional racism in the United States results from the social caste system that sustained—and was sustained by—enslavement and racial segregation. Although the laws that enforced this caste system are no longer in place, its basic structure still stands to this day. This structure may gradually fall apart on its own over a period of generations, but activism is often necessary to expedite the process and provide for a more equitable society in the interim.

Examples of Institutional Racism 

  • Opposing public school funding is not necessarily an act of individual racism. One can certainly oppose public school funding for valid, non-racist reasons. But to the extent that opposing public school funding has a disproportionate and detrimental effect on youth of color, it furthers the agenda of institutional racism.
  • Many other positions that are contrary to the civil rights agenda, such as opposition to affirmative action, can also have the often unintended effect of sustaining institutional racism.
  • Racial profiling occurs when any group is targeted for suspicion based on race, ethnic origin, or because they belong to another recognized protected class. The most well-known example of racial profiling involves law enforcement zeroing in on Black men. Arabs have also been subjected to racial profiling after September 11, 2001.

Looking to the Future 

Various forms of activism have famously fought institutional racism over the years. North American 19th-century Black activists and suffragettes are prime examples from the past. The Black Lives Matter movement was launched in the summer of 2013 after the 2012 death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of his shooter, which many felt were based on race. 

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Head, Tom. "The Definition of Institutional Racism." ThoughtCo, Dec. 18, 2020, Head, Tom. (2020, December 18). The Definition of Institutional Racism. Retrieved from Head, Tom. "The Definition of Institutional Racism." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).