Talking to a High School Student about Racism

high-schoolRecently, a high school student contacted me because she had questions about racism in America.  Specifically, she wanted to interview me for a school project on the topic of institutional racism.

Institutional racism is a tricky subject, and I did my best to introduce her to the complexities and nuances of something that often flies under the radar.  Many white Americans are unaware of the issue, or have trouble understanding it if they are aware.  And so after I answered her questions, I decided to re-print our Q&A.

Here is my conversation with a high schooler about racism in America.


Thank you very much for helping me with my project by taking the time out of your day to answer a few of my questions on the following questions/topics.

How do you define institutional racism?  And how prevalent would you say it is in modern North American society?

We normally associate racism and bigotry with the intentional actions of an individual or group of people.  But institutional racism is the result of larger social forces that can be difficult to detect.  Instead of one person or a few people doing or saying something racist, institutional racism comes about when society at large expresses racism in more subtle and impersonal ways.

One example of institutional racism can be seen in the way white Americans tend to segregate themselves away from black Americans.  Most white Americans do not act this way because they are racist.  They may not even be aware that their actions contribute to institutional racism.  But the result is a highly segregated society in which black people rarely live in white neighborhoods or attend white schools and vica versa.  And since white neighborhoods are generally more valuable and white schools are generally more successful, the result is a form of institutional racism.

Another example would be how black Americans are likely to get longer sentences for committing the same crime as white Americans.  This is not the result of white judges explicitly wanting to hand out harsher sentences to black criminals than white criminals.  Rather, it’s the result of a more subtle racism that permeates society and often goes unnoticed until we start compiling statistics that reveal the truth.

I can’t speak to other North American countries such as Mexico or Canada, but in the United States institutional racism is very prevalent.  Ironically, one reason is that we now live in a society where the vast majority of people recognize that racism is a bad thing.

Many people try very hard not to be racist, and believe they are not racist.  Consequently, since so few people admit to being racist, many people then begin to assume that there isn’t much racism in society anymore.  And while individual acts of overt racism are much more infrequent than they were before the civil rights movement, and many important strides have been made, there are still many signs of institutional racism if you look closely.

People who are most affected by it, such as black Americans, tend to be aware of this, while those who are typically not affected, such as white Americans, are less likely to realize it is a problem.

What causes racism to become indoctrinated in a society, specifically that of the United States?  And who is most affected?

There is a very long and complicated history of racism in America.  Important factors in the development of racism include: the dispossession and murder of American Indians; the importation and ownership of African slaves; the conquest of Latin American lands such as the northern third of Mexico; and economic competition between native born workers of northern European descent and immigrant workers they did not consider to be “white,” such as East Asians, Italians, Jews, and even the Irish at one point.

Of course white is a color.  But as a racial designation, it is also an idea.  Since race is what we call a “cultural construct” (a fancy term for make believe), it changes over time.  Some ethnic groups that were not considered “white” earlier in American history, are now considered white.  For example, during the 19th century, many Americans did not cosider the Irish to be part of the white race.  And until the mid-20th century, Jews and Italians were not seen as white.

Currently, some East Asians, even though they look “different” than Europeans, are beginning to be accepted as “white” in certain ways.  This means they are less and less seen as foreign or alien, and more and more seen as deserving of full acceptance as Americans.  For example, a white person who might feel awkward (or even afraid) about living around mostly black Americans, might not feel awkward (or afraid) about living around mostly Asian Americans.

Those groups that are not considered white are then denied the privileges of whiteness.  In an earlier time, that was explicit. For example, black Americans were subjected to a legal system of segregation, overt economic exploitation, and were even denied the right to vote in many places.  Nowadays, many of those forms of direct racism are illegal, and most white Americans agree that racism is bad.  So the privileges of whiteness are more closely associated with institutional racism.

The Americans most vulnerable to institutional racism are those who are not perceived as “white.”  African Americans, Latinos, and Americans Indians, especially when they do not conform to white norms, are some of the groups most likely to be affected.

Is institutional racism an issue in Baltimore?  How so, or how is not?

It is a problem throughout most of the United States.  In Baltimore you can see its effects in several areas such as public education, housing, and the criminal justice system.  Black students are less likely to have access to good schools.  Black families are less likely to have access to good housing.  Black citizens are likelier to be stopped or even arrested by the police when they are innocent, and likelier to get longer sentences when they are found guilty.

Is the cycle of poverty a result of institutional racism?

Institutional racism definitely contributes to the cycle of poverty, although it is not the only reason.  There are many other important factors such inherited wealth and larger changes in the American economy such as deindustrialization and the loss of good-paying jobs.

However, institutional racism reinforces barriers to success.  For example, decreased chances of gaining access to a good school, and increased chances of becoming embroiled in the criminal justice system, both negatively affect a person’s ability to lift themselves out of poverty.

Is institutional racism more of an issue than it was in prior decades, less of an issue, or exactly the same?

That’s a very good question, and a tough one to answer.  Even among people who study this, you are bound to find different opinions.

One thing is for certain, though.  Prior to the civil rights era (circa 1945-1965), direct racism was a much bigger problem than it is now.  Many white Americans were openly racist and even hostile towards minorities.  American governments at the local and state level often put discriminatory laws into place, while the federal government often did little or nothing to protect minorities from open discrimination.

In that environment, institutional racism was not merely ignored, but often actively pursued.  For example, banks used to engage in a practice called “red lining.”  This means they refused to give mortgage loans to black families who wanted to buy houses in “good” neighborhoods.

Practices like that are now illegal, so one could argue that institutional racism isn’t as bad as it used to be.  But then again, as discussed above, one could also argue that since overt racism is less of a problem than it used to be, institutional racism in many ways is now one of the most damaging forms of racism that minorities still have to deal with, and so in a way it’s worse than it used to be.

Would you say that slavery still exists in the United States despite the 13th Amendment? Why or why not?

Scholars contemplate complex definitions of “slavery.”  They look beyond just the legal system of chattle slavery that was abolished in 1865 by the 13th amendment.  There are many forms of forced labor.

From the 1870s-1960s, throughout the Southern United States, African Americans faced a system of economic exploitation (most often through sharecropping), political disenfranchisement (losing the right to vote), and forced segregation (“Jim Crow”) that resulted in diminished rights, political oppression, entrenched poverty, and forced labor.  Both state officials (eg. police and the courts) and mob groups used violence to enforce this system.  Sometimes that violence was lethal, such as with lynchings.  Many scholars believe this system  constituted a form of slavery.  Elsewhere in the United States, African Americans faced similar circumstances, although this system was typically most explicit in the South.

Nowadays, it would be difficult to argue that there is a form of slavery at work in America. Slavery is first and foremost about coerced labor.  Sometimes this does occur in prisons.  Also, some sweat shops take advantage of illegal immigrants.  And some sex workers face serious coercion.  However, the kind of forced labor that we commonly equate with slavery is largely absent from the United States.

Unfortunately, various forms of slavery are still present around the world, and more common than most people realize.  Even though slavery as we think of it is not legal anywhere, it is still practiced.  Perhaps as many as 45,000,000 people around the world live in conditions that can be fairly described as slavery.

What would a society without institutional racism look like?  How far away are we now from achieving this? What do the citizens and/or officials need to do to aspire towards this?

A society without institutional racism will be possible only when everyone (or at least most people) begin to recognize that institutional racism exists.  Because institutional racism is abstract, many people who are unaffected by it often don’t notice it exists.  And since they don’t notice it, they might then contribute to it without even realizing the’re doing so.  As long as many people remain unaware or in denial, institutional racism will be difficult to stamp out.

It is hard to know what exactly our society would look like should we ever eliminate institutional racism.  Specifics are difficult to predict.  But in general terms, we might see more equal opportunities for minorities.  And we would almost certainly see better race relations in America.

But in some regards, this is a chicken/egg question.  Would we have better race relations because institutional racism is eliminated, or would institutional racism be eliminated because we have better race relations?

I tend to think it’s the second scenario: as race relations improve, institutional racism will begin to diminish.

Politicians and officials have an important role to play by developing laws and policies that ban obvious forms of institutional racism.  An example of that would be recent legislation by Congress to create fairer drug laws.

Previously, possession or sale of crack cocaine, which was more common in black neighborhoods, drew much harsher sentences than possession or sale of powdered cocaine, which was more common in white neighborhoods.  Lawmakers did not pass those laws as a way of punishing black people more than white people, but that ended up being the result.  In 2010, the federal government began addressing this example of institutional racism.

However, in the end, the most important persons in reducing institutional racism may be the American people.  As more and more Americans become aware of institutional racism, we can begin moving forward and work to eradicate it.


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