I firmly believe that America is the greatest country on the earth and it is truly a land of opportunity for all. The American dream is alive and well and many people of all races have had tremendous success. With these positives in place, it is no wonder why there have been so many incredible achievements by African Americans in the 21st century to include the obvious - the first black president.
It is also true however that for far too many black men and women there is a shadowy specter of racism that impacts every aspect of life from schooling to employment. This institutional racism forms an invisible barrier that many white people cannot see, many black people do not understand and many African Americans cannot avoid. Today we shine the light on institutional racism so that we can know it, avoid it, and ultimately eliminate it.
In addressing this topic it is important to acknowledge that the racism of today is not your father's or your grandfather's racism. Sure there are still backwards hicks, clueless xenophobes, the KKK and other hate groups that berate, attack and even kill people of color, but for the most part this is not the racism that one encounters on a daily basis. The political correctness of our society along with hate crime laws make it much more difficult to find openly bigoted people who have power over you on a daily basis. Although racial slurs and insults in person and in the media still persist and new hate groups form every day, Americans of all colors and social status generally do not tolerate this behavior and it is not pervasive enough to stop entire communities from progressing.
Institutional racism is another ball game entirely. Institutional racism can enter in every part of a person's life and make it extremely difficult to advance socially, financially or politically. What is even worse is that institutional racism does not just affect individuals it affects entire communities and in particular has a stranglehold on African American progress in the 21st century.
What is Institutional Racism?
In order to proceed we first need a working definition of Institutional Racism. From Wikipedia:
Institutional racism describes any kind of system of inequality based on race. It can occur in institutions such as public government bodies, private business corporations (such as media outlets), and universities (public and private).
Public government bodies, private business corporations, universities and school systems. If a group experiences bias in any one these areas it will be almost impossible for that group to succeed and prosper in America. African Americans unfortunately experience this bias in all three. Below are some examples.
Institutional Racism in Government
Although corporate money and power greatly influence who gets elected, ultimately the power to change unfair government laws and corrupt corporate practice still lies with each individual and their ability to vote. During most of the 400+ years of American history, the power to vote has been concentrated in the hands of white men. Women could not fully vote until 1920 and blacks could not vote until the 1960's. The 20th century changes in voter laws gave women and blacks the ability to change the political landscape and thus challenge white male corporate power. In the 40 years since the Civil Rights Movement corporations (and the politicians that serve them) have been taking that power back by systematically attempting to deny African Americans the right to vote.
Voter Suppression Laws - Over 2 dozen states have added new ID laws under the guise of eliminating voter fraud. The real result of these laws is the disenfranchisement of up to 5 million African American voters who do not have the required ID.
Redistricting is the process of redrawing lines around communities in the attempt to alter the voting composition of neighborhoods within cities and states. A process often accused of widespread corporate corruption, recent redistricting efforts have been aimed at herding large groups of black and brown people into certain districts in order to diminish the impact of the black and Latino vote. In almost all cases redistricting either heavily favors the largely white Republican power structure thus greatly increasing the chance that they will stay in power.
According to the 2010 Congressional redistricting estimates performed by ESRI, red (Republican) states stand to gain 11 new seats in the House of Representatives, while democratic leaning states will lose congressional representation. Without the voting power to change unfair laws, institutional racism and unfair practices persist.
Unfair Sentencing Laws. If you are convicted of a felony in America you cannot vote. If you cannot vote, you have no power. If you are in jail you cannot build wealth, you cannot parent your children, you cannot protect your women and you cannot escape poverty. In addition to higher conviction rates for Blacks, African Americans also receive much longer sentences than their white counterparts. Until as recently as 2011 the prison sentence for 5 grams of crack (amount for a poor user) was 5 years, the same sentence for 500 grams of cocaine (major drug dealer). Although the Obama Administration modified the crack law in 2010, the ratio is still an intolerable 18 to 1.
Death penalty cases show the same unfair practices. According to a study by the University of Iowa Law School 22% of black defendants who kill white victims are sentenced to death; almost 3 times more than white defendants.
Racial Profiling perpetuates the stereotype that all black and brown people commit crimes and must therefore be targeted. When the institutional power structure (in this case the police) believes in racial profiling and minorities are a victim of it, there is a built in false sense of superiority in the former and an inferiority complex bred into the latter. Because many minorities are concentrated in small geographical areas they are easily (and unfairly) profiled. In New York City 70% of all arrests come from just 7 neighborhoods. The same NYCLU study shows that blacks were arrested at 5 times the rate of whites, with Latinos arrested at nearly 3 times the rate.
Racial profiling by the police, FBI and other government authorities gives these entities the de facto right to shoot and kill unarmed black men (think Sean Bell or Amadou Diallo). It also leads to racial profiling by general citizens.
The recent highly publicized case of Trayvon Martin is the prime example of a citizenry "bought into" the false stereotypes of racial profiling of young black men.
Race, Poverty and Prison Population by Color:
Stop and Frisk gives police complete authority to randomly stop and search a person on the street in the hopes of finding drugs, weapons or some other form of illegal substances or evidence of crime. Stop and frisk dehumanizes the victim and reinforces a false concept of complete police authority over the citizenry. Well over 80% of victims of stop-and-frisk are Black or Latino and the overwhelming amount of stops are perpetrated in lower class, minority neighborhoods.
The combination of stop-and-frisk, racial profiling and the mandatory drug sentencing laws described above results in the massively disproportionate incarceration rates we see for black men versus whites.
Institutional Racism in Business
Redlining The ability of banks, mega-corporations and major financial institutions to pick winners and losers has setup a system of vast inequality between poor black communities and the middle class. Hearkening back to racist practices before the Civil Rights era, many of these private businesses use redlining to systematically shut minorities out of business opportunities, healthy food choices and banking options. The "legal" business justification for this redlining is class and geography, but the practical result is mass discrimination by race. Corporate institional racism through redlining include:
Business Redlining - Drawing a red line around a section of a city where major banks will refuse to give business loans or provide insurance to any individuals within the ring. Business redlining almost always occurs around minority and/or low-income areas.
Supermarket Redlining - The process of placing supermarkets in high dollar, middle class neighborhoods and removing them from low-income neighborhoods within a "redlined" area. The result is less food shopping choices which leads to poor health in the black community, contributes to higher food prices and ultimately leads to higher health care cost for the residents.
Liquor Lining - A form of redlining where banks will only fund businesses like liquor stores and convenience stores in low income neighborhoods. Liquor stores obviously contribute to alcohol abuse and higher crime rates. Both liquor and convenience stores charge higher prices for food and have less fruits and vegetables (if any), contributing to poor health in the African American community and less money for each resident.
Prison Privatization is one of the biggest factors in the explosion of the prison population in the last 40 years. The privatization of prisons coincides directly with the inception of the so-called "War on Drugs" in the 70's and both have worked hand-in-hand to see the prison population explode and simultaneously devastate the black community.
Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics
Public prisons perform a public service - keeping criminals off the street and hopefully rehabilitating them. Private prisons operate primarily on the profit motive - the more prisoners, the more the prison gets paid. For this reason private prisons are incented to round up prisoners for whatever offenses they can and keep those prisoners as long as possible. Rehabilitation is not prioritized as that is counter to the profit motive. The result is overcrowding of prisons, more repeat offenders (in and out of jail), and longer sentences - all disproportionately affecting African Americans.
Corporate Predatory Practices (Real Estate, Banking)
By now we are all aware of the predatory lending practices of the banks during the housing boom of the last decade. African Americans and Latinos were disproportionately targeted during the boom, and although some restitution is starting to occur, it is not nearly enough to cover the losses within the black community.
The worst part of this practice is that institutional racism based on corrupt real estate practices existed many years before the boom and continue to exist even after the housing collapse. Here are two examples:
Mortgage Redlining: A lending policy for denying real estate loans on properties in older, changing urban areas, usually with large minority populations, because of alleged higher lending risks without due consideration being given by the lending institutions to the credit worthiness of the individual loan applicant.
Blockbusting: The practice on the part of unscrupulous speculators or real estate agents of inducing panic selling of homes below market value especially by exploiting the prejudices of property owners in neighborhoods in which the racial make-up is changing or appears to be on the verge of changing. It is an actionable wrong.
Media Stereotyping. Corporate institutional racism runs rampant in many other industries, with the worst being the Corporate Media. In fact, Media industry racism is too extensive to cover in this document. Suffice it to say that the portrayal of blacks on news shows, television shows and on the radio do more to perpetrate racism, low self-esteem, negative imagery and black self-destruction than any other corporate group.
Institutional Racism versus Basic Racism
Knowing what forms of institutional racism exist is not enough. We must also clearly understand the difference between basic racism and institutional racism:
Basic racism is based on skin color and ethnicity alone. Institutional racism is based on a combination of race, geography and class.
Slavery, Jim Crow, racism, white flight, the expansion of the federal highway system, the export of business from inner cities to suburbia, gentrification, and the real estate bubble all have come together to centralize (or force) many African Americans into inner cities or poor rural communities. This centralization of the large majority of lower class African Americans and Latinos provides the fertile grounds for institutional racism to take affect. Conversely, those African Americans who don't live in poor inner cities may deal with little or no institutional racism.
As an example, being black and living in West Oakland is not the same as being black and living 5 miles away in Piedmont. For the former, institutional racism is rampant; for the latter it barely exists. In addition, the white middle class people who live in middle and upper-class neighborhoods like Marin rarely see stop-and-frisk in action; they only see clean public schools, and nice supermarkets as opposed to the liquor store and payday loan place on every corner. Redlining and systematic loan denial do not exist in suburbia.
Geography and class insulate the majority of white America from ever seeing institutional racism. This is why so many deny its existence and even get upset when a black person points out that racism still exists.
A young black man who lives in a middle class neighborhood will most likely not be the victim of stop-and-frisk, racial profiling, or arrest for possession of drugs. He will also probably have a quality education even though he attends public school. Financial and social success are within reach for middle class African American youth and thus the true evil genius of institutional racism is exposed. By not blanketly discriminating against all African Americans, institutional racism against a majority of African Americans can still exist.
It is the combination of government, corporate and media institutional racism that is largely responsible for the inequities of today. Institutional racism reinforces many of the inequities in existence during slavery and Jim Crow while perpetuating misguided feelings of white superiority and black inferiority. Institutional racism pits white against black (and black against black) in the hopes of maintaining a society where the rich are able to stay in power while the masses fight amongst themselves.
Although Institutional racism is powerful, it presents false arguments and thus it can be defeated. Next week we outline the steps to defeat institutional racism in America so that this country can truly live up to the greatness we know it can achieve.
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