Tuesday, June 10, 2008

fail to see institutional racism

Now that Barack Obama has made history as the first "black" nominee of a major political party, the significance of his racial status is sure to receive more scrutiny than ever. The fact that he's also "biracial" might receive more acknowledgment as well. Despite Obama's efforts to distance himself from or "transcend" race, the issue nevertheless accompanies almost every public move he makes, and almost every event in which he participates. On the other hand, while the parallel issue that seems to matter for Hillary Clinton is her gender, her race also projects itself in significant ways in every public appearance she makes. White people in particular, though, just don't think much about her whiteness, unless her appeal to certain white voters becomes an obvious factor, and thus gets deemed worthy of discussion.

So again, now that we have our first major "black" nominee instead of our first "female" nominee, the matter of race is sure to receive even more attention, more than it has for a long, long time from white America, especially from the largely white-centric corporate media (and by "white-centric" I mean that the general perspective of the corporate media, the general framing of and approach to things, is an unmarked, generally unexamined white perspective). However, because the corporate media, as well as other American institutions, is largely white-centric, one form that racism takes will surely receive very little attention--"institutional racism."

I hestitate to refer to Wikipedia as an authoritative source, but the definition there of institutional racism matches my understanding of the term (if this definition doesn't quite match your understanding of it, please let us know in a comment--the Wikipedia entry on it also asks for help):

Institutional racism (or structural racism or systemic racism) refers to a form of racism which occurs specifically in institutions such as public bodies, corporations, and universities. The term was coined by black nationalist, pan-Africanist and honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party, Stokely Carmichael. In the late 1960s, he defined the term as "the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture or ethnic origin."

For most white folks, Obama's historic first is likely to confirm their sense that aside from rare, isolated, and insignificant incidents involving deranged individuals, racism is more or less a thing of the past. Or, somewhat conversely, some will see Obama as an "affirmative action candidate," and thus as confirmation that racism does still exist, but it's only significant remaining form is "reverse racism" against whites.

These common white delusions occur because white people individualize racism; they operate with a narrowed, shrunken conception of it. They thus usually fail to see, for one thing, that many interactions with non-white people, including many of their own, are racist, and they also tend to believe that just as "racism" has faded into insignificance, so has the number of "racists"--who are thought to be the only people who commit "racist acts." They also fail to see that racism is embedded in institutions, and that in many ways, that kind of racism has gotten worse, not better.

In the following five-minute audio clip, Tim Wise explains this increase in the power and effects of institutional racism, which he especially attributes to the white reaction to the end of the Jim Crow era; an increased white focus on "violence"; and the new "War on Drugs."

I also want to recommend a powerful, heart-wrenching post at a relatively new blog, Keep It Trill, that describes a specific example of institutional racism. In "I Wept in the Courtroom," Kit describes her efforts to save her son from repeated instances of blatant racial profiling and abuse. Go read it--you'll probably weep too.


  1. Tim Wise is my hero. I have been lucky enough to hear him speak in person and participate in a focus group with him. He has opened my eyes in a way that is unmatched by any other force in my adult life.

    It's fascinating, because though this blog is focused specifically on a racial standpoint, Wise's theories on privilege apply in a broader spectrum to any group that isn't normative: women, homosexuals, trans-gendered people, people with disabilities, etc.

  2. That's true, Karen, but I've heard (and read) a lot of Wise too, and I don't think he spends much time at all talking about categories other than "white." (At which, I agree, he's frickin' brilliant.) It would be interesting to see a blog that is not focused as much as this one is on whiteness (and as much as Wise himself is) do something in non-racial terms with Wise's theories.

    Oh, and by the way, they're not really his theories and insights, are they? He regularly begins his talks by saying that he has nothing original to say, because black people, especially, have said it all before already, and it's really kind of a shame that he, Tim Wise the White Guy, gets so much more respect and credit for saying it, largely because he's white instead of black. (I wonder if a black person saying the same things to you could have been as much of an unmatched force in your adult life as Wise was?)

  3. Oops, sorry caroline, typo calling your Karen . . .

  4. Bonilla-Silva wrote an excellent paper on institutional racism and how it is maintained by the culture...he also critiqued several of the more popular (in the public mind) views of how racism operates and these views ignore the racism that is (seemingly) inherent in the system.

    If only I could find that paper I wrote one it. -_-

  5. Thanks for the Bonilla-Silva rec, Roxie. He probably incorporated that article into his great book, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States.

  6. Macon, your commentary was extremely well-written, and I'm not saying this because you referenced one of my articles. (Thanks anyway for that; it's brought a lot of traffic to my blog.) The Tim Wise video was an excellent accessory to it. There's not more I can add to this - you said it all. Thank you.


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