I have been posting a lot on race lately. And that will continue for the foreseeable future. To be honest I thought I was mostly done talking on racial issues about ten years ago. At that time I had come out with a book – Transcending Racial Barriers – which basically stated what I wanted to talk about as it concerned racial issues. The Mutual Obligations Approach detailed in the book was similar to the ideas I promoted in another book – Beyond Racial Gridlock. But Gridlock was written for a Christian audience and used Christian theology to justify my approach. Barriers focused on using sociological research and theories to justify that approach.

I have been pretty happy to stay away from racial issues, for the most part, during these past ten years. However, this year I realized that I can no longer remain on the sidelines. My work had not received a lot of attention and I felt no need to work too hard to promote it. But recent events have brought some of my ideas to the limelight and now I feel an obligation to dive into racial issues. It is one thing to stay on the sidelines when there is little chance that your activism will do any good. It is quite another when you have an opportunity to make a difference. I want to make a difference.

I believe there is a group that wants to address the unfair racial outcomes in our society, but knows that the heavy-handed antiracism method does not work. I call those in the group my people. My first few entries back to looking at racial issues have addressed the inadequacy of antiracism. I felt that was necessary as antiracism has been the dominant approach among cultural elites. This may give the impression that I do not believe in institutional racism or the detrimental effects of historical racism. That is not the case and thus now I will address those who endorse colorblindness as the route to racial harmony by exploring institutional racism.

I define institutional racism as mechanisms that lead to racial inequality regardless of whether there was an intent to have racial inequality. To be sure one can argue that some of these mechanisms are justified. Since African-Americans are more likely, even after controls for individual characteristics, to commit murder, then one can argue that laws against murder are examples of institutional racism. For obvious reasons we should not rid ourselves of those laws. What we would lose from getting rid of those laws far outweigh any benefit we get from ending this racial disparity.

But we must make that calculation on other policies disproportionately impacting people of color that are harder to justify as being worth the differences in racial disparity. For example, although it is better, we still have a serious sentencing disparity for those who use crack and those who use powder cocaine. Since African -Americans, relative to European-Americans, who abuse drugs are more likely to use crack instead of powder cocaine, this disparity is one of many factors why blacks serve longer sentences than whites. It does not matter whether there was a racist intent in the disparity of the laws. The results are unfair outcomes for people of color.

Or to use another example, sometimes businesses hire by word of mouth. That is, when they need to find someone for a position, they ask their employees if they know someone who needs a job and is a good worker. If their employees tend to be white, then chances are their social network is pretty white as well. So in this way whites can gain jobs that people of color never even knew were open. The employer may well have had no intention of being racist. Indeed, this could be a good strategy to find a hard worker since current employees are unlikely to irritate the employer by sending the job announcement to a lazy uncle. But the result is still an unfair advantage that whites are given over people of color.

Whites can think it is unfair for us to look at institutional racism since this type of racism can happen regardless of whether a person is personally racist. Perhaps we should not use the word racism since that implies a moral failing. But look at this from the point of view of a person of color who is either serving a longer than fair sentence or not getting a job due to factors beyond his or her control. That institutional measures are not easily seen by individuals as problematic makes them sustainable in a society that now stigmatizes overt racism. Institutional racism is more damaging for people of color today than white supremacist groups.

While we are on the topic of unfairness we also have to look at the way historical racism continues to impact people of color today. A great way to do this is to examine residential segregation. We know that historically there have been racist laws and customs that trapped people of color into segregated neighborhoods. Whether it is Native Americans on reservations, African-Americans in ghettos or Hispanic-Americans in barrios, there is a common story of racial residential segregation that is part of the history of people of color.

These efforts have set into motion mechanisms that tend to keep us residentially segregated. At least for Hispanic and Asian-Americans there is notably less segregation as they move up in class, but for blacks the segregation tends to remain even at the higher SES levels. There are reasons for why this segregation remains as it is not merely due to historical tradition (such as whites being less willing to move to black neighborhoods) that is behind this segregation. But there is no doubt that our historical patterns have helped to set up the racial segregation we see today.

We might be tempted to think that while racial residential segregation is not desirable that it is just a matter of preference. But that “preference” comes with very real costs for people of color. For example, the fact that minorities are segregated into different areas of the city makes discrimination more possible. Redlining is the practice where financial lenders designate minority and racially mixed neighborhoods as poor investment areas. Therefore, the residents in those areas can receive fewer and smaller loans than those who live in white neighborhoods. A study by the Federal Reserve Board in 1991 showed that white borrowers with the lowest incomes were approved for mortgages more easily than financially well off people of color. This difference continued whether the mortgages were sought by local banks, Federal Housing Administration, or the Veteran’s Administration. The discrimination people of color face by the banks is exacerbated by the reality of our racial residential segregation.

Another cost of segregation is the separation of lower-class minorities from the resources they need to improve their lives. Often there are not very many grocery stores or places to work in the neighborhoods. Poorer minority members often do not have transportation to get work. Furthermore, they may not have a decent choice of stores to buy food from. The few stores that are there are free to overcharge the minority residents. Because of the racial makeup of the neighborhood whites may have little incentive to correct this situation.

This one hit home for me as I thought about going to high school in Amarillo, Texas. There were very few businesses close to where I lived. In order for me to get a job in high school, and before I could drive a car, I had to catch a bus to go across town. It generally took about an hour for me to get to work. Then an hour to get back home. Yes, I was able to obtain a job. I was not denied the job outright because of my race. But it cost me two extra hours every shift because I did not live in the predominately white areas of the city.

A final cost I would like to point out is the concentration of many dysfunctional elements in lower class communities of color. Massy and Denton in their classic book, American Apartheid, show that within black neighborhoods there is a concentration of individuals who are jobless, potential criminals, pregnant teens and other factors that we find more with the poor than with the wealthy. The concentrated poverty of poorer minorities means that these dysfunctions are not spread to different communities and the toxicity of these effects are magnified within communities of color.

Let me illustrate how this may work out in our society. We clearly have poor white neighborhoods which suffer from many of the same problems we find in poor communities of color. For whites living in poverty, there is no escape from the concentration of crime, broken families, poor schools, and drugs that are so often a problem in poor neighborhoods. But if whites can gain some economic resources, they can move from those neighborhoods and project their family from much of the deleterious effects of those neighborhoods. But residential segregation makes it harder for people of color to remove themselves form such neighborhoods since people of color tend to make less money than whites. Thus, to stay in neighborhoods of color is to stay much closer to the negative elements of poverty, even if that family of color has moved from poverty to middle class status. This problem is particularly hard on African-Americans as middle class blacks are less likely to live in integrated neighborhoods than the middle classes among other people of color.

So sometimes institutional racism occurs due to the previous overt racism in our society and our relative unwillingness to make the changes necessary to ameliorate the effects of that racism. The effects are as real as if we are talking about current polices, such as drug enforcement, that impact people of color. And this does not even take into account the reality that sometimes racial prejudice comes out in the normal course of events even when there is not institutional racism. Unless we take a proactive stance to deal with the effects of historical racism, people of color will continue to operate at an unfair disadvantage in society.

And it is important to recognize this disadvantage and to understand that this is not a claim that we still live under something like Jim Crow, where overt rules prevented the success of people of color. The illustration I like to use in my classes is this. Pretend that we are going to have a mile race a year from now. I tell a third of the class about the race and hire a trainer for them. For another third of the class I tell them about the race six months later but do not hire them a trainer. But I do advise them that they may want to work on their own to get ready for the race. The last third of the class I call them the morning of the race and tell them that it is time to run.

Assuming that the class is randomly divided into thirds, we know what will happen in the race do we not? On average the first group will do the best, followed by the second group and the third group having the worst average times. Oh, there may be someone in the third group who is a natural miler and happened to be running on a consistent basis anyway. He may run a sub-four minute mile and run away from everyone else. But he will be an anomaly. On average having a trainer and time to train means you will perform better. The presence of some individuals of color who have enjoyed wild success does not mean that institutional racism is a myth. It merely means that some individuals have been able to overcome the barriers that inhibit people of color and that society’s distaste for overt racism allows them to enjoy the fruits of that success.

As we can see, there are two ways institutional racism impacts people of color. It can impact us through rules that disproportionately punish us such as drug laws hiring practices even if that was not the intention of the law. Institutional racism can also be found in the manner of which historical racism continues to manifest itself in contemporary situations such as racial residential segregation. In some ways it is easier to pass rules that outlaw overt racism. That sort of evil is easy to see. Institutional racism in contemporary America is not tied to overt efforts to punish people of color. Thus, we are tempted to just ignore it. But without explicit efforts to turn back these institutional forces, then people of color will continue to operate at a disadvantage in our society.

I have spent a couple of recent blogs criticizing antiracism and do not regret doing that a bit. But where the proponents of anti-racism are correct is that we have to be proactive in dismantling institutional racism. We do not have to approach institutional racism the same way as antiracism activists. I don’t. But we do have to find answers to help us move past these elements in our racialized society. Sitting on our hands should not be an option.

We can no longer deny the reality of institutional racism. We need to find reforms to address these issues. As I have talked about in my work, my approach is to recognize the fallen nature of each of us to seek out social systems giving our social groups an advantage. In collaborative conversations with each other, we can see the weaknesses of our own position and develop reforms that are more balanced and fairer than if we rely on any single group for solutions. This is not an approach for the faint of heart, but I believe that given our fallen human nature, this is the best way to find answers to issues connected to institutional racism.

This essay appeared first at Patheos: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/shatteringparadigms/2020/08/why-we-cannot-ignore-institutional-racism/

George Yancey

Baylor University
George Yancey, Ph.D., is professor of sociology at Baylor University. He’s author of Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (IVP, 2006).