Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Student reacts to institutional racism.

In this post the student's words are in the black font face and my reaction is in blue.

I was recently made aware of the practice of institutionalized racism in this class. Like myself, there are many young white people who know very little about institutionalized racism because it doesn’t personally affect them and they are not educated about it. As future social workers, it is vitally important for us to become aware of the discriminatory policies practiced by institutions in our society. We must know how the clients we deal with might be affected by institutionalized racism.

Institutional racism occurs when institutions restrict opportunities for (or discriminate against) groups of people based upon their race or ethnicity. It is either deliberate or indirect [unintended], and can take place in institutions like public schools, universities, and corporations. Some examples include racial profiling by police officers, opposing affirmative action, and the lack of response to the AIDS epidemic in minority communities. This form of racism is sharply influenced by the perpetuation of negative stereotypes in our society. It can be subtle or difficult to detect, but is just as destructive as individual acts of racism.

Some forms of institutionalized racism are race-based discrimination in education and housing. The 1948 case of Shelley v. Kraemer called attention to institutionalized racism when the United States Supreme Court ruled that racially restricted covenants were unenforceable. A more subtle form of race-based discrimination in housing was the construction of the interstate highway system beginning in the 1950’s. This construction helped to destroy communities where individuals with non-European ancestry lived. European-Americans were given the opportunity to segregate themselves from individuals with other heritages.

The construction of the interstate highway system also helped promote institutionalized racism within public city schools. Affluent families who moved out to the suburbs developed their own independent school districts and public city schools lost a great deal of funding. Public schools can also be affected by institutional racism when individuals oppose funding for them or by the use of standardized tests. These practices have a detrimental effect on minority youth.

Institutionalized racism persists in our society because many do not recognize it or choose to ignore it. There is no easy solution to this and it seems much more challenging to tackle than individual acts of racism. As a white person, I was unaware of the variety of forms institutionalized racism can take. At times, I have neglected to recognize it due to the privileges I enjoy because of my skin color. I believe tackling this form of racism should begin with providing more education about it, especially to young people.

When people use the term “racism” in common speech they usually are either referring to a sort of active dislike or aversion to persons of another ethnic background marked by stereotyping and hostile emotions or else to a less aggressive form of prejudiced generalizations about people who are different from oneself. But when social scientists use racism we may be referring to more specific things like the combination of power and prejudices (the idea that “racism” implies a power imbalance so that a member of an oppressed group can’t be “racist” in this sense), or this sense of institutionalized racism, where we mean that people are engaging in social institutions or structures that give privileged groups unfair advantages and historically oppressed or marginalized groups unfair disadvantages. 

When we’re merely getting benefits from a system that gives people with ethnic backgrounds similar to ours some statistical advantages, and the system tends to give fewer benefits to persons who were historically oppressed, it’s not easy to see how this can be “racist.” After all, racism is supposed to be motivated by aversion to persons with different ethnic backgrounds, and a person who is personally attracted to persons of other ethnic backgrounds can still also support policies that give historically privileged groups unfair advantages. 

For many Americans of European heritage it’s especially difficult to understand the historical weight of past oppression.  During the four or five generations between the end of the War of the Rebellion of the Southern Slaveholders (1861-1865) until the sudden dramatic decreases in legal and social oppression against Americans with African heritage that came 110 years later our European-American ancestors and immigrants were able to hold political power and accumulate assets that appreciated in value. Many economic opportunities were available, and European-Americans could accumulate assets, social capital, human capital, and create norms and wealth that their descendants enjoy today.  At the same time, the freedmen (Americans with African Heritage) were far less able to accumulate similar assets or pass these down to their descendants. So, while it may be true that most European-Americans born since the mid-1970s can hardly be fairly called racist, most of them still are collecting (inheriting) financial and cultural advantages gained (with some degree of unfairness) by their ancestors, while younger Americans with African heritage, although they have not experienced the same sort of direct racist oppression, continue to face residual blatant racism and the inheritance of the lack of assets, education, and social connections that their ancestors suffered from slavery through the more-than-a-century of post-emancipation discrimination. 

And so, we’re left with questions of abstractions like institutional racism and affirmative action, and how these should influence our support for certain policies. At some point it will become clear that after each drop of blood drawn with the lash has been paid back, first with blood shed in battle (in the war against the Southern Slaveholders and their armies), and then with the restitution of affirmative action. But, it seems that time hasn’t arrived yet.  It’s also clear that within a foreseeable future of perhaps twenty generations we may no longer have the “races” we have known in this country for the first fourteen generations since European-African colonization-immigration began. Interracial marriage will dissolve the “races” and ethnicities we know at this point in history, and issues of institutional racism and affirmative action will lose meaning. 

For the time being, however, it seems unfair to have policies that give further advantages to persons who have accumulated assets and social advantages, and it seems reasonable to craft social welfare policies that give the most help to those persons with the fewest resources. 

1 comment:

no1kstate said...

I haven't read the entire post yet. I'm working on my own and your post came up in a google search.

I just wanted to let you know I applaud your being open to the truth of institutional racism. What's really odd is that often, black people are talking about racism the way social scientist do. And in discussions and online threads, we do make clear what we mean. It seems like lots of white Americans are determined to keep the definition of racism=KKK, even when they're told different, just so they can continue in denial. I've been in a thread discussion for a couple of days with different first time visitors coming, all tropping the same denial. Just the first sentence of your post is like a glass of cold water on a hot day! Thanks.