Institutional Racism: Fact or Fiction?

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

The wrong answer has resulted in the wrong public policies.


A popular narrative is that institutional racism explains why African Americans, as a group, on average, experience higher poverty rates, lower test scores, fewer advancement opportunities, worse health outcomes, higher arrest rates, longer prison sentences, fewer housing options, and higher rates of being victims of crime.

But is it true that institutional racism is the cause?

The answer depends on whether the reference is to the past or the present.  It’s one thing to say that the legacies of past institutional racism are still negatively affecting Blacks.  It’s quite another to say that institutional racism still exists.

The latter belief leads to a logical conclusion: that racism won’t be stopped until America’s institutions are overhauled or overturned.

A corresponding belief in some quarters is that America’s institutions are built on White privilege and such White values and traditions as capitalism, individualism, merit, the Protestant work ethic, two-parent families, and even the rules of grammar and math.  This leads to another logical conclusion:  that institutional racism won’t end until White privilege and norms are replaced with non-White ones, whatever those might be.

Only a fool would claim that today’s Blacks don’t suffer from the legacies of past institutional racism—from the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, from voting restrictions, from redlining, from being excluded from trade unions, from other employment discrimination, from separate and unequal schools, and from other institutional forms of discrimination.

To claim that such legacies don’t still affect Blacks socioeconomically today is to believe that there is something inherently or genetically deficient with Blacks that accounts for their socioeconomic disadvantages.  That tracks with the original definition of racism:  a belief that a given race or ethnic group is, by nature, inferior or deficient in some way.  It’s exactly how the KKK saw Blacks and how White supremacists still see them.  (It’s also how the Black Panthers saw Whites and how some Black radicals and White intellectuals see Whites today).

While it’s foolish to claim that Blacks don’t suffer from the legacies of past institutional racism, it’s just as foolish to claim that America’s institutions are not dramatically different from what they used to be.  Reforms to address the effects of slavery and Jim Crow have significantly changed American institutions, including the institutions of politics, government, education, media, and industry. 

Among other reforms, the nation adopted constitutional amendments to further equal rights, passed civil rights legislation and voting rights legislation, conducted the War on Poverty, pursued the dream of the Great Society, established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sanctioned affirmative action programs through the establishment of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, gave preferential loans and contracts to minority businesses through the Minority Business Development Agency, encouraged outreach and diversity initiatives to further the hiring and promotion of Blacks and other so-called minorities, and spent trillions of dollars on a plethora of social welfare programs.

Not only do institutions now vigorously compete with each other to land Blacks for key positions, but Americans voted a Black into the highest office in the land.  And in the deep South, in the heart of the former Confederacy, a Black prosecutor has indicted a White former president.

Institutional racism?  Hardly.

Of course, racism and racial prejudices still exist, primarily at the individual level but rarely at the institutional level.  Racial disparities in outcomes also continue to exist.  But despite what many race activists claim, unequal outcomes are not prima facie evidence of institutional racism.  If unequal outcomes were prima facie evidence, then the fact that more than 30 million Whites live in poverty would be evidence of institutional racism.  Further evidence would be the fact that East Indian Americans rank higher in income than White Americans.

Overlooked in the claims of institutional racism are the deleterious effects of misguided social programs, especially those that have fueled an increase in fatherless families, which in turn has generated an array of socioeconomic problems and pathologies.  Not to turn this into a partisan commentary, but progressives in particular tend to deny this cause and effect, perhaps because they were the driving force behind the programs.          

In any event, just as poorly designed social programs have resulted in negative unintended consequences, the belief that institutional racism is still a root problem results in public policies with negative unintended consequences.





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