Institutional Racism

In a recent piece, I suggested that we needed a new, more complete definition of racism. My logic was that many right-wing conservatives were spouting prejudicial remarks, but getting away with it because they were not mouthing simple, old-fashioned epithets. Rather, they were using the new, slightly more subtle forms of code, then throwing up their hands and slyly remarking, "Who, me?"

I received a number of comments on this approach. One scholar complained that the older, more direct forms of racism are still quite present, often quite unchallenged, and I needed to expose these forms of prejudice instead.

While I agree that these horrors exist, I feel that the majority of Americans would, if pushed, condemn them (the trick is getting them to pay attention). The more subtle forms of racism, however, totally get away with it, because they don't fit easy stereotypes. Thus, even when exposed, they elicit a reaction of, "That's not racism." After all, they're not using the "n" word, and the speaker doesn't sound like a poor, white Southerner.

There were, however, far more comments suggesting I expand my definition; in particular, that I include institutional racism in my "new definition" of this evil.

I heartily agree. The old definition of institutional racism was, and still is, a very good one. Simply put, it was racism by habit, rather than by intent.

Permit me a story by way of illustration. Quite a while ago, at the university where I teach, my division was known as being far and away the most liberal on campus. All the bleeding hearts, all the troublemakers, resided within our walls. We were the very last folks you could ever accuse of racism, and our ranks included a number of individuals who had worked for civil rights organizations.

About fifteen years ago, we were conducting a search for a new position. One of the candidates was extraordinary. He was smart, liberal, from the East Coast, and shared many of our views. We fawned over this individual, and wound up offering him the job (although he turned us down). After all, he was just like us.

Now, project that same scenario to the corporate realm. In that scenario, might a group of white males gravitate to someone like them, who had gone to the same kind of school and shared the outlook of those making the hire? And who, just incidentally, was the same gender and race? If so, the choice would be made because the winning candidate had a higher comfort factor, simply fit in better, and put people at ease. At no point did any discussion in the job search touch on issues like race or gender. In other words, there was no overt discrimination of any kind, but the results were the same as if there were.

This kind of discrimination is alive and well today. The New York Times has recently done a number of articles on how bright young African-American graduates are faring in the shrunken job market, and cites a number of studies that demonstrate how those with darker skins are adversely impacted by institutional prejudice. Among the studies discussed, one from the American Economic Review, entitled "Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?", reported that "applicants with black-sounding names received 50 percent fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding names." Another article, this time in the Journal of Labor Studies, discovered that not only white, but even Hispanic and Asian managers hired more whites and fewer blacks than black managers did. It would seem that Kenneth Clark's pioneering study in the 1950s, where minority children chose white dolls over black ones is still a viable piece of research.

And African-American graduates are responding in a savvy manner that is nonetheless disturbing. Students with a middle name like "Jabbar" are shortening it to the less recognizable initial "J" on their resumes. Even more, students are dropping from their documents details like membership in black organizations, or even the fact that they majored in African-American studies.

Because this kind of discrimination is neither intentional nor overt, it is harder to combat. Exposure and education help, of course. At least as effective is to track trends, or "patterns and practices," to detect long-term manifestations of this problem.

The great sociologist Earl Babbie, in answer to an inquiry about institutional racism, defined it in part as, "an action which is not directly discriminatory but has a discriminatory effect, whether intended or not." This is a clear and useful description, but unfortunately, this kind of prejudice has a vibrant past, and seems to be growing. A study about to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences polled subjects using pictures of Barack Obama where his skin color had been alternatively lightened and darkened, and were then asked with image depicted his "true essence." The study found that those who chose the lighter images were also more likely to have voted for him for president, with the reverse equally true.

Allen Rucker, one of the great writers on disabilities, commented simply to me, "Unconscious bias is the next frontier." It is long past time to tackle this new outpost of racism.