Academics tend to work on puzzles. Here's mine: we live in an era marked by near-universal acceptance of anti-racist norms--an age in which biological conceptions of race have been largely discredited and racial discrimination legally banned--and yet, at the same time, we see persistent or growing racial inequality in almost all measurable categories of social welfare, a massive and unprecedented expansion of the prison system, racialized surveillance, and police use of deadly force with seeming impunity.
How can this be? How is it that racial domination continues to thrive in a society that explicitly and sincerely claims to reject it?
My research typically approaches this puzzle through the lens of constitutional law. But lately, I've been thinking about it in another context: the wave of protests by students of color and their allies at The Claremont Colleges and on campuses across the country. In part, this is because student protesters have challenged us all to think more carefully about institutional racism in higher education and how racial power works in the post-civil rights era. At the same time, framing the protests around this puzzle might help explain why it is that so many white people experienced the protests as puzzling, irrational, or an attack on free speech.
In suggesting that "institutional racism" can explain how anti-racist norms coexist with persistent conditions of racial oppression, I am also directing us away from another kind of explanation, which sees the issue chiefly as a problem of hypocrisy or bad intentions, sub- conscious or covert racism. These things still exist and are surely more pervasive than many of us would like to admit. But to imagine that bad intentions are the root of the problem is overly optimistic.
Indeed, a vast and growing literature in history and social scientific research documents the myriad ways in which racial segregation has been structured into our built environment--in FHA loans and discriminatory mortgage lending; in federal funds for suburban development, highway construction, and infrastructure projects; in school siting and districting decisions; in virtually every aspect of the prison system; and in countless other areas, as well. Even with the best of intentions, today's decision-makers must operate in the context of structures and institutions that virtually guarantee racially unjust outcomes even in the absence of specific actions particular to any individual case.
If I am right that all of this is well documented--and, indeed, is now part of the undergraduate curriculum at The Claremont Colleges and throughout the country--then why is it that so many people (on campus and in the national media) have been so puzzled by student protests against institutional racism?
The answer, I think, lies in one aspect of institutional racism that deserves more attention than it typically receives. Our institutions are designed to preserve white privilege, but also to make the ongoing causes of racial inequality seem mysterious. We remain ignorant by design, invested in a mythology of white innocence, even while condemning seemingly anachronistic mythologies of racial inferiority.
Institutional racism trades on the privilege of not knowing. No wonder, then, that student protests are portrayed as having come out of nowhere, as hysterical reactions to something as banal as an offensive Halloween costume, or as infantile demands to be shielded from opposing points of view. Protesters are bound to look foolish to those who can't (or won't) see the underlying sources of racial exclusion against which the protests are targeted. Dismissing their grievances in this way is an exercise in power.
Consider one student demand: to eliminate standardized tests like the SAT from the College's admission process. To many, this will seem far-fetched, since Scripps wants to (and should) admit the best-qualified and most academically talented students possible. Unfortunately, the SAT is a terrible instrument for measuring such qualities. Distorted by cultural bias, the test is well known to be a better predictor of socioeconomic status than of intellect or academic ability. Getting rid of it would send a powerful message that we no longer will reward applicants for doing well on a biased standardized test--and no longer wish to exclude smart, qualified, interesting applicants who happen to do poorly on it.
Forgoing consideration of the SAT would have various consequences for the College, but these have less to do with a supposed lowering of academic standards, and more to do with the price of following through on institutional commitments to fairness and inclusivity. How would it affect our standing in national college rankings? What pressure would it place on financial aid? What resources would then become necessary to support students who otherwise would unfairly have been denied admission, and who will no doubt confront other institutional hurdles to success when they arrive on campus?
These are important questions that link our admission process to that of other institutions, each of which carries its own complex relationship to institutional racism. They are discussions we need to be having. But if the College chooses to continue using the test, despite its documented bias, we should at least be honest with ourselves about why we are making that choice.