What We (Don’t) See When We (Don’t) See Institutional Racism

Someone who acknowledges the existence of racial discrimination but denies the reality of institutional racism is like a brain surgeon who denies the existence of the mind. Because he’s never seen it on the operating table, he doesn’t know how or where to look for it.

Ben Stein, Mike Ditka, and Mike Pence share similar approaches to institutional racism. Here’s what Stein said:

“You know, these guys are a bunch of sulking big babies,” Stein said. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s no institutional racism at all in America anymore. If they want to do their free speech thing, God bless them. Let them do their free speech thing. But let’s ignore them from then on. Let’s just ignore them like they’re bad babies and we don’t want to hear them crying off in the corner … yes, there’s racism in every human being’s heart. There’s no institutional racism in America anymore. It’s gone.

Ben Stein On NFL Protests: ‘There’s No Institutional Racism In America At All Anymore’” | Breitbart | Jeff Poor | 10/21/2017

Here’s what Ditka said:

“”There has been no oppression in the last 100 years that I know of,” Ditka told [Jim] Gray.

Saying that “you have to be colorblind in this country,” Ditka noted that “the opportunity is there for everybody.””

Mike Ditka On NFL Protests: ‘No Oppression In The Last 100 Years That I Know Of’” | CBS Sports | Pete Blackburn | 10/10/2017

And here’s what Pence said in 2016:

“”We ought to set aside this talk, this talk about institutional racism and institutional bias,” Pence said. “Police officers are human beings and in difficult and life-threatening situations, mistakes are made and people have to be held to strict account.” Pence added that there will be a “thorough investigation and that justice will be served,” but on the same token stated that “too much of our politics in recent years has been about dividing the American people.””

Mike Pence’s Statement On Institutional Bias & Racism Within Law Enforcement Is, Well, Deplorable” | Bustle | Yvonne Juris | 09/22/2016

I’m not sure how Stein, Ditka, or Pence would define institutional racism, but this classic definition still has a lot of explanatory force:

“When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city – Birmingham, Alabama – five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of power, food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutional racism. When a black family moves into a home in a white neighborhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which most people will condemn. But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. The society either pretends it does not know of this latter situation, or is in fact incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.

Black Power: Politics of Liberation | Stokely Carmichael & Charles Hamilton | 1967

This conception has endured as institutional or systemic racism became more subtle and pervasive and overt bigotry was replaced by subtler forms:

“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 … “An action which is not directly discriminatory but has a discriminatory effect, whether intended or not.” [Earl Babbie] … 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.”

Institutional Racism” | Huffington Post | Robert Slayton | 05/25/2011

If we posit that conservatives think of the social and economic spheres of life in terms of individual choices, moral character, and traditional values often derived from the Bible, whereas liberals think of the same spheres in terms of social, economic, and ideological forces, it’s easier to understand why conservatives like Stein, Ditka, and Pence don’t see institutional racism in the way that those with more liberal perspectives do.

Most of the major, most intractable systemic racial disparities are in:

Healthcare: A University of Virginia study “reveals that a substantial number of white laypeople and medical students and residents hold false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites and demonstrates that these beliefs predict racial bias in pain perception and treatment recommendation accuracy.”

Housing: A Princeton study found that institutional racism played a role in the foreclosure crisis that led to the 2008 Financial Crisis. The Center for Investigative Reporting found that in some places blacks are several times less likely to get home loans than whites, even when their credit scores and down payments are the same as whites. A HUD study found that Asian home buyers were shown fewer homes than whites.

Education: Black kids in preschool are “far more likely to be suspended” than white kids. In K-12 grade school black kids are three times more likely to be suspended than white kids.

Employment: The jobless rate for blacks has been consistently twice that that of whites. Black people with black-sounding names have to send out 50% more job applications than blacks with white-sounding names just to get an interview. Black college graduates are twice as likely as white college graduates to struggle as they look for their first job. CNN reported that the wage disparity between blacks and whites is larger now than it was forty years ago. Bloomberg reported that whites are more likely to get the raises they ask for than other groups. A harrowing study in The New York Times reports that “White boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households.” Both median household income and median net worth are nearly ten times greater for whites than for blacks.

Criminal Justice: “What It’s Like to Be Black in the Criminal Justice System” on Slate lays out how African Americans are more likely to have their cars searched, be arrested for drug use, be jailed while awaiting trial, offered a plea deal that includes prison time, be excluded from juries because of their race, serve longer sentences than white Americans for the same offense, be disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, and have their probation revoked. The Center for Policing Equity found that police are more likely to use force in making arrests of African American males. Black men have lower chances of getting a job with a criminal record than white men. Some people think America’s criminal justice system needs reform. Others think it’s doing precisely what it was designed to do.

Institutional racism is about statistics and history, laws and policies, data and evidence, facts we know about our institutions that call our feelings and beliefs into question.

“While some people are conscious of how social oppression operates in society, many are not. Oppression persists in large part by camouflaging life as a fair game and its winners as simply harder working, smarter, and more deserving of life’s riches than others. While not all of the people in dominant groups actively participate in sustaining oppression, they all ultimately benefit from it as members of society.”

“What Is Social Oppression?” | ThoughtCo. | Ashley Crossman | 07/05/2018

Essential to how Stein, Ditka, and Pence see the world is not seeing institutional racism and not seeing that it endures as habits, practices, and policies. Consequently, for Ditka “equal opportunity for everyone” has to be true in all circumstances. If his view of the world is true, then the income disparity between black and white households must be about blacks making bad choices. Likewise, wealth disparity between black and white households must be about the paucity of African American values.

The disparities highlighted above, if they’re acknowledged at all, have to be about choices and moral character. There’s definitely some sense in which the Protestant work ethic has been used to explain and justify entrenched racial inequities that also benefit those doing the explaining. That hard-working black people have held the same values as everyone else for generations is inconvenient and can’t have anything to do with the reverberating effects of, for instance, systemic housing discrimination since the 1940s.

Under no circumstances must Stein, Ditka, or Pence see racism anywhere other than in the human heart. As a malady of the human heart, it’s incumbent only upon the individual afflicted to cure it. Society has no such heart. Therefore, society has nothing to be cured. This kind of politics collapses should they suddenly see racism in American values, policies, practices, laws, and institutions.

Thus, denying that institutional, structural or systemic racism exists is an example of bad faith, which philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre defined as “the phenomenon in which human beings, under pressure from social forces, adopt false values and disown their innate freedom, hence acting inauthentically.”

Stein’s, Ditka’s, and Pence’s right-wing bad faith is the flipside of left-wing platitudes such as “I don’t see race” or “I voted for Obama…twice.” Right-wing bad faith is just as likely to raise its flag on “the content of one’s character” as it does on “But what about Chicago?” Both sentiments analyze race as an atomized landscape of purely personal actions and beliefs in order to avoid talking about racism as an everyday, “normal” aspect of our laws and institutions. Whether on the left or right, a focus on how one feels about racism can be a convenient and powerful inoculant against dealing with economic, cultural, political, or legal issues that are as entrenched as they are unseen.

Still, a deeper bad faith plagues both the right and the left.

There’s a legitimate debate to be had about the effectiveness of various measures to end or mitigate the effects of historical racism. But the ups of that debate (affirmative action before the Supreme Court’s Bakke decision) and downs (increased out of wedlock births among African Americans) of that history have been weaponized to further larger agendas against the interests of black people by both the right and the left. One side pays lip service to deconstructing structural racism while sometimes supporting it:

“The Senate will hold a key vote on a [Tim] Kaine-sponsored bill that deliberately undermines the government’s ability to enforce laws against racial discrimination in the housing market. The legislation would block the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from collecting key data showing when and where families of color are being overcharged for home loans or steered into predatory products. It’s just one small provision in a broad financial deregulation package, which is almost certain to clear both chambers of Congress and receive President Donald Trump’s signature. Last week, 17 members of the Senate Democratic caucus voted to advance the bill.”

A Dozen Democrats Want To Help Banks Hide Racial Discrimination In Mortgages” | Huffington Post | Zach Carter | 03/18/2018

While the other side acts as though there’s nothing to deconstruct:

“Today Americans know that active racism is no longer the greatest barrier to black and minority advancement. Since the 1960s other pathologies, even if originally generated by racism, have supplanted it. White racism did not shoot more than 4,000 people last year in Chicago. To the contrary, America for decades now—with much genuine remorse—has been recoiling from the practice of racism and has gained a firm intolerance for what it once indulged.

But Americans don’t really trust the truth of this. It sounds too self-exonerating. Talk of “structural” and “systemic” racism conditions people to think of it as inexorable, predestined. So even if bigotry and discrimination have lost much of their menace, Americans nevertheless yearn to know whether or not we are a racist people.”

Why the Left Can’t Let Go of Racism” | The Wall Street Journal | Shelby Steele | 04/27/2017

Disingenuousness from both ideological polls throughout post-Civil Rights era history dilutes the claim that those who’ve truly suffered from racism have on the systems and institutions that have perpetuated it. But because it’s part of a now unwinnable culture war (because culture war must be perpetual now), it also limits the possibilities of seeing beyond racism’s horizon and of ever getting beyond it. Ironically, horribly so, we might actually be in a truly post-racial moment in which the chance to do something about entrenched racism has passed and may not return until the Steins, Ditkas, and Pences of the world have died off.


IMAGE SOURCE: Chess racism 3 (Racism against black).jpg (Santeri Viinamäki [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

One thought on “What We (Don’t) See When We (Don’t) See Institutional Racism

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