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Wornie Reed
Wornie Reed

National Commentary

Racism in America

We have come a long way on racism in America. No, racial discrimination has not been eliminated, but the public conversation has evolved to an appropriate place in labeling it.

Only in the 1960s did we begin to separate racism (actions or non-actions) from prejudice (attitudes). And some of the conversations started to use the term “racism,” where previously, people used the word “prejudice” more often.

In the late 1960s, Kwame Toure (then known as Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton taught us that racism was most importantly an attribute of institutions. Also, during that time, Knowles and Prewitt published Institutional Racism in America. But this was a lesson that was learned very slowly.

Institutional racism refers to institutions’ policies, practices, and procedures that adversely and disproportionately impact members of nonwhite groups. But white politicians and other major leaders seldom said the word “racism” in public.

We had a breakthrough in 2016 when both Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton, candidates for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, talked about the current problem of racism. I consider that a significant step because we cannot address an issue nationally that is not mentioned in critical political discourses.

President Joe Biden has raised racism to the presidential level, which was never done before. He is publicly decrying the continued existence of systemic racism.

Systemic racism includes institutional racism and a bit more. Social institutions are central to the operation of societies. They are social arrangements through which collective action maintains and perpetuates society and its culture. Major American institutions include the family, education, business, labor, health care, housing, religion, welfare, law enforcement, the courts, and politics. To have social institutions function in desired ways, societies establish formal and informal rules–the policies, practices, and procedures within institutions.

The predominant culture establishes policies, practices, and procedures in American institutions. These policies and practices may be intentionally or unintentionally racially discriminatory. However, racism in American institutions is normative. In other words, racist patterns operate as common forms of behavior and bureaucracy, regardless of the intent of the actors in these institutions.

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While institutional racism manifests itself in what appears to be separate institutions, several institutions and their outcomes are closely interrelated. One example that comes to mind is the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline.

Across the country, African American students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school for behavior. As a result, many students have interactions with the juvenile justice system, leading to dropping out of school and later interactions with the criminal justice system and prison.

Another practice is the growing tendency to refer students for discipline to police officers stationed in schools, sometimes leading to jail—and prison. Thus, the institutions of education, juvenile justice, and criminal justice interact closely.

Systemic racism refers to the interaction of institutions as well as the policies and practices of individual institutions. There is no institution free of racism in the United States.

But what, you may ask, about Senator Tim Scott and his declaration that “American is not a racist country.” I will not respond to Senator Scott since he knows that he is shucking and jiving and carrying water for the party of white supremacy.

But I will refer others to philosopher Charles Mills whose book, The Racial Contract, published in 1997, uses the philosophical theories about the social contract to demonstrate that racist policies and ideas are not unfortunate divergences from the general rule of race neutrality but are themselves the established rule in Western culture.

I would also refer them to Joe Feagin, the most prolific author of books on race, whose book Systemic Racism, first published in 2006, examines how major institutions were thoroughly pervaded by racial stereotypes, ideas, and practices.These institutions maintain a system of racial oppression that was not an accident of history but was created intentionally by white Americans. Though significant changes have occurred through the centuries, key elements have been produced over four centuries that continue to hold the racialized hierarchy created in the 17th century.

And what do the data say? For that, please see Reed,USA Today, The Root, or any other of many books and articles showing the racially disparate outcomes of American institutions.

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