Pulling up Racial Injustice by the Roots

Institutional racism might be harder to detect than individual bigotry, but its impact is more widespread and lasting.

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Celebrity chef Paula Deen is seen wearing an apron from Smithfield Foods. The company announced this week that they are dropping her as a spokeswoman in the wake of revelations that she used racial slurs in the past. (AP/Smithfield Foods)
Celebrity chef Paula Deen is seen wearing an apron from Smithfield Foods. The company announced this week that they are dropping her as a spokeswoman in the wake of revelations that she used racial slurs in the past. (AP/Smithfield Foods)

When we think of racism in America, we usually think of individual people who are racist. Celebrity chef Paula Deen, for instance, has been in the news recently for racial slurs against African Americans and for a lawsuit charging her with racial discrimination. Her words and actions give racism a face. What is far less common is to think of institutions and their policies as perpetrators of racism. After all, institutions are impersonal entities, not human beings. How can they be racist?

Well, it turns out that institutions and their policies can be among the most virulent carriers of racism for a range of reasons. First, the impact of institutions is more potent and widespread than that of individuals—and it lasts longer. Second, the causes are complex—usually some mixture of social bias, historical injustice, economic pressure, and political expediency. And third, the harm is often so hard to spot that institutional racism can take on the patina of neutrality and seem as if it is “normal life.”

For all these reasons, institutional racism and racist policies are difficult to eradicate. Before you even try, you need to identify them, which is hard to do if you do not live in a directly affected community. If your neighborhood, for example, has not been decimated by unjust drug-sentencing policies or starved of economic opportunity, you might believe that the criminal justice system is basically fair and that offenders deserve their sentences. You might likewise think that if folks living in low-income neighborhoods would only act in a more responsible way, those neighborhoods would attract small businesses, grocery stores, and banks.

What is missing in this analysis is the residue of racial policies developed in the past—as well as the impact of those more recent—all of which demark a limited sense of who belongs in the community we call America and stack the deck against those who are seen as the “others.” Despite our rhetoric of patriotic inclusion, the stubborn fact is that certain groups, especially African Americans, have long been excluded by law and by custom from fully belonging. The consequences of this exclusion are harmful to African Americans themselves and to America as a whole.

If we are to be a thriving nation in the 21st century, we need to take a clear-eyed look at institutional racism in order to identify and eradicate pockets of deep-seated injustice that are holding back significant numbers of our fellow citizens.

The criminal justice system is a good place to start—in particular, the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs on black people. Although white and black people engage in illegal drug activity at comparable rates, arrests, sentencing, time served, and post-prison employability for blacks is shockingly harsher than it is for whites.

Here are a few statistics to prove the point: According to a 2010 report by Human Rights Watch, blacks are arrested for drug offenses at rates that are 2 to 11 times higher than whites. A report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, also from 2010, shows that black offenders in the federal system get sentences that are 10 percent longer than white offenders for the same crime. And a study by the American Academy of Political and Social Science shows that 17 percent of white job applicants with criminal records are called back by potential employers, while only 5 percent of black job applicants with criminal records do.

This racial discrepancy recently struck me after reading two books. The first book was The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. It paints a compelling picture of the deeply embedded racial inequalities in the criminal justice system and exposes the racial, economic, and political causes of how this system came to be, as well as its consequences.

The second book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, is a memoir of a young woman who experienced great personal loss and embarked on a challenging physical and emotional journey that led to her healing. I read it right after The New Jim Crow, which is probably why I was so struck by Strayed’s discussion of her heroin use.

She describes snorting, smoking, and shooting up heroin after her mother’s death and her own divorce, saying it was “compelling, destructive and confusing as hell.” Missing on the pages of her tale, however, is any account of her being stopped by the police, arrested, tried, and sentenced. Absent altogether is any expressed fear of being caught and legally punished for her felonious acts. Her drug use is instead framed as a significant aspect of her personal journey.

Strayed is a young white woman who bought and used heroin in Minnesota. She is also someone who had the good fortune to learn from her mistakes and become a best-selling author. She did not become a convicted felon serving a maximum mandatory sentence and did not face a bleak future without any job prospects after her release.

I imagine that Strayed is a fine human being. But so are the thousands of black people, mostly men and boys, serving time in our prisons for crimes less serious than hers. Their lives have just as much value and worth. But the institutional racism of the criminal justice system inflicts enormous human damage —with its private corporations seeking to increase profits by growing the number of inmates, its law-enforcement practices of racial profiling, and its political and social abandonment of our urban centers.

To be operative, institutional racism does not require conscious complicity or overt bigotry. It simply requires that no one challenges its skewed premise about belonging, human worth, and dignity.

In an article for The Huffington Post, Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University, says that the criminal justice system needs more than reform. He quotes Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in calling for “a radical revolution of values.” Quigley adds that “we must go to the root of the problem. Not reform. Not better beds in better prisons. We are not called to only trim the leaves or prune the branches, but rip up this unjust system by its roots.”

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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