What is institutional racism?

The first time I ever heard the expression “institutional racism” was in connection with the Stephen Lawrence report back in 1999.

(You can read the report in full here, the chapter on racism is here.)

At the time, the expression struck me as pretty stupid. How can an institution be racist? Institutions aren’t racist, people are. If we are saying that the people who set up the institution, that the people who now operate it and act within it are racist that’s one thing. But people are often at pains to point out that (apart from “a few bad apples”, cough) the individual police officers are not being accused of racism, only the force as a whole. But “the force” does not have a mind of its own. It is something that people set up, to structure how people will act to achieve objectives defined by people.

Here is how the inquiry report explained its use of the concept of institutional racism:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

(The report itself goes into quite some detail about what the phrase denotes, and what various academics and others understand by the term.)

In the context of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the collective failures identified included the refusal of the investigating officers to appreciate the relevance of the victims’ race – they would not accept that the murder of Stephen Lawrence was a racist murder, refused even to take the possibility seriously, and rejected the idea that the murder was purely a racist attack even during the inquiry six years later. The police force also sidelined and failed to take seriously the evidence of the key witness, Duwayne Brooks, who was also attacked – he named the five suspects but the police did not arrest them until two weeks later when it was too late because evidence had been destroyed, alibis had been concocted, witnesses intimidated. Mrs Lawrence (Stephen’s mother) repeatedly described the behaviour of the police officers generally as “patronising”, and believed that they acted this way because she was black (see here).

I could talk now about whether every single police officer who held unwitting prejudices, acted on racial stereotypes or who allowed their own ignorance or thoughtlessness to get in the way of carrying out their very important public functions properly and fairly is in fact “racist”, as opposed to merely being part of an institutionally racist institution… would there be any point? It was hard enough getting the Met to accept that they were guilty of institutional racism, never mind getting them accept that a huge proportion of their officers were individually (albeit unwittingly) racist. Does the distinction between calling it institutional and calling it individual make a difference anyway, as long as the police respond appropriately with training, changes to policies and practices, and whatever else it takes?

Here I’m going to go back to that Clare Xanthos article I mentioned the other day, because she puts this nicely. She says, after citing a few statistics on race disadvantage:

… most British policy reports and newspapers simply identify “institutional racism” as the culprit for these discrimination statistics, whilst overlooking the reality that behind the shadowy concept of institutional racism are individual acts of hidden racism.

If institutional racism is really a mask for individual racism on a grand scale, isn’t it important that we recognise and expose that fact? If institutional racism merely means that a lot of people are racist together, reinforcing and perpetuating one another’s racism, doesn’t it matter all the more that we identify that fact?

We are all shaped, whether consciously or not, by the institutions within which we act – the family, the school, the workplace… society and all its components. Is it right to criticise the individuals, or only the institutions? I don’t want to go blaming otherwise well-meaning people for being unwittingly racist or sexist or anything-else-ist because I know that the context means a lot and I believe that people who are unaware of that context cannot be expected to break away from it singlehandedly, cannot be blamed for believing what they are taught. Equally, I know that if I use labels like “racist” for individuals who consider themselves well-meaning and perhaps even progressive and enlightened, many of them would take it has blaming, shaming, a guilt trip, unfair, whatever. That isn’t where I want to go.

But on the other hand, I do not believe that the fact of conditioning removes our personal responsibility for what we do as a result.

If a person is taught to believe that men are from Mars and women from Venus, I still want to insist that s/he take personal responsibility for opening his/her eyes and unpacking that early indoctrination. Especially if, say, s/he intends to set up as a marriage counsellor. Equally, if a person is taught or conditioned to consider brown people as potentially suspect until proven otherwise, I still want to insist that s/he take personal responsibility for opening his/her eyes and unpacking that conditioning. Especially if, say, s/he intends to set up as a police officer.

Does it help if we call these people sexists or racists and “accuse” them of having unexamined privilege? Is it better to be pragmatic and bring people along, or to speak unpalatable truths and drive them away?

Either way, it seems that where we have got to is that “institutional racism” is an expression used by pragmatists when faced with an otherwise well-meaning institution that is riddled with unexamined, unwitting individual racism. And it is an approach that might even work. This BBC article gives the transcript of a discussion within the 1999 inquiry where the Met were trying to say that the term “institutional racism” was not appropriate; this 2003 Guardian article provides a contrast in which the Met is owning its ongoing institutional racism, talking about what it is doing to mitigate the problem, and committing to do more.

So maybe pragmatism works.


9 Responses

  1. God im glad youre doing this. Lots for me to think about. I have nothing at all useful to say beyond – youre helping me think about stuff im confused about, so thank you.

  2. Thank you.

    I am so overwhelmed by the positive comments we have had already – on this blog, on other blogs, and privately… I have no doubt that there will be those who doubt or mistrust what we are doing (who can blame them, white feminists do not after all have a good track record at confronting race issues) – but the number of people who are already keen to come along with us on this journey is really heartening. Thanks to everyone who has spoken up so far with your encouraging words!

  3. this has been coming up a lot in conversation for me lately, this idea that people think they can’t be doing racist things if it’s an accident or if that’s just how things are done in their institution (work, family, society…). a lot of those “i’m not racist, but…” kind of statements. “i’m not racist, but i notice that all my friends are white. why could that be?” or “i can’t name any woman authors. i wonder why? i’m definitely not sexist, so i don’t know how this happened.”

    i think there’s a real gap for a lot of people. they think you’re only racist if you consciously support it. maybe because there’s so much shallow anti-racist media, on the level of pop songs about being colour blind. that’s the stuff i got in school– basically just “it isn’t cool to be racist! don’t call people names!” no understanding of the white supremacist heteropatriarchy and so on.

    i hadn’t thought of the systemic view as pragmatism before, but i can see your point. it gives people a bit of room to consider that ok, some of these policies and actions ARE racist, without distracting themselves with guilt and defensiveness right away.

    both “individual racism” and “institutional racism” can be used to avoid responsibility, to pass the blame around without getting anything done. i like to think more in terms of systemic racism or network effects, because for me systems/networks seem obviously about interconnected individuals, whereas institutions are often created specifically to shield individuals from legal responsibility for things.

    i get frustrated with how little responsibility is valued right now in mainstream western cultures, and how much blame is used instead. it’s like those “i’m not racist but…” statements. they could be rephrased, “i did a racist thing but it isn’t my fault, i’m not to blame.” i think a lot of white people feel helpless about racism– no idea how to tell when they’re doing something racist, no idea how to do better, no idea how to take responsibility for improving it. so instead, there’s a lot of pointless criticism and blame.

    i’d be really into seeing more people’s concrete plans and patterns out in the open. i wish that article about the metropolitan police actually named what they were doing– specific workshops, specific policies– so that other people could figure out how to do better themselves.

  4. Right, Sarah, that’s what interests me most, too–“more people’s concrete plans and patterns out in the open.” Once we see what is going on, individually and systemically, what do we DO, we individual women??
    Bemoaning systems won’t change them. That’s what I want to find and think about and share ideas about, with other whites.

  5. You all are doing great things here, I think!

    I have a post written about something I did, but decided not to publish it after we were accused of being self-flagellating whiny useless hypocrites. I can’t decide if it would be helpful to other white women, if it would seem worth only an eye roll and a great big “duh!” from women who have to deal with racism every day.

  6. Amy – I think confessions are helpful – a chance for examination, not just flagellation…

    And no matter how “duh”-making it may seem, chances are that some white feminist somewhere has done something similar for the same reason, or even that some white feminist will manage to avoid doing it because of hearing from you.

    I also think we have to try and stop be afraid of the reactions we might get as we recognise / analyse mistakes we have made!

  7. Hi Amy,
    We are all white women here who “have done something,” and that’s why we’re here, to help each other see. While we don’t bar women of color, and in fact we welcome them here, our writing is not FOR them, it’s for us.
    I think about it in terms of a men’s pro-feminist site, if a bunch of men were trying to work on their sexism. I’d take a look, probably, but not often, it would be pretty boring to me.
    So remember that women who have no choice but to deal with racism every day will not be coming here in droves to read our posts. Also, remember we’re moderating comments, in order to keep this place constructive at all times.
    That said, I hope you will, at some point, feel like publishing your post. I second Maia’s invitation that you post it here. If I’m inspired to do the same, I certainly will.

  8. I was thinking Amy was talking about something positive she’d done/said, something anti-racist that might be useful to other white women, but perhaps felt uncertain about how hearing about it might read to woc?

    Maia, thanks for this is well put together, thought provoking post. I see the potential for this thread to grow long over time.

    What follows is not the sunniest, so if you or secondwaver think it too harsh, I wont be offended if you decide not to approve, or ask me if I can possibly modify. And if it should read thread-killing to others, just carry on around it. I wont be offended about that either. Just having my say, is all. Not looking to start coming down heavy on anyone.

    The chapter in the report specifically about racism is an eye-opener. One thing I’ve seen throughout is the attempts to preserve the white persons’ level of comfort on the basis, I suppose, that nobody wants to be called a racist, even when they really are just that. There are things that many white folks think of as simply factual about poc, that are either outright untruths or that are the result of ongoing systemic and/or institutional oppression.

    From near the end of the report, (quoting words 7 yrs old at that point),

    “What is happening to the police is that a 19th Century institution is being dragged into the 21st Century. … the police never really were the police of the whole people but a mechanism set up to protect the affluent from what the Victorians described as the dangerous classes.”

    It’s wise to hold this truth in mind whenever thinking and talking about the police, anywhere, in relation to people of colour, who have been held down in all ways – literal foot on the neck or no, in more recent times.

    “I believe that the events of the last few years have not only presented British policing with a challenge so formidable that it has come close to disaster: they have also now given the opportunity to the British Police to reinvent themselves. It is now possible to foresee that, through a fundamental shift of culture, the British police service will remain at the worldwide forefront of policing, with a style which draws its legitimacy from an understanding of current public needs and of the nature of the contract between police and a new generation of the public.”

    This sounds pleasant and hopeful, right? To white ears anyway. You’ll find that plenty of poc, everywhere, remain rightly sceptical. Racial Profiling is part of what police forces the world over do, certainly the Western world over. Driving while black (or brown) is fairly well talked about, and is a good way into understanding if some of this is new to you (general you). (Did someone else just talk about this here? If so, sorry to be repetitive)

    From further up the report,
    Such assumptions are still made today. In answer to a question posed to a member of the MPS Black Police Association, Inspector Leroy Logan, he referred to “what is said in the canteen”, citing simply as an example his memory that ” … as a Sergeant I was in the back of a car and a female white officer on seeing a black person driving a very nice car just said “I wonder who he robbed to get that?”, and she then realised she was actually voicing an unconscious assumption”. This is a mere example of similar experiences repeatedly given to us during our public meetings.

    Rather proves the point, I think. An important part of this gathering of anecdotal evidence is that once the sheer volume of it is exposed it paints a(n empiric) picture that can not be ignored.

    As a white woman whose been learning about racism for a good few years now, I’ve become sceptical of words such as these,

    Tensions between London’s Muslims and other communities were running high, and there were fears that this could erupt into violence.

    “It would be fair to say that five years ago we would not have known what was going on,” said Cdr Dick. But by then the Met had established links – through independent advisers, community forums and family liaison officers – with ethnic minority communities.

    A campaign of calming and reassurance began, and her officers provided valuable intelligence to the anti-terrorist branch. Temperatures that had been high, began to cool. In September and October, the number of racial incidents increased, but not by an enormous amount – 6.4% more than in the same months in 2000.

    which is from Met winning the battle against prejudice, one of the articles from Race Issues in the UK – Special Report, from the foot of the last link Maia posted in her original piece.

    This, particularly,

    “But by then the Met had established links – through independent advisers, community forums and family liaison officers – with ethnic minority communities.”

    could easily be interpreted as “infiltrating in ways that clamp down/aim to maintain the controlling status quo”.

    Anyway, you’ll certainly find (despite the approving poc that are most often chosen to appear in mainstream news items) that the day to day lived realities of most of the people of cultures, colours and religions not “white” is not always borne out, not necessarily honestly reflected in such sunny reports and statistics.

    Cynically perhaps, I wonder if there’s simply a “but not all whichever-identifier people are like that” now tacked onto “how to identify a potential terrorist/criminal” teachings that are part of racial profiling. Certainly some higher ups will be getting quite a lot of “sensitivity training”, but I expect that front-line, not so much, except to learn not to say the “really bad” things out loud.

  9. I think and hope that our (white women’s) talking about the positive things we’ve done, or attempted, will be a big part of this blog. We may even want to make a separate section for our writings about these actions, to make them easily accessible.

    Starfish and Maia, your research, post & comment about the police are VERY important and cut to the heart of the matter, or one of them. It’s clear that police are still policing middle class and affluent neighborhoods, policing against POC. It’s what they are paid to do. Paid to hurt and kill POC.

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