Institutional Racism Still Oppresses

Traditionally, society does not consider a person racist for manifesting a culturally superior attitude about his or her language, religion, morality, manners or some other aspect of ethnicity. Such individuals are most often considered good citizens, proud of their family, community and heritage. Yet, contemporary American society is frequently labeling these individuals racist because of the institutional characteristic of racism. The great challenge before us today is to eliminate institutional racism.

Orthodox racism is defined as any theory or belief that a person’s inherited physical characteristics, such as skin color, hair texture or facial features, determine human intellectual capacity and personality traits. Racist ideology claims that existence of such genetic differences between population groups prove the existence of hierarchical race categories. In a racist society one particular race is superior to others and therefore due privileged treatment.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries orthodox racism prevailed in Europe and America. In the 1890s the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its decision in Plessy versus Ferguson. This decision allowed for state-mandated racial segregation until overturned in 1954 with the Brown decision. Racist dogma of supposed Aryan intellectual and physical superiority underpinned Nazi Germany’s concept of race purity. Grounded in this racist ideology, Hitler’s Nazi government is responsible for murdering millions of Jews and other “non-Aryans” in concentration camps during World War II. After World War II, Racism as an official state ideology declined, lingering only in a few countries as folk mythology and tradition.

Paradoxically, the concept of race as representing different subspecies of human beings has no scientific basis. In contemporary society, race is a social and political term, with no biological significance. Even the definition of race differs from society to society. For example, in the United States, individuals with both black and white ancestors are considered black by our tradition, while these same people would be considered white in Brazil.

Today, a majority of scientific opinion in both the social and the biological sciences reject the so called “Black, Brown, Yellow, White and Red” race theory. This skin-color race theory asserted that human beings originated and developed from separate geographical origins. For example, Black people were believed to have originated in Africa and Red people in North America. Until a few years ago, this theory was taught in schools. Much American institutional ideology is rooted in this skin-color racial theory.

Conjecture about skin-color continues to infect various aspects of society. In electoral politics, for example, the concept of race is problematic. In the legislature, politicians attempt to define, categorize and classify citizens by race in redistricting legislation, only for the courts to declare these districts drawn along racial lines unconstitutional. Meanwhile state governments face the dilemma of how to best provide members of a racial minority with the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice without using race-based criteria.

Recently, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, overturned a case where the lower court in Montgomery approved a plan between the State of Alabama and a group of black plaintiffs designed to place more black judges on the state’s three appellate courts. The plan, worked out between the state and the plaintiffs, outlined a method for appointing black judges to Alabama’s three appellate courts. It established a judicial nominating commission that would serve until the percentage of black judges sitting on these courts approximated the percentage of the state’s black population. In it’s order to remand, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited this race-proportional aspect of the settlement as being in violation of U.S. Congressional mandates.

Racist individuals can change with time and circumstance, they grow older, their children are more tolerant and less reactive, and they become more tolerant themselves. However this is not the case with racism within institutions. Institutionalized racism lingers within organizations and is far more difficult to ferret out. Members of affected organizations redefine racism’s manifestations as other issues. This is the case of the of our criminal justice system that controls a disproportionately high number of black males. In many ways these institutional manifestations of racism, in our electoral political institutions and the justice system, present a greater challenge for society to overcome than individual acts of racism. Mindful of some of our institution’s founding values, we must find ways to eliminate racist attributes manifested within these institutions rather than redefining racism as conservative American values.


Originally Published: 1 March 1996, Montgomery Advertiser

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