“How many people do you know who openly consider themselves to have a racial bias in their worldview? How many people do you know who consider themselves racist?” Tough questions for a early morning sociology 101 class. The class sits silent. Furrowed brows and questioning looks greet me as I continue, “Well then. Isn’t it strange that in a world where almost no one considers themselves racist we see vast racial disparities? If there are almost no racists, then who is responsible for creating racial inequality?” This is how I start my week long discussion of institutional racial discrimination.
In my Soc 101 classes I teach race over the course of three weeks. Week 1 focuses on the social construction of race, how race is still an issue worthy of our time, and individual prejudice & discrimination. Week 2 is spent on providing students with evidence of institutional discrimination. We conclude our discussion of race by watching The Color of Fear and discussing how we can end or mitigate racial disparities.
The Axes of Discrimination
I break down discrimination across two axes or spectrums. The first axis addresses how discrimination can range from overt or intentional acts all the way to subtle or even unintentional acts of discrimination. The second divides discrimination between individual acts of discrimination and institutional discrimination. Students can always help me with subtle and overt examples of individual discrimination, but are stumped to think of a form of institutional discrimination. The overt institutional discrimination example I have above is a sign outside a Sundown Town which formally barred people of color from being within city limits after dark. A more subtle example of institutional discrimination is the use of standardized tests to justify educational inequality.
The Importance of Institutional Discrimination
Institutional Discrimination is the unequal distribution of rights or opportunities to individuals or social groups that results from the normal operations of society. This is the bias in the system that comes from how our society is structured. Institutional discrimination is not the result of some bigot using his or her power to hurt minority groups. These are disparities that are created by people who are doing what they are supposed to. From this vantage point it’s easy to see how people could be totally oblivious to the fact that they are creating inequities. The people who carry out the policies that discriminate often do not intend to hurt minority groups and see themselves as moral upstanding citizens.
But this is only half the story. Now we know how people could be oblivious to the institutional discrimination they create and enforce, but now we need some evidence that institutional discrimination is creating real racial disparities. I spend an entire 50 minute class providing evidence that contemporary institutional discrimination exists for minorities in our economy, in housing, in our education system, in the legal justice system, and in our community. You can download my lecture notes and see all of the empirical findings of sociological research that I share with my students. Below I share some of the highlights:
Institutional Discrimination in the Economy
Students are floored to realize that the boards of the Fortune 1000 corporations are so gender and race biased.
Institutional Discrimination in Housing
I show the video Race the Power of an Illusion 3: The House We Live In, which sets the bar for outstanding sociological films and for the lengthiest title in history. The video clearly and concisely explains how the federal government sanctioned the suburbanizing of the US racially via redlining, blockbusting, and residential steering. Truly a must see film for every sociology student & teacher.
Institutional Discrimination in Education
I have a couple of great YouTube clips and activities for educational inequality which I wrote about previously in a post you can read here
Institutional Discrimination in the Legal Justice System
In addition to the research findings I share with them about racial profiling (listed in the lecture notes), I also do the Racism and the Death Penalty activity I discussed a few weeks back.
Institutional Discrimination in Our Community
Finding recent local examples of institutional discrimination can be challenging, but the Kids Count study is a great resource for educators in the U.S. Each year The Annie E. Casey Foundation collects data on various social indicators of childhood wellbeing. If you go the to “data by state” page you can find excellent data about the state you are teaching in. I am currently teaching at Georgia Southern University, so the facts I shared with my Georgia students are below:
- Leading cause of teen deaths (age 15-19) by race and gender: White females & males: car accidents, Black females: Medical issues, Black males: Homicide
- The Infant mortality rate for Black infants (12.7 per 1000) was three times that of Hispanic infants (3.7 per 1000) and nearly twice that of White infants (6.5 per 1000)
- Black (21%) and Hispanic (22%) students are more likely to fail state reading tests than their White (8%) or Asian (7%) counterparts
- Black (18%) and Hispanic (16%) students are twice as likely to fail state math tests than their White (7%) counterparts
- 88.2% of Asian students graduated from high school on time, followed by 77.5% of White students, 65.5% of Black students, and 60.3% of Hispanic Students in 2007
“Will This Stop Racial Disparities?”
When I was in elementary school I remember we had a multi-cultural day every year (which begs the question, what were the rest of the days if not mono-cultural days). All I remember from these multi-cultural days was that we were told, “Everyone is equal” and we always learned about the Civil Rights Movement as though it had solved or ended racial discrimination and disparities in the United States. I don’t think my multi-cultural education was an aberration. Recent publications suggest that this type of, “We’re all friends/Everyone is equal” education is pervasive in the U.S. and ineffective. This type of education promotes a individualistic focus on race, racism, prejudice, and discrimination. It tells our young people that to end racial inequality all each of us needs to do is quit being a bigoted jerk. A lengthy discussion of systematic and institutional discrimination crimination is the only remedy to this narrowly focused multi-cultural education.
After our 50 minute tour of institutional discrimination in all its forms I put the slide above up on the screen and ask my students, “Will this stop racial disparities?” After a beat, a chorus of no’s come from the class. We spend the next week exploring systematic solutions to the systematic problems of institutional discrimination.