The comments on my recent posts have prompted me to say something about the meaning of the phrase “institutional racism” and its synonym “structural racism.” These phrases were introduced into discussions of public policy to capture the fact that there are some bureaucratic or institutional or structural features of a society that systematically disadvantage certain groups – racial or gender or ethnic or otherwise – entirely independently of the conscious or unconscious beliefs, attitudes, and intentions of individuals who occupy defined positions in social structures and institutions. This notion can be traced back at least as far as Marx’s analysis of capitalism and probably farther still.
The idea is that in a bureaucratic system facially neutral rules which are administered in a consciously and deliberately neutral fashion can sometimes, despite this apparent neutrality, operate to produce results which in other circumstances might be produced by the deliberate discriminatory intentions of biased individuals.
Let me give three examples, two from my own personal experience, the third an extremely important case about which I wrote at some length in my book Autobiography of an Ex White Man. In 1992, I was appointed codirector of a little Institute at the University of Massachusetts and managed to raise almost $1 million for a program I designed. The program was intended to help minority high school students in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts to come to the University. The Massachusetts Board of Education had laid down a number of admissions requirements for students coming to the University, one of which was that they were to have completed four years of high school mathematics. There were a number of high schools in Springfield, one of which was in the predominantly black and Latino neighborhood of the city. Many years earlier, teachers concerned about the lack of mathematics preparation of middle school students entering this high school had decided to divide the first year mathematics course into two parts and teach it in the freshman and sophomore high school years. This was done out of a genuine concern for the education of the students and in time became simply a routine part of the curriculum in that high school. Students eager to attend the University of Massachusetts 20 miles to the north dutifully took four years of math, but when they came to apply for admission, they discovered that their four years, which they had successfully completed, only counted as three and therefore they were not eligible for admission. I discovered that a very good support organization for Hispanic students on the UMass campus had begun the practice of offering a summer school course in fourth year high school mathematics so that students from that high school could be offered provisional admission to the University conditional upon their completing this required fourth-year in the summer before they were due to enter. Everybody involved in this process at both the high school and the university level was enthusiastically in support of the educational ambitions of the students but what had begun in years past as a positive accommodation to the needs of a group of underprepared middle school students had become a structural impediment to the higher education ambitions of that same group of students. The actions of the on-campus student support office was thus what has come to be called “affirmative action,” meaning by this phrase not a relaxation of the standards but an affirmative accommodation to a structural disadvantage that had come to be built into the educational system.
I became aware of my second example several years later when I took over the newly established program in Afro-American Studies at UMass. In those days, and perhaps to this day for all I know, the Mellon Foundation offered a large number of very attractive fellowships for students applying to graduate study in the Arts and Sciences. Since I was perpetually in search of money to support our graduate students, I became very excited when I learned of these fellowships and was puzzled that none of our graduate students had won one of them. When I investigated a little further, I discovered why. The Mellon Foundation, purely for bureaucratic reasons, required that applicants for the fellowships take the Graduate Record Exam when it was given in September rather than what it was given in December. At elite colleges and universities which routinely sent students on for graduate study, it was customary for promising students to be spotted in the junior or even sophomore year and to be encouraged to think about postgraduate study. Their advisors tended to know about the Mellon fellowships and counseled their students to take the GRE in September. But at second and third tier schools and also in the historically black colleges and universities this structure of support tended to be absent and it was not until the senior year that students doing quite well would be encouraged to apply for doctoral programs. By the time that encouragement occurred, the September GRE had already been given so the students took the December GRE, which meant that they were ineligible for the Mellon fellowships. When I learned all of this, I called the Mellon Foundation. The person to whom I spoke assured me – and I believed her – that the Foundation was eager to have African-American students apply but she was completely ignorant of the reason why students from historically black schools almost never did. I tried to persuade her that the Mellon Foundation should affirmatively reach out to those schools and urge them to have their promising students take the September GRE’s but she seemed to think that that would somehow violate the principle of neutrality with which they operated.
My third example is quite important and has very broad implications for the economic disadvantages experienced by African-American families. In order to illustrate it, I constructed an elaborate hypothetical numerical example which I laid out in detail in my book and which I will not try to repeat here. As everybody I am sure knows, black household income is significantly lower than white household income, even correcting for level of educational attainment, but the gap has been narrowing in recent decades and we can hope that it will continue to do so. The gap between the wealth of black families and white families is absolutely astonishing and is so much greater than the income gap as to be seemingly incomprehensible. Shades of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, it is all too easy to blame this gap on the social dysfunction of black families or on the absence of strong character or whatever. Here is a somewhat different explanation of at least some of that gap which points to the effect of what I have been calling institutional or structural racism.
Particularly in the lower economic half of American Society, the principal unit of family wealth is the equity in a privately owned home. In a family which has owned its home for several decades, this can amount to some hundreds of thousands of dollars. Three quarters of a century ago or more, the American government adopted deliberate tax policies aimed at encouraging private home ownership. The Federal Housing Authority guaranteed home mortgage loans. The Internal Revenue Service permitted families to deduct both the interest on a home mortgage loan and the state and local real estate taxes from federal income tax returns, a deduction that dramatically reduced the amount of tax families owed. In the early days after World War II, the FHA in its published guidelines overtly and deliberately discriminated against black families seeking to own homes, with the result that relatively few of them were able to buy homes like the white families with equivalent incomes. Eventually, many decades ago now, this discriminatory policy was abolished and it has been easy for those unsympathetic to the economic problems of black families to point to this fact as evidence that it is no longer the case that there is any discrimination built into the housing market. (Let me forestall the obvious comments at this point by saying that I am not at all denying the existence to this day of deliberate, overt, blatantly racist discrimination against black families seeking to own homes. I am trying to explain how even in the absence of such attitudes something that can be called structural racism or institutional racism can become built into a bureaucratic system.)
In the example that I constructed in my book, I followed two men, one black and one white, who came out of the Army in 1945 each with a small nest egg of $500. I then asked what the result would be over 30 or 40 years in the wealth of the two men as they married, got jobs paying exactly the same wage, had two children each and lived their lives. It was quite easy to show that the white family, by virtue of having been able to buy a house, ended up 30 or 40 years later with considerable wealth in the form of equity in the house, equity which they could access through home loans or remortgaging to underwrite their children’s college education. The black family, earning exactly the same income but paying rent and therefore unable to accumulate equity, was quite unable to underwrite their children’s educational ambitions. Forty years later, ignorant and thoughtless observers trying to understand why the white children had college educations and good careers and the black children did not would appeal to all sorts of fanciful theories about black family values and deferred gratification and whether or not the mothers listened to Mozart while they were pregnant whereas the real explanation was the natural consequence, a generation and a half later of deliberately discriminatory institutional practices that had long since been eliminated but whose structural consequences persisted.