Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

King Bell’s book about life as a citizen of America is an eye-opening look into how racism persists and thrives in the modern era despite ostensibly more progressive and egalitarian policies.

Despite the elimination of Jim Crow laws with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, racism hasn’t gone away—in fact, the legacy of Jim Crow still affects most of Black America today. Although screaming the N-word at someone is generally seen as a faux pas today (quotations around generally), and no overtly legal statutes explicitly prohibit Black folk from going anywhere, racism still exists. And it does so in subtler and more insidious forms. From education and employment to health care and voting rights, the effects of discrimination still linger in the form of institutional racism.

What is institutional racism anyway?

You might have heard the term bandied about here and there, especially in the news and among political pundits. It is more often used in contrast to what is known as interpersonal racism, which exists between individuals, e.g., a Klansman hurling slurs at Black crowds. Institutional racism, on the other hand, is quieter, and that is because it is deeply tied to the institutions and the very fabric of society.

While interpersonal racism results from personal biases and prejudices and can be remedied through dialogue and education, institutional racism is embedded into the superstructure; it can only be fixed through extensive reform or outright replacement.

How does institutional racism manifest in the contemporary era?

Institutional racism, as it exists in the United States of America, is the presumption that white people are superior to non-white people. This idea is due to when America’s institutions were created when slavery was the norm and non-white people, i.e., Black folk, were seen as inferior regarding intelligence, culture, and personal conviction. Although that time is long past and those perceptions are now mostly relegated to fringe groups, the measures and rules that they put in place are still present now; so, in other words, institutional racism is simply the continuation and evolution of outdated policy that needs to be rectified; especially if the objectives of equality and liberty are to be met.

What does institutional racism look like in education?

There is a stereotype that inner-city schools are ripe with delinquent students and ineffective teachers, all gathered in subpar buildings that lack the necessary equipment and textbooks. The situation is partly true, and that is because of the way public schools are funded in the United States, which is through property value and residential taxes. And because residential blocks were segregated not long ago and Black people are more likely to be poorer than white people, this has resulted in underfunded school districts and low learning outcomes.

What does institutional racism look like in finance?

There is a wide gap in generational wealth between Black and white people because the opportunity for Black folk to accrue wealth that could be passed on to their children was virtually nonexistent until recently. It didn’t also help that before now, banks and other financial institutions were not barred from denying Black people loans and other economic lifelines. And though there are now specific legal stipulations that prevent those financial institutions from actively discriminating against Black people, there are still workarounds like area of residence, educational background, occupation, etc.

What does institutional racism look like in policing?

By far, the most apparent manifestation of institutional racism would be how Black people are policed and affected by the law. The most harrowing would be the examples of Black men being gunned down by police for circumstances where white people would just be let off the hook. Another would be stop-and-frisk programs conducted in New York City, where the overwhelming majority of searches were against Black and Latino people despite only accounting for half the population. This results from intentional racial profiling by the police because of racist beliefs that those groups were more likely to be criminals than not.

Although everything looks rosy: there has been a Black president, and people are still campaigning for the strengthening of civil rights, racism, as it exists today, is still malicious and a significant contributor to the suffering of millions of people. If you want to read more about it, check out King Bell’s American’t, an excellent book about life as a citizen of America.

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