Institutional Racism: It’s Hard to See Racism When You’re White
By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D
If institutional barriers to fairness is the problem in our systems of economic development, justice, school-to-life pathways, etc., then how about some fair-minded folk coming together to focus some creative energy on the institutional barriers themselves – forget the feelings — and promote some fixes?
“It’s HARD to see racism when you’re White,” the billboards erected in 2012 by Duluth’s “Un-Fair Campaign” allege. The billboard conveys the message of institutional racism very directly.
Enraged Whites, according to an article in the Star Tribune [February 10, 2012] have interpreted this as anti-White, as an insult to their intelligence. “They’re saying we’re stupid.”
It’s hard to see racism when you’re White is no doubt true, but not because Whites are stupid. It’s because, just as fish will be the last to discover water, Whites are so enmeshed in the systems we created that we can’t see how these systems work in our favor. We’re just too close to see.
Society’s systems and markets for housing, finance, employment, law enforcement, economic development, etc are riddled with little mechanisms built into the often unspoken rules that favor Whites as a group over other groups, on average. Virtually every study in these arenas shows these disparities. These differences in the systems’ ways of operation are the barriers to more equitable outcomes, and provide the very definition of institutional racism that is typically unseen and unacknowledged by Whites.
Racism isn’t primarily about individuals’ attitudes, it’s about the rigged performance of our society’s systems, aka systemic or institutional racism. Unfortunately, exposing these privileges enjoyed by Whites easily creates emotional, angry resistance by thin-skinned Whites who refuse to look or listen, and even deny their existence.
Of course lingering in the land of anger and resentment is counter-productive, no matter the skin color. Anti-racism workshops or white privilege workshops can begin to open minds and hearts, but only if minds and hearts are willing to open. Even waving around the invitation to learn more about one’s self and one’s history can create backlash.
What can be done? If institutional barriers to fairness is the problem in our systems of economic development, justice, school-to-life pathways, etc., then how about some fair-minded folk coming together to focus some creative energy on the institutional barriers themselves – forget the feelings — and promote some fixes? That seems more productive than provoking people (though some say, with justification, you might have to provoke some people first to rouse them from slumber, get their attention, and inspire them to act).
Pushing for change in these systems will require pressure from outside and leadership from inside these institutions. Also needed is community leadership to lead, focus, and contain the pressure, while advocating some good ideas for improving policy and practice that could productively address the fairness issues, perhaps one barrier at a time. This in turn requires sustained energy, leadership, and resources.
Leadership discussions should focus on “Are we making progress in addressing this particular equity issue?” Participants should come prepared to discuss:
- Are we getting to understand where there’s a promising place of leverage — the just-right tweak to the policies and practices that determine how a system operates?
- Do we have the just-right partners to move these changes along?
- How can we help our people understand how this is a win-win solution?
Philanthropy, in the form of precisely targeted gifts to the right organizations, can support these activities. Links to some promising avenues, from the Effective Communities Project, are here.
This blogpost was published in an earlier form to this website on February 23, 2012.
How to cite this blogpost: Mayer, Steven E., Institutional Racism: It’s Hard to See Racism When You’re White. Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from EffectiveCommunities.com [month, date, year]