Institutional Racism: It’s Hard To See Racism When You’re White

Institutionalized racism
A billboard in Duluth MN

“It’s hard to see racism when you’re White,” the billboards erected by Duluth’s [former] Un-Fair Campaign allege.   The billboard conveys the message very directly of institutional racism.  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 it works in our favor.  We’re just too close.

Society’s systems and markets for housing, finance, employment, law enforcement, economic development, etc are riddled with privileges that favor Whites as a group over other groups, on average, as virtually every study in these arenas shows.  These differences in the ground-rules are barriers to more equitable outcomes, and form a pattern of institutional racism that is typically unseen and unacknowledged by Whites, as the billboards point out, because we’re just too close.

Racism isn’t only about hateful attitudes, it’s about the unfair performance of our society’s systems, aka institutional racism.  Exposing the privileges enjoyed by Whites – not all Whites, of course, but on average — easily creates emotional, angry resistance by Whites who refuse to look or listen.

Of course, lingering in the land of anger and resentment is counter-productive. 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 the invitation around can create backlash.

What else 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 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, some good ideas for improving policy and practice that could productively address the equity issues, perhaps one barrier at a time in one arena at a time.

This in turn requires sustained energy, leadership, and resources.  The Monday morning evaluation discussions should focus on “Are we making progress in addressing this particular equity issue?”   Participants should come prepared to discuss, “Are we getting to know a promising leverage point — the just-right tweak to the policies and practices that determine how decisions get made?” “Do we have the just-right partners to move these changes along,” and “Will 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.

* * *

Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / February 23, 2012 / lightly revised November 12, 2020