Institutional Racism and Affirmative Action

Oppression based on race exists.
Agreed, the pseudoscientific concept of race is at best a myth and at worst a convenient lie, yet the social oppression based on what is generally accepted as race is as real as the sunrise. If you don’t believe that, you can stop reading now because the acceptance of the existence of racism is a basic assumption within the following.
Racism exists in the USA, in Europe, and in France itself even if the state officially refuses to acknowledge its existence.

By Afreeye Balanz

Despite its history, or sociological and psychological sources, the point we all face, whether we are usually victims or beneficiaries of racism, is what to do about it. That is if we care to end oppression, in any of its various forms, at all.
Forms of oppression based on race, class, gender, religion, and sexual orientation in the West are, by now, bound together in a Gordian knot. One can no more separate religious oppression of women than the development of race based slavery and capitalism from the overall fabric of oppression that advantages the few over the many in so many aspects of daily life and thought.
Racial oppression plays a material role in the societies where it exists. How people see the world through racial glasses influences who can be trusted and who cannot, who is a potential ally or enemy, and who is a competitor or comrade. Race makes friends of those who, other than racial solidarity, have nothing to do with one another and competitors of those who have every reason to fight together, save one.
Naturally, the issue of race tends to be more present for its victims than its beneficiaries. However, in the grand scheme, race, like all forms of oppression, puts all of us in a precarious position of illogical and unproductive competition when the exact opposite is needed to throw off the debilitating mantel of oppression we all struggle to carry either through the effort to maintain it or the struggle to destroy it all together. In this day of military, economic, environmental, and social mutually assured destruction, destruction of oppression may be the key to our survival as a species.
To get to the practical point of the destruction of oppression, it is helpful to take a closer look at the strands that make up that fore mentioned modern Gordian knot. The purpose of this essay is to look at racism while understanding that many of the following comments apply to other, equally influential forms of oppression as well.
Different kinds of racism exist within the social structure of the state and the processes and results of the different approaches to racism suggest different ways of combating them. Individual racism, the personal belief in the superiority or inferiority of an identifiable group on the basis of its physical characteristics, such as hair texture or skin color, ethnic origin, or culture is often confused as the only kind of racism that exists, especially within the individualistic cultures of the West. People who just don’t like others, are afraid of others, admire, love and hate others based solely on the factors above, and are confident or ignorant enough to express their racial feelings, get tagged with the “racist” label.
Often open racists serve as a reminder of what the rest of us supposedly are not, therefore allowing us to deny the systemic nature of racism itself. Racism becomes only an individual’s problem inspiring the thought that if we could just get past the minority of people who wear their racial beliefs on their sleeves, we could get past racial oppression. Individual racism sparks ideas of “tolerance”, “goodness and badness”, and “minimization” or “color-blindness” when we seek to analyze it and address it. We often moralize the issue of racism to the point where many believe if we could just get enough people from different races involved in all professions, positions, levels of society, organizations, etc. we would realize that we have more in common than not and the issue of race would become no more important than eye color in our judgments about others.
While it is true that exposure to other cultural contexts is necessary to achieve an ethnorelative state (add note here), it is woefully insufficient alone and ignores the power and purpose of the system of oppression based on race. For example, in former times many ethnically European slave owners could claim absolute racial superiority over sub-Saharan Africans even though they also “grew up with them” or “lived around them their whole lives”. The structure of their intercultural contact only reinforced the Europeans’ notions of racial superiority in a slaveholding state. For example, if a European community did not allow Africans to get an education, it would be easy for those Europeans to objectively tout their educational superiority over Africans, labeling them as dumb, and uneducated. Without social, legal, or economic rights, African slaves could easily be considered a two-dimensional sub-species on one hand while being feared and desired on the other, without contradiction.
The simultaneous dividing and unifying nature of systemic or institutional racism continues to play a role in justifying the existence of material based oppression today, just as it did four hundred years ago though in different ways. In this way the very few truly privileged oppressors convinced others to identify with them socially, including the chance of social upward mobility, on the basis of skin color and ethnic heritage. As a result the social position of the privileged went unchallenged while those oppressed who shared the racial background of the privileged waited for their lottery chance at upward mobility and acted as social foot soldiers in the repression of the racial other. The legal, social, and economic system that developed over time with raced based influence led to a self-reinforcing system that gives real advantages to some and real disadvantages to others solely based on race, with or without the involvement of individual racists.
Institutional racism as defined first by US civil rights leader Kwame Ture, suggests a much different set of issues as those presented by the very real and very different existence of individual racism. For Ture, “[Institutional racism] is the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin ». If one were to expand the definition of service to include the ways in which any particular society organizes to distribute collective resources to its members, the more general applicability of this definition becomes apparent.
Institutional racism is about more than intent or belief, characteristics of individual racism, it is about process and impact. Institutional racism does not need open racists in order to effectively order a social structure that provides advantages and priveledges on the basis of racial identification while disadvantaging others based on a different racial identification. It is characterized by covert and overt actions, providing beneficiaries with the social power to define away the existence of unearned racial privilege despite, overwhelming evidence to the contrary. At its most effective, institutional racism serves to even inspire its victims to question themselves as being responsible for there own victimization.
The current criminal justice system in the US offers a clear example. A judge does not have to personally believe in the superiority of whites in order to enforce laws that have a disparate impact on blacks. The legal sentencing guidelines between the posession of crack cocaine (a drug largely used and sold by blacks) and powder cocaine (a drug largely used and sold by whites) is a case in point. The law allows a 100:1 ratio of difference in sentencing severity between the two. The Congress when passing the law in the 80’s claims to have considered the increased negative impact of crack relative to powder cocaine in its decision. The race of users was not discussed. Though the physiological and societal basis for the difference in sentencing has been largely debunked, the Congress has not changed the law and isn’t promising to do so any time soon. The impact is gross overrepresentation of blacks in the American criminal justice system where blacks make up almost 50% of the people incarcerated in the criminal system though they are only 13% of the overall population. Dr.Luke Tripp “Criminal Justice System is Used to Control and Weaken Blacks”
Racial designations are no where to be found in the laws supporting the disparity yet the racial impact is enormous.
The deceptive assumption of the existence of race neutral systems, like democracy and republicanism, and equality of opportunity without recognizing the current system’s perpetuation of past overtly racist decisions, gives many an ‘all is racially fair now’ impression. It is not largely implausible when the overt, violent, and socially acceptable widespread individual racism of the past is compared with the largely covert institutional racism of today. Since most visible minorities in the West are free from the spectere of being beaten by a mob in the streets, with the notable exception of in some towns in eastern Germany or Texas, it is easier for many to believe that racism no longer plays a role in society. It is a belief that is central to dampening the call for the radical, systemic change that would be necessary to truly achieve social structures without the oppression of racism.
When those most affected by racism no longer demand the general respect society gives those in a racially priveledge position, one more struggle against general oppression is lost. Social factors with tremendous negative influence in racially designated communities can then continue unabaited due to the cooption into the power structure of those best able to articulate the necessity of change in the culture of those with social power. Racial exceptionalism, for example, “you are not like the rest of the people with your culture or characteristic” allows those within and benefiting from the racial caste system to continue negatively impacting the many. Tiger Woods, Collin Powell, Condolezza Rice, Dinesh Dsouza, comically even Alan Keyes and Michelle Malkin can be feted by a white power structure without serious problems because it is possible for very few racial minorities to make it out of the general conditions associated with their race or culture. Those in power can even show just how fair they are through the touting of these so-called role models.
When those with tremendous social power, like Bush and Sarkozy, select ‘visible minorities’ to serve in high profile positions, they seek to prove they are not racists and add legetimacy to the institutional racism they continue to perpetrate. They also seek to protect the system they represent from deserved critique by putting institutionally racist policies in the hands of visible minorities. They seek to silence those with misgivings but share a sense of racial solidarity with the messenger and others who don’t want to sound racist because of confronting the negative policy of a visible minority. Both are clear examples of institutional racism at work.
Institutional racism creates tricky situations for its opponents. The case of affirmative action or positive discrimination is one. When affirmative action is seen as one way among many to verify the relative fairness of a system, i.e. we will know things are working when those victimized by racism are equally represented in all areas of society, it has its place. But when it is seen as a goal in and of itself instead of a checking mechanism, it can lead, and has led to dangerous situations for its new beneficiaries and the perpetuation of a system that continues to disadvantage the majority of racial victims.
Affirmative action is easily achieved without changing the structural mechanisms that produced the under-representation in the first place. Gains can be fleeting and dependent on the relative costs of compliance and non-compliance in the minds of decision makers. Management by objective, where reaching the objective by any means is key, rarely leads to a system that will perpetually achieve the desired result of fairness since the ends can be achieved in less politically costly ways than dismantling the processes of institutional racism.
A compliance driven hiring manager can simply hire visible minorities previously shut out of a process simply to “follow the law”. When a minority is quite naturally perceived in a racist environment as having a job only because of her race, especially since her race was the only factor that denied her the opportunity previously, she is often put in a position of having to daily justify the unjustifiable. She must prove she belongs in a hostile environment. Yes, there are examples where social interaction leads to a transformation of racist attitudes but generally that happens without the transformation of the system of institutional racism itself.
The beneficiaries of positive discrimination often take their eyes off of the goal of ending the oppression of institutional racism because they need to defend the system in order to maintain their personal benefits. The existence of fellow slaves as slave drivers probably made the condition of slavery only slightly more tolerable, if at all. And the slaves as slave drivers were also in the unenviable position of defending a system that was oppressing them while giving them a relative advantage over others at the same time. Truly, some people have no problem with this position at all but others will have difficulty managing the contradictions of how their own actions negatively impact those they care about or identify with. The beneficiaries of positive discrimination may find themselves as outcasts inside, unable to relate to their former communities and unaccepted as full participants in the community their new social position should afford them. Ellis Cose’s “The Rage of a Priveledged Class” offers several anecdotes supporting this phenomenon.
Most importantly, the masses of those minorities still excluded by an affirmative action system can lose a sense of collective identity and unearned denigration. Those minorities doing better are championed as having “earned it” on their own so the correlating, those who are failing under the weight of an oppressive system deserve to fail, also holds. Since there are always examples, often trumped up by a racist media, of the minority who made it out of the worst of situations somehow while ignoring the impact of institutional racism on the vast majority, it is wrongly interpreted to mean all minorities could “make it” if they only tried. This can create enough self-doubt and criticism within a minority community that all hope of fighting against the real source of their oppression can be lost.
In this light, positive racial and ethnic identification can be an important port in a storm of institutional racism, but it is no stage of permanent sanctuary. When advocated as the only way for minorities to have successful lives, racial separation is hollow, naive and discounts the impact of the internal struggles caused by oppressive mechanisms inside of the minority community. Sexism, classism, homophobia, and religious persecution exist in racially homogeneous cultures too.
Seeking positive racial identification with oneself and other victims of racism is an important step. Ultimately, ending oppression in general and racial oppression in particular must be the basis for the struggle, not racial pride. There would be no tolerance for other forms of oppression within a racial community while fighting against the very real circumstances racism brings. It is not fair to need to bear both burdens simultaneously but it is necessary to do so to lead to a world without oppression rather than a change in the skin color of the oppressors.
When common interests of the oppressed who share and do not share a common racial background come together, it is possible to move beyond the dividing vestige of institutional racism to a unifying position of strength that can challenge the source of the oppression itself. The fight is with the processes of institutional racism, not only against individual racists and the products of their actions.
Afreeye Balanz
Terms for discussion
Institutional Racism
« [Institutional racism is] the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or « . Kwame Ture
« Institutional racism is that which, covertly or overtly, resides in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions – reinforcing individual prejudices and being reinforced by them in turn. » Sivanandan, Director, Institute of Race Relations
Individual Racism
The values, beliefs, mores, and actions based on the inferiority or superiority of an identifiable group on the basis of color, culture, or ethnic origin.
An organization doesn`t need to be full of or led by individual racists to participate in institutional racism.
« If racist consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs or practices, that institution is racist whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have racial intentions. » The Commission for Racial Equality
1. Institutional and individual racism, sexism, and classism are part of the way in which this society distributes social and material benefits to some and not to others regardless of merit
2. Majority privilege is an unearned societal benefit tied to membership in the majority that manifests itself in many ways including but not limited to :
· The ability to define reality for others not in the majority
· The luxury not to consider the impact of race in daily interactions
· Tacit exclusion of non-majority is normal and not a problem
· Overrepresentation of others in the majority is normal and not a problem
· Ignoring or discounting the impact of institutional racism for non-majorities
· Never being assumed not to be a member of my society
· Never being asked to speak for or represent my whole group
· The actions of one person in my group are not applied to me (I am a responsible individual)
· My success or failure is not applied to my entire group
· I can remain oblivious to the culture of others not in the majority without penalty
· People in influential positions share my cultural background
· My words or deeds are considered on their merit
· I can assume a merit based world exists for everyone
· I can consider preferential treatment as normal
· I am not held responsible for changing the attitudes or behaviors of others in the majority
3. Support of people with whom I don’t fully agree is possible on my terms and from a position of recognizing privilege without coming from a position of guilt.
4. I can advocate strongly for a position based on consequences for a group of which I am a member from an ethnorelative perspective in the process of creating a common culture.
Afreeye Balanz
Issues in Discussing Institutional Racism
Discussions of racism are normally full of discomfort, evasiveness, accusation, guilt, shame and dishonesty, even with people who are not individually racist.
It is often full of claims of general knowledge supported by anecdotal evidence while discounting the statistically significant, and relevant data of others.
It is often approached in a purely emotional way, unsatisfying intellectually or purely emotionally without rigorous analysis.
A premise of “the benefit of doubt “ usually helps to maintain an atmosphere conducive to growth. So if someone in the discussion says something that one is uncomfortable with, that does not mean it was intended or directed in a personal way.
My hope is to continually avoid falling into the traps the mere dialogue can create through collective commitment and effort.
Obfuscation Techniques
The typically uncomfortable conversation about race is misdirected and clouded in a number of ways, some of which are listed below. This list is certainly not exhaustive and other techniques are worth avoiding as well.
Making a societal question personal
It is easy to elevate our personal experience, and personal victimization, to the level of societal truth. That is, of course, statistically suspect and debilitating in a conversation of a societal issue.
Victimization – Comparing what a community doesn’t have to what others have and not the other way around in order to discount the existence of race based advantages.
Spreading the issue – Undoubtedly social oppression exists in many valid forms and the relationships and similarities of different forms are important for depth of understanding, however uncomfortable, direct conversations about race are often diluted and avoided by expanding and turning the conversation away from race.
Moralizing – Considering the conversation from an ethnocentric perspective of universal truths without discussing race as having a material impact on those who benefit and lose within the context of race. This prevents a consequence based conversation and becomes a conversation of “good or bad”.
Tolerance – Tolerance is an ethnocentric concept in ethnorelative clothing. It is full of negative judgment from a particular set of universal truths yet absent any behavior, or analysis that may be perceived as negative. While tolerance is certainly better than other defensive behavior, it is not a useful place to be for creating new social realities.
Dualism – This or that frameworks do not function well in conversations about race and are a primary technique of those who wish to control the conversation. A continuum approach is typically more useful to increasing understanding and new behavioral options.
Labeling – While it is intellectually easy, it is not normally useful in that all of our associated experiences, thoughts, and feelings related to the label become intertwined with the comment, or person shutting down exploration.