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Institutional Racism

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Affirmative Action Protest

Activists rally in favor of public school desegregation initiatives.

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Definition: The term "institutional racism" describes societal patterns that have the net effect of imposing oppressive or otherwise negative conditions against identifiable groups on the basis of race or ethnicity.

History:

The term was coined by Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) at some point during the late 1960s.

Carmichael felt that it was important to distinguish personal bias, which has specific effects and can be identified and corrected relatively easily, with institutional bias, which is generally long-term and grounded more in inertia than in intent. Carmichael made this distinction because, like Martin Luther King Jr., he had grown tired of white moderates and uncommitted liberals who felt that the primary or sole purpose of the civil rights movement was white personal transformation. Carmichael's primary concern, and the primary concern of most civil rights leaders, was and is societal transformation--a much more ambitious goal.

Contemporary Relevance:

In the United States, institutional racism results from the social caste system that sustained, and was sustained by, slavery and racial segregation. Although the laws that enforced this caste system are no longer in place, its basic structure still stands to this day. This structure may gradually fall apart on its own over a period of generations, but activism is necessary to expedite the process and provide for a more equitable society in the interim.
Also Known As: societal racism, cultural racism
Examples:
  • Opposing public school funding is not necessarily an act of individual racism; one can certainly oppose public school funding for valid, non-racist reasons. But to the extent that opposing public school funding has a disproportionate and detrimental effect on minority youth, it furthers the agenda of institutional racism.
  • Most other positions contrary to the civil rights agenda--opposition to affirmative action, support for racial profiling, and so forth--also have the (often unintended) effect of sustaining institutional racism.
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