The institution of slavery can be considered as one of the darkest chapters in American history. For hundreds of years, millions of Africans and other people of color were deprived of their freedom and made to suffer almost every cruelty and indignity imaginable. Descriptions of such barbaric acts remain to this day in various documents and records, prime examples of which are the autobiographical work Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While the Atlantic Slave Trade ended over a hundred years ago with the liberation of slaves following the American Civil War, the specter of slavery continues to haunt America in the form of institutional racism. The end of slavery broke the iron shackles of the previous centuries, only for these to be replaced by metaphorical ones. This research paper looks into how the legacy of slavery plagues African Americans and Latinos who continue to endure racism in the very institutions that shape their lives.
Also known as systemic racism, institutional racism refers to the type of racism integrated into institutions rather than found on the level of individual interaction. These include social systems and structures that cause inequality and thereby disadvantage racial minority groups (Clair and Denis 860). Institutional racism is often less obvious than overt racism, since it can be deeply ingrained within prevailing policies, practices, or processes often implemented or observed with good intentions. In many instances, the fact that institutions are not treating everyone fairly only comes to light following comprehensive research. So how does institutional racism manifest and what are its impact on society? Although this problem exists in various institutions, it is most prevalent in a few sectors including education, employment and wages, and healthcare.
One of the institutions where institutional racism exists is in education. Schools play an important role in the individual and social development. They provide education and training that enable people to not only become productive members of society but also achieve security and self-sufficiency. However, studies show that racial minorities are less likely to receive quality education than whites. EdBuild, a non-profit organization that studies funding in the K-12 education sector, found that predominantly non-white school districts receive around $23 billion less in funding than predominantly white school districts. The organization considers a school district as non-white if the student population is at least 75% non-white. The report further reveals that on average, a non-white student in a less affluent district receives almost 20% less than a white student in an affluent district. This translates to around $2,600 (Camera). Lower funding, in turn, often means lower quality of education, as these schools have to endure fewer resources. Predominantly non-white schools are also often located in less affluent districts where rates of drug abuse, violence, and poverty are higher. On the whole, these discrepancies result in non-white students not receiving the best education they require, thus putting them at a disadvantaged position compared to their white peers.
Institutional racism in education, however, does not end in grade school and high school; it also exists in higher education. The accessibility of colleges and universities, for instance, is higher among Whites than blacks and Latinos. According to the National Center for Education Statistics or NCES, the rate of college enrolment among blacks and Latinos aged 18-24 years is lower than the overall rate. Whereas 41% is the overall rate across the nation, only 36% of blacks and 39% of Latinos are enrolled in college (NCES). The lower rate results from a variety of challenges that students of color are more likely to face. For one, the rising cost of education means that students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to afford college. For another, coming from underfunded high schools means that students of color will have a hard time gaining admission to colleges that demand impeccable academic performance. For instance, many schools offering education in the STEM fields (i.e., science, technology, engineering, and math) require students to have excellent records. But because students of color do not get the same intensive education that well-funded high schools offer, their chances of accessing such colleges are lowered. These are just some of the issues faced by students in higher education.
Apart from education, discrimination can also be found in employment and wages. One of the pervading issues in this area is the racial wage gap, which refers to the differences in wages paid to people of different races who perform the same job and possess the same qualifications. According to the Society for Human Resource Management or SHRM, most racial minorities earn less than their white counterparts. On average, a black man earns only 87 cents while a Latin American man earns only 91 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. These figures represent wages lower by 13% and 9% for the two racial groups, respectively (Miller). Furthermore, black men and Latin American men who hold the same position and possess the same competencies earn only 98 cents and 99 cents for every dollar their white counterparts receive (Miller). While the gap is narrower for people in the same position and of similar competence, the discrepancy still exists, thereby indicating how people of color are still perceived as less valuable than whites in their workplace. The racial wage gap is not the only problem that blacks and Latinos face in employment; they also tend to face challenges that whites usually do not. A report released by the National Public Radio in October 2017 presents accounts of covert discrimination faced by Latinos in their workplace. These experiences include getting denied a job (about 33%) and getting denied promotions (about 32%). Such figures and experiences serve to highlight how blacks and Latinos are still treated unfairly in the workplace.
Healthcare is another area where institutional racism occurs. Studies show that racial minorities are more likely to receive lower quality of healthcare services and suffer more consequences of lack of medical attention than white groups. For example, research has shown that African Americans and Latin Americans are less likely to seek healthcare services when faced by health issues, largely on account of the staggering cost of healthcare and the lack of insurance coverage. Research has also shown that blacks and Hispanics generally experience poorer health outcomes than whites. In a recent poll conducted across the United States by the Kaiser Family Foundation, it was found out that majority of black respondents believed that they received lower quality healthcare services on account of their race (Fletcher). It must be noted, however, that these discrepancies in the quality of service and health outcomes are not the result of intentional discrimination. More often than not, these discrepancies are the result of a problematic system in need of reform (Tello).
The effects of embedded discrimination are more apparent than ever today as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. While the pandemic has affected virtually every sector of society, the effects are disproportionately higher and far more damaging among colored communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, has determined that the rate of hospitalization due to the virus is almost three times higher among blacks and more than three times higher among Latinos compared to whites. Similarly, the rate of death is almost two times higher among blacks and more than two times higher among Latinos compared to whites (CDC). The CDC attributes the disproportionately higher burden of the pandemic to a variety of factors including lower socioeconomic status, lack of access to healthcare services, the presence of underlying illnesses due to years of inadequate healthcare services received, and occupational risk among others.
Education, employment, and healthcare are only three of the many areas where institutional racism persists. But beyond these social structures, modern racism can also take various forms, often in seemingly harmless or innocent ways. For one, there exists a type of racism known as representational racism. An example are the mascots people create like those of the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians. While usually accepted as part of tradition and done in good fun, such representation perpetuates cultural appropriation and racial stereotyping. Another type of racism is ideological racism, which involves the perpetuation of concepts like white-skinned people are more intelligent than the others, that Asian Americans are meek and obedient, or that that Latinas are hot-headed women. Again, these types of ideologies are often non-violent, but they are ultimately stereotypical and reductive and contributes to a narrative inequality.
As has been discussed, institutional racism is a type of racism embedded in the practices, processes, and policies of social institutions and structures. They are more difficult to detect, mostly since they are often not overtly intended to marginalize certain groups. Rather, this type of racism results in inequality due to the flaws in the way they distribute resources and address the needs of the public. With that said, it is important to study and recognize them so that they can be addressed. Dismantling institutional racism is a long uphill battle, but it can be achieved by being more critical of the social structures and institutions that play a role in everyone’s life.
Camera, Lauren. “White Students Get More K-12 Funding Than Students of Color: Report.” US News and World Report, https://www.usnews.com/news/education-news/articles/2019-02-26/white-students-get-more-k-12-funding-than-students-of-color-report. Accessed 18 February 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19 Hospitalization and Death by Race/Ethnicity.” CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/investigations-discovery/hospitalization-death-by-race-ethnicity.html. Accessed 18 February 2021.
Clair, Matthew and Jeffrey S. Denis. “Sociology of Racism.” Harvard University, https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/files/deib-explorer/files/sociology_of_racism.pdf. Accessed 18 February 2021.
Fletcher, Michael A. “Black Americans see a health-care system infected by racism, new poll shows.” National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/black-americans-see-health-care-system-infected-racism-new-poll-shows. Accessed 18 February 2021.
Miller, Stephen. “Black Workers Still Earn Less Than Their White Counterparts.” Society for Human Resources Management, https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/compensation/pages/racial-wage-gaps-persistence-poses-challenge.aspx. Accessed 18 February 2021.
National Center for Education Statistics. “Indicator 19: College Participation Rates.” NCES, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_REA.asp. Accessed 18 February 2021.
Tello, Monique. “Racism and discrimination in health care: Providers and patients.” Harvard Health Blog, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/racism-discrimination-health-care-providers-patients-2017011611015. Accessed 18 February 2021.