What Exactly is Institutional Racism?

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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Institutional racism is deeply entrenched in the economic and social institutions which constitute the power structure in the United States. It is this power structure that may induce people of color to identify along racial lines or to succumb to a state of anomie (Merton). These two concepts illustrate the profound effect racism has on the psyche of the individual who is relegated to an inferior status by virtue of their skin color.

The disempowerment of the underclass, achieved by eliminating the options which are open to the white majority may serve to inculcate powerlessness and apathy. Consequently the person of color may come to emulate white characteristics, concomitant to rejecting one’s own cultural and ethnic background.

Dr. Douglas Glasgow states that, “understanding the black position and evaluating black people’s needs have been hindered by the practice of comparing blacks and whites, then conjecturing about when the black viewpoint departed from the white viewpoint.”

The assumption that the ‘black viewpoint’ is a departure from the ‘white viewpoint’ undermines the unique cultural identity prevalent amongst blacks, and affords a self-fulfilled prophecy whereby the black individual comes to question the worth of his own viewpoints, values, beliefs, and ethnicity. This holds true of other minorities as well, particularly Hispanics and Native Americans. Such groups are expected to adopt white Christian identities in order to reap the rewards of a capitalist system. Yet it is this very system that excludes minorities from decision making processes affecting the legal system, housing, education, employment, and social services.

“To get an understanding of institutional racism and how it permeates our society, it is important to understand that to a certain extent every major institution in this country functions on the basis that some amount of racial subordination is normal.” (Terry Jones)

As a result the person of color may receive less overt hostility and rejection by assimilating to white ideals, but he will rarely be able to gain comparable awards or status. Merton’s concept of anomie is applicable here as it implies that anomie manifests when groups or individuals believe that the system does not operate for them. This state of anomie is particularly evident in disadvantaged groups, as these groups may come to feel that since society’s rewards are not available to them by any legitimate means, neither do the society’s notions of what is legitimate apply. Consequently, they simply go after what they want without consulting any system of rules or values.

The normlessness, characteristic of anomie, and the denial of self, evident in the rejection of one’s cultural identity, are direct manifestations of separatist views, stereotypes, poor education and occupational segregation.

As a white psychotherapist who has worked in the public sector as a social worker for over three decades, I have been confronted with a catch-22 situation when assisting people of color. While I have felt it necessary to politicize the client to the achievement and heritage of his people, I also must acknowledge that he must play into the white system in order to obtain desired services, if in fact such services such as housing, vocational training, schooling, etc. are even available.

Harriet McAdoo wrote that, “proportionately more families of color will consist only of mothers and children, and these families will find it more and more difficult to obtain an adequate education, jobs and preventative health care.”

These dismal predictions impact the practitioner who may attempt to reduce the client’s sense of powerlessness while contending with the primary obstacle of unavailable resources, which in turn reinforces the sense of powerlessness experienced by many people of color.

“The identification of gaps and deficiencies in the existing delivery systems in the human service arena has become routine and even somewhat ritualistic among helping professionals. There are few today who would suggest that current structures to deal with personal and social distress of any people in the ethnosystem are adequate or even benign. Yet, people in black communities who are experiencing such problems are ever more vulnerable than most to ineffective service delivery systems.” (Dr. Barbara Solomon)

The concept of deficit assumptions explains these inherent problems within service delivery systems. People of color in need of services are viewed as deficient and greedy and this ‘person-blame’ bias is built into contemporary service delivery systems. The “non-deficit approach” paradigm stresses an alternation of thinking processes which includes the wholeness of human activity. This entails understanding the socio-cultural context of groups consisting of people of color so as to afford integrity and a sense of validity. It also suggests the necessity of educational changes at the pre-school level.

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Rising above one’s designated place of subordination and standardized impediments to prosperity will obviously be more challenging for people of color who are born into poverty and abuse, especially if they are unsupported by a culture and economy that thrives on specific forms of disempowerment such as the wage differential and occupational segregation.

In the scope of reality, as much as we want to believe in a utopian Eden-like world, there will always be power differentials. On a fundamental moral and spiritual level this does not imply inherent worth or intrinsic importance, but it does suggest that there will be caste systems and hierarchies that differentiate who has greater jurisdiction and prestige, and who is disadvantaged. It is simply human nature.

Unfortunately history shows us that all ideologies become corrupted and that psychological prejudice, biases, and racism are inherent to the human condition irrespective of ethnicity or skin pigment. This is evidenced in endemic sex slavery and trafficking, war, imperialism, and genocide.

Most importantly, the hidden agendas of intel agencies and the interests of elites are always a driving force behind every movement. Police brutality and racial injustice is a perfect foil for feeding into the hands of those engineering destabilization so as to achieve further division and impose martial law. The endgame? Complete neoliberal economic restructuring that obliterates the middle class and facilitates more pillaging of the earth's resources.

We need to be careful what we wish for and what we’re being distracted from. Unwittingly advancing the political agenda of the puppet masters who pull the strings and control the economy can result in tremendous backlash. Let us not forget who owns the corporatized media, who are now suddenly acting as a proponent for social justice. It makes me very concerned about what is selectively not being reported and the deflection from global hegemony, ecological collapse and pandemic starvation.

Even though I believe there are concealed ominous agendas at play, and that it is overly idealistic to think that modified thinking alone can radically alter delivery systems and the laws and institutions which comprise this nation, or that racism can ever be completely eradicated, this does not suggest the human species should cease and desist with striving towards equanimity and self-actualization. It does however suggest we think more critically and keep our eyes open.

Within the restraints of human nature and economic inequality, the individual and a collective universal desire to secure peace, love and purpose persist.

Octavia Butler’s science fiction classic Parable of the Sower beautifully conveys this plight. Amid a dystopian climate of anarchy, a young orphaned woman named Lauren Olamina journeys north with kindred refugees to seek a better world. Lauren and her comrades are seeking the Good Ground where salvation resides and the seeds of one’s labor and establishing the spiritual teachings of Earthseed will result in copious abundance.

In this time of uncertainty and mounting instability and economic deflation, heeding Butler’s prophetic wisdom that cautions us to prepare ourselves for what is coming down the pike, is recommended.

“That’s all anybody can do right now. Live. Hold out. Survive. I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.”

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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