Institutional Racism

Institutional Racism is racism practiced by institutions.  It can happen in many ways, but is essentially when you treat a non-white group of people different than you do a white group of people.  It happens all the time.  In schools, it happens by lowering your expectations for minority students.  

When an institution accepts the behavior or results of minorities, when it would not do so with white students, the institution is institutionally racist.  If you look for it, it is everywhere.  Institutional racism is a major force keeping minorities down.  

Here are some examples:

  • A black man speaks proper English, and the person with power makes special mention of how this person is articulate.
  • A hispanic female answers a question correctly, and the person with power is emphatic about how good of an answer it is.
  • A minority student is rewarded for 'good' behavior, yet that behavior is simply following the rules. 

The examples used above are institutionally racist because: a.) When a black man speaks proper English and is labelled 'articulate', it shows that the one that called the man articulate has a lower expectation of African Americans use of English.  b.) When a hispanic female answers a question correctly but receives high praise, it shows that the asker expected the student to answer incorrectly.  c.) When someone rewards a minority for 'good' behavior when that behavior is in fact average, the rewarder is showing that their expectations is for the minority to act improperly.  

I am guilty of this.  

One major time I was guilty of this was when I heard a mother talk of her son being in 'plain clothes'.  I judged the African American mother on how she looked, and thought she meant that her son was out of jail.  In fact, he'd been promoted in a major legal department, and was now undercover.  It was my judgement of the woman that led to my assumption.  After I realized the truth, I felt badly for a while.  I realized how quickly and easily it was to judge.  Many of us do the same.  When we do, we must not beat ourselves up too much; rather, we must realize how deep stereotypes run in our society and make changes in our personal behavior.  

Other ways this happens is when you only talk to minorities about sports, or use more slang, or talk about rap (or insert similar subject) because you think that is what the minority knows about.  This is a major danger, and also a part of why our schools suffer.  If/when a white teacher or administrator sees a minority student and lowers their expectations, that student's chance for success goes way down.  It happens often, and from an early age.  

How it starts young.  A minority student will be violent, loud, and/or inappropriate in class at a young age.  The student will be either: a. labelled as a bad kid or b. not punished enough because the kid has a 'bad' home life.  If a. then the student carries this badge his or her entire educational career.  They're more likely to get punished, missing class time and performing worse.  Or b. the student is taught that the way he or she acts is okay, through of lack of punishment or correction.  Either is bad.  

It also plays out in achievement.  In high school, it can play out like this: after grades come out, teachers must comb through the grades they 'gave'.  Many schools have teachers look at grade distribution by race and gender.  In some districts, teachers must present these findings to a board.  It may then fall on the teacher to explain why the African American Males in their class are failing at a rate higher than, say, white males.  The teacher, in his or her explanation, throws something out, but feels stupid.  In turn, when grades come out the next time, the teacher inflates the African American Male student's grades.  The teacher does so to avoid this kind of scenario, but the student is not aware of this.  The student equates their level of learning/achievement with the grade and thinks it's all good.  When they go on to higher learning, they are ill-prepared.  The cause of the inflated grades does not fall upon the teacher, it does not fall upon the student - it falls upon the system that the district set up.  This is institutional racism, and those are ways it happens.  It happens all the time, but it often happens when those in charge are white.  As a white man myself, I cannot propose tons of solutions; what I can say is, think through your own actions.  If they're racist, change them.  If you find areas in your own life where your practices are institutionally racist, change them.  

I don't think it's intentional on the part of all white people.  In fact, it could come from a good place.  Coming from a good place, however, is not a good enough reason to allow bad behavior to continue. 

While teaching school, I've had principal and deans of several different genders and races.  I'll use three situations and their consequences to highlight the point above.  

  1. A kid walked into class late, high.  He looked at me and said, "I'm high as hell, bitch."  
  2. A student didn't like a comment I made, interrupted the instruction and said, "You're fucking irritating."
  3. A student didn't like the way I responded to his friend, so interrupted class and said, "You're a bitch.

The kids, as well as the disciplinarians were all different races and genders.  The offenses are similar in that they are 'swear' words said by a student, in class, to a teacher.  I followed the protocol of the school each time - which is writing some type of a behavior report.  I won't match the response by incident, but will show the consequences based upon race/gender.

1. Hispanic male authority.  Read the report, asked the kid if they did this.  The kid said yes, the authority looked in the handbook and read the consequence: three day suspension.

2. Black female.  Read the report, asked if the student did this.  When the student denied the incident, the authority asked the student to explain it from their perspective.  When the student could not provide an alternative series of events, the authority asked again, "Did you do this?" The student didn't deny and was suspended for 10-days (it was the student's third offense, and this was the punishment based upon the handbook).

3. White male.  Listened to the student's version, walked the student to class, had the student apologize, and asked the teacher to be more sympathetic because the student was having a 'rough day'. 

The reactions of the students and their classes were as follows (from the numbers above): 1. The student served the three day suspension, came back and apologized to the teacher.  The student's friends laughed at him for getting suspended, and the student didn't have another incident.  2. The student sat back in class, and the classmates said, "You didn't get suspended for that?" The student smiled and said no.  Another student said, "I guess we can cuss out a teacher."  3. The teacher walked back in class, and the students asked, "Is he suspended?"  The teacher said yes, and the students said, "He's dumb."

Though these examples pertain directly to me, I've worked in enough schools to see variant of them happen often.  My question is always this: would you do that if the student population was all white?  If the answer is no, you are being racist.  You have lowered expectations for minorities.  This is a major problem, and you should change it.  

Walk into many urban districts and you'll see this over and over.  You'll hear some white teacher using slang to teach history to 'relate to the kids' or giving completion grades to minorities.  They 'intervene' in situations instead of give out consequences.  It is unacceptable.  

It is part of the problem. 

If there are districts - which happens a lot - where the students are both underperforming and minorities, it is the job of the district to help the students.  You can provide extra supports and scaffolding, but you must not lose sight of the goal: education of the student.  If you lose sight of this, lessen the goal for minorities, you are contribuiting to the problem.  This is racist.