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Institutional racism: what do we mean?

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

A lynching rope, hanging from a tree, surrounded by a large crowd
A lynching rope. Copyright of author

DB Roberts


Last year, a movie recounted the killing of a Black boy in Tennessee in 1955, in retaliation for his flippancy with a white woman. His uncle said of the night the murderers came to his door:

It wasn't just two White men with a gun. It was every White man who'd rather see a Negro dead than breathing the same air as him. Every Sheriff, every judge in this town, was at that door that night.

Later, when Billie Holiday sung about lynching, she was threatened by the FBI. The State made the laws that encouraged White men to kill Emmet Till, and they made the laws that protected those that did it, and punished those who resisted. The laws sustain beliefs about racial superiority founded in imperialism and slavery that in turn structured Constitutions and social values transmitted by government edict, to Emmet Till's killers, via the police and courts. That's institutional racism: an alignment of beliefs about race and racial superiority, endorsed by government, extended across Empires, reproduced in the homelands, sanctioned in law, and conducted by believers. And it's still part of our histories, the past in the present, cloaked by the collective amnesia that denies how contemporary 'families, institutions, cities and countries [are] rich through the enslavement of Africans'

The singer Billie Holiday, shot in portrait style, with her dog, Mr. Downbeat
Billie Holiday and Mister Downbeat, 1947. Creative Commons Copyright/The Library of Congress

Institutional racism is hard to figure. The iceberg analogy helped me with this. The deepest part represents beliefs, values and prejudices about race, accrued over time. It's the hardest to perceive because we can't easily see it. Just above that, but still hard to imagine, are the institutions that transmit the supporting regulations, laws, policies, and social attitudes. The visible tip represents the consequences of those forces, the things we see and hear happening, that we can grasp, like police brutality. So what might this look like in a University setting?

An iceberg, with descriptors of the levels and elements of institutional racism.
The iceberg metaphor of institutional racism. Copyright of author


A well-known example may help to flesh out the iceberg (above) in relation to UK Higher Education. Oxford University College has, since 2016, unashamedly resisted wide-ranging calls to remove a prominent statue of the noted imperialist Cecil Rhodes. It is unashamed because they know are perpetuating the adulation of a racist white overlord by a racist white institution in the face of legitimate social change and political opposition.

A statue of Cewcil Rhodes set against ancient university architecture
Cecil Rhodes in statue form. Copyright of author

Despite a growing anti-racist movement worldwide, the University leadership's policy has been to keep it in place. That is, Oxford has decided the right thing to do is preserve, in the façade of an Enlightenment body, an icon of British racial superiority. The regulations permit this. The law doesn't criminalise it. And nearly 60% of the UK population surveyed believe the statue of an imperialist white racist should not be taken down from a public university. Alignment. Empire is the racist ideology underpinning the statue. Oxford, the legal system and public opinion are key institutions. Thrusting the face of a white imperialist into the faces of Students of Colour, reminding them of their 'inferiority', and refusing to change that, is the tip of the iceberg.

A survey of UK university employees

We wanted to get a sense of how entrenched and widespread institutional racism is inside UK Higher Education, and conducted in 2022 a survey of 65 universities (full details out this year).

A Tablet showing survey data presented in visual form
A survey conducted online. Copyright of author

At the lower level of institutional racism, one of the most common complaints (65% of respondents reporting) concerned promotion and recruitment. This might involve, for example, criteria that emphasized areas of research favoured by White academics. Not dissimilarly, job applicants with Asian and African accents and names were often treated less favourably than those with native English identities. Said one respondent

The extra work I have to put in to find ways to disguise my Colour on application forms, is matched only by the challenges I face in competitive promotions, where I have to change my research so it mirrors White priorities

At the heart of this lies the problem of historical White determinism of what kinds of knowledge are valued (think colonial anthropology and its endorsement of 'scientific racism' to support the Empires). To change this requires the comprehensive restructuring of all university research committees from the top of the institution down. But it will also need journal gatekeepers to understand their own roles in regulating what should be researched. This in turn requires governments to re-evaluate what they privilege funding for, which in turn requires them to acknowledge, and be purged of, populist and racist ideology. Existing alignments need to be disrupted.

Person intervenes to interrupot the flow of a process, figuratively represented by a hand stopped dominoes falling
Hand interrupts line of falling dominoes. Copyright Education License - Standard Image Adobe/Loughborough University

A higher level of institutional racism happens when such acts are challenged by employees. Respondents described how, when a powerful White leader created an all-White Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) committee, senior management and HR colluded to defend the Dean and ensure no admission of failure would be forthcoming. 55% of respondents reported racist committee structuring; half of those identified EDI committees as problems.

A solution, again, lies at the top, as long as the top understands power and race critically, rather than from a Liberal HR perspective, for example. New edicts to this effect could reform committees appointed on the basis of role (for example, Dean of School, School HR representative), and replace them with those demonstrating task competence. This will almost certainly mean removing some White People, to make room for competence where it is lacking. Problematically, though, 'many academics, university administrators and Vice Chancellors... lack the motivation and creativity necessary to respond to this challenge'.

The highest level of reported institutional racism involves ‘Uncle Tom’ posts. These involve the appointment of compliant People of Colour to senior posts (like PVC-EDI, for example), to serve elite White interests and to disrupt internal resistance to institutional racism, whilst creating an illusion of high-level racial engagement.

An aged black man with a white beard reads a book to a young white girl in a pretty garden
Uncle Tom, the cooperating Black supplicant character to White power. Copyright of author

This was reported in 4 out of 65 reporting institutions, but few institutions are appointing People of Colour with a specific mandate to shake up EDI at the most senior levels. Furthermore, those in place may not be true allies because ending institutional racism requires root and branch reform, and such public accounting would inevitably expose universities to reputational harm. But they can create the impression of change in this way, without the market risk that exposing institutional racism could create. This is also about the aesthetics of racial equality.

Last words

Institutional racism is normally challenged by those with least power. It is normally maintained by those with most power. For it to persist means that challenge is subverted by power. The way to change this is to help those at the top understand their own roles in maintaining the system without causing them to clam up, dig in or double down. Even then, change can only be limited, without transforming racist Liberal ideology itself.

Huge thanks to Lucy Potter at York St. John for her peer reviewing and support in the creation of this post

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