What is racism? In particular what is institutional (or systemic or structural) racism and how does it differ, if at all, from racism simpliciter? If you are anything like me, these are questions that will have puzzled you for some time, especially since the terminology is now ubiquitous in public debates and conversations.
Don't get me wrong. It's not that the terms mean nothing to me. I think I have an intuitive sense of what people mean when they talk about racism and institutional racism, but I sometimes feel that the terminology is used without much care and that distinct phenomena are lumped together under the same terminological heading. This bothers me and I have often wondered if some clarity could be brought to the matter.
Since philosophers are usually the ones most concerned with conceptual clarity, I decided to read up on the recent(ish) literature in the philosophy of racism to see what it has to say. As it turns out, there is a considerable degree of disagreement and confusion in the philosophical literature too. There is, of course, a strong consensus that racism is a bad thing and that different mechanisms are responsible for it, but there is inconsistency in the terms used to describe those mechanisms and the understanding of exactly what it is that is bad about it.
Not being satisfied with this state of affairs, I decided I would try to clarify the terminology for myself. The remainder of this article is my attempt to share the results of this exercise. The gist of my analysis is that there are two distinct kinds of racism -- individual and institutional (I prefer this term to 'systemic' or 'structural' for reasons outlined below) -- but they intersect and overlap in important ways because (a) individuals play key roles in institutions and (b) institutions often shape how individuals understand and act in the world.
Some people might find my analysis useful; some may not. I do not purport to offer the definitive word on how we should understand 'racism'. My main aim is to clarify things for myself so that when I use terms such as ‘racism’ or 'institutional racism' at least I understand what I am trying to say.
It is worth noting that the remainder of this article is only likely to be of interest to people that wish to have the terminology clarified, not to people with some other interest in racism and racial justice. I will not be offering a normative or historical analysis of racism, nor will I be making any overt moral or political arguments . Obviously, what I have to say is relevant to such analysis and argumentation, and I do occasionally highlight this relevance, but defending a particular moral or political view lies outside the scope of this article.
The remainder of this article proceeds as follows. First, I will defend my claim that the modern philosophical literature is contested when it comes to the definition of racism. Second, I will discuss the phenomenon of individual racism. Third I will discuss institutional racism. Fourth, and finally, I will fit it all together by explaining how the individual and institutional mechanisms overlap, and consider whether there is simply one (admittedly complex) type of racism or, rather, several distinct forms of racism.
1. The Contested Nature of 'Racism'
Although everyone agrees that racism is bad, there is a lot of disagreement among philosophers as to exactly what it is. Some philosophers are monists, suggesting that there is a single type of racism, others are pluralists, arguing that racism comes in many forms. To get a sense of the inconsistency out there, consider the following definitions of 'racism'.
Here is Naomi Zack in her book Philosophy of Race:
Racism as we will consider it in this chapter, consists of prejudice or negative beliefs about people because of their race, and discrimination or unfavorable treatment of people because of their race.
So, according to this, there are two elements to racism and both are required - negative beliefs and discrimination. Does this imply that if you have one without the other, you don’t have racism? Zack’s subsequent discussion casts some doubt on this, but both elements are still part of her initial definition.
Consider, as an alternative, Tommie Shelby's ideological definition of racism:
Racism is fundamentally an ideology... Racism is a set of misleading beliefs and implicit attitudes about 'races' or race relations whose wide currency serves a hegemonic social function.
Similar to Zack, to be sure, but also different in that it covers implicit attitudes (as well as overt beliefs) and focuses on 'hegemonic social function' and not 'discrimination' (though perhaps they are the same thing).
Consider also Sally Haslanger's definition, which starts from the premise that Shelby's analysis is incomplete in that it focuses too much on beliefs and attitudes and not on the broader social forces that shape those beliefs and attitudes:
[Against Shelby] I argue that racism is better understood as a set of practices, attitudes, social meanings, and material conditions, that systemically reinforce one another.
In her own words, this means that racism is an 'ideological formation' and not an 'ideology'. It covers not just beliefs and attitudes, but also social practices and conceptual frameworks. This gets us closer to an idea of institutional racism insofar as it moves beyond individuals and their beliefs and practices, to social systems and their consequences.
Other philosophers take a more abstract and, one could argue, traditional approach to philosophical definition. Joshua Glasgow, for instance, tries to cut through some of the disagreement by defending a 'respect'-based definition of racism:
ψ is racist if and only if ψ is disrespectful toward members of racialized group R as Rs
In this definition, ψ refers to any mechanism or action that produces the relevant kind of disrespect. As such, Glasgow thinks his definition covers both individual and institutional racism. However, this attempt at abstract universalism has been criticised by others as not doing a good job in capturing the true nature of institutional racism. Andrew Pierce, for instance, has argued that disrespect is too agency-centric a notion and fails to address the fact that institutional racism is more about injustice than it is about respect.
I could go on, but I won't. Other influential definitions of racism have been offered by Jorge Garcia and Lawrence Blum. Collectively, these definitions highlight the fact that there is considerable disagreement about the best definition of racism. Is it a matter of beliefs and attitudes? Institutions and outcomes? Or all of the above?
Tommie Shelby seems to be right when he says:
...The term "racism" is so haphazardly thrown about that it is no longer clear that we all mean, even roughly, the same thing by it...This doesn't mean that the concept is no longer useful, but it does suggest that we need to clearly specify its referent before we can determine whether the relevant phenomenon is always morally problematic.
Why is there such disagreement? Part of the problem, as Alberto Urquidez points out is that some philosophers think that it is their job to capture the 'ordinary usage' of the term. This encourages them to take a narrow and conservative view of what racism is (typically focusing on overt beliefs and actions). But this effort to capture ordinary usage is misguided because ordinary usage is contested.
What’s more, there is a deeper and obvious reason for this contestation: 'racism' is a morally loaded term. No person or institution wants to be labelled 'racist’. and hence every attempt to define it is, in part, a normative project. In attempting to define it we are trying to capture and explain a morally problematic social phenomenon.
Bearing all this in mind, in what follows I will throw my lot in with what I will call the 'racial injustice' school of thought. According to this, 'racism' is the label we use to describe a mechanism that produces a racially unjust outcome. The outcomes come in many different forms (pejorative speech acts, harsh treatment, lack of equal opportunity, etc.). The underlying mechanisms also come in many different forms but they can be usefully lumped into two main categories: individual and institutional.
Some may argue that this version of racism entails some conceptual inflation (i.e. including within the scope of ‘racism’ things that were not traditionally included within it). The philosopher Lawrence Blum is critical of this in his work on the nature of racism arguing that conceptual inflation undermines the moral function of the term ‘racism’ in our discourse. I would suggest, however, that conceptual inflation in and of itself is not a problem. Concepts often evolve and change along with society. As long as we are clear about the different mechanisms involved, and their moral significance, the conceptual inflation need not undermine an effective moral discourse about racism.
2. Individualistic Mechanisms of Racism
So my claim is that we use the term ‘racism’ to describe the different mechanisms that produce racially unjust outcomes. Though there is no perfect conceptual schema of these mechanisms, we can meaningfully talk about both individualistic and institutional mechanisms. Let’s start by considering the individualistic ones.
An individual is a single human person. This human will be defined by (or constituted by) their mind and their actions. Everything we know about human biology suggests that the brain and nervous system support our minds and we use our minds to direct our actions (speech, movement etc). It is through our actions -- what we say and what we do -- that we produce racially unjust outcomes. It is, consequently, the brain and the nervous system that constitute the mechanisms underlying individualistic forms of racism.
These mechanisms can be divided into two main sub-categories. First, there are the conscious or explicit forms of racism. These include explicit beliefs, desires, intentions and actions. A person that believes that white people are innately superior to other races, that desires the continuation or reclamation of white supremacy, that uses derogatory speech to describe those of other races, that attends rallies, harasses or physically assaults members of other races, would be engaging these overt mechanisms of racism. Second, there are the unconscious or implicit forms of racism. These include behaviours and habits that, when scrutinised, evince some racial prejudice, but, if asked, the person may well deny that they hold any explicitly racists beliefs, desires or intentions, and perhaps be shocked at the suggestion. If you clutch your wallet when walking through a neighbourhood populated by members of another race, if you are less inclined to buy from them at the market, if you are more dismissive of their achievements or likely to attribute them to luck than hard work, you may be engaging these implicit mechanisms of racism.
There are a number of complexities to contend with here. First, it is worth noting that individualistic mechanisms of racism can more or less inclined to produce racially unjust outcomes. A member of the KKK that assaults and lynches a black man is doing something that is clearly and unambiguously harmful from the perspective of racial injustice. A pub bore who spouts of theories of racial supremacy, much to the annoyance and dismissal of his fellow patrons, is probably less harmful. Similarly, people that refuse to visit a doctor from another race may, in a cumulative sense, contribute to racial injustice, but their individual actions may not seem overly harmful or problematic.
Second, there is an interesting hypothetical to consider. Imagine someone that holds explicitly racist beliefs and desires but never manifests this in their speech or behaviour (in an explicit or implicit way). Are they racist? This is, in a sense, a variation on the old puzzle “if a tree falls in a forest but no one hears it, does it make a sound”. It may be unanswerable. It does, however, cover the widely discussed phenomenon of ‘hearts and minds’ racism. My own view is that if the racist beliefs and desires never manifest in behaviour, then it’s hard to say that the person holding them is racist. Certainly they do not contribute to racially unjust outcomes. But it’s hard to take the hypothetical seriously. If someone harbours such beliefs and desires, it’s likely that it will manifest in their behaviour, perhaps in a subtle and implicit way, at some point in time.
Third, it is worth asking the question: where do individuals get their explicitly or implicitly racist beliefs, attitudes, preferences and habits from? Surely there are other distal mechanisms at work, either cultural or biological? This sounds right. In particular, it seems plausible to suggest that cultural and social forces shape an individual’s racist beliefs and practices. To be clear, I am sure that there are deeper biological forces at work too, but I suspect these take a relatively non-specific form. So, for example, I suspect that humans are biologically predisposed to form in-groups and out-groups, but the specific information they use to code or demarcate those groups depends on their current social environment, not their genes or biology. But if that is right, then the dividing line between individual and institutional forms of racism starts to get quite blurry.
3. Institutional Mechanisms of Racism
The term ‘institutional racism’ was first used by Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture) and Charles Hamilton, in their 1967 book Black Power. They used it, specifically, to distinguish between overt and explicit forms of individual racism and a more subtle form a racism that is inherent to social norms, rules and institutions. I have already suggested that this contrast between the individual and the institution is problematic (and, to be clear, Carmichael and Hamilton did not adhere to it rigidly). Nevertheless, I think the term is useful and does describe an important phenomenon.
What is that phenomenon? It helps if we have a concrete example. Here’s one, taken from an article describing different outcomes for different racial groups in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic (the figures cited may no longer be accurate):
… racial and ethnic disparities are being replicated in COVID19 infections and death rates. African Americans make up just 12% of the population in Washtenaw County, Michigan but have suffered a staggering 46% of COVID-19 infections. In Chicago, Illinois, African Americans account for 29% of population, but have suffered 70% of COVID-19 related deaths of those whose ethnicity is known. In Washington, Latinos represent 13% of the population, but account for 31% of the COVID-19 cases, whereas in Iowa Latinos comprise are 6% of the population but 20% of COVID-19 infections. The African American COVID-19 death rates are higher than their percentage of the population in racially segregated cities and states including Milwaukee, Wisconsin (66% of deaths, 41% of population), Illinois (43% of deaths, 28% of infections, 15% of population), and Louisiana (46% of deaths, 36% of population). These racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 infections and deaths are a result of historical and current practices of racism that cause disparities in exposure, susceptibility, and treatment.
(Yearby and Mohaptra 2020, p 3 — all references removed)
The idea here is that there is a set of social outcomes — infections, serious disease and death — in which members of certain racial groups are overrepresented. Since these are bad outcomes, we can take it that they provide examples of racial injustice. But what causes those bad outcomes? It could be that there are overtly racist individuals going around infecting racial minorities and ensuring they cannot access good healthcare, but this seems implausible and, even if there were some such individuals, they are unlikely to be able to produce such outcomes by themselves. Deeper forces must be at work.
As Yearby and Mohaptra see it, the main problem is that members of racial minorities are more likely to work in low-paying manual jobs, which means they cannot work from home, which means they are more likely to be exposed to infection. They are also less likely to have health insurance and access to proper healthcare provision and live in more densely populated housing (further increasing their risk of infection). Why did this happen them? Because there was a set of social institutions that sorted them into jobs, housing and healthcare provision that made them more susceptible to the pandemic. These institutions include schools and colleges, job markets, healthcare markets and housing markets, as well as the political and legal institutions that support those other social systems. Some overtly racist people may work within those institutions, and they may keep them going, but it is likely that these institutions also operate according to habits, norms and sanctions that were set down in the past (perhaps when racism was more overt and socially acceptable) and people working within them continue to follow those habits, norms and sanctions and reproduce the same outcomes, without being overtly racist.
In short, then, institutional racism arises whenever we have a social institution or set of such institutions that sorts people into different outcome categories (educational attainment; employment; health; incarceration etc.) on the basis of race. The result of this sorting is not morally justified. These institutions may function on the basis of explicitly racist beliefs and ideologies but they also may not.
The term ‘institutional racism’ is sometimes used interchangeably with cognate terms such as ‘structural racism’ or ‘systemic racism’. Perhaps there are subtle distinctions to be made between these terms, but I have not encountered a satisfactory account of those subtle distinctions in my readings. My sense is that people use the terms synonymously. I prefer the term ‘institutional racism’ over the synonyms. Why? Because there is a rich theoretical understanding of institutions to be found in philosophy and sociology and using the term calls upon those theoretical understandings. In particular, it calls upon the different mechanisms underlying social institutions and how they can contribute to the production of racially unjust outcomes.
Seumas Miller’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good entry point into these theoretical literature on institutions. As he points out, institutions have four main properties:
Functions - i.e. they serve some social purpose or purposes, such as providing educational credentials or healthcare or jobs.
Structures - i.e. they have some formal structures they use to produce those outcomes. These can be tangible or intangible — buildings, roads, ICT networks, legal-bureaucratic hierarchies and, perhaps most crucially, defined roles that must be performed by human or other agents within those institutions (teachers; prisoner officers and so forth).
Cultures - i.e. the informal, sometimes tacit and unstated, attitudes and values of the institution that gets communicated and passed between people occupying institutional roles (e.g. the value of hard work; the importance of intelligence/cleverness and so on)
Sanctions - i.e. some way of policing or enforcing conformity with the institutional roles and functions.
This last feature of institutions is controversial, as Miller himself notes. Not all institutions have sanctions and some, presumably, have incentives or rewards, that perform a similar function. Still, it is probably fair to say that sanctions, either of the formal kind (legal punishment) or informal kind (moral approbation or criticism), do feature in many institutions.
What value does this account of institutions have for our understanding of racism? Well, it points to different potential causes and mechanisms of institutional racism. Some institutions have overtly racist functions (slavery being the obvious example) but many do not. They serve valid social functions but they do so in an unequal or arbitrary way. Some institutions have structures that help reproduce racist outcomes (ICT systems that are inaccessible to or fail to recognise people from a particular background). Some institutions have cultures that reinforce racial prejudices or serve racist purposes (the belief that racial minorities are less likely to be well-educated or less likely to achieve outcomes on the basis of merit). Some institutions have sanctions that affect different races differently (the tendency to be more morally critical of racial minorities). Some institutions, of course, have all of these things at once or in different combinations. These racially unjust purposes, structures, cultures and sanctions may operate in a subtle or hidden way.
Sensitivity to the complex structure of social institutions, and the different ways in which they can sort people into different outcomes along racial lines, allows us to enrich our understanding of institutional racism.
4. Fitting it All Together
To sum up, I think the term ‘racism’ can be applied to any mechanism that produces a racially unjust outcome (typically an action or event or state of affairs that affects different racial groups differently without appropriate moral justification). There are many different mechanisms that can be responsible for such outcomes and these can be grouped, loosely, into individual and institutional classes. Individual mechanisms of racism arise from an individual’s beliefs, desires, intentions, actions and so on. Some of these can be explicitly racist; some implicitly so. Institutional mechanisms of racism arise from the different properties of social institutions (their functions, structures, cultures and sanctions).
The dividing line between individual and institutional mechanisms is not clean and sharp. It is blurry and imprecise. Institutions are made up of individuals, occupying distinct institutional roles. These individuals will affect the institutional function, structure, culture and sanctions. Contrariwise, individuals imbibe many of their explicit beliefs and practices, as well as their implicit assumptions and norms, from social institutions. There is, in essence, a constant feedback loop between the individual and institutional forms of racism.
One final point, before I conclude. One thing that struck me as I wrote this piece was the sense that there may be something linguistically impoverished about the discussion of racism in the modern world. Perhaps one of the problems, hinted at previously when I referenced the work of Lawrence Blum, is that we put too much pressure on one term -- ‘racism’ -- and expect it to do too much conceptual work. A richer vocabulary might allow us to identify and reform the same moral problems, without getting tied up in linguistic debates about whether something is truly ‘racist’ or properly described as such.
In this respect, there may be some inspiration to be drawn from the feminist literature and the distinction drawn between patriarchy, sexism and misogyny. According to Kate Manne’s — now influential — account, ‘patriarchy’ is the term used to describe social institutions that favour men over women (i.e. sort the sexes/genders into different outcomes groups without moral justification); ‘sexism’ is the ideology that sustains those institutions; and ‘misogyny’ is the set of practices and habits (sanctions and incentives) that force women conform with sexist expectations. I like this conceptual division of labour and I have not found a similarly neat framework for discussing racism and racial injustice. Sure, there is talk about racist ideologies and institutional racism and racist policing, but the common use of terms like ‘racism’, ‘racial and ‘racialised’ to describe these different things, may encourage conflation and confusion.
I think the best solution to the problem might simply to be sensitive to the different mechanisms underlying racial injustice, without being overly committed to a single understanding of what truly counts as ‘racism’.