What is Institutional Racism?

What is Institutional Racism?

What is Institutional Racism?

What is Institutional Racism? Institutional racism is the process by which racial oppression is imposed on subordinate racial groups by dominant racial groups through institutional channels like employment and education. While some employers and educators carry out single acts of discrimination, societal institutions are the primary settings where patterns of racial discrimination are established and perpetuated toward subordinate peoples.

Central to the operation of institutional racism is a racial hierarchy of power, and, despite differences in historical development and racial-ethnic group composition among the world’s countries, institutionalized racism tends to be prevalent in countries that have both dominant and subordinate racial groups, such as the United States of America.

History an Power

Institutional racism does not arise spontaneously, but rather develops as institutions themselves are created and/ or modified over the years. For example, in the United States, all major institutions, including education, government, and the economic and legal systems, were formed and underwent substantial entrenchment and evolution during the extreme racial oppression and inequality from the 1600s to the 1960s, eras of slavery and legalized segregation. According to Joe R. Feagin, in Systemic Racism (2006), each institution has embedded, maintained, and enhanced the unjust impoverishment of people of color and the unjust enrichment and privilege for whites. Indeed, the U.S. economic system was originally created to center around the exploitation and oppression of African Americans via enslavement and, to a lesser extent, the exclusion and discrimination of North American indigenous peoples. Thus, racial oppression is truly part of the bedrock of the United States, forming part of the country’s foundation.

Most European countries differ markedly from the United States in that their racial oppressions and inequalities have historically been less rooted in national origins, less openly contested on the domestic front, and thus less visible to the world. Nevertheless, Europe too has a long history of racist ideology and practice, including the colonization of indigenous peoples across the globe and the support for slavery in many of these overseas colonies.

Central to institutional racism is the power differential whereby patterns of discriminatory practices reward those of the dominant group(typically whites and lighter-skinned peoples) and harm subordinate groups. White elites in many white-dominant countries, such as the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, have firm control of the political, corporate, media, and academic arenas, and they are able to generate and reproduce racism through these powerful channels, consciously or unconsciously (Dijk 1993). This occurs not just through the establishment of discriminatory institutional practices but also through the creation of a white supremacist ideology, which gives people rationalizations for outcomes of even extreme levels of racial inequality.


According to Joe R. Feagin and Clairece Booher Feagin (2003), institutional racism takes two major forms: direct and indirect institutionalized discrimination. The former type involves overt actions prescribed by dominant-group organizations that have a discriminatory impact on subordinate racial groups, such as legalized exclusion from certain types of well-paying jobs. The latter consists of less overt racialized acts that harm members of subordinate groups without the perpetrators necessarily having malicious intent.

For example, when local tax bases are used as the basis for public school funding, communities of color—whose residents tend to be poorer—are more likely to wind up with the less-funded, often inadequate, schools. Students of color disproportionately receive meager educations, which in turn hinder their ability to compete in the higher education and employment arenas. By contrast, white students receive better than average educations and, therefore, receive unearned benefits from institutional racism practices. Thus, institutional racism in one area (e.g., education) can have substantial effects in another (e.g., employment) and interact with forms of direct and indirect institutional racism there, which results in a cumulative dynamic. Importantly, indirect institutional racism is hardly reducible to class inequalities working themselves out in racial ways. Contemporary social science research strongly indicates that, even when controlling for all other possible factors (such as class status, education, experience, skills, and location), discrimination against people of color tends to occur at significant rates.

Videos You Should Watch

I read the entry from the Encyclopedia of Racism and found it timely to a current situation I’ve been faced with. I’ve worked on Mayor Alder’s Task-Force to end racism in Austin. You can view some of my recommendations here.  If you have any stories about institutional racism and like me to write about them, please e-mail.

About Quianna Canada

Quianna Canada is an anti-police brutality activist, author, and opinion writer living in the United States.
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  • Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family. ~Kofi Annan

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