The Other Side of Institutional Racism

(Image by SupportPDX)

The term institutionalized racism is often used to explain the reasons behind poverty and crime among African-Americans across the country.  It is a pattern of social institutions, such as schools, banks, and courts that gives differential treatment to people based on race. It is a widely accepted as a lens with which to understand a lack of economic progress and high incarceration rates within historically black communities.  However, this is only half of the story.  The other side of the institutionalized racism coin (not often spoken about) is white.  It is a notion embedded in white U.S. culture that they are among the haves, not the have-nots, and they are on the moral side of the framework of our country.

This idea was brought to view after reading a recently popular book about the loss of a culture in Appalachia, Hillbilly Elegy. In it the author, J.D. Vance, describes people from his rust belt hometown talk disparagingly of “welfare queens” concurrent to happily utilizing food stamps and talking on free government cell phones.  They do not see themselves in the same light as minorities who accept public assistance, they do not see themselves as a drain to public resources, but rather as entitled taxpaying Americans.  In my opinion, this is an effect of institutionalized racism, not personal choices, where whites have been generationally taught to believe that they are better than non-whites in the struggle for political control over the county.

In the 1960’s we saw the southern part of the United States turn from one political party to the other in rejection of civil rights laws and the repeal of segregation.  Equality was used to vilify the democratic party, equating civil rights with the reasons that poor whites in the south were struggling and proposing that if racial equality persisted, their situation would get even worse.  The tactic preyed on loss aversion psychology, and is rooted in institutionalized racism.

The rejection of the democratic party by the white middle class and working poor some 50 years later is still steeped in this institutionalized racism.   The threat of loss now involves Muslims, Mexicans and other immigrants who will take jobs or cultural identity from this demographic.  It isn’t portrayed as taking away from white people, but white is the demographic that makes up 77% of these United States (2015). The majority live in rural homogeneous areas, they are seeing their financial stability decline due to modernization and globalization, and they vote.

An argument to this is to say, some people might be racist, but there is no institution behind it.  If that was true why is the history of slavery in the U.S. so glossed over? I don’t see it portrayed in the multiple reenactments or historical sites that I’ve visited throughout the South.  How else have internment camps, literacy tests, or differential sentences been justified and then historically glossed over as well?  How can one explain why the loss of jobs or financial stability/mobility, or crimes committed, has been attributed en masse to the work of some outside influence, by forces at large who are ‘not one of us’ and infiltrating the country to undermine ‘our’ success?

These arguments were the rallying cry of the last election, they were successful, and they are likely to be used as a tactic in the future if not confronted. Institutionalized racism, not just racism is a part U.S. history and the American experience.  To live up to the ideals of our country and constitution it demands consideration and discussion.

Stacy Martinez is a 2nd year MPP student at the College of William & Mary and is an Articles Editor for the William & Mary Policy Review. 

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