What is Institutional Racism? A Preacher’s Response to his own Ignorance

I want to address the racial tension in our country, but this will be a different article than I usually write because I am not going to share my opinion.   Today, I am going to define a term.  We need good, clear definitions, so we can understand each other.  Let me begin with two disclaimers.  First, I am not trying to ignite a heated back and forth between anyone.  Lord knows we need more conversations and less angry debate.  And second, I am going to admit my ignorance.  With all the race discussion around us, I heard the term “institutional racism” or “systemic racism” over and over.  I have to admit.  I did not know with any depth what was meant by the terms, institutional racism or systemic racism.  I only had vague impressions.  In my research, I even found out that institutional racism and systemic racism are synonyms, so I am going to use the term institutional racism throughout this article for clarity’s sake. Today, I want to share what I have learned about institutional racism, just so you can know what this term means.  

Let’s begin by stating what institutional racism is not.  Institutional racism is not calling all white people racists.  It is not calling the majority of white people racists.  It is not calling any individual person racists.  Institutional racism is not addressing any individual or group.  It is in the title itself.  Institutional racism is addressing institutions, not individuals.  These institutions come in many forms.  These institutions can be laws, banking regulations, geographic neighborhoods, school district effectiveness, proximity to growing industry, entrance exams, and many other types of institutions.  If you hear someone say, “Institutional racism is present” in a given situation, he or she is not claiming that all or a majority of white people are racists.  They are addressing a thing not a person. The existence of institutional racism does not mean you are a racist.  

Also, institutional racism has a broad view.  It examines the forrest not the trees. Often the response to claims of institutional racism are met with a few examples. Individuals are pointed to that do not fit the mold of the claim made by the proponents of institutional racism.  Also, sometimes proponents of institutional racism try to prove it by giving a case or two.  But institutional racism is not looking at individual cases.  It examines a broader picture.  One family or one story does not prove or disprove institutional racism.  It is examining a much larger picture.  Again, it looks at the forrest not a few trees. 

Let’s examine this forrest of facts that institutional racism is trying to address.  

These statistics are compiled by Pew Research which is a non-partisan research firm.  It is important to note that Pew Research does not take any policy positions in response to their data.  They just provide the data for others to use.  Here are some staggering facts.  

There is an education gap between whites and blacks. Whites are 5% more likely to graduate high school than blacks, and 30% more likely to obtain a college degree than blacks.  

There is an income and wealth gap as well.  White families’ median household yearly income is $28,000 higher than the median income of black families.  When you examine wealth accumulation, this gap is shockingly wide.  White families average a net worth of over $144,000, while the average net worth accumulated by black families is less than $12,000.  Whites families on average have 13 times the wealth of a black family.  Finally, blacks are more than twice as likely to be poor than whites.  

This income and wealth gap leads to some obvious results.  73% of whites own their own home, while less than half of blacks own their home.  And blacks are twice as likely to be unemployed as whites.    

Here are some other interesting facts I found in my research. 

Blacks make up 40% of the homeless population when they are only 13% of the total population.  

Blacks are 8% more likely to not have health insurance compared to whites, and on average, a black individual will live over 12 years without health insurance, and white individuals will live just under 8 without health insurance.  

To recap the forrest, and again institutional racism is examining the forrest.  

  • Blacks are less likely to graduate high school or obtain a college degree.
  • Black families make on average $28,000 less than white families a year. 
  • Black families’ net worth or accumulated wealth is 13 times or 1,300% less than the average white family.  
  • Blacks are 100% more likely to live in poverty. 
  • Blacks are 29% less likely to own a home. 
  • Blacks are 100% more likely to be unemployed. 
  • Blacks make up 40% of the homeless population but only 13% of the national population. 
  • Blacks on average live 4 years longer without health insurance than whites and are less likely to have health insurance at all.  

There are plenty more gaps I could have shared, but the evidence is clear.  Whites are better educated, make more money, and accumulate more wealth than blacks. That is not in dispute.

Institutional racism is the belief that there are institutional reasons for these gaps.  These gaps do not exist just because blacks make bad choices and whites make good choices.  

Usually one of the first examples raised by the proponents of institutional racism is Franklin Roosevelt’s establishment of the Federal Housing Authority, which has been proved in the 1930’s, and into later decades, to be designed to help segregate the county.  It drew redlines around areas where the FHA would not insure home loans.  Of course, most black communities, were redlined.  Blacks were not able to obtain insured home loans or home loans at all.  Whites were able to obtain these insured loans.  This allowed whites during the depression to grow their family’s wealth by becoming homeowners through government aid.  

Institutional racism is the belief that through geography, school districts, laws, regulations, and the like, blacks have a harder time thriving in America.  

These institutions that disproportionally effect blacks in a negative way do not have to be current for institutional racism to exist and to have impact. Institutional racism can have generational impact.  Roosevelt’s FHA established in the 1930’s is often credited as the catalyst that catapulted white wealth after the depression, and herded blacks into economically depressed geographic areas with less educational opportunities and less work opportunities.  There are plenty of proponents who believe that America is still dealing with the effects of Roosevelt’s FHA.  

The main thrust institutional racism is arguing is that black families do not make $28,000 dollars less a year, accumulate 13 times less wealth, and are 29% less likely to own a home because of a lack of desire or a lack of ability.  

There are institutional reasons for the gaps.  Proponents of institutional racism want to discover the reasons for the gaps, whether it is a bad law, bad school district, bad economic location, or whatever, and then, change them, so that these gaps can be closed.  It is not saying all white people, the majority of white people, or any white people are directly racists.  Institutional racism argues there are systems of geography, regulation, schooling, among others that play a key role in the gaps between whites and blacks socially and economically.  

I know I learned something researching institutional racism.  I hope you did too.  And I pray we discover the reasons for these gaps and close them.

Preacher Jesse