Social Inequality and Public Policy - Professor Isaac Martin - March 2009
Institutional racism is a form of racism that exists subtly and beneath the conspicuous actions and policies of structures and institutions. For the purposes of this paper, “institution” refers to an establishment or governing body that creates or sets rules, policies, or standards in society. These institutions produce a societal order and hierarchy, impacting human behavior with its power to overshadow individuals’ own potential and intentions. “Racism” refers to the belief, and acts in conjunction with this belief, that particular races are innately different and inferior to others. Yet, beyond this compound definition, this research paper regards institutional racism as not only the deliberate actions of institutions, but also the ignorant and apathetic actions of institutions in perpetuating racism.
In this paper, I plan to discuss this particular form of racism, debating its contributions to the issue of poverty. I argue the way in which institutions can keep people in poverty or even force people into poverty in the United States. I believe this research is important, as institutional racism often goes under the radar. Often, only field research or investigation reveals the subversive tactics of institutional racism. In addition, it normatively goes unrecognized by the public and even those who are directly affected by it. As a result, this form of discrimination, whether deliberate or incognizant, is more difficult to curtail. These methods are safeguarded by the institutions themselves, falling under an umbrella of legitimate policies and actions. With relation to poverty, institutional racism can keep certain races in a perpetual condition of poverty, denying them the opportunities and capabilities to rise above their poor status.
This research is potentially important for policy makers, as information on this topic can provide greater resources and different angles for policy makers to approach the issue of poverty. Even as race itself is a “taboo” subject, conclusive research has the potential to present evidence pointing to institutional racism and the prevalence of poverty among those races. As policy makers have the possibility to influence, curb, or promote the institutional decisions regarding access to jobs, education, or a good quality of life, this research will be potentially important for them. With more strict policies regarding institutions and racism, policy makers can begin to tackle an issue that is still prevalent in society today.
One can examine this issue in a variety of methods, yet I intend to address institutional racism through particular categories of structures and their adverse effect on poverty. Specifically, I will focus on the institutions within the sectors of criminal justice, education, and urban planning. The structures of criminal justice include the prisons and courts of the criminal justice system. Within education, the school boards and test-maker organizations both execute institutionally racist practices. Finally, in the field of urban planning, the city government further maintains and increases poverty among minorities. All of these three spheres connect along the overarching importance of geographic mismatch. The spatial relations of the prisons, the inner city schools, and the industrial urban centers all reflect the setbacks and opportunities minorities face in the United States.
In the sphere of criminal justice, the institutions of prisons and courts create a system that purports racism and contributes to poverty in the United States. In this system, institutional racism takes root in the factors that generate the overwhelming majority of minorities in prison. In Katherine Pettus’s book Felony Disenfranchisement in America, she argues that the institution of prisons and the criminal justice system are a product of the racist roots upon which America was built (Pettus 151). She discusses the United States’s criminal justice policy as one that accentuates and breeds groups of domination and subordination. The same laws broken by white people are not handled through the criminal justice system, affirming that the law and the prisons were not created for white people in mind, but for minorities (151). In conjunction with this structure and composition of prisons, the geographic location of the prison creates and sustains disparate groups that institutionalize segregation. In society, prisons “perform a kind of social, economic, and political ‘magic’ by ‘disappearing’ large number of poor and minority people” (Rhodes 67). Statistics of the racial makeup in prisons further confirm these statements, as in the United States, more than 50 percent of the prisoners are African American, and 75 percent of the prisoners are people of color (67). Prisons remain on the periphery of white counties, isolated from the metropolis but still set in stark contrast to white suburbia and the cosmopolitan lifestyle (Pettus 20). The disenfranchised felons and ex-felons remain on the periphery of society, isolated from the opportunities within the metropolis.
Institutionally, the courts implement additional racist practices that contribute to this pervading disparity in prison demographic. The jury selection process, for example, results in primarily white juries. Customarily, this process relies on the exclusion of those with minimal educational credentials, hourly wage earners, and low-income individuals (Feagin and Feagin 141). As the courts themselves provide poor compensation, many low-income minorities cannot afford to leave their jobs to attend jury duty (142). Due to this condition, juries remain disproportionately white. Consequently, there exists an unequal representation of race and class in the courtroom, potentially increasing the number of minorities institutionalized in prisons.
The institution of prisons and the practices of courts harbor an environment in which the criminal justice system fails to provide a smooth re-integration of ex-felons into society. The lack of white populations in the prisons aid the legislation of restrictive laws that keep minorities barred from social integration after prison (Behrens et al. 599). Specifically, racial differences in punishment reflect restrictions on voting rights that “dilute the voting strength of minority groups” (599). Considering the racial makeup of prisons, its locality, and the lack of attention paid to minority disadvantages, disenfranchisement severely handicaps ex-felons and their re-entry into society. The stamp of a criminal record already hinders employment opportunities and earnings potential. With ex-felons representing about eight percent of the working-age population (Pager 938), the restrictions ex-felons face in obtaining housing or government benefits perpetuate poverty in society (Manza and Uggens 502). Denying them voting rights “undermines their capacity to connect with the political system, and [thereby] increase[s] their risk of recidivism” (Manza and Uggens 502). These factors continue a cycle in which minorities face greater risk of entering prison and greater difficulty in transitioning back into society once released. Institutional racism within the criminal justice sphere fosters the likelihood of minorities entering prison. Moreover, it further cultivates lingering effects upon ex-felons, making it atypical for them to rise above their peripheral status in society.
In addition to the institutional racism prevalent in the criminal justice system, education institutions like the school board and test-maker organizations also establish racist policies that perpetuate poverty in society. Through modes of cultural and linguistic ignorance, institutions pay inadequate attention to the respective needs of minorities in the education system. This mode continues from basic to college education, as institutions continue to tailor their best educational resources and opportunities to those of the white middle class. In “Institutionalized Racism and the Education of Blacks,” Spears discusses the educational performance of black students. He argues that the poor academic achievement by black students is partially due to educational systems’ ignorance of their various linguistic and cultural differences (Spears 128). Spears states that the same criteria and practices applied to white students cannot simply be applied to black students. For each individual, one must take into consideration the background and manner in which they are best suited to learn and grasp material. The decision makers of school curriculums in the inner city do not understand the ways in which discrimination and deprivation alter how students learn and mature. Black students are victimized by the institutions that disregard their educational needs, and comparing their performance to white students who lack this victimization by institutionalized racism is a false evaluation. Specifically in regard to African Americans, this racism denies the same opportunities and services by which they can achieve a good life.
Test-maker organizations also perpetuate racism by ignoring the cultural differences of low-income and minority students. These organizations create tests that do not take into consideration the cultural, linguistic, geographic, social, and economic differences of black students, for example. The inferior education provided in these inner city schools creates difficulties in passing written or standardized tests for minority students (Knowles and Prewitt 61). In continuing education, university admission offices provide entrance to students who score high on a test that is geared towards white middle class high schools, not the inner city schools in which minority population is high (5). Even if these universities do not purposely implement racist practices, they unwittingly grant the white, middle, and affluent classes a higher education and a more financially secure future. The structures of education fail to prepare all students through methods of racial and class segregation, and minorities themselves lack the power to make these structural changes.
In the education system, school boards also exhibit forms of institutional racism by placing students in academic tracks based on ability. In “Tracking: From Theory to Practice,” Maureen T. Hallinan discusses the negative effects of placing children in these different tracks. She argues that this process fosters segregation, and the schools and school boards fail to take action to instate measures that prevent this segregation based on race, social status, and class (Hallinan 84). The racism prevalent in these tracking systems is evident through the overrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos in the lower tracks. Many schools in predominantly poor and minority neighborhoods offer a fewer percentage of higher track classes, in comparison to those in affluent white and Asian populated areas (Oakes 229). In addition, higher tracks vary across racial and economic lines. In schools with more minority and lower-income populations, evidence shows a disparity in the quality of resources and opportunities offered. For example, an Algebra 2 class in a minority-rich neighborhood might be taught by a less qualified teacher with a less rigorous curriculum than the same class in a predominantly white, prosperous neighborhood (229). Teachers themselves gravitate towards the white, affluent communities that offer higher pay and esteem, leaving the less wealthy communities with less-qualified teachers. Furthermore, high competition in the wealthier schools results in minority students having greater chances of college-track enrollment at all-minority schools. As a consequence, minority students receive an inferior quality of education in comparison, hindering the acquisition of human capital with which to compete in the labor market.
Repeatedly, spatial and geographic orientation is seen to either harm or foster a good quality of life, whether it concerns prisons and their peripheral location, or the inferior education prevalent in the inner city schools. Institutions within the urban planning sector, such as the city government, also influence the geographic location of individuals, defining zones and setting ordinances. Proximity to certain areas impacts one’s capability to obtain a job and remain in healthy living and working conditions. Primarily, the lack of consideration and recognition of the effects of zoning and urban planning reflects in the continuing poverty of minorities. The polarization of jobs and housing, for example, negatively affects the minorities who live in the metropolitan centers. According to Knowles and Prewitt in Institutional Racism in America, the “ghetto resident is left without the means to reach most jobs,” as city governments fail to provide low-cost, adequate transportation to the outlying areas where income potential is higher (Knowles and Prewitt 21). The majority of well-paying jobs follow the white middle class into the areas in which they live. This geographic mismatch leaves them outside the “major web of recruitment,” which occurs in the suburban spheres of economic development (Feagin and Feagin 47). As a result, those in the inner city are left with the low paying jobs that cannot suffice for a good quality of life.
In addition to this, minority families are often susceptible, through projects like urban renewal, to the dangers of noise, pollution, and other ills that only perpetuate a status of poverty and deprivation. These plans look to eliminate slum housing and replace it with private businesses that expand profit, forcing minorities in these locations out of their homes (Feagin and Feagin 107). With projects like highway construction to connect white suburbs, minority families are further displaced. White middle-class individuals can leave these locations with ease, whereas “the black people [evicted] by the bulldozers” find it extremely difficult (Knowles and Prewitt 28). Institutional racism lives within the city governments of the United States whose inaction and lack of recognition reproduces the adverse effects of decisions like urban renewal.
In addition to urban renewal, the city government also practices institutional racism as it relates to environmental racism. Specifically, environmental racism addresses environmental hazards and demographics, arguing the existence of “white privilege.” White privilege in this instance refers to the way in which white society has utilized their race to engender environmental racism, allowing people of color to inherit the hazards of urban development (Pulido 12). In many cities, whites have managed to move away from the industrial centers through suburbanization. In Los Angeles, however, many nonwhites have started moving into the suburbs neighboring the industrial core. As a result, these suburbs have now become an extension of the inner city, and central Los Angeles remains a largely nonwhite area (12). Yet, these same areas are also where the concentration of environmental hazards exists. Minorities are forced into the hazardous city center, and the city government allows these people to live in dangerous health zones. The government controls land uses and ordinances, and permits noxious land uses around areas such as central Los Angeles. This heightens poverty, creating an undesirable environment in which businesses cannot grow, job opportunities diminish, health conditions worsen, and the quality of life disintegrates.
Institutional racism rests within the structures of America’s society. Through the seemingly legitimate actions of these institutions, the effects of this form of racism continue to act as a pervading cause of poverty. Spatial relations, one of the most significant criteria in the status of poverty among individuals, often determines the wealth of opportunities and resources available to people. Whether this locality relates to one’s job, housing, or other aspects, geographic mismatch decidedly contributes to the perpetuation of poverty. In the sectors of criminal justice, education, and urban planning, the location of the prisons, the inner city schools, and the layout of homes and jobs create a web of disparity between minorities and the white, affluent class. The overt, subtle, and even ignorant actions of institutions in these sectors further reproduce poverty along racial lines, establishing conditions in which minorities are set at a considerable disadvantage in society.
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