Social Justice Usage
Refers specifically to the ways in which institutional policies and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups. The institutional policies may never mention any racial group, but their effect is to create advantages for whites and oppression and disadvantage for people from groups classified as people of color.
New Discourses Commentary
Institutional racism is a concept that has to be parsed carefully because there are a few subtly different meanings in play when it is discussed, and the term is commonly used and thus a site for considerable confusion. On the one hand, many people understand “institutional racism” to be racist policies enacted by institutions (including governments), such as Jim Crow laws or discriminatory hiring policies. This understanding is, perhaps rightly, considered too strict and narrow by advocates of Social Justice following legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which explicitly outlawed institutional racism of this kind.
Social Justice advocates tend to opt for a subtler definition of the term, though this still creates some confusion. As written above, the term refers “to the ways in which institutional policies and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups.” The confusion that arises on this point is that for people sufficiently far-removed from the Social Justice mindset, institutional racism doesn’t follow without racist intent to the policies, while for those closer to the Social Justice understanding (or speaking from it), intention doesn’t matter (see also, impact versus intent).
To understand the Social Justice usage of this term, then, it is crucial to recognize that racist intention as we would normally understand it is irrelevant, and even racist outcomes don’t necessarily matter; all that is necessary is disparate outcomes based upon racial group. In fact, from the perspective of Social Justice, the use of narrow definition that many people believe is meant by the term “institutional racism” is itself an act of racism, used to obscure the realities of institutional racism and thus maintain it.
Intention is, however, relevant in another way from the Social Justice perspective, which is in the sense that Theory tells us that power and privilege seek to maintain and legitimize themselves. Thus, even if there are no racist intentions, or those are irrelevant, there will in fact be hidden racial motivations with the effect of creating “advantages for whites and oppression and disadvantage for people from groups classified as people of color” (see also, minoritize, mask, code, internalized dominance, racial contract, white supremacy, and white solidarity).
The critical mindset in Social Justice is designed to identify those hidden dominance-preserving assumptions and motivations and expose them so that they might be disrupted and dismantled. That is, while it doesn’t matter for institutional racism to have occurred if any racial animus or bias is present in the people who crafted the relevant policies or not, if any racial disparities occur that benefit white people, racial motivations were present, at least in a systemic or implicit sense (see also, system).
The biggest problem with the Social Justice understanding of institutional racism is that it ascribes to racism, which is a highly morally salient term, any disparities in outcome that end up with white (or white adjacent) groups above other groups, no matter what are the actual causes of those disparities. This means that a highly charged term, racism, is attached to something that might be arising as a result of a different variable (like economic status, home condition, cultural mores, etc.) that correlates highly with race. Because it then proceeds from a Theoretical position in which white people are mostly unconsciously motivated to maintain their alleged social dominance, there is almost no way to disagree with such an accusation and attempt a better, more effective and accurate analysis of the policy and its outcomes. This can prevent understanding the necessary components of the issue that could generate genuine progress and thus is likely to hurt the people it aims to help most.
Bias; Code; Critical; Dismantle; Disrupt; Dominance; Impact versus intent; Implicit bias; Internalized dominance; Legitimate; Mask; Minoritize; Oppression; People of color; Privilege; Progress; Racial contract; Racism (Systemic); Social Justice; System, the; Systemic power; Theory; White; White solidarity; White supremacy
Revision date: 2/4/20