Structural or Institutional Racism

When most people think about racism, they think about the concept of individual prejudice – in other words, negative thoughts or stereo types about a particular racial group. However, racism can also be embedded in the institutions and structures of social life. This type of racism can be called structural or institutional racism (hereafter, institutional racism) and it is significant in creating and maintaining the disparate outcomes that characterize the landscape of racial inequality.

The term institutional racism was first used by Carmichael and Hamilton in 1967 with the intent of differentiating individual racist acts from what we can describe as policies or practices that are built into the structures of various social  institutions  and  which continue to operate even without the active support and maintenance of individuals. Institutional racism has probably been with us for as long as human societies have been formally or legally divided into races. There are two main types of institutional racism. The first, which can be called “direct,” occurs when policies are consciously designed to have discriminatory effects. These policies can be maintained through the legal system (such as in the case of apartheid in South Africa or Jim Crow in the US) or through conscious institutional practice (such as redlining in residential real estate or underfunding urban public schools). The second type, “indirect” institutional racism, includes practices that have disparate racial impacts even without any intent to discriminate (such as with network hiring in workplaces).

Institutional racism continues to affect many areas of life, in particular education, housing, economic life, imprisonment, and health care. Indirect institutional racism also continues to affect the lives of people of color, and because it is unconscious, those who maintain institutional structures and policies may not be aware of its existence unless it is challenged by activists or lawsuits. For instance, the Rockefeller drug laws in New York State, enacted in 1973, include very heavy penalties for those selling or possessing narcotics. These laws were enacted with the intent of protecting communities from the scourge of drug sales, but have led instead to disparate imprisonment of young black men. This is because though individuals of all races use drugs at similar rates, young black men are disproportionately likely to use the particular drugs targeted by the Rockefeller drug laws.

Institutional racism affects people of color in many aspects of their lives. Sociologists and other researchers continue to seek empirical evidence of institutional racism as they study such questions as the black-white test score gap and its effects on college admissions. However, it is much harder for researchers to find evidence of institutional racism than of individual discrimination. This is because it is possible for a set of guidelines to disadvantage a particular racial group while being consistently and fairly applied to all individuals. One of the most powerful tools used to uncover evidence of institutional racism is the audit study method, where testers are matched on all characteristics except for race and sent to apply for jobs or housing. These studies present powerful evidence of the continued effects of institutional racism. For instance, Pager (2003) showed that white men with prison records and black men without prison records who are matched on other characteristics such as education and prior work experience are about equally likely to be hired for entry level jobs. Similar research has shown that black applicants for home loans or rental apartments are much less likely to be approved, and that people searching for residential real estate are likely to be steered to neighborhoods which match their skin color.

While civil rights legislation banning discrimination both in the public sphere (voting and de jure segregation) and the private sphere (universities and housing developments) was passed in the 1960s with the aim of outlawing direct institutional racism, lawsuits are of limited utility when it comes to enforcing such legislation in the absence of concrete evidence of harm to specific individuals (Crenshaw 1995). Another limitation of strategies designed to combat institutional racism is that they may be coopted. For instance, affirmative action was designed as a program to combat institutional racism in education and employment. Lawsuits targeting affirmative action programs, such as Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, have suggested instead that affirmative action policies themselves are direct institutional racism, since they supposedly provide an advantage to particular racial groups. However, as Justice O’Connor pointed out in her majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, institutional racism still limits the access of students of color to selective higher education institutions. Though these difficulties make it hard to find ways to combat institutional racism, analysts suggest that becoming conscious of its existence is the first step. Brown et al. (2003) then suggest that the best steps to take include setting up a formal regulatory apparatus to challenge institutional racism when it exists and to develop policies to deal with the ”legacy of disaccumulation” in communities of color.


  1. Better, S. J. (2002) Institutional Racism: A Primer on Theory and Strategies for Social Change. Burnham, Chicago.
  2. Bobo, L. D. (2001) Racial Attitudes and Relations at the Close of the Twentieth Century. In: Smelser, N. J., Wilson, W. J., & Mitchell, F. (Eds.), America Becoming: Racial Trends and their Consequences, 2. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, pp. 264 301.
  3. Brown, M. K. et al. (2003) Whitewashing Race: The Mythofa Color Blind Society. University of Cali­fornia Press, Berkeley.
  4. Carmichael, S. & Hamliton, C. (1967) Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America.
  5. Crenshaw, K. (Ed.) (1995) Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. New Press, New York.
  6. Law, I., Phillips, D., & Turney, L. (Eds.) (2004)Institutional Racism in Higher Education. Tren-tham, Stoke-on-Trent.
  7. Lieu, T. A. & Hacker, A. (1992) Two Nations: Black and White: Separate, Hostile, Unequal. Scribners, New York.
  8. Omi, M. & Winant, H. (1994) Racial Formation in the United States. Routledge, New York.
  9. Pager, D. (2003) The Mark of a Criminal Record. American Journal of Sociology 108: 937 75.

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