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"Is Racism Permanent? A Symposium (Part 2),"

by Ron Mincy November/December 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

Despite the progress of African Americans and other minorities in the last three decades, racism remains an enduring feature of American society and, therefore, still requires close attention and action. By racism, I mean the combination of prejudice and power that enables members of one race or ethnic group to oppress another. Today, however, efforts to combat racism should focus increasingly on its institutional forms. The importance of individual racism has been blunted by public attitudes toward race relations, although the resurgence of racially motivated crimes against minorities by groups such as the "skinheads" and majority students on American college campuses suggests a reversal of this trend. Furthermore, changes in law have created formal mechanisms for redress, which at least impose costs on those who commit individual acts of racism. Institutional racism, however, remains a powerful and comparatively untouched barrier to true racial equality in America.

Institutional racism arises when barriers to minority progress become woven into the operating procedures of a variety of institutions that provide or deny opportunity. For example, institutional racism is pervasive in public policy, especially at the federal level in the executive branch. Candidates for top positions in policy analysis and policymaking are very often graduates of our most prestigious universities. If we want the best and most well-trained minds to work on the most pressing national problems, this is sensible strategy. Nevertheless, minorities are underrepresented in our elite universities, and therefore opportunities to serve in top policymaking or policy-analytic positions (and opportunities to serve in positions that enable one to acquire the knowledge, experience, and contacts to qualify for top positions) rarely go to minorities. The result is that policies on a variety of questions from revitalizing urban America, to health care, to environmental racism are developed without the insights and perspectives of minority communities that are deeply affected.

Institutional racism is also deeply rooted in our economy, because of the legacy of individual and institutional racism in business and education, and modern procedures operating in credit markets. The legacy of individual and institutional racism is partly, though not entirely, responsible for low levels of wealth accumulation among minorities especially African Americans. Without wealth, aspiring African American entrepreneurs must approach credit institutions, which are dominated by members of the majority group, with business proposals offering debt:equity ratios that do not meet prevailing standards of risk taking. Even when equity is not the problem, American banking has adopted procedures that require rates of return far in excess of those used in other countries and in excess of current rates of inflation. As a result, many attempts by minority business people to get loans for their projects are denied.

Because of their low rates of business ownership, African-Americans are rarely in a position to make final employment and contracting decisions that provide real opportunities for other people in our society. Face it: employment discrimination, redlining, opportunities for professional and career advancement for lawyers, engineers, accountants would all be less critical problems if more black people owned a variety of businesses through our economy and were able to meet their business needs through informal networks. Until you can come to the table with command over resources, so that there is real interdependence, there is no basis for racial equality. Despite the growing number of minorities in middle and upper management positions in corporate America, most must defer final employment and contracting decisions to supervisors, owners, or stockholders, who are members of the majority group. As long as this situation prevails, minority managers cannot fully exploit informal networks of qualified minorities who need opportunities to hone their skills, build their track records, expand their networks.

Combating institutional racism will be no easy task. First, the victims of institutional racism are often unable to trace particular procedures to any prejudicial motive. Elite colleges are effective screening mechanisms for the most qualified candidates, and high debt:equity ratios are needed to ensure that a business venture can overcome inevitable fluctuations in the demand for a new product. Second, corrections to institutional racism often require affirmative action solutions, which discriminate against members of the majority group. Finally, procedures that create barriers to minority progress often exist in most organizations in the same industry or field. The would-be reformer must always answer the question: "Why is it appropriate to change our procedures, when our counterparts or competitors are doing business as usual?" This requires reform efforts to be well conceived and articulated, and exposes the reformer to risks that most people would prefer to avoid.

Ultimately, combating institutional racism represents choices that were not as clear-cut as those made in the battle against individual racism. So often the latter involves the denial of basic rights based upon race, which flies in the face of basic American values. By contrast, the former often involves a competition between historical legacies and contemporary equality. This is more difficult to sort out. For these reasons, critical thinking and strategic action is required to overcome institutional racism. Otherwise, the goal of racial equality of opportunity will remain little more than a hollow and superficial claim.


Ronald B. Mincy was until recently a member of PRRAC's Social Science Advisory Board and has just joined The Ford Foundation as a Program Officer.


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