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"Why Structural Racism? Why a Structural Racism Caucus?,"

by Anne C. Kubisch November/December 2006 issue of Poverty & Race

The term “structural racism” has gained traction in recent years as a way of describing how racial dynamics are playing out in 21st Century America. Of course, using the word “structural” to characterize societal inequities has a long history, and even joining the term “structural” with ”racism” is not new. But current usage of “structural racism” has brought with it some important efforts to reconceptualize and clarify the significance of race in our post-civil rights society, where discrimination is against the law, Latinos are the largest minority group, African Americans are occupying some of the most powerful positions in the country, and other core tenets in our national racial consciousness are undergoing significant change. It represents a new effort on the part of a cross-section of academics, advocates, practitioners, civil rights leaders and social policy analysts to highlight current racial disparities, explain why race continues to be such a potent predictor of socioeconomic well-being, and identify the implications for policy and practice.

Structural racism has both theoretical and practical dimensions, and there has been an important, if not yet seamless, interaction between the academic and practitioner communities as the concept has been developed. The academic origins lie in critical race theory and studies of whiteness, power and privilege. These have focused on the notion of race as a social and political construct that works to maintain the advantages associated with whiteness and the burdens associated with color, even as laws, policies and practices change. More applied researchers have conducted studies that identify, analyze and explain how racial outcome gaps persist in key sectors that determine opportunity and well-being—notably income, education, employment, housing, health, criminal justice and political participation. Within the academy, therefore, there has been some lively scholarship that has provided a new lexicon, a framework for examining racial dynamics, and data and analysis to inform policy discussion.

From the practitioner perspective, the last decade has seen some refreshing and empirically based re-examination of why poverty and other “rotten outcomes” persist in a nation with such a vibrant economy. While some have developed strong arguments that emphasize individual responsibility for successes and failures in life, others have tried to identify and understand why it is that opportunities to exercise individual responsibility are not distributed equally across class and racial groups. This has opened up new lines of communication and collaboration between the civil rights and social/economic justice communities. Practitioners in fields such as education reform, economic development and social services have renewed their interest in investigating the special barriers to improving outcomes for the poor and disenfranchised that are caused by interracial dynamics and racism, and are re-evaluating the extent to which these dynamics are being factored into anti-poverty strategies.

The Structural Racism Caucus

In 2004, a group of scholars and practitioners who had been working independently on various pieces of the structural racism puzzle came together to form a network of support and collaboration called the Structural Racism Caucus (SRC). Its mission is to eradicate racial hierarchies by applying a structural analysis to social, economic and political inequities, and promoting research, messaging, advocacy and change strategies pertaining to structural racism. The Caucus has identified four lines of work to promote its mission:

  • Articulating and making available theoretical and definitional aspects of structural racism. This is focused on refining the functional definition of structural racism and developing more accessible information about how structural racism is manifested in specific issue areas, as well as in local, regional and global contexts.
  • Informing the development of strategies and tools to promote change. The Caucus identifies existing strategies and tools to further communities’ and advocates’ abilities to incorporate a structural analysis in their efforts to achieve racial equity, and it serves as a coordinating space to support the development of new strategies, techniques and tools. For example, one set of tools might help organizations define and promote racially equitable outcomes in particular sectors, such as education or housing. Another set of tools might relate more to capacities and actions required to organize communities to make demands on the public sector and hold public agencies accountable to their constituents.
  • Amplifying messages about structural racism to the social justice and social change field through a range of communications strategies. This implies developing the capacity to speak to a variety of general and elite audiences–in government, media, business, nonprofits, community-based organizations—to help spread the racial equity message and as a strategy to engage them in the change process. The SRC uses a website for some communications (), but also develops strategies using newspaper articles, op-ed pieces, white papers, television/radio appearances and so on.
  • Bridging, and bringing more coherence to, fragmented efforts around issues of race. The Caucus convenes key players, shares information and coordinates collective work.

It should be noted that not everyone is comfortable with making structural racism a dominant frame for analyzing, talking about and working on the problems of inequity in America. Even among those who are committed to reducing racial disparities, there are some who believe that the term structural racism will alienate potential partners; they advocate a more pragmatic and universalist approach that organizes around “embedded disadvantage” or “equal opportunity.” The Structural Racism Caucus is based on the premise that a structural analysis must underlie all equity work in order for that work to be successful, and that a place that champions this perspective is a critical part of the change landscape. It emerges out of historical experience demonstrating that unless the issues surrounding race and racism are intentionally and energetically kept on the table, they tend to fall off the table, even among progressive social change activists.

The Work Ahead

This new racial analysis has allowed practitioners, policymakers and funders to see why their traditional social and economic development programs are falling short, and has challenged them to identify more, different and new strategies that account for the undermining effects of structural racism. While there is still a long way to go before specific strategies and tools are found that will undo structural racism, there are at least two general categories of thinking and action that seem to be promising.

First, the structural racism lens points out the systemic and interrelated causes of persistent poverty. For example, inadequate housing and a weak local economy result in a low tax base which leads to lousy schools that produce poorly prepared workers who can’t make a living in a restructured economy, which means that they don’t bring enough income to their families and communities to provide adequate housing and a decent tax base. Our siloed, categorical way of designing social interventions inevitably falls short of addressing these inter-related problems in a holistic way, and the structural racism analysis requires us to re-examine our basic assumptions about how to bring about change. Though the structural approach may seem “too big,” we ignore it at our peril and end up placing unrealistic expectations on narrow, programmatic, bandaid-like solutions. Instead, we must be ambitious and creative about strategies to complement and enhance the tools we have in our program tool-box.

Second, the structural racism lens emphasizes the context within which we are attempting to mount social, economic and political change. This includes:
  • The values context that allows Americans to operate with the mindset that we live in an equal opportunity nation, where everyone has a chance for self-improvement and where lack of success is due to flaws in individual ability and effort.
  • The knowledge context that normalizes racial inequities and allows Americans to accept statistics about disproportionality in, for example, the educational or criminal justice systems as “just the way things are.”
  • The cultural context that permits racialized images and stereotypes to persist in the media.
  • The psychological context that reinforces a sense of entitlement on the part of the white population and a sense of “non-entitlement” and low societal expectations on the part of people of color.
  • The political context in which power is exercised in ways that sustain white privilege.

Having now articulated a framework for understanding how racialized outcomes continue to be produced in 21st Century America, the challenge is to keep pushing on how to operationalize change using this new framework. Strategies are likely to include adding political and communicative dimensions to our traditional programmatic and technical approaches to change. They are likely to require coalitions of various types, depending on particular strategic entry points for change. They are likely to emphasize cross-sectoral interventions. The Structural Racism Caucus is a vehicle that can keep the flame lit; encourage those who are undertaking critical new research and analysis; support the hard work of strategy and tools development; create a powerful message and voice around addressing structural racism; and keep people in touch with one another.

An example of the potential of the Caucus is the amicus brief recently prepared by SRC members regarding the two Supreme Court cases in Seattle and Jefferson County, Kentucky about use of race in student assignment in public schools. The brief uses a structural racism argument to support consideration of race in determining where students go to public school. The authors point out that public schools in both locations are segregated and unequal because of the convergence of tax policies, housing policies, education financing and other policies, in addition to race and class dynamics. This results in poorer schools for people of color. Therefore the fundamental democratizing institution in our society—the public education system—is actually reproducing racial hierarchy due to the cumulative effects of public policies and practices. The amicus brief is an example of the kind of work the SRC is undertaking to enhance the reach, power and influence of a message that can ultimately undo structural racism.

Anne C. Kubisch is Co-Director of the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change and a Member of the Structural Racism Caucus.

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