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"Toward a Structural Racism Framework,"

by Andrew Grant-Thomas & john a. powell November/December 2006 issue of Poverty & Race

For many people, the term “structural racism” mystifies rather than clarifies. Popular confusion around what is meant by the term hampers our collective ability to build on the real gains made by two generations of anti-racism activism. With the end of Jim Crow laws and a clear decline in the most blatant forms of interpersonal racial discrimination, critical race projects often lack the explanatory clarity needed to effectively ground the ongoing struggle against racial inequity in the 21st Century. As a result, anti-racist efforts can prove ineffective, even counterproductive. The absence of a clear understanding of structural racism also supports the cynicism of people who regard as “whining” any analysis that departs from strict individualist interpretations of racial inequality today.

The discussion of structural racism we present in this article and employ in the work of the Structural Racism Caucus emphasizes the powerful impact of inter-institutional dynamics, institutional resource inequities, and historical legacies on racial inequalities today. These factors do not alone determine the depth or scope of racial inequality. In arenas from employment to housing to health care, interpersonal racial bias remains an active and powerful contributor to racial inequality. Economic booms and recessions, globalization, and technological and medical innovation certainly matter. Insofar as group “culture” is an adaptation to restrictive (or expansive) opportunity structures, cultural factors may also play a role. On the other hand, the social structures we emphasize promote racially inequitable distributions of social, political and economic goods and services even in the absence of avowed “racists,” even absent self-sabotaging behavior by racial minorities, and notwithstanding the play of macroeconomic, cultural and other large-scale factors. Any promising attempt to dismantle the underpinning of durable racial inequality must account for the structural dynamics we highlight here.

Traditional Approaches to Thinking about Racism

In terms of our understanding of racism, the last 50 years of activism and theorizing around race and racial inequality seem to have left us back where we started. Today, both popular and scholarly definitions of racism similarly refer most often to beliefs and belief systems, to feelings, or to behaviors based on race. Four features of this common sense about the nature of racism deserve mention:

On one hand, because we associate feelings, beliefs and behaviors primarily with individuals, most accounts imply that racism is first and foremost a matter of individual agency. According to this conception, racism is lodged in the hearts and minds of individuals and made manifest by the words they speak, the actions they perform and the thoughts they harbor. The essentialist tinge of this construction is clear: One is or is not racist, all the time or never. As a rule, people’s words and actions also are interpreted as racist only if they are intentionally enacted to produce outcomes that injure some or benefit others. Finally, for many, racism requires that the offending word or act be race-targeted.

Although the individualist, essentialist, intentionalist and race-targeted model of racism reflects our present common sense about the nature of racism, anti-racism efforts have long recognized the model’s weaknesses as a general or inclusive account of racism. “Institutional racism” was the designation given in the late 1960s to the recognition that, at very least, racism need not be individualist, essentialist or intentional. Institutional racism can be prescribed by formal rules but depends, minimally, on organizational cultures that tolerate such behaviors. Racist institutional decisions neither require nor preclude the participation of racist individuals. In Jim Crow laws and anti-miscegenation statutes, many observers saw that the law, the institutions it governed and even the broader culture itself related differently to African Americans than to whites. Those institutional and cultural practices generated a dynamic only partly dependent on the racial attitudes of the people engaged in them. This suggested that while racist individuals had to be monitored and possibly reformed, rehabilitating our key social, political and cultural institutions was even more critical to the achievement of racial justice.

The institutional racism framework reflects a broader recognition of the forms through which racialized power is deployed, dispersed and entrenched. However, while elucidating ways in which racism is often non-individualist, non-essentialist and non-intentionalist by focusing on intra-institutional dynamics, this framework fails to account for the ways in which the joint operations of social institutions produce important outcomes. This is a crucial gap, for it is often the interaction between institutions, rather than the operation of each in isolation, that generates racial group disparities. Whereas both the individual and institutional racism frameworks emphasize dynamics triggered immediately by race, racism and racial inequality often originate in treatment inspired by non-race factors (e.g., class status, religious belief, language) that interact with race in patterned ways. This kind of secondary racism, a function of inter-institutional relations, forms the leading edge of structural racism.

The Structural Racism Framework

We review and critique the theoretical frameworks of individual racism and of institutional racism, not to suggest that they are irrelevant to understanding racial inequality today, but rather to underline their incompleteness. This is not merely a matter of semantics. Each framework represents vastly different ways of understanding the contemporary production of racial inequality. Each identifies different causes and implications, and points to different strategic responses. We present the structural racism framework as one that offers important additional insight into the nature of racism today and as a model for effective social praxis.

One’s capacity to flourish, or “to lead a life one has reason to value,” as Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen describes it, is contingent on access to opportunity. Opportunities, as we define them here, are resources and services that contribute to stability and advancement. Access to opportunity is not equally available to all. In American society, opportunity is produced and regulated by institutions, institutional interactions and individuals, jointly and differentially providing and denying access along lines of race, gender, class and other markers of social difference.

From both the individual and institutional racism perspectives, racist treatment attaches directly to the victim’s race; the difference lies in the degree to which each sees racism as institutionally constrained. Where the individual racism view focuses on race-targeted, discretionary treatment, institutional racism speaks to the race-targeted and procedural (i.e., rule-based) dimension of racism. As institutional racism shifts our focus from the motives and actions of individual people to the practices and procedures within an institution, structural racism shifts attention from the single, intra-institutional setting to inter-institutional arrangements and interactions. “Inter-institutional arrangements and interactions” are what we mean by “structures.” We turn away from the internal dynamics of institutions, not because those dynamics are incidental to the production of racial inequality, but because we want to highlight the degree to which (and means by which) inter-institutional arrangements themselves shape very important results.

Because Americans often take individual people to be the main vehicles of racism, we fail to appreciate the work done by racially inequitable structures. But, in fact, all complex societies feature institutional arrangements that help to create and distribute the society’s benefits, burdens and interests. These structures are neither natural nor neutral, as Harvard Law Professor Roberto Unger argues. And just as we cannot account for or address the impact of institutional racism by only considering a given individual’s actions or psychological state, we cannot adequately understand the work structures do simply by looking at the practices and procedures of a single institution, as political philosopher John Rawls underscores. Iris M. Young uses Marilyn Frye’s bird-in-the-birdcage metaphor for illustrating the works of structures. If we approach the problem of durable racial inequality one “bar” at a time, it is hard to appreciate the fullness of the bird’s entrapment, much less formulate a suitable response to it. Explaining the bird’s inability to take flight requires that we recognize the connectedness of multiple bars, each reinforcing the rigidity of the others. In confronting racism we must similarly account for multiple, intersecting and often mutually reinforcing disadvantages, and develop corresponding response strategies.

We can describe a social system as structurally racist to the degree that it is configured to promote racially unequal outcomes. For example, a society marked by highly interdependent opportunity structures and large inter-institutional resource disparities will likely be very unequal with respect to the outcomes governed by those institutions and opportunity structures. Whether that inequality assumes a racial caste will depend, in part, on the racial conditions in place when the current structural configuration came into being, conditions that will have been shaped in turn partly by the previous structural configuration. The dynamic established by initial conditions can be very durable indeed. In a society that features structural inequalities with respect to opportunities and institutional resources, initial racial inequality in motion will likely stay in motion. But, again, actual outcomes, including the depth of inequality, will depend substantially on non-structural factors, dynamics at the individual and intra-institutional levels not least among them. A thorough analysis of a given racial disparity will look to all three levels.

Social Opportunity as a Function of Inter-Institutional Dynamics

Institutional actors matter, not only because of the social goods under their immediate purview (schools and education, hospitals and medical care, faith-based organizations and spiritual guidance, among others), but also for the variable terms of access they offer to other institutions and to social networks. The operation of different institutional actors within and across domains such as education, employment, health care and criminal justice jointly produce social opportunities and outcomes. This interdependence has profound implications for transmitting inequality across domains and for remedying inequality. But how is racial inequality, in particular, introduced into the system in the first place? Part of the answer lies at the level of interpersonal and intra-institutional processes, which is why we underline the insights of the individual and institutional racism perspectives. Another important part of the answer is given by history.

The Sediment of History

We argue that there are powerful causal links between historically grounded arrangements and conditions and present inequalities. The general failure to recognize them owes to several factors. For one, many people, especially white Americans, mistakenly believe that racial equality has already been achieved, not only in terms of the law and popular sensibilities, but in terms of group outcomes as well. Six in ten white respondents to a 2001 national survey by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University believed that blacks had equal or better access to health care than whites do. Half thought blacks and whites had similar levels of education, and half thought blacks enjoyed comparable job status.

Perhaps the most important reason for past-present myopia in this context is the one highlighted by the structural racism framework—the inappropriately narrow construction of racism that sets the terms of the racial inequality debate in the United States. If we insist that racism can only take recognizably individualist, essentialist, intentionalist and race-targeted forms, then, indeed, with the demise of Jim Crow laws the connections between the past and present are relatively few and largely symbolic. But what if we relaxed the assumption that racism attaches only to people, policies and practices that intentionally discriminate on the basis of race? What if we agreed that racism is best defined with respect to the outcome it produces (racial inequality), rather than with reference to its specific content or intent? From this conceptual vantage point it becomes clear that the legacies of the past remain deeply implicated in the production and reproduction of racial and ethnic inequality in a variety of ways.

For example, the roots of contemporary wealth disparities between whites and nonwhites lie mainly in historical public and private sector practices that allowed millions of white, but not black, families to buy homes and build equity in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. The FHA funded sales in racially homogeneous white neighborhoods and favored the purchase of homes in the suburbs. The underwriting manual for home mortgage insurance disseminated by the federal government was forthrightly racist.

The federal government also pushed home buyers to adopt covenants that precluded the sale of subsidized homes to nonwhites. While both racial covenants and racist mortgage insurance policies were declared unconstitutional in 1948, their legacy prompted private companies to engage in redlining practices that continue to shape housing market outcomes. The effects of those policies play out in the huge contemporary gaps the intergenerational transfers of wealth.


We believe that interpersonal and institutional racisms remain potent contributors to the persistence of racial and ethnic inequalities. We also acknowledge the likelihood that a range of other factors not discussed here also play important roles. But we also insist that any approach to remedying inequality that does not account for the role of inter-institutional arrangements and interactions and historical legacies is likely to fail or, at best, enjoy only partial success.

Borrowing from Sociology Professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, we can list four ways in which a structural racism approach troubles and refigures more conventional frameworks, with important implications for analysis and policy intervention. First, in contrast to the individualist discourse, a structural understanding conceives of racism as a societal outcome. Second, while traditional conceptualizations of racism understand it as a static phenomenon, a structural understanding sees racism as a dynamic force recognized more for its effects than for any particular content. Third, while traditional approaches identify only race-targeted treatment as possibly racist, a structural understanding underlines the significance of both overt and covert modes. Fourth, traditional understandings of racism conceive of it as a historical phenomenon whose presence in 21st Century America can only be regarded as anomalous. The structural perspective understands contemporary disparities as partly derivative from norms and conditions established long ago, including some established without racial intent.

Andrew Grant-Thomas is Co-Founder and Co-Developer of EmbraceRace and works as an independent consultant. Formerly Senior Researcher at the Harvard Civil Rights Project and Deputy Director at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity, he has written, spoken, and worked on a wide range of race-related issues. agrantth
john a. powell , a PRRAC Board member, is Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and holds the Williams Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University.

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