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"Structural Racism: Focusing on the Cause,"

by Cliff Schrupp May/June 2007 issue of Poverty & Race

Thanks to Poverty & Race (Nov./Dec., 2006) for the detailed discussion on “Structural Racism.” There are some perspectives advanced in the various articles that can be useful for practitioners, like myself, who need to keep ourselves informed about the theoretical dimensions of “racism” as it is practiced by white individuals and by white-controlled organizations and institutions. The following is being written from the perspective of one white male individual who has spent his adult life attempting to positively affect both the behavior and attitudes of white persons and white-dominated organizations and institutions on the issue of race. The intent of this article is to help focus some of the actions being taken to address the issue of racism on the basic cause of the problem, actions that are based on the myth of white racial superiority.

The Myth of White Racial Superiority

There has been a tendency among some social and civil rights theorists to properly identify “white racism” as the problem in race relations, and then focus most of their analysis and recommendations on remedying the symptoms of the problem in African-American communities. While such discussions and actions are often appropriate and necessary, they do little to address and change the root cause of the problem within the white community: actions that are based on the myth of white racial superiority. This article will attempt to offer some suggestions, primarily based on my own experiences, on ways to challenge, confront and change behaviors in the white community based on that myth.

This venture into addressing the cause of the problem is taken with knowledge of, and great appreciation for, the position taken by many African Americans that attempting to change white folks is a waste of time and resources. (Randall Robinson, in Quitting America, asserted: “America will always be a society of antagonistically opposed racial awareness. We will always be the majority’s afterthought, modified Americans, parentheticals.”) However, I am a white person, and I am responsible for the racist actions and behavior of myself and other white persons, organizations and institutions. My efforts, and the efforts of other persons of all races and nationalities, to challenge, confront and change the racist behavior in the white community may prove to be inadequate and futile, but without these efforts the certainty of continued actions based on the myth of white racial superiority is assured.

The very helpful “structural racism” analyses included in Poverty & Race are part of the effort to change the racially-based behavior of white-dominated institutions and social structures in the United States. There were some very practical suggestions made in the articles concerning institutional policies and behavioral changes that, if implemented, can help produce more equitable results, but little new insight concerning how to obtain the racially directed changes from white-dominated institutions that have consistently resisted racially-directed corrective actions. This article is intended to add to the “structural racism” discussion some thoughts on ways to generate positive changes on the issue of race from white individuals and white-dominated institutions.

In the 1960s, when civil rights activists began using the phrase “institutional racism,” one of the ways we used to help participants in seminars and action projects understand the subject matter was to define “institution” as “an organized social structure that makes decisions for which no one takes personal responsibility.” Without thinking about the issue of race, many people were, and still are, acquainted with the jello-like responses of many social structures to complaints about policies or procedures. In an effort to achieve the desired change, we are left with the often futile task of identifying someone, or some group, in charge who will authorize the desired change. The lesson: institutions, or social structures, do not change themselves. They change because someone, or a group of someone’s, has decided, for whatever reason, that change is necessary and they are in a position to effectuate that change. The implication for the discussion of structural racism is that there is a clear and crucial relationship between a structural racism analysis and an analysis of how we move individuals to the point where they make, or assist in making, those decisions that will positively change policies and practices of institutions and social structures in relation to the issue of race. The following discussion points to one of the ways that has worked, and is still working, to prompt individuals and groups of individuals in the housing industry to make positive institutional and social structure changes in relation to the issue of race.

Fair Housing Education/ Law Enforcement

When the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit (FHC-Detroit) was organized in 1977, the organizers recognized that there were two models for addressing and changing the racially discriminatory practices of members of the housing industry: fair housing education and fair housing law enforcement. FHC-Detroit, and most of the 90+ other private, non-profit fair housing organizations in the U.S., concluded that their first priority was assisting in effective fair housing law enforcement, with the expectation that strong enforcement of fair housing laws will prompt an environment in the housing industry that will make fair housing educational efforts desirable and effective. The strategy proved effective and continues to be the primary operating strategy of most of the fair housing groups in the U.S.

A few examples of the effectiveness of the “enforcement” strategy of FHC-Detroit may be helpful. Other private fair housing groups in the U.S. report similar positive examples.

  • When FHC-Detroit was organized in 1977, virtually no rental, sales or mortgage lending firm felt the need to provide fair housing training because “there have been no complaints or lawsuits against us.” Today, after over 390 FHC-Detroit-assisted housing discrimination lawsuits have produced in excess of $9,000,000 in awards and settlements for the plaintiffs in those lawsuits, virtually every major rental management and real estate sales firm in the metropolitan Detroit area employs persons to be in charge of their fair housing employee education programs. FHC-Detroit staff have been hired by over 30 such firms to train in excess of 3,000 housing industry employees on fair housing laws. Some of the persons trained now take those laws seriously and attempt to follow those laws.
  • In 1998, FHC-Detroit began to annually present “Fair Housing Leadership Awards” to members of the housing industry who have taken important and often courageous actions in support of fair housing practices. Included among the award recipients have been African-American agents and brokers who have openly and publicly challenged the racially discriminatory practices of white members and institutions in the industry; white real estate agents who have informed FHC-Detroit and the FBI of threats to the life and safety of themselves and their African-American buyers by white neighbors who objected to the possibility of having African-American neighbors; a white sales agent who refused a request by a retired State of Michigan District Court Judge to disclose the race of the buyer of his $64,000 residential property. The seller took the house off of the market and the agent informed the buyer and FHC-Detroit of the unlawful actions of the judge. The buyer, an African-American Gulf War veteran, filed a federal lawsuit that was settled with a $35,000 payment to the plaintiff.
  • The Michigan Association of Realtors, prior to 1977, had opposed both state and federal fair housing legislation and had attempted to ignore fair housing issues. Since 1977, it has encouraged fair housing educational programs and requirements for sales agents and brokers; has publicly praised and presented awards to some of the real estate sales agents who have received FHC-Detroit Fair Housing Leadership Awards; has become the first statewide Realtor Association in the U.S. to contract with a private non-profit fair housing group to conduct fair housing tests of Association members.
  • Top officials of three rental management companies, each of which were defendants in previous FHC-Detroit-assisted litigations, have come forward with critical evidence of racial discrimination by the owner of a multi-family housing complex in Livonia, Michigan. Their evidence has prompted a major racial discrimination lawsuit filed by FHC-Detroit and the U.S. Department of Justice (FHC and U.S. v General Properties Company, Case #05-71426, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division).

There is little reason to believe that the still far-too-few positive fair housing actions of the real estate professionals and the firms that employed them would have occurred absent the motivation provided by 30 years of fair housing enforcement and litigation activities. Effective housing discrimination investigations and litigation activities have become the major tool for prompting behavior changes in the housing industry, especially changes by industry leaders who make key policies and practices decisions that can positively impact the behavior of employees and other members of the industry. When an employer who had previously not even talked with his/her employees about fair housing now says that following fair housing laws is a condition of employment, employees tend to listen.

What this suggests in relation to the issue of structural racism is the importance of improving and developing effective ways to positively impact choices and decisions made in relation to the issue of race by white individuals who control the institutions and structural arrangements in the U.S. We already know many strategies that have not worked particularly well: focusing on class distinctions and glossing over racial inequities; hoping that lower- and middle-class whites will identify more with their similarly situated African-American brothers and sisters than they do with the white-dominated institutions that employ them; waiting for the next generation of whites to be better than the previous one; informing white folks of the negative impact of our decisions on African Americans, with the naive expectation that increased knowledge of inequities will produce positive behavioral changes in the white community; promoting “diversity” as a goal without dealing with the past and continuing reality of white racism and white-skin privilege; holding Human Relations Day luncheons and dinners.

We also know that there have been very few actions that have been effective tools to positively change the decisions and choices made by white persons. Legal actions, where possible, have been helpful—especially in relation to voting rights, public accommodations, employment discrimination and housing discrimination. The argument that “diversity” and “fair and equal” practices are “good business practices” that positively impact the “bottom line” has been cited by some, but not very many, business executives as reasons for improved racial behavior. Actions by units of government, especially the U.S. military, to train personnel on human relations issues and to enforce equal opportunity requirements have had positive impacts both within and outside of the military. Informal “affirmative actions,” long practiced by white folks to help ensure that other white folks receive the benefits of white-skin privilege, have been reluctantly extended to include some African Americans, but when “affirmative action” policies are incorporated into public policy by units of government or educational institutions they face much public, and an increasing degree of judicial, opposition.

Needed: Changing White Attitudes and Decisions

Other than noting the positive impact of some corrective actions in the housing industry, this article is simply a call for increased attention to the issue of changing the racial attitudes and decisions of white individuals as a necessary part of effecting positive institutional and structural changes in relation to the issue of race. To repeat: Institutions do not change themselves. Lawsuits that expose unlawful practices have had a positive impact on white behavior in the housing industry. We know how to open up the housing industry to examination and, with the assistance of laws and the courts, produce positive changes. What else is working in other institutions? This article is a call for social scientists, and other academics, to continue efforts to expose the negative impacts of white behavior on African- American persons, and help us focus some efforts toward addressing the basic cause of our racial problems in the U.S.: actions that are based on the myth of white racial superiority.

Cliff Schrupp is Executive Director of the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit.

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