Defining racism: Individuals and institutions, systems and structures
By Robert Jensen
Published in ABC Religion & Ethics · December, 2021
[An earlier version of this essay was presented to the National Conference on Racial and Social Justice on November 17, 2021.]
We are at a tipping point in the racial history of the United States — perhaps the most important moment since the civil rights and more radical black/brown/indigenous movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Two dramatically different currents in American life are gaining strength: white supremacy has reasserted itself in the mainstream of public life; and at the same time, a significant segment of white America is joining the struggle for racial justice.
Clichés sum it up best: This is the best and the worst of times, a crisis fraught with danger and opportunity.
So, let’s take a moment to define terms.
I know that sounds boring, but the expanded public space for conversation about racial justice in recent years has not always led to greater clarity in how we use words. For example, the terms systemic, structural, and institutional racism are often tossed into conversations without a commonly understood definition, which undermines effective communication.
There is not one correct meaning of such terms, and if there should be, I am not arrogant enough to think I can prescribe those definitions. But after more than three decades of writing, teaching, and organizing, this framework helps me understand complex problems and sort through potential solutions.
White supremacy and racism
Before addressing systemic, structural, and institutional racism, we should define racism itself. That starts with white supremacy, the historical system that emerged out of Europe about 500 years ago. White supremacy was not the primary motive for the European taking of much of the rest of the globe (that was mostly old-fashioned greed, self-aggrandizement, and delusional thinking), but a doctrine of white/European/Christian supremacy evolved as a justification for conquest and hardened into dogma.
Eventually that doctrine took root in places where Europe established settler colonies, including the United States and South Africa, perhaps the two most consistently and deeply racist societies of the twentieth century. European barbarism was not the first instance of one group of people exterminating or exploiting others, of course, but it is the beginning of the modern conception of racism. White supremacy established the racial hierarchy that we live with today, with one racial group’s domination asserted to be the “natural” order of things.
To put it simply: racism is an embrace of the idea of racial hierarchy, produced by an ideology of white supremacy, which can be expressed both by individuals and through the practices of institutions.
That helps us sort out a vexing question: Who can be racist in the United States? Is racism any prejudice based on racial differences? Under that definition, a black person who doesn’t want to associate with white people, and whites who don’t want to associate with blacks, are all racists. Racial-justice advocates usually reject that, defining racism as “prejudice plus power,” which means people of color can’t be racist given their lack of collective power in a white-supremacist society.
But power is not a simple commodity that one group has exclusively and other groups lack completely. Imagine a successful black business owner passing a white homeless person panhandling on the street. If they exchanged racialized insults, who do we label a racist? What if the business owner is an immigrant from Pakistan and the panhandler is black? Is a white person’s opposition to affirmative action programs evidence of racism? Does that assessment change if Chinese Americans oppose such programs?
Rather than searching for an algorithm to answer such questions, we can say that the modern idea of racial hierarchies, with northern Europeans at the top, is the product of 500 years of white supremacy. Absent white supremacy, those questions wouldn’t be asked in this fashion. Again, that doesn’t mean that people always lived in peace and harmony before the European conquest of most of the rest of the world. History offers many versions of domination and subordination, justified in many different ways. But the concept of race we live with today emerges out of white supremacy.
White supremacy is not static, of course. Laws and living conditions change, but the idea of racial hierarchies remains potent, and not only in the white community. When a non-white person from one racial group uses a racist slur against someone from a different non-white group, white supremacy is strengthened. For example, the anti-black racism in various Hispanic communities doesn’t prove that “everyone deep down is racist,” but rather demonstrates the power of white supremacy to pull us all into accepting hierarchical social arrangements.
That’s enough for us to proceed to an examination of racism at two different social levels (individual and institutional) with two different levels of awareness (overt and unconscious). In all these cases, we’ll see that racism is both an idea and a set of practices.
Individuals’ overt racism
People who say, “I believe white people are smarter than [fill in the blank],” or “White people should run the world,” are white supremacists. That’s not controversial, but such statements are not all that common these days, even from people who otherwise sound a lot like white supremacists. The Proud Boys, which many of us consider to be an overtly racist group, is sometimes described as “a white supremacist-adjacent organization” because most of its members avoid blatant expressions of racism.
What should we call people who belong to groups that do not embrace unequivocally racist statements but instead advocate for “white pride” or “Western chauvinism”? What about politicians who deny being racist but who denounce Critical Race Theory, which they mischaracterize as antipathy toward whites? Is it accurate to describe any of these people as overt racists?
Whether or not such folks think of themselves as holding racist ideas, they are supporting racist politics. The practical outcome of their position is to shore up white supremacy, whether they agree with that assessment or not. This smacks of telling people that they don’t understand themselves, that they have motivations for their politics different than they claim. But being unaware of what our words and deeds reveal about ourselves is not unique to white supremacists — a lack of complete self-awareness is a feature of being human. We are all influenced by forces we may not fully understand, which means we don’t always know ourselves very well.
Individuals’ unconscious racism
All of us who grew up in the United States were socialized in a white-supremacist society and influenced to varying degrees by that training. Through conscious efforts, we can minimize the effects of that training, but it is the rare white person who has transcended white supremacy. We should try to self-monitor as much as possible and stay open to critiques of our behavior from others. But self-monitoring is hardly foolproof, given how easy humans can self-deceive, and avoiding critique from others is easy, especially if we live relatively segregated lives.
That means that when white people begin a sentence with “I’m not a racist, but …,” the smart bet is that the next thing out of their mouth will be a racist comment. The phrase suggests a person lacks a well-developed capacity for critical self-reflection about that socialization. Most white people struggling to be anti-racist have learned not to say that. In fact, to demonstrate how seriously anti-racist they are, some white people will go the other direction, prefacing a comment with “I know I’m a racist, but …”. That phrase is no doubt well intentioned, signaling an awareness of that socialization, but is debilitating. If every white person — including those actively engaged in anti-racist education and organizing — is a racist, then the term is simply a synonym for being white. If the leader of the local neo-Nazi group is a racist and I’m a racist, then the term loses any useful meaning.
Failing to distinguish between the two groups matters. Imagine going to white people and saying, “We want you to commit to personal and political action to challenge racism, which includes critical self-reflection about how you have internalized white supremacy, but no matter how hard you work at that, you’re still a racist and always will be.” That’s a stunted view of human capacities for intellectual growth and moral reflection, and not exactly a great way to encourage people to embrace a movement for racial justice.
One common response to the messiness over adjudicating whether individuals’ words and deeds are racist is to focus on institutions. Rather than argue about who is and isn’t a racist, we can focus on what happens when people come together in groups. Yet we also interact daily as individuals, trying to understand one another. The macro analysis doesn’t eliminate questions about individuals and their motivations.
But it’s true that treating racism as nothing more than individual attitudes and behavior is inadequate for political change. The most common terms for this collective focus are institutional, systemic, and structural racism. I have never found widely agreed upon definitions of the terms, and sometimes they are used interchangeably. I want to suggest distinctions that might be analytically useful.
Social movements have brought significant changes — some legal, some cultural — that have greatly reduced the frequency of racist expressions and behaviors in the United States. Systemic racism suggests that the today’s racist outcomes are not the product of the proverbial “few bad apples,” but rather of how certain systems operate.
An example is the disproportionately high rates of disciplining black students in the US public school system, the result at least in part of black children being mistakenly judged as angry more often than white children. The staffs of the nation’s schools are disproportionately white, but white teachers are not more or less racist than the white population. However, assumptions and routine practices result in a pattern of teachers referring students for disciplinary action differently based on race. The problem we’re focused on here is not in the criteria for discipline or how classrooms are organized, which one may want to change for other reasons, but in how those criteria are applied.
In such a system, it would be possible to change racist outcomes by retraining existing personnel or replacing them with anti-racist staff, and hiring more teachers of color. Racism is systemic, in the sense of being present throughout the system, but not necessarily a permanent feature of the system. We can imagine the same system producing less racist outcomes with modifications. In the face of systemic racism, individuals’ actions can make a significant difference when people work together to change the routines and challenge racist attitudes and behaviors.
I suggest we use the term structural racism for systems in which white supremacy is more “baked in,” making a more fundamental change in structure necessary. Again, schools provide a good example.
In the United States, public education is funded partly through local property taxes. That means wealthier school districts can raise more money for education than poorer districts. That may be in general unfair, but it becomes structurally racist when we take into consideration two other facts: there is a racialized wealth gap, especially between white and black/brown communities; and the United States is still overwhelmingly segregated in terms of housing. The result is that black and brown children will, on average compared with white children, attend schools with fewer financial resources. Those students will go to schools with less experienced teachers, fewer technological resources, older textbooks, fewer enrichment programs, and school facilities not as well maintained. Those non-white children will not get, on average, an education equal to white children.
Public education is unequal in resource allocation, not because of individual attitudes and behaviors, but because of larger choices made long ago about structuring school funding, making it a kind of structural racism. Dedicated teachers working in such a system can lessen the effects of the funding disparities, but on average black and brown children will not get the same education as white children.
That leaves the term institutional racism, which could be a synonym for either systemic or structural racism, and people seem to use it both ways. In previous writing I used it to mean structural racism, but today I lean toward using it as an umbrella term for both the systemic and structural. Again, there’s not a single right way to define these terms. The goal is coming to shared understanding to improve communication, sharpen analysis, and guide policy.
What are the implications?
Clear definitions help us evaluate policy options. In our school examples, when the problem is systemic racism, there are certain remedies to pursue, mostly focused on improving or changing personnel, or instituting a review system so that racist patterns in decisions can be identified and reversed. That’s not easy but doesn’t necessarily require that the system be redesigned.
When the problem is structural racism, more fundamental changes are needed, which often is much harder. In the school funding example, one response would be to abandon local revenue sources and fund all public schools in the country at exactly the same level, which would require federal government oversight and revenues, which means additional taxes. That not only would be opposed by white supremacists but also goes against the idea that schools function best with active involvement of not only parents but local communities, which might be threatened by federal intervention.
If uniform public-school funding could be achieved, there’s still another hurdle: wealthier parents, who are disproportionately white, can enroll their children in private schools. To eliminate that disparity, should we cap private-school spending to the same per-student level as public schools, or even outlaw private schools altogether? An even more ambitious approach would be to reduce the racialized wealth gap by redistributionist policies. Since capitalism is a wealth-concentrating system, do we have to tame it with aggressive public policy or come up with a new way of organizing economic activity? Until then, should we institute policies that reduce housing segregation by increasing subsidized housing in every wealthy neighborhood?
Whatever one thinks of these potential solutions, they require significant overhauls, not just of public schools, but of the whole society.
Case study: Policing and prisons
A common focus of the discussion of racism over the past few years has been policing and prisons — the disproportionate use of force, including deadly force, against black and brown people, and the disproportionate rate of incarceration for black and brown people. Are these examples of systemic or structural racism, or both?
Many police forces include officers with racist attitudes, but the bigger problem is everyday routines. The problem is not just a few bad cops but a system that leads to police officers targeting black and brown people. When people with white-supremacist assumptions set policy, dictate procedures, and determine best practices, the result is systemic racism.
What if we were to go deeper and ask about the purpose of the criminal justice system in this society? Once we move beyond rhetoric about keeping people safe — which certainly is one things policing can accomplish — it’s clear that the legal system is also a system of social control in a capitalist economy marked by dramatic wealth inequality.
For example, drug use occurs in every society at every level, but criminalizing drugs leads to law enforcement focused on poorer people while largely ignoring the affluent, who take fewer risks when buying drugs and have greater resources to fight charges. Some critics have suggested the drug laws are designed to control the “dangerous classes” that threaten concentrated wealth. Meanwhile, warehousing poor people in prisons increases racialized wealth inequality and creates an incarceration economy, in which both owners of private prison corporations and working people who take jobs as guards in public prisons have a stake in protecting this approach to law enforcement.
The current crises in law enforcement and criminal justice are examples of both systemic and structural racism. Changes in hiring and training practices could potentially address the systemic racism. The structural racism poses a more difficult challenge. How much progress can be made in a capitalist system with its inevitable wealth inequality? Capitalism celebrates that inequality as the necessary motivation for innovation and production. Does the end of white supremacy require the end of capitalism?
And if we go deeper, another set of questions emerges: Are any of these changes likely without a simultaneous challenge to the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of patriarchy? Male dominance is the oldest social system — not just centuries but millennia old — that justifies one group’s power over another by claiming such domination is natural. Does the end of white supremacy require the end of patriarchy as well?
White supremacy, not whiteness
I have repeatedly referred to white supremacy but avoided the term whiteness. That term is in vogue these days but too often gets used in analytically sloppy fashion. Here’s an example.
In an email exchange I was part of, a white educator committed to anti-racism criticized an essay about the complex ways our brains make sense of the world. My colleague said that such analyses “that ignore or are unaware of how other cultures have looked at this, and only focus on Western science, are practicing whiteness blatantly.” There certainly are varied cultural traditions that provide insights into these questions, but I challenged the conflation of science and whiteness. Modern science emerged out of Europe, of course, but what does it mean to say that practicing modern science is “practicing whiteness”? Other traditions, with systems of knowledge that predate modern science, have much to offer, but modern science has expanded human knowledge in ways that are unprecedented. Is that statement, which strikes me as an uncontroversial observation about human history, somehow an expression of whiteness? If there are non-white people who agree with that statement, are they also practicing whiteness?
The essay in question discussed the complexity of the interplay of reason and emotion. I also pointed out that feminist philosophy, which I started reading in the late 1980s while in graduate school, also challenged a sharp reason/emotion dichotomy. But I wouldn’t say it’s patriarchal for neuroscientists to pursue these questions using the methods of their discipline. Sexism has shaped modern science in certain ways, as it has shaped every institution in patriarchal societies, but I wouldn’t say that the writer of that essay was “practicing maleness” because he focused on neuroscience and ignored feminist philosophy in a short newspaper essay.
This expansive use of “whiteness” as a pejorative can take strange turns. In a news story about the controversy over a professor’s argument against affirmative action, one of the sources quoted seemed to challenge the value of academic debate: “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.” Although the professor quoted has argued that her point has been distorted, what kind of intellectual life is possible if we reject the idea that people with conflicting theories and ideas should seek to resolve the conflict, which implies debate? Should we not strive for rigor, the careful assessment of evidence? Life is about more than theories and abstract ideas, and we don’t demand scholarly rigor in every aspect of everyday life. But in intellectual life, as we try to deepen our understanding of how the world works, debate is inevitable and rigor is essential.
The value of “objectivity” also shows up on lists of features of “white supremacy culture.” There are lots of reasons to critique how objectivity plays out in different professions, and I’ve written about the limits of so-called objectivity routines in journalism, suggesting that these routines can actually distort accounts of reality. But if objectivity means the attempt to get the most complete account of reality possible by searching for all relevant evidence, then how is objectivity a bad thing? Why is objectivity an outgrowth of whiteness? Would that mean that accepting incomplete accounts of reality is an outgrowth of non-white cultures?
Some people argue that narratives are just as important as more formal forms of inquiry, and I agree. We learn a lot from people’s stories. But honoring the value of narratives doesn’t mean taking everyone’s stories at face value without challenge. We are always making judgments about the information we take in, and the concept of objectivity, properly understood, is a good guide for those judgments. Objectivity in that sense doesn’t introduce bias but is a corrective to the potential bias that so easily sneaks into our thinking.
These kinds of assertions about whiteness are simplistic and counterproductive. Because they are so easy to caricature, reactionary politicians use them to undermine the struggle to press white America to come to terms with systemic and structural racism. Nothing is gained by reducing complex history to reflexive assertions of good (all things non-white) and bad (anything related to white). That’s actually a kind of binary thinking that progressive activists tell us, appropriately, to avoid.
Avoiding false alternatives
Anti-racist activists routinely emphasize the need to focus not just on changing racist individuals, but on the systems and structural features that embed racism in the culture. Fair enough, but the two are inextricably linked. The collective actions to overhaul or replace a system require the political power to make large-scale change. For movements to assert that kind of political power, they must be large enough to make demands that politicians take seriously, which means persuading more individuals to embrace anti-racist politics.
What does all this demand of us? Those of us who believe ourselves to be anti-racist need the conviction to remain committed to large-scale change while being self-critical. People who mistakenly believe that racial justice has been achieved need to recognize the need for deeper change. And people who hang onto overtly racist ideas and practices have to be challenged. All these efforts are important.
A social movement doesn’t need 100% public consensus to make effective change, but racial justice movements need more people on board. Changing the hearts and minds of individuals is part of the process of systemic and structural change, and it requires thoughtful conversations that can resonate with ordinary people, not jargon and dogma.
Groupthink is a real threat in any human project, and progressive social movements are not immune from developing an insider language that makes outsiders feel excluded or condescended to. An example is the trajectory of intersectionality.
Intersectionality began as a useful term to explain the limits of anti-discrimination law, which made it hard to bring claims that deal with both sexism and racism. From there, the term more generally came to be used to remind us how multiple systems of dominance play out in everyday life, especially the categories of race, sex, and class. The term challenges us to go deeper. But once it becomes jargon, it also can inhibit critical self-reflection.
The case study I’m most familiar with concerns the pornography industry. For more than three decades, I’ve been part of a radical feminist anti-pornography movement that argues pornography is not just harmless images of sex but one way the culture eroticizes domination and subordination — especially male domination and female subordination. Men routinely facilitate masturbation with images that include the sexualized degradation of women. But it doesn’t stop there. Pornography is also the most overtly racist media genre in the world, using every racist stereotype imaginable to increase men’s sexual pleasure by adding that form of domination/subordination to the pornography playbook. This production of endless images of objectified female bodies presented primarily for men’s sexual pleasure is fueled by capitalism, an amoral economic system that values only profit. Pornography produces a product for a market, without concern for the effects on the women used in the production, the women against whom pornography is used in sexual coercion, or the larger shaping of society’s attitudes about power and sex.
One might think that anyone with an intersectional analysis would oppose the pornography industry and challenge images that sexualize cruelty toward women and eroticize racism. But many people who consider themselves intersectional feminists reject this analysis and either refuse to critique the industry or even embrace it as a site of sexual liberation. I’ve talked to people who wave away the feminist critique as old-fashioned and out of date simply by saying, “I’m an intersectional feminist.” These folks typically defend their position with the claim that they are standing up for the women used in pornography, using the neoliberal term “sex workers,” falsely implying that critics of pornography blame the women used in the industry and deceptively suggesting that sexual exploitation is like any other work.
Why do people who identify as intersectional feminists ignore an intersectional analysis of pornography and other sexual-exploitation industries such as prostitution and stripping? Why do people who would be quick to condemn sexist and racist representations in mainstream media turn away from the much more intense sexism and racism in pornography? I’ve written about that elsewhere, but here will only point out that an important concept such as intersectionality that is so useful in addressing hard questions can also become jargon that people use to deflect attention from hard questions.
Embracing the messiness of our history
We need to seek clarity about complexity, carefully. The world is infinitely complex, far beyond human abilities to fully understand. So, we simplify. We create categories to organize reality, in order to help us cope with that complexity. That’s part of being human, but it requires eternal vigilance to make sure we don’t start to believe that our simplifications of reality are reality itself. History is messier than any human theory can account for.
Here’s my summary of that messiness: If we want to create a more just and sustainable world, we best keep two things in mind about racism — first, the United States is less racist than ever before; second, the United States will never overcome white supremacy.
That we are a less racist country can be demonstrated by a simple question: Would anyone like to return to the racial status quo in 1958, the year I was born? At the time, the United States was an apartheid society, based on the denial of citizenship to many non-white people. Racist cultural assumptions were the norm throughout the country, and violent assertions of white supremacy were common in certain regions. Time travel back to 1958? No thanks. How about 1968, when social movements were struggling to end apartheid? Even in 2008, when the United States elected a black president, were we a less racist country? Has there been a moment in US history that was less racist than today? If so, when was that? It’s important to acknowledge this progress if we want to be effective politically, and to honor the many people who struggled, suffered, took risks, and sometimes died to end American apartheid.
The argument that the United States will never overcome white supremacy is less obvious. I don’t mean that a progressive politics is doomed to fail, but rather that if white society could let go of white supremacy in all its manifestations, we would be a radically different country.
The land base and the phenomenal wealth of the United States are based on the almost complete extermination of the indigenous population to create the country; African slavery to create the wealth that propelled the country into the industrial era; and the twentieth-century exploitation of the Global South, often imposed through brutal military force. These three racialized holocausts have made the country the richest in the history of the world. All those holocaust-level crimes — involving millions of deaths, incalculable suffering, and the destruction of entire societies — were motivated by greed but justified by, and made politically possible because of, white supremacy. We will not transcend white supremacy until we can collectively tell the truth about those crimes. The society that could ever get to that place would be, I suspect, so different from the country we live in that it wouldn’t be the same country.
We’ve taken significant steps toward racial justice, and a long journey lies ahead. Both things are true and both things are relevant in trying to understand a complex world.
Social movements challenging deeply entrenched injustice need to be honest about the difficulty of that struggle. At the same time, those movements have to help people imagine that the more radical change in unjust systems is possible. Organizers develop strategies and slogans that emphasize “sí, se puede” (the slogan of the United Farmworkers, typically translated as “yes, we can”) even when success is unlikely, at least in the short term.
Strategies and slogans designed to motivate people, especially to stay committed over the long haul, are important. But those strategies should be based on careful assessment of the level of change needed to reach a goal and the impediments to that change. That analysis is aided by clarity in definitions, which is necessary to counter the tendency toward jargon and dogma that creates a sense of in-group belonging.
I realize this analysis reflects my personality. I like precision in language. I’m not energized by chants. When someone offers a slogan, my instinct is not to repeat it but to ask what it means. Both aspects of the human animal — the desire to come together with others in a cause that lifts our spirits, and the quest to deepen our understanding of a complex world — are integral ingredients to the struggle for a better world.
Passion is the engine drives history, but as my late friend and radical activist Abe Osheroff used to say, when we board that train of human history we should remember to bring along our carry-on luggage of critical reasoning.