Institutional or structural racism refers to “the way the government and other public and private institutions systematically afford White people an array of social, political and economic advantages, simply because they are White, while marginalizing and putting at a disadvantage African Americans and many other people of color” (1). This is done, in part, through discriminatory laws and policies in the past and present.
Throughout history there have been a variety of discriminatory laws. On top of the commonly known laws that prevented blacks from entering businesses, restaurants, white schools or the front seats of busses, there have also been a variety of less-discussed racist policies that still affect social outcomes today. In 1862 the government sold 270 million acres of land for next to nothing to whites-only under the Homestead Act. Today 40 million whites are descendants of those who acquired the land and have inherited the intergenerational advantages of that transfer.
Other discriminatory laws affected home ownership and wealth in the past and continue to affect economic and social outcomes today. For example, for the first 30 years of its existence, the FHA gave home loans to whites only and opened up home ownership to millions of (white) Americans for the first time. It is these home loans that have been attributed with helping to create today’s white middle class (and with failing to create a similar black middle class because of discriminatory lending practices). You can learn more about the history of housing and how it affects social outcomes today with this interactive guide.
Even black soldiers who fought for the country and were promised access to home loans, business loans, job training and education through the G.I. Bill were denied the benefits they were promised, because the bill was designed so that states were responsible for divvying up the benefits. Because many states had Jim Crow laws on the books that denied blacks access to education, loans and more, many black soldiers who served the nation were denied access to the benefits they were promised (and which their white counterparts received). The federal government made no effort to step in and remedy the discrimination.
In addition, when Social Security was created in 1935, it did not give access to domestic and agricultural workers who were primarily people of color. Through the Wagner Act the same year, people of color were similarly denied the union protection afforded to whites and were pushed out of higher paying jobs. With the government’s building of highways, which helped to fuel the movement of whites (and their resources and jobs) into the suburbs, blacks were disadvantaged yet again.
As their neighborhoods were torn down to build highways, blacks were also excluded from many suburban neighborhoods. Jobs followed whites to the suburbs and left many people of color in low-paying jobs or jobless. Other policies prevented people of color from access to education. Even as my own mother was being born, people of color were still being barred from university education in many areas.
These past advantages still affect outcomes today, because many whites have benefited from the intergenerational transfer of wealth that our families were able to accumulate – wealth which people of color were unable to accumulate due to discriminatory laws, structural disadvantages, lack of access to education, lack of admittance into higher-paying jobs, lack of access to FHA loans, etc.
Because of these past policies, other structural problems and the continued “white flight” that occurs because of racial prejudice, residential segregation still continues today. And, because neighborhood determines the school you attend, schools in segregated neighborhoods of color often fare worse than schools in whiter (and wealthier) neighborhoods.
Whites like me have also received benefits from past racist laws through the legacy preference practices at Universities. Even after desegregation, colleges and universities had legacy programs which gave admissions preference to students whose parents/grandparents had attended the university. But, given the history of university segregation, this was an advantage that could only be given to white students. To hear other examples of how structural racism has given advantages to whites and disadvantaged people of color, check out this interactive tool and this video (start around minute 5:00).