Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected How I, and Others, Were Policed

From a young age, I was taught that as long as I didn’t look for trouble, I wouldn’t get in trouble with the police.

Thankfully, for me, that has been the case. I’ve never looked to cause any trouble, even with something relatively harmless like marijuana, and I haven’t gotten into trouble.

But because of institutional racism, which I defined in my introductory post in the institutional racism series as “racism that is practiced and sometimes even normalized by social, economic, governmental, and other institutions,” the story is often different for those who don’t look Caucasian.

For example, some of my brother’s elementary school friends who were people of color got into troubling situations with the police, even though they weren’t looking to cause trouble (yes, you read that correctly: elementary school). For example, these friends were often searched thoroughly by police under a practice in New York known as “stop-and-frisk,” even though there was zero evidence of their carrying weapons. On the other hand, you never heard similar tales from my brother’s and my white friends or from my Caucasian family. It was therefore no coincidence that the bias against people of color in stop-and-frisk was so severe that some people called it “walking while brown.”

These stories seemed to fit with the actual statistics on stop-and-frisk. For example, a May 2012 New York Times article cited by Forbes said that “85% of those stopped were black or Hispanic even though those groups make up about half of NYC’s population.” With a statistic like this, there is validity to the claim that someone is stopped for “walking while brown.”

Readers might be looking at these statistics and thinking, “Fine…you have stories and statistics, but where does the institutional racism come in?” To find the answer, it’s important to look at how stop-and-frisk was justified—it was justified by saying that people who are deemed a threat need to be stopped. Hence, by using stop-and-frisk disproportionately on people of color, an institution (the police) was sending the racist message that a disproportionate number of people of color were a threat.


While stop-and-frisk in New York City is much less common than it once was, the idea among many law enforcement institutions that people of color are still a threat still exists. From two people of color getting arrested at a Starbucks in spite of doing nothing wrong to a graduate student at Yale having her ID taken away after she slept in a common room and was getting called in as a potential threat by a white student, there are still widespread stories of people of color—many of whom are doing nothing wrong—being treated like threats and criminals.

In contrast, similar stories are never heard of from light-skinned people like me. You see a white person sleeping in the common room at college? The thought is that, “Oh…the person has studied a ton. No big deal.” You see two white people at a Starbucks waiting to meet with someone? You don’t think anything of it, probably. But people of color doing these things are viewed as a threat by many people, law enforcement or not.


As I said in the beginning of this piece, I was taught from a young age that I would not get into trouble if I didn’t seek trouble. As it turns out, though, I might not have gotten into trouble even if I had sought some trouble.

At the same time, I recognize that it is a different story for friends of mine who are people of color. It is a different story because of the startling disparities between the way whites are policed and the way people of color are policed. Indeed, institutional racism exists in the way that I, and others, are policed.

Silent_march_to_end_stop_and_frisk_and_racial_profiling
This image is from a march against racially disproportionate policing. The racial disparities in the way practices like New York City’s stop-and-frisk was implemented raised concerns about racially disproportionate policing. By longislandwins [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

Update as of November 24, 2019: While this series on institutional racism ended long ago, the issues I addressed in this post have become relevant again due to the renewed scrutiny on Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy while he was Mayor of New York City. In case you were wondering, the stories and statistics I have of stop-and-frisk in this post are from Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure in New York. The current scrutiny over this tactic exists because he declared his candidacy for President of the United States today, just one week after he apologized for his use of the tactic while he was mayor.

I am hoping that this post serves as a reminder that, regardless of his apology and regardless of whether you believe in his apology, the institutional racism that led to Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk is still relevant.

As for readers who didn’t expect a post from me until after Thanksgiving, sorry about that. I figured that this post is too relevant not to re-publish right now.

White Supremacy and Prisons

United States Women’s Soccer Team star Megan Rapinoe has become the most recognizable figure of that team, not just because of her play, but because of her outspokenness on issues ranging from race to LGBTQ+ rights. She was also the most controversial figure, because she knelt when the American national anthem was played before games.

But one side of her that some people may not know is that she has a brother—a brother she loves dearly, but a brother who has been on the wrong side of the law numerous times, who has spent time in prison, and who became a white supremacist for part of his time in prison.[1]

But here’s the thing—Megan Rapinoe’s brother, Brian, is far from a microcosm. He’s far from a microcosm because white supremacy has become increasingly widespread in prisons.

The Anti-Defamation League, back in 2016, observed the spread of and increase in white supremacy in our prison system, to the point that at least 35 states had at least one white supremacy prison gang at the time. These supremacy gangs have perpetrated violence; most notably, the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, which is one of the most prominent prison gangs in the United States, was responsible for 33 murders in Texas between 2000 and 2015.[2] And the violence is not isolated to Texas, either—Aryan Brotherhood prison gang people were also responsible for directing killings and drug smuggling from prisons in California.[3]

And yet, in spite of all the white supremacy in the American prison system, this is an issue that doesn’t seem to get that much attention. There are some racial justice and criminal justice organizations attuned to the realities of white supremacy in American prisons, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Vera Institute of Justice, but it’s an issue that I’ve never heard come up in mainstream dialogues about criminal justice reform.

But that should change. And here is why this issue needs more attention from all of us:

  1. It is a criminal justice reform issue, because if we want prisons to be a place for people to reform, we should not have prisons full of white supremacy groups that ruin lives instead of restoring them.
  2. It is a public safety issue, for white supremacist actions in prisons kill people.
  3. It is a national security issue, because violent white supremacists are terrorists, too.
  4. It is an issue of use of taxpayer money, because having prisons that perpetrates white supremacy (whether it be intentional or unintentional) is a dreadful use of taxpayer money.
  5. It is a racial justice issue, for white supremacy is antithetical to racial justice.

But how do we get this change, from a prison system where white supremacy is allowed to thrive to a system which doesn’t allow for this? I think that it needs to start with getting more knowledge about white supremacy in prisons. For most readers of this piece, getting more knowledge means knowing that white supremacy in prisons exists in the first place. For local and state governments, getting more knowledge about white supremacy in prisons means: a) figuring out what a prison gang is in the first place[4] and then b) figuring out the nature of what white supremacy prison gangs are like (and how much white supremacy in prisons is gang-related or not). For the Anti-Defamation League and similar organizations devoted to religions, ethnic, racial, and/or social justice issues, getting more knowledge about white supremacy in prisons just means continuing their work and hopefully learning more.

As much as I have a desire to end pieces on this blog with big solutions to big problems, I can’t really do that here. Before talking about solutions,[5] governments in particular really need to gain a better understanding of this problem than what they currently seem to have.


[1] https://www.espn.com/soccer/fifa-womens-world-cup/story/3878587/why-megan-rapinoes-brother-brian-is-her-greatest-heartbreakand-hope

[2] https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/white-supremacist-prison-gangs-in-the-united-states

[3] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/leaders-of-white-supremacist-prison-gang-charged-in-killings

[4] On page two of the Anti-Defamation League report on white supremacy in prisons, it is noted that “there is not even agreement among prison officials as to what constitutes a prison gang.” Considering the fact that the problem with white supremacy in prisons may be related to white supremacy gangs in prisons, it seems like governments may not fully understand this problem, let alone have solutions:  https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/combating-hate/CR_4499_WhiteSupremacist-Report_web_vff.pdf

[5] The Anti-Defamation League talked about potential solutions. My personal opinion is that, while they seem to have interesting ideas, not a single suggestion seems to be preventative in nature (in other words, preventing people behind bars from getting taken in by white supremacy ideology in the first place): https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/white-supremacist-prison-gangs-in-the-united-states

On Telling People to “Go Back to Their Home Countries”

A few weeks ago, President Donald Trump garnered controversy and rightful accusations of racism when he said over Twitter that four first-term congresswomen of color—Ayanna Presley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar—were told to “go back to their home countries” and fix them. 

The immediate response by all involved was focused on President Trump himself. Some people (mostly Democrats, with a few Republicans) condemned President Trump’s remarks and/or President Trump himself as racist, while others (mostly Republicans) said that the remarks were unfortunate, but those others stopped short of accusing the President of being a racist. 

However, since this conflict happened a few weeks ago at this point, I think that we need to look at President Trump’s remarks within a larger context: the fact that it is sadly quite common for people in the United States to be told to “go back to their home countries,” and that this rhetoric as a whole, as well as the root of this rhetoric (a fear of difference) needs to be confronted.

I have never experienced anyone telling me to go back to my home country, but I know of and know personally people who have. Those who are told to “go back to their home countries” are often told so for one or more of the following reasons: they are speaking in a language other than English, they have an accent that doesn’t sound American, they are critical of the United States in ways that some may not like it, and/or they just don’t “look American” (often, “looking American” is these days implied as looking European[1]). I’m sure that there are other reasons that people are told to “go back to their home countries”, but most of the time, it’s one or more of those four reasons that comes up.

These reasons, of course, do not justify the hateful rhetoric that certain people who are in the United States by legal means do not belong here. Not by a longshot. However, these reasons do give some insights as to the sorts of prejudice we’re up against when people suggest that others should “go back to their home countries”—we’re up against prejudices which believe that a person who doesn’t speak a certain language (English), a person who has a doesn’t have a certain type of accent, a person who doesn’t adhere to a certain political ideology, and/or a person who doesn’t look a certain way (white) is not American and is not deserving of being in the United States of America. In other words, we’re up against prejudices that are the product of a fear of difference, whether it be fear of different languages, fear of different political leanings, and/or fear of different skin colors.


[1] It should be noted that the definition of what it means to “look American” has changed though over the course of American history.

Institutional Racism Series: A Conclusion

While I was working on a post to conclude this series on institutional racism, I did a Google search of “institutional racism polls” (mostly to get a sense of seeing how many Americans believe in the existence of institutional racism). The first two results for this search showed commentator Ben Stein saying that there is no more institutional racism in America.

It’s ironic that the first two results for this search show Ben Stein denying the existence of institutional racism because, actually, I think that my series of posts on the subject shows the opposite. The series demonstrates that institutional racism exists, even in 2018.

This institutional racism exists in housing systems, school systems, policing institutions, and colleges. It exists in many other institutions that I did not mention in my blog series. It exists in so many places that someone could quite possibly run a whole blog on the subject of institutional racism.

So if you ever question the existence of institutional racism, or run into someone who questions or doubts the existence of institutional racism, I hope that people can look at the posts in my series and say: “Wait…institutional racism exists, in America, in the 21st century.” After all, it’s difficult to fix racism as a whole without realizing the existence of institutional racism.

Note: While this is my last post in my series on institutional racism, it’s possible (maybe likely) that I will still make some individual posts related to institutional racism.

Previous blog posts from my series on institutional racism:
“Introduction”
“Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected Where I Live”
“Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected Where I Went to School”
“Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected How I, and Others, Were Policed”
“Institutional Racism Series: How it Affects College Experiences”

Institutional Racism Series: How it Affects College Experiences

“There are injustices happening here and we will speak regardless of us being silenced in the classroom, regardless of administration not paying attention to us, we’re going to speak.”[1]

This was said by a student at my college during protests in my senior year of college. Yes, this was said in 2015. Not 1955.

The quote at the beginning of this post is only a microcosm of what has been expressed by people at college campuses across the United States: there is institutional racism, or racism that is practiced and sometimes even normalized by social, economic, governmental, and other institutions, at colleges and universities across the United States.

This institutional racism can be subtle to some, so subtle that I (and probably many others) didn’t even recognize the existence of these forms of racism during most of my college experience. But for others, institutional racism is ingrained in their college experiences.

There are so many forms of institutional racism at college campuses that, for the sake of brevity with this post, I’m going to go into brief explanations with three types of institutional racism that many colleges show[2] and that I often noticed:

  1. Descending into stereotypes of a particular racial group. One of the recent infamous examples happened at a New York University dining hall, where a menu “celebrating” Black History Month descended into certain harmful stereotypes about southern cuisine and black people by serving “ribs, collard greens, cornbread, smashed yams, mac and cheese and two beverages, red Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water.”[3] However, NYU is sadly far from the only institution that has been institutionally racist through descending into stereotypes of a particular racial group.
  2. Viewing nonwhite people a just a number, or part of a number. Every time a college talks about their diversity rates, they are viewing nonwhite people as numbers. Every time they talk about the percentage of students at their colleges who are minorities, they are viewing nonwhite people as numbers. Viewing nonwhite people as numbers is a form of institutional racism, as this type of racism is one where nonwhite people are viewed as not having worth beyond being part of a statistic.
  3. Turning a blind eye to various racial injustices at campus. From inaction towards racial slurs (which has happened not just at my alma mater, but at many other campuses) to a stunning refusal to confront common stereotypes that people of different races often face on campus (blacks being viewed as “beneficiaries of affirmative action” being one of the notable ones), many a college campus just seems to ignore racial injustices. These injustices continued to be ignored by many college campuses in spite of the outspokenness of many student leaders. This is institutional racism of a sort as well, as the type of racism demonstrated by institutions is the idea that people of color are not worth listening to.

Some people may think of higher education institutions as places where high-minded academia can overcome some of the racial vitriol that exists elsewhere. I challenge those of us who think this way to think again, and to open our eyes to the institutional racism that affects many college campuses across the United States.


[1] https://thedickinsonian.com/news/2015/11/18/students-stage-black-out-calling-it-the-start-of-a-movement/
[2] There are certainly other types of institutional racism beyond the three that I cover here. People who want to bring attention to other forms of institutional racism at college campuses should feel free to reply in the comments section for this blog post.
[3] https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/22/us/nyu-kool-aid-watermelon-menu-black-history-month-trnd/index.html. Watermelons and Kool-Aid in particular have histories as racial stereotypes. This article from The Atlantic covers the racial dynamics of watermelons: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/how-watermelons-became-a-racist-trope/383529/.