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/.

On Starbucks, Other Employers, and Racial Bias

While I took my break from the blogging world on the week of Memorial Day, Starbucks had racial bias training for its employees.

The reviews of the racial bias training from the general public were about as mixed as the reviews are for their lattes and cappuccinos. Some thought of this as a necessary step, while others were skeptical as to whether one afternoon of racial bias training would have any impact on individuals.

I will not use this post to review their racial bias training or racial bias training in general, because there are probably hundreds of other sites doing the same. Instead, I’m here to suggest that Starbucks and other employers should not just look at the racial biases of their rank-and-file employees but also at their own leadership’s racial biases. Likewise, we as consumers should look at the biases of not just rank-and-file employees but also at the leadership of companies.

Without looking both outward at employees and inward at the employer’s leadership, one ends up with a company like Starbucks, a company that outwardly gives the façade of attempting to be just but inwardly has its own biases. Those biases are demonstrated through the company’s stunning refusal to open up stores in neighborhoods dominated by people of color (even neighborhoods dominated by people of color that are middle class, such as my neighborhood in Queens). If you doubt me, look at how many Starbucks are in Harlem (in New York City), Chicago’s South Side, Baltimore excluding the parts around the Inner Harbor or Johns Hopkins University, or Philadelphia outside of Center City and the area near the 30th Street Station. Indeed, Starbucks’ bias training feels like a façade for its own biases.

However, I am not here just to pick on Starbucks, because the fact is that Starbucks is not the only large organization guilty of having bias training while having its own biases. For example, Google’s bias training has existed much longer than Starbucks’, yet their demographics demonstrate that there is bias somewhere along the way: their workforce is severely lacking in black and Latino employees, for example. The New York City Public Schools will spend millions in racial bias training for its educators while allowing a school system that is severely segregated. They are just two of numerous employers that have training to try preventing racial bias while continuing to have their own unconscious biases as an organization.

This is not to suggest that the racial bias training should end at these organizations—I am not enough of an expert (yet) on them to give an answer on that. What I am suggesting, however, is that we can’t just look at the racial biases of a barista at Starbucks or a public school teacher in New York City, but also the racial biases of those who decide where to open up Starbucks or those who decide on policies that segregate schools further in New York City. After all, if we fail to look at organizations’ racial biases, from top to bottom, we will find ourselves blind to a significant amount of racial injustice.

IMAG1017
Southeast DC is predominantly black. It is also almost completely lacking in Starbucks, just like many other American neighborhoods where people of color are in the majority. This picture taken by me.

Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected Where I Went to School

I went to a great elementary school from 5th to 8th grade, a high school I loved, and a great college. While I sometimes had small complaints, such as having too much homework or dealing with the stress of end-of-year exams, I was extremely lucky to get the education I received.

However, for several months in 2004, the educational system in New York viewed my family as a family of color (even though we’re white), and the results for a time cast uncertainty over where my younger brother would go to kindergarten.

This uncertainty was the result of institutional racism, or racism that is practiced and sometimes even normalized by social, economic, governmental, and other institutions.

The beginning of this story was during the 2003-04 school year, when my family was trying to get my younger brother into the kindergarten program at the public magnet school I went to at the time (which drew students from districts throughout New York City’s borough of Queens). What happened was that the school changed its “sibling policy”—the school previously had automatically admitted siblings of students already attending the school, but the policy changed so that siblings of students were limited to being somewhere between 10% to 20% of new student admissions.

The justification for this policy was to diversify the school—administrators viewed the school as drawing “too many” students from certain districts throughout Queens and “too few” students from other districts; the “too many” were usually from districts that predominantly had students of color, while the “too few” were usually from districts that predominantly had white students. In order to diversify the school, the sibling policy was changed so that the school didn’t get many more kids from districts drawing “too many” kids (mostly districts of color, as I said earlier). Indeed, as someone at the New York City Department of Education told my parents, administrators wanted more kids from places like Bayside and Douglaston (neighborhoods in Queens that were extremely white). In other words, they wanted more white kids at the school and fewer people of color.

At this point, you’re probably reading this and saying the following: “Now, wait a minute, Brendan…you’re white! You’re not a person of color! So what do you or your family have to do with all this commotion?”

Where we came into the commotion was that the school system viewed my entire family, including my brother, as people of color. Since I lived in a Queens neighborhood dominated by people of color, the system viewed my brother as a person of color and therefore as a person who would not achieve the goal of giving my school a more “diverse” student body (more white people). Basically, the educational institution in New York viewed my family as people of color for several months in 2004, and as a result my brother couldn’t get into the kindergarten program we wanted to get him into. My parents said nothing to argue with this misperception because they didn’t want to use our race to give my brother an advantage on the sole basis of the color of his skin.

Then things changed.… Once the educational powers that be saw me mark myself as “white” on a standardized test, they realized that my brother was probably also white and they suddenly offered him a seat at the school. It was too late, though, because my brother started kindergarten at a Catholic school he loved, and I transferred to that school.

The story ended on a positive note for my entire family because we had the money to pay for Catholic elementary school for my brother and me and avoid the public school system entirely after transferring.

However, as I’ve shared this particular story in talks with friends, I have found out about people who had similar issues in their own school systems, but were not so lucky because they were people of color who came from families without many economic resources. Indeed, institutional racism in education prevents some great kids from having the educational opportunities they deserve.


Note: If you missed my previous two posts in my series on institutional racism, please refer to my introductory post for the series and the post on how institutional racism affected where I (and others) live.

Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected Where I Live

All things considered, I am tremendously blessed to live where I do. While I have some small complaints, such as occasional noise issues or the yard being too small, I also have great neighbors, a variety of transit options, restaurants I enjoy, and a relatively safe neighborhood. Needless to say, when I talk about how institutional racism has affected where I live, I am discussing this from a position of privilege.

Indeed, institutional racism, which I defined in a previous post as racism that is practiced and sometimes even normalized by social, economic, governmental, and other institutions, helped my family afford to live where we ended up, and also resulted in my family living where we did (instead of somewhere else).

To understand how institutional racism helped my family afford to live in our current house, I should start by going back in time, not to 1999 (the year my family bought our current house), but to prior decades….

Back in the 1970s, my neighborhood was about as white as you can get, and in fact my neighborhood was the epicenter for the Italian mafia. However, people of color started to move into my neighborhood during the 1970s, and that movement accelerated during the 1980s and 1990s. By the time my family was looking for homes in my current neighborhood in 1999, it was a heavily West Indian neighborhood and most whites had fled the neighborhood. This was one example of white flight, or whites fleeing their neighborhoods to escape an influx of people of color moving in.

White flight usually depresses property values in the affected neighborhoods;[1] declining property values as a result of white flight is a form of institutional racism. In fact, white flight depressed property values in my current neighborhood so much that it became an affordable neighborhood for my family! In other words, institutional racism meant that my family could afford to live where we currently live.

However, white flight was not the only thing that had an impact on where my family ended up. Another factor was a facet of institutional racism in real estate—the fact that, at least at the time, realtors tended to mostly show us and other whites houses which were surrounded by white neighbors (which in turn would continue a form of racial segregation). This was the case even though my family made it painfully clear that we loved the West Indian culture in our current neighborhood (a love of culture that goes back to when my dad did graduate school research in Trinidad). As a result we ended up in what was, at the time, one of the small white enclaves of what was otherwise a heavily West Indian neighborhood. My family ended up where we live because of institutional racism.

In the end, though, things worked out for the better, in my family’s case. While my neighborhood is by no means perfect, I love the neighborhood in which I live. Indeed, institutional racism affected where I live, and in my case, it has affected where I live for the better. With housing, I benefited from institutional racism. However, many people are not nearly as fortunate as I have been.

[1] There are a variety of opinions as to what causes this to happen. A Washington Post article from last year cited a report from Brandeis University saying that the issue is white buyers steering away from neighborhoods with any black population, while sociologist David R. Harris (then at the University of Michigan, now president of Union College) says that sometimes race affects property values while at other times it is socioeconomic status that affects the values.