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Structural and Institutional Racism

When most people think about racism, they think about the concept of individual prejudice — in other words, negative thoughts or stereotypes about a particular racial group. However, racism can also be embedded in the institutions and structures of social life. This type of racism can be called structural or institutional racism (hereafter ”institutional racism”), and it is significant in creating and maintaining the disparate outcomes that characterize the landscape of racial inequality. There are two main types of institutional racism. The first, which is called ”direct,” occurs when policies are consciously designed to have discriminatory effects. These policies can be maintained through the legal system (such as in the case of Jim Crow in the USA); or through conscious institutional practice (such as redlining in residential real estate). The second type, ”indirect” institutional racism, includes practices that have disparate racial impacts even without any intent to discriminate (such as network hiring in workplaces).

Institutional racism affects many areas of life, in particular education, housing, economic life, imprisonment, and health care. Indirect institutional racism also continues to affect the lives of people of color, and because it is unconscious, those who maintain institutional structures and policies may not be aware of its existence unless it is challenged by activists or lawsuits. For instance, the Rockefeller drug laws in New York State, enacted in 1973, include very heavy penalties for those selling or possessing narcotics. These laws were enacted with the intent of protecting communities from the scourge of drug sales but have lead to disparate imprisonment of young black men. This is because though individuals of all races use drugs at similar rates, young black men are disproportionately likely to use the particular drugs targeted by the Rockefeller drug laws.

It is much harder for researchers to find evidence of institutional racism than of individual discrimination. This is because it is possible for a set of guidelines to disadvantage a particular racial group while being consistently and fairly applied to all individuals. One of the most powerful tools that has been used to uncover evidence of institutional racism is the audit study method, where testers are matched on all characteristics except for race and sent to apply for jobs or housing. These studies present powerful evidence of the continued effects of institutional racism. For instance, Pager (2003) showed that white men with prison records and black men without prison records who are matched on other characteristics such as education and prior work experience are about equally likely to be hired for entry-level jobs. Similar research has shown that black applicants for home loans or rental apartments are much less likely to be approved, and that people searching for residential real estate are likely to be steered to neighborhoods which match their skin color.

While civil rights legislation banning discrimination both in the public sphere (voting and de jure segregation) and the private sphere (universities and housing developments) was passed in the 1960s with the aim of outlawing direct institutional racism, lawsuits are of limited utility when it comes to enforcing such legislation in the absence of concrete evidence of harm to specific individuals. Instead, the best ways to combat institutional racism include becoming conscious of its existence, drafting formal regulations that challenge it, and developing policies that respond to the historical disadvantages faced by communities of color.


  1. Pager, D. (2003) The mark of a criminal record. American Journal of Sociology 108: 937—75.
  2. Brown, M. K., Carnoy, M., Currie E., et al. (2003) Whitewashing Race:   The  Myth  of a Color-Blind Society. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
  3. Omi, M. & Winant, H. (1994) Racial Formation in the United States. Routledge, New York.

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