What are structural, institutional and systemic racism?

In the fight for racial equality, words matter. We explain some common terms that might help you.

ByJulian Glover and Ken Miguel KGO logo
Thursday, July 9, 2020
How to explain structural, institutional, systemic racism
What is structural? What is institutional racism? What is systemic racism? We explain the definition and also look into examples that impact people of color including African Americans.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- In the fight for racial equality, words matter. Building a Better Bay Area means understanding some of the terms that are being used to define the Black Lives Matter movement.

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Here's some common terms that might help you.

Structural, institutional and systemic racism broadly refer to the "system of structures that that have procedures or processes that disadvantage African Americans," said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University.

According to the NAACP, it refers to the rules, practices and customs once rooted in law with residual effects that reverberate throughout society. But they each come with their own nuances.

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Systemic and Structural Racism:

In many ways, "systemic racism" and "structural racism" are synonymous and used interchangeably.

A good example of systemic racism is a "redlining" system once used by banks and the real estate industry that literally outlined the neighborhoods where people of color lived in red ink. If you lived inside the red lines, loans were considered risky and banks were less likely to give loans or invest.

The practice was banned in 1968, but impact lives on, preventing black families from amassing wealth at the same rate as their white neighbors on the other side of that red line. Need proof?

According to the Federal Reserve, the net worth of a typical white family is $171,000, which is 10 times greater than that of a black family.

Homes in black neighborhoods are generally and historically worth less than white homes because the developers and businesses that make a neighborhood, well, a neighborhood are less likely to be there.

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That means the tax base is lower too, which has a trickle-down effect -- less tax dollars for schools, means fewer kindergarten classes, fewer qualified teachers, fewer AP classes.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, African Americans have lower graduation rates from high school and even fewer go on to graduate from college.

This is in part caused by the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately impacts people of color.

Once you have a criminal record, it invades all aspects of your life. Getting everything from a job to an apartment becomes that much more difficult.

Many people believe their communities are over-policed. Presumed to be overly dangerous. But consider this, Black and Brown people account for 30% of the U.S. population but FBI statistics show they account for 43% of people killed by police and, the NAACP reports, more than half of the incarcerated population.

Institutional Racism:

Institutional racism is more narrowly defined as blocking of people of color from accessing to the goods, services, and opportunities of society, according to Alyasah Sewell, an associate professor of sociology at Emory University and the founding director of The Race and Policing Project.

Many of these children may benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead of getting the help they need, they are isolated, punished, or incarcerated.

Institutional racism goes beyond serving time, says Gillespie of Emory University, something as simple as hair can be used to discriminate. Rules at school and the workplace that don't allow for dreadlocks, cornrows and braids discriminate and don't take into consideration hair texture, and singles out people based on their physical traits - creating rules, where rules aren't needed, rules that control people of color.

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So, who gets to make all these rules in a society?

Since America was colonized, it has been white people who have made the rules, first with slavery, then Jim Crow Laws and Separate but Equal rules, and even creating limits on who can immigrate into the country.

The term given to define that power, is "white privilege," coined by Peggy McInstosh in her book "White Privilege and Male Privilege." The term, the Aspen Institute says, refers to whites' historical and contemporary advantages in access to quality education, decent jobs and livable wages, homeownership, retirement benefits and wealth, regardless of socioeconomic status.

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