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Institutional racism (also structural racism and systemic racism) is any form of racism occurring specifically within institutions such as public government bodies, private business corporations, and universities (public and private). Institutional racism is one of three forms of racism: (i) Personally-mediated, (ii) internalized, and (iii) institutional. The term institutional racism was coined by Stokely Carmichael, the black nationalist, pan-Africanist and "honorary prime minister" of the Black Panther Party, who, in the late 1960s, defined institutional racism as “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”.1


Institutional racism is the differential access to the goods, services, and opportunities of society. When the differential access becomes integral to institutions, it becomes common practice, making it difficult to rectify. Eventually, this racism dominates public bodies, private corporations, and public and private universities, and is reinforced by the actions of conformists and newcomers. Another difficulty in reducing institutionalized racism is that there is no sole, true identifiable perpetrator. When racism is built into the institution, it appears as the collective action of the population.

There are three major types of racism: (i) Personally-mediated, (ii) internalized, and (iii) institutionalized. Personally-mediated racism includes the specific social attitudes inherent to racially-prejudiced action (the bigot’s differential assumptions about abilities, motives, and the intentions of others according to), discrimination (the differential actions and behaviours towards others according to their race), stereotyping, commission, and omission (disrespect, suspicion, devaluation, and dehumanization). Internalized racism is the acceptance, by members of the racially-stigmatized people, of negative perceptions about their own abilities and intrinsic worth, characterized by low self-esteem, and low esteem of others like them. This racism is manifested through embracing “whiteness” (e.g. stratification by skin colour in non-white communities), self-devaluation (e.g. racial slurs, nicknames, rejection of ancestral culture, etc.), and resignation, helplessness, and hopelessness (e.g. dropping out of school, failing to vote, engaging in health-risk practices, etc.).

Persistent negative stereotypes fuel institutional racism, and very much matter because they influence interpersonal relations. Racial stereotyping contributes to patterns of racial residential segregation, and shape the views of white people about crime, crime policy, and welfare policy, especially if the contextual information is stereotype-consistent. A great percentage of white people rate Black Americans and Latino Americans as less intelligent, preferring to live from welfare benefits rather than work, and “more difficult to get along with socially”.

Institutional racism is distinguished from the racial bigotry, by the existence of institutional systemic policies and practices meant to place non-white racial and ethnic groups at a disadvantage in relation to the institution’s white members. Restrictive housing contracts (see restrictive covenants) and bank lending policies (see redlining) are effective forms of institutional racism. Other examples are racial profiling by security guards and police, use of stereotyped racial caricatures (e.g. "Indian" sport mascots), the under- and mis-representation of certain racial groups in the mass media, and race-based barriers to gainful employment and professional advancement. Additionally, the differential access to goods, services, and opportunities of society are defined within the term institutional racism, such as unpaved streets and roads, inherited socio-economic disadvantage, “standardized” tests (each ethnic group prepared for it differently; many are poorly prepared), et cetera.

Some sociologic investigators distinguish between institutional racism and structural racism. The former focus upon the norms and practices within an institution, the latter focus upon the interactions among institutions, interactions that produce racialized outcomes against non-white people. An important feature of structural racism (structured racialization) is that it cannot be reduced to individual prejudice or to the single function of an institution. Like-wise, it is important to note that once a structure is emplaced, its consequences likely will affect the entire population — not just the racially discriminated people. Structural racialization also underscores many of the institutional arrangements that are often identified as “American exceptionalism” — such as the non-existence of a labor party, weak labor unions, and a fragmented government system. Structural racialization borrows from system theory, which examines the interactions among institutions and entities and rejects reductionist thought; thus, there is a mutual, cumulative causation instead of a single cause. Using the system's approach for structural racialization calls into question whether or not race or social class is more important in the US. Instead, it suggests an interaction, between race and social class, and their consequences upon institutional design and institutional meaning.

American institutional racism

These historical American examples illuminate the nature and effects of institutional racism.
  1. In 1935, the U.S. Congress passed the Social Security Act, guaranteeing an income for millions of workers after their retirements, however, the Act specifically excluded domestic and agricultural workers — many of whom were Mexican-American, African-American, and Asian-American. These workers, therefore, were not guaranteed an income after retirement, thus had less opportunity to save, accumulate, and pass wealth to their future generations.
  2. The U.S. property appraisal system, created in the 1930s, tied property value and eligibility for government loans to race — thus, white-majority neighborhoods received the government's highest property value ratings, and white people were eligible for government loans, thus, between 1934 and 1962, less than 2 percent of government-subsidized housing went to non-white people.

These institutional racism examples depend not on the individual, isolated, and idiosyncratic beliefs or racial biases of particular persons, but on racist biases embedded to social structures and institutions. Moreover, in the first example, no "race" was specifically identified for exclusion from the Social Security Act, but the rules of the Act effectively allowed wealth benefits to accrue to white people and not to others — therefore, institutional racism need not be explicit in order for it to benefit certain races over others.

Governmental, social, and educational policies also have been charged with institutional racism, i.e. it affects general health care and AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) health intervention and services in non-white minority communities. The over-representation of minorities in disease categories (including AIDS), is partly related to racism. The federal government’s national response to the AIDS epidemic in minority communities has been slow, showing insensitivity to ethnic diversity in preventive medicine, community health maintenance, and AIDS treatment services.

Standardized testing also has been identified as institutional racism, because it is an academic assessment significantly biased in favor of people with a given socio-cultural background, with the supposed result that racial minorities tend to score poorly in most of the Western world. Just as unpaved streets and roads in predominantly black communities are a prime example of institutionalized racism, like-wise the use of older-edition (outdated) and used textbooks in predominantly black schools. Because schools are funded mostly with the property taxes of the surrounding areas, a school in a poor black community cannot readily buy new textbooks as can a school in a middle- or a high-income community. Therefore, “minority” schools are forced to use old textbooks (discarded by other schools), further aggravating the extant socio-economic differential established with institutional racism. Furthermore, the prevalence of used textbooks in mostly black schools supports the contention that standardized texts are inherently racist, because the non-white student knows outdated information that is not tested in the examinations; thus is each ethnic group in the school system prepared differently, and only one is usually prepared adequately.

Canadian institutional racism

Exclusionary anti-Chinese immigration laws

The Canadian government passed The Chinese Immigration Act, 1885 levying a $50 Head Tax upon all Chinese immigrating to Canada. When the 1885 act failed to deter Chinese immigration, the Canadian government then passed the The Chinese Immigration Act, 1900, increasing the head tax to $100, and, upon that act failing, passed The Chinese Immigration Act, 1904 increasing the head tax (landing fee) to $500, equivalent to $8000 in 2003 — when compared to the head tax — Right of Landing Fee and Right of Permanent Residence Fee — of $975 per person, paid by new immigrants in 1995–2005 decade, which then was reduced to $490 in 2006.

The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, better known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, replaced prohibitive fees with a ban on Chinese immigration to Canada — excepting merchants, diplomats, students, and "special circumstance" cases. The Chinese who entered Canada before 1923 had to register with the local authorities, and could leave Canada only for two years or less. Since the Exclusion Act went into effect on 1 July 1923, Chinese-Canadians referred to Canada Day (Dominion Day) as "Humiliation Day", refusing to celebrate it until the Act’s repeal in 1947.

Malaysian institutional racism

Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy and Malay dominance in Malay) is the claim that the Malay people are the tuan (masters) of Malaysiamarker. The Malaysian Chinese and Indian-Malaysian — who are significant ethnic minorities in Malaysia — are considered beholden to the Malays for granting them citizenship in return for special privileges, as established in Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia. This quid pro quo arrangement usually is referred to as the Malaysian social contract. The ketuanan Melayu concept usually is used by politicians of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the most influential Malaysian political party.

Although the ketuanan Melayu idea pre-dates Malaysian independence, the phrase ketuanan Melayu did not come into vogue until the early 2000s. The most vocal opposition to that is from non-Malay-based parties, such as the Malaysian People's Movement Party (Gerakan) and Democratic Action Party (DAP); although pre-independence, the Straits Chinese also agitated against ketuanan Melayu. The idea of Malay supremacy gained political weight in the 1940s, when the Malays organized to protest the Malayan Unionmarker's establishment, from which they later fought for independence. During the 1960s, there was a substantial political effort challenging ketuanan Melayu led by the People's Action Party (PAP) of Singaporemarker — which was a Malaysian state from 1963 to 1965 — and the DAP, after Singapore's secession, however, the Constitutional articles related to ketuanan Melayu were “entrenched" after the racial riots of 13 May 1969, consequent to an election campaign focused on the rights of non-Malay people and the ketuanan Melayu matter. From that arose the "ultras", advocating a one-party government led by UMNO, and increased racist emphasis that the Malays are the "definitive people" of Malaysia — i.e. only a Malay could be a true Malaysian.

Institutional racism in Sri Lanka

There are four main ethnic groups on the island of Sri Lankamarker: the Sinhalese who made up 69% of the population in 1946, Indian Tamils (12%), Sri Lankan Tamils (11%) and Sri Lankan Moors (6%). The discrimination against the Sri Lankan Tamil minority by the Sinhalese controlled Sri Lankan state was one of the main causes of the 26 year Sri Lankan Civil War which killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people.

Immediately after independence the Sinhalese dominated government of Ceylonmarker introduced the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 which deliberately discriminated against the Indian Tamil ethnic minority by making it virtually impossible for them to obtain citizenship of Ceylon. Approximately 700,000 Indian Tamils were made stateless. Over the next three decades more than 300,000 Indian Tamils were deported back to India. It wasn't until 2003, 55 years after independence, that all Indian Tamils living in Sri Lanka were granted citizenship but by this time they only made up 5% of the island's population.

In 1956 the Ceylon government introduced the Sinhala Only Act, replacing English with Sinhala as the official language of Ceylon. The Act was a deliberate attempt to correct the perceived disproportionately high number of Sri Lankan Tamils working in the Ceylon Civil Service and other public services. However, the Tamil language speaking minorities of the Ceylon (Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Moors) viewed the Act as linguistic, cultural and economic discrimination against them. Many Tamil speaking civil servants/public servants were forced to resign because they weren't fluent in Sinhala. The detrimental impact of the Act on the civil/public services forced the government to relax the language laws: in 1977 Tamil was made a 'national language' and in 1987 it was made an official language.

The 1971 Universities Act introduced a the Policy of standardization in a deliberate attempt to correct disproportionately high number of Sri Lankan Tamils students entering universities. Officially the policy was meant to discriminate in favour of students from rural areas but in reality the policy discriminated against Sri Lankan Tamil students who were in effect required gain more marks than Sinhalese students to gain admission to universities. The number of Sri Lankan Tamil students entering universities fell dramatically. The policy was abandoned in 1977.

Other forms of official discrimination against the Sri Lankan Tamils included the state-sponsored colonisation of traditional Tamil areas by Sinhalese peasants, the banning of the import of Tamil language media and the precedence given by the 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka to Buddhism, the main religion followed by the Sinhalese.

The Sri Lankan Tamils reacted to the discrimination by calling for political devolution (federalism) and staging peaceful protests but were met with violence and ethnic riots. This in turn resulted in moderate Tamils calling for self determination but some young Tamils reacted by forming a number of militant groups, the most prominent being the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). By 1983 full scale civil war had erupted between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. The civil war ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE but many independent/international observers recognised that the continued discrimination against the Tamils would leave the ethnic conflict unresolved. The United Nations Human Rights Council has urged the Sri Lankan government to "to combat discrimination against persons belonging to ethnic minorities".

British institutional racism

In the Metropolitan Police Service

In the UKmarker, the inquiry about the murder of the black Briton Stephen Lawrence concluded that the investigating police force was institutionally racist. Sir William Macpherson of Cluny used the term as a description of "the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin", which "can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, and behaviour, which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping, which disadvantages minority ethnic people". Sir William’s definition is almost identical to Stokely Carmichael’s original definition some forty years earlier.

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report, and the public’s response to it, were among the major factors that forced the Metropolitan Police to address its treatment of ethnic minorities. More recently, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair said that the British news media are institutionally racist, a comment that offended journalists, provoking angry responses from the media, despite the National Black Police Association welcoming Sir Ian’s assessment.

See also


  1. "Where Race Lives", Race: The Power of an Illusion, PBS, 2003
  2. Hutchinson J. "AIDS and racism in America", Journal of the National Medical Association, Feb. 1992 Feb
  3. Inflation data (Consumer Price Index) since 1914, by Statistics Canada, are at the Bank of Canada inflation calculator
  4. CIC Fee Schedule, accessed 2006-12-02
  5. "Metropolitan police still institutionally racist", The Guardian, 22 April 2003
  6. "Met chief accuses media of racism", BBC, 26 January 2006
  7. "Met chief labels media institutionally racist", The Guardian, 27 January 2006


  • Stokes, DaShanne. (In Press) Legalized Segregation and the Denial of Religious Freedom
  • Griffith, Derek, Childs, Erica L., Eng, Eugenia, and Jefferies, Vanessa. "Racism in organizations: The case of a county public health department.." Journal of Community Psychology 35.3Apr 2007 287-302. 6 Nov 2008
  • Fitzgibbon, Diana. "Institutional racism, pre-emptive criminalisation and risk analysis." Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 46(2)(2007): 128-144.
  • Green, David G, (Editor), Institutional Racism and the Police: Fact or Fiction, published by The Institute for the Study of Civil Society 2000, ISBN 1-903 386-06-3
  • Dennis, Norman; Erdos, George; Al-Shahi, Ahmed; Racist Murder and Pressure Group Politics: The Macpherson Report and the Police, published by The Institute for the Study of Civil Society 2000, ISBN 1-903 386-05-5

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