When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, on Dec. 1, 1955, and consequently got arrested for violating the local segregation laws, the Civil Rights Movement emerged like a mounting thunderstorm throughout the southern region of the United States. After a long day at work, Parks, who was already seated on the crowded bus, was approached by the driver to move from her seat in the so-called whites-only area to allow a standing white man to have it. Parks defiantly said no, and that she would not comply with his racially charged order. A scuffle ensued between Parks and the driver, resulting in the Montgomery police being called and Parks being arrested.
According to some accounts, Parks stated “she was just tired from her long day, and decided she wasn’t going to move.” But a confirmed account from Parks herself revealed she was not going to move from her seat because she had grown tired of the discrimination and mistreatment of Black riders on the bus by the Montgomery transportation system. Earlier reports further indicated this was not the first time Parks had a confrontation with the bus system authorities, which also stirred quite a commotion. Parks decided to take a stand against the Jim Crow laws in Alabama that were the institutional network of racism throughout the South, including the rest of America as well. At that time institutional racism was real, and it still exists to this day.
So, how should institutional racism be defined in this day and age? Most would agree institutional racism is a historical systematic practice that has been used since the inception of America to keep people of color, particularly African Americans, from advancing in a democratic society. At its worst, institutional racism has also included domestic terrorism (Ku Klux Klan groups and sympathizers), brutal racist treatment and even murders of large numbers of African Americans at the hands of white racist hate groups hoping to keep them oppressed. And yes, that is the intent — to keep African Americans oppressed and unable to participate equally in a democratic society.
Some of the more sophisticated tactics of institutional racism these days revolve around negative systematic processes, lack of a level playing field, embedded biases, social and racial barriers, and a lack of access. All of these tactics have been used effectively for decades and made more deceptive in order to keep blacks from advancing in our so-called democratic society.
A recent example that shines light on institutional racism practices these days centers on the grim impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on small African American businesses and white businesses, and how much more detrimental it has been for African American businesses. According to a recent study, the impact of infection of staff and on business as of March 15, 2020 shows Black-owned businesses were impacted 25.9%, and white-owned businesses 11.9%. When the first stimulus package was passed by Congress that contained emergency funds for the Payroll Protection Plans of these businesses, 47.9% of the white-owned businesses applied, and 63.7% received the full amount. On the other hand, 53.4% of Black-owned businesses applied and only 20.3% received the full amount. What’s wrong with this picture? Clearly, it points to sophisticated discriminatory practices going on behind the scenes to hold down struggling African American businesses. Not only does it appear discriminatory, but it is also disproportionate.
Then there is the scandalous history of predatory lending tactics that surfaced in the 1990s which targeted Blacks and other minorities (mostly Hispanic) to the extent that it largely contributed to the devastating housing crisis in America. This housing crisis revolved around a great multitude of mortgage foreclosures that helped spark the Great Recession. As you may recall, this was a period of time when the American economy suffered major losses and was on the verge of collapse, primarily due to the thousands of mortgage foreclosures combined with other economic market factors. The targeting of Blacks and other minorities was referred to as “redlining,” because its sole purpose was to find neighborhoods of color with risky credit ratings that were prime prospects for mortgage foreclosures. Thus, the bet that banks and other lending elements were making weighed heavily on the prospect of borrowers in these neighborhoods not being able to make their mortgage payments.
Now, if all of this is not enough to convince you to believe that institutional racism is real and still pervasive throughout the systems of our democratic society, then think about these other historical events: the exploitation of Blacks during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War; the widespread Jim Crow laws that existed throughout the entire country for years; Voters Rights suppression; constant Civil Rights violations, which eventually led to the Civil Rights Movement in 1955; lack of affordable housing; peonage, and the infamous reign of convict leasing. There are numerous other examples that could be noted here as well, consequently making the case of institutional racism being alive and well to this day in America. Indeed, it is quite real and alarming as to how much more sophisticated it has become over time. The power players have learned to camouflage their tactics with great deception and perpetuate its systemic influence effect.
One last point that deserves mentioning on institutional racism, which is sometimes overlooked, is the impact it has on mental illness in the African American community. According to a recent study, the African American community is one of the leading groups identified with mental health problems in America. Moreover, statistics indicate institutional racism as a major cause of mental illness in the African American community. “Granted it’s not the only cause, but racism can psychologically affect Blacks by allowing society to deny their value as individuals, and by compelling them to internalize the racist conceptions of themselves,” this study noted. Obviously, this has had an enormous impact on many African Americans’ self- images throughout American history.
Institutional racism not only obstructs African Americans from fair and equal participation in our so-called American democratic society, and that historically it has also had a major impact on the mental well-being in Black communities. The best way to overcome these devastating factors, just as sister Rosa Parks did, is to take a stand on racial injustice and discrimination whenever we encounter it, and as the deceased civil rights giant Congressman John Lewis put it “make good trouble!” Get into the pathway, and the face, of the would-be racist oppressor and stand up for fair and equal treatment. Doesn’t have to be done violently, but effectively through steadfast persistence.
Collectively, we can eventually put an end to the abusive tactic of institutional racism by using resources available to us such as the Civil Rights Commission, NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others established to combat it. As the old cliché goes, “united we stand, divided we fall.”