During a recent conversation about sports, athletics and sports organizations, a student asked me how organizations should go about recognizing institutional racism. What does it looks like? Great question. And sometimes, I stated, it is easy to recognize, but let’s be clear here, while the focus has been on the NBA and sporting over the last few weeks, structural and institutionalized racism occurs everywhere — even in nice places like education.
For instance, folks tend to move to spaces where one might find great schools, great teachers and more without ever thinking about what “great” might mean. Ask a realtor what they mean by great schools. Good test scores. Good grades. Blue ribbon schools. Where are the “good spaces” located, and who tends to teach, administrate and attend those “good” schools? Located in those good schools, one can assume would be good teachers. In fact, one of the leading criteria for assessing those “great schools” is whether a teacher has significant instructional experience. However, if one has had years of experience teaching in “good schools” and those schools tend not to be diverse, I would argue that an institutional racism problem may also reside in those “great schools.”
In fact, since racism is a part of the very cultural fabric in which we live in the United States, it often goes unnoticed, ignored or denied. Racism becomes much like the air in which we breathe … normal. Most folks have no reason to dare or even think about questioning that which is normal — that which is business as usual. Because this peculiar institution, racism, becomes a part of the very structure in which one resides, operates and works; institutions and organizations also yield to structurally racialized spaces. Institutional racism is a powerful system of privilege and power based on race. Those powerful structures begin and are perpetuated by seemingly innocent, normal events and daily occurrences and interactions.
I ask folks to think about events that you have attended and who is in attendance. Think about neighborhoods in which one lives, schools attended, parks visited, visiting the homes of friends, parties, weddings, everyday functions. What do the demographics of those events look like? Those events seem so innocent, seem so normal. However, if most folks spend time with folks who look exactly like themselves, how are relationships formed with anyone who might be different — in terms of race? When those same folks who have never been exposed to difference enter institutions and organizations that purportedly “embrace and celebrate diversity” — how does one embrace or celebrate those ideals?
Interestingly, there is a large body of research that clearly suggests that folks tend to hire and rehire folks who tend to act and look exactly themselves. So, exactly what do those organizations mean when they report embracing, celebrating and hiring a racially diverse pool of applicants? Given the statistics about who is typically hired at most organizations — let’s say Fortune 500 companies — I would say that it does not mean much, other than those organizations might just have a structural racism problem, given their hiring practices.
How are the roots of structural and institutionalized racism formed? It’s subtle. It seems normal. It seems innocent. That is the way that institutionalized racism works; it is rooted in the core of one’s everyday existence yet it is easy to detect if we just look and assess.
Institutionalized racism occurs in a number of spaces and organizations. While I have made reference to employees, please know that students throughout the P-20 pipeline are the victims of institutionalized racism. Take a look at who is considered to be gifted and talented. Who is typically awarded advanced placement status? Who is most often referred to special education? Who is disproportionately expelled and suspended for minor infractions (if we must refer to an eye roll as an infraction. Sometimes I don’t know how I made it through high school given the number of eye rolls delivered on a daily basis.)
Again, since racism is so deeply embedded in our culture, we cannot assume that those who benefit from a powerful system of privilege built on race will somehow learn to see or even want to see inequity and institutionalized systems of racism overnight. Yet, what messages do we send to younger human beings when everyone who resides in the neighborhood, attends school and other events, goes to the grocery store, or even attends worship service (which is by the way, the most segregated day of the week) is the same. Harrowing as it might seem (at least I think so), never exposing young folks to difference — any kind of difference — perpetuates the madness of institutionalized racism. However, if we think about it, and we truly want to end racism, then the first step is to recognize that we have a problem.
Robin L. Hughes is an associate professor in higher education student affairs in the School of Education at Indiana University. She focuses on issues of race and sports in education and in society.
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