Institutional Racism

Allison Bennett


Defined as a form of racism that “encompasses discriminatory mechanisms and policies that adversely affect minorities, even though the institution itself may have an official policy against discrimination,” “institutional racism” can also involve “actions where those who work for the institution have no intention to discriminate against minorities but result in doing sobecause of the policies that are already in place”(Pierre-Louis 590).Highly esteemed Black scholar and activist Stokely Carmichael further explains institutional racism in his work Black Power: the Politics of Liberation when he offers some examples of individual racism, as opposed to institutional racism.Carmichael explains that, while a white terrorist’s deadly bombing of a black church is an example of individual racism,  when “five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community”, this is a direct product of institutional racism (Carmichael 20-21).Consideration of Carmichael’s Black Power, co-authored by African American scholar Charles V. Hamilton, is especially significant when understanding “institutional racism”, because it was in this novel that the term was first coined, in 1967.

Renowned scholar Michelle Alexander sheds more light on the concept institutional racism in her famous work titled The New Jim Crow, which will be referenced in the “Mass Incarceration” subsection of this entry. Comparing the systems of racism present across the globe today to a bird cage, Alexanderexplains that “if one thinks about racism by examining only one wire of the cage, or one form of disadvantage, it is difficult to understand how and why the bird is trapped. Only a large number of wires arranged in a specific way, and connected to one another, serve to enclose the bird and to ensure that it cannot escape. What is particularly important to keep in mind is that any given wire of the cage may or may not be specifically developed for the purpose of trapping the bird, yet it still operates (together with the other wires) to restrict its freedom”(Alexander 179). Here, Alexander points out that even though a certain piece of legislation (for just one example) may not be intended to cause racial disparities, it still produces the same effects as a direct result of structural failure.

It should come as no surprise that institutional racism abounds in the U.S. and around the globe today when considering the principles that this nation, and many others, were built on.Upon their arrival to what is now the U.S., Europeans used the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their taking of land belonging to the indigenous peoples. This doctrine allowed Europeans to automatically acquire property rights in native lands as well as commercial and political rights over indigenous inhabitants entirely without their consent(Miller). This dangerous ideology rooted in the belief that the voices of people of color do not deserve to be heard still persists today, even if most individuals do not openly or even consciously subscribe to it.While institutional racism manifests in countless ways in the U.S. and abroad today, three key related terms include “implicit bias”, “mass incarceration”, and “investigatory stops”, all of which will be explored later in this entry.


            Although we are often unable to clearly see the impacts of institutional racism on the surface-level, delving deeper into housing, employment, education, and the criminal justice system, just to name a few areas, reveal the distinct markings of institutional racism’s adverse effects.Looking first at education, a 2014 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that “black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students” (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights). In terms of employment, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the unemployment rate for black individuals of age sixteen or older was 6.1 in the fourth quarter of 2018, compared to 4.3 for Hispanic or Latino individuals, and 3.2 for white individuals (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). Closely related, in 2011, “the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household” (Shin). To put this in different terms, the wealth of white households was thirteen times the median wealth of black households in 2013, and more than ten times the wealth of Hispanic households in the same year (Kochhar et. al). As for housing, a 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that, in a study, black participants were told about and shown about 17% fewer homes than white participants, and Asian participants were told about 15.5% fewer homes and shown almost 20% fewer homes(Office of Policy Development and Research).Within the U.S. criminal justice system, evidence of institutional racism abounds today, too. For just one example, The Sentencing Project found in 2013 that “since 1976, the United States has executed thirteen times more black defendants with white victims than white defendants with black victims” (The Sentencing Project).

            Locally, in King County in 2008, 29.1% of African Americans and 19.2% of Latinos were living below 100% of the federal poverty line, compared to 7.6% for white King County residents (Solid Ground). Similarly, in regards to food insecurity in King County, 29.2% of Latino adults reported that “food money for their families often does not last”, compared to 15.5% of African Americans, and 5.3% of white individuals (Solid Ground).

            For an especially pertinent example of institutional racism’s reaches in the U.S., we can turn to the 2018 midterm election in Georgia, in which Stacey Abrams narrowly lost her race to become the nation’s first African American female governor (Scott). In this election, about 53,000 ballots were placed on hold, a large amount of which had belonged to people of color(Scott).Although this election in particular gained national attention, voter disenfranchisement is a widespread issue.As in Georgia, many American counties pose challenges to minority voters in addition to voter purges including “exact match” policies for discrepancies on voter forms, outdated voting machinery, closure of polling locations, and inaccuracies in counting absentee ballots, to name a few (Hasen). In fact, a 2018 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that in 2016, “15 percent of black respondents and 14 percent of Hispanic respondents said that they had trouble finding polling places on Election Day, versus 5 percent of whites” (Vandermaas-Peeler et al.).Without the ability to vote, people of color are routinely barred from representation in the American political system, therefore perpetuating the cycle of racial inequality.

As demonstrated by this section, institutional racism permeates across virtually all aspects of our society; these statistics are mere drops in the bucket. While all of those areas deserve to be discussed, this entry will delve much deeper into the topics of mass incarceration and investigatory stops, and how both fall under the umbrella of institutional racism.


            To fully understand institutional racism, one must also become familiar with the term “implicit bias”. Implicit bias refers to “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control”(Kirwan Institute). As an example of implicit bias, UC Riverside Professor Alissa Bierria explained in her recent lecture at UW that there is a strong, two-way relationship between the concepts of “blackness” and “criminality” in today’s society (Bierria).In other words, many Americans, when thinking of a “criminal”, automatically envision a black individual. This same thinking occurs conversely, as well.To test our implicit biases, Harvard University created Project Implicit, a website that uses word-picture associations to see how we subconsciously link two concepts.For example, one test is titled “Weapons—Harmless Objects IAT”, which presents the test subject with pictures of weapons and harmless objects. The individual taking the test is instructed to quickly hit one of two keys on their computer to sort the given pictures into two groups: black individuals and white individuals. After the test concludes, Project Implicit calculates the responses and the response times in order to produce a result that tells how closely the test subject associates the two concepts.The test is given very quickly to help ensure that subconscious, rather than conscious, biases are tested. See “Further Reading” to take an Implicit Association Test for yourself (Greenwald et. al). Implicit bias is also identifiable within “know-your-place aggression”,defined by African American scholar and author Koritha Mitchell as the “dynamic array of forces that answer the achievements of marginalized groups such that their success brings aggression as often as praise” (Mitchell).Whether we realize it or not, we as a society often evaluate the progress of people of color differently than we do for white individuals.For example, in the context of the professional field, Mitchell explains that “when a straight white man achieves, he receives recognition and respect, but when a Latina…achieves, her presence is treated as evidence of some unfair handout. Her qualifications are questioned more often than she is simply welcomed into the professional fold” (Mitchell).Acknowledging the presence of implicit bias in cases like these, Mitchell argues, is a form of self-care for marginalized individuals; they must remember that their accomplishments are only treated differently as a result of factors out of their control, not because they weren’t valid or self-earned (Mitchell).As a whole, implicit bias comprises the backbone of institutional racism; implicit bias is the water that allows the weed of institutional racism to thrive. With this new understanding in mind, we must now take a closer look at two critical embodiments of institutional racism: investigatory stops and mass incarceration.


Through the practice of the investigatory stop, institutionalized racism is expressed in a way that generates disparities.In their well-known work Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship, Epp, Moody, and Maynard define an investigatory stop as being “a racially framed, institutionally supported practice” that is viewed as “acceptable because the practice is professionally and judicially endorsed, is claimed to be necessary to fight crime, and is thought to be controlled by professional training aimed at eliminating intentional racism” (Epp et. al 12).Because of the revolutionary way that Pulled Over analyzes and quantifies the direct results of the investigatory stop on its victims (who are overwhelmingly people of color), it serves as an excellent point of reference for the topic as a whole.More specifically, an investigatory stop can be differentiated from a traffic-safety stop on the basis of justification given by the police officer to the stopped driver (Epp et. al 59).As Pulled Overexplains, “when making a traffic-safety stop, officers give a traffic-safety justification; when making an investigatory stop, officers justify the stop with a minor, low-level violation—or they provide no justification at all” (Epp et. al 59).

In an investigatory stop, a driver may be asked probing questions such as “what are you doing in this neighborhood?”, and they may even be handcuffed, searched, or worse (Epp et. al 3,5).  What matters most from this is that people of color are almost always the victims of investigatory stops, specifically young, black men (Epp et. al 64).The study conducted by the authors of Pulled Over illustrate this fact, when bringing up their finding that “for drivers under age 25, the likelihood of being subjected to an investigatory stop over the course of a year varies considerably, from 28 percent for black men to 7 percent for white women” (Epp et. al 67). Significantly, “black men over 50 have the same rate of multiple stops in the past year as white men in their 20s” (Epp et. al 67). In one county in Florida, throughout 148 hours of video footage documenting over one thousand highway stops by police officers, over eighty percent of the people stopped and searched by the police were racial minorities (even though only five percent of drivers on the roads were members of racial minority groups) (The Sentencing Project). 

Locally, the Seattle Police Department reported in 2017 that a total of 7,231 Terry* stopswere reported by 682 officers (City of Seattle). While white males made up 39.17% of total reported stops, black males made up a quarter of them (City of Seattle). Similarly, white women accounted for 12.29% of reported stops and black females made up 5.3% (City of Seattle).At first glance, it may seem as though there is no racial disparity affecting black individuals here, because the percentages of black individuals stopped are lower. However, it is crucial to also consider the fact that the most recent census of the city of Seattle, taken in 2010, found that about 7.7% of the population identified as black or African American (City of Seattle). In other words, even though black individuals make up less than 10% of the population, black men still comprised 25% of the total individuals subjected to an investigatory stop by the SPD in 2017.

            Even though being stopped and questioned may seem like a simple inconvenience, studies have shown that they result in much deeper harm.For example, investigatory stops allow for an invasion of one’s privacy, and they cause the victim to feel like they are a “second-class citizen”, who is viewed by society as a “criminal” (Epp et. al 5).These stops often cause victims to feel as though they do not belong or deserve respect, and that they “have little efficacy in shaping their own fate in [the government’s] hands” (Epp et. al 13, 15).The investigatory stop as a racially-framed, institutionalized practice has grown so out of hand that“many black communities have begun referring to the phenomenon as ‘DWB’ or ‘driving while black’”, illustrating their feelings of being unfairly targeted by the police (The Sentencing Project).In some cases, investigatory stops have gone so far as to lead to the deaths of victims.In the summer of 2016, Officer Yanez pulled over African American Philando Castile because he suspected Castile of being involved in a recent robbery (McCarthy). Yanez told Castile that he was pulled over for a broken tail light, and demanded that Castile produce his licensing and registration. Just before reaching for those documents, Castile calmly announced that he had legal possession of a firearm, but that he was not reaching for it. Yanez saw Castile reaching down, and shot him seven times (McCarthy). Similarly, Samuel DuBose, another African American man, was pulled over by Officer Tensing in the summer of 2015 for missing a front license plate (Blow). Upon starting his vehicle, DuBose was shot. While Tensing later said that he fired because DuBose was about to run him over with his car, bodycam footage proves this claim to be entirely unfounded (Blow).Clearly, although the investigatory stop may seem to be an insignificant part of a police officer’s job, it actually serves as a harrowing example of institutional racism in American society today that has lasting ramifications on the rights, dignities, and even the lives of its victims, who are predominantly people of color.

*The SPD defines a Terrystop as being “a brief, minimally intrusive seizure of a subject based upon articulable reasonable suspicion in order to investigate possible criminal activity.  The stop can apply to people as well as to vehicles.  The subject of aTerry stop is not free to leave” (City of Seattle). For the purposes of this entry, this type of Terry stop is synonymous with “investigatory stop”. 


Briefly introduced earlier, Michelle Alexander’s work, The New Jim Crow, serves as an excellent basis for our understanding of “mass incarceration”.In this book, Alexander argues that mass incarceration is “a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow” (Alexander 4).  Harkening back to the birdcage metaphor, Alexander explains that, “in the system of mass incarceration, a wide variety of laws, institutions, and practices—ranging from racial profiling to biased sentencing policies, political disenfranchisement, and legalized employment discrimination—trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage” (Alexander 185). In this way, mass incarceration is a product of institutional racism.More concretely, the term “mass incarceration” describes “the increasingly large number of individuals imprisoned in the United States beginning in the early 1970s”, where “individuals” predominantly refers to people of color (Miles 273).Even more specifically, the group mainly victimized by mass incarceration is comprised of young, African American males who have committed nonviolent crimes, most often drug-related offenses (Miles 272).As Alexander and several other scholars explain, the U.S. federal government’s War on Drugs, starting in the 1970s and 1980s and arguably still occurring today, led to the creation of mass incarceration as a national problem (Dunning-Lozano et. al 810).During this time, significantly stricter drug laws and harsher sentences were put in place, including the “Three Strikes & You’re Out!” law, which mandated life without parole after three serious felonies were committed, and other mandatory minimum sentencing policies.As a result, the number of Americans locked up in prison skyrocketed (Dunning-Lozano et. al 810).It is also important to note that Congress, in the 1980s, “approved criminal sentences for crack cocaine, primarily used in low-income, nonwhite communities, that were as much as 100 times longer than sentences for powder cocaine, primarily used in higher income, white communities” (Dunning-Lozano et. al 810).Along with this fact, it should be mentioned that there is no significant difference in rates of illegal drug usage between white Americans and African Americans (Miles 272). To solidify the link between the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, the U.S. incarcerated population has increased 700% since 1970, when the War on Drugs began (ACLU).

To get a better picture of mass incarceration as a national issue, consider the fact that even though the U.S. contains a mere 5% of the global population, it holds a quarter of the world’s prison population (ACLU).Looking more closely at who is affected by this issue, while African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, they make up 37% of the imprisoned population (Dunning-Lozano 809).This information translates to the fact that black men are six times more likely than their white counterparts to go to prison, and Latinos are over twice as likely than white men (Dunning-Lozano 809). Similar disproportionalities occur when analyzing imprisoned women of different races, too (Dunning-Lozano 809). To look locally once more, in King County in 2006, 66% of youth involved in the county’s criminal justice system were white, yet 65% of those physically behind bars in Juvenile Corrections were youth of color (Solid Ground).

However, the time spent in prison for many people of color is not where their punishment ends. Sometimes referred to as the “mark of Cain” (Page 362), individuals released from prison are forever stigmatized by society, largely preventing them from acquiring access to employment, housing, food stamps, and more (DuVernay).In numerical terms, men and women newly released from prison “face nearly 50,000 federal, state, and local legal restrictions that make it difficult to reintegrate back into society” (ACLU).In this way, mass incarceration takes on a cyclical nature, pushing marginalized individuals who have recently left prison back into the criminal justice system once more (DuVernay).In the words of Alexander, “the young men who go to prison rather than college face a lifetime of closed doors, discrimination, and ostracism” (Alexander 185).In some cases, this “social death” leads to physical death, as in the case of Kalief Browder, a young African American man.In 2010, at the young age of sixteen, Browder was accused of stealing a backpack and imprisoned for three years, two of which occurred in solitary confinement. He was released once it was determined that there was no evidence of Browder’s involvement in the crime. Two years later, Browder committed suicide by hanging, as a direct result of the physical and mental abuse he had endured in prison (Schwirtz et. al).Through his story, Kalief Browder serves as a powerful example of the devastating effects that prison time can have on an individual. To learn more, I recommend watching Time: the Kalief Browder Story, a six-episode documentary series which I have included in “Further Reading”.  


            As this entry has shown, from investigatory stops to mass incarceration, institutional racism runs rampant in contemporary American society, mainly fueled by implicit bias.Although we may feel powerless to combat structural failures as individuals, there are actions that we can take to make a difference.For one, we can educate ourselves on the issues that plague our country and our world as a result of institutionalized racism. I would encourage you to delve deeper into the topics previously introduced by going to the “Further Reading” section. On top of this, we can take action through civic engagement, from volunteering to serve the imprisoned, to voting against proposed measures that will reinforce existing racial disparities or create new ones. I have provided a link which explains how to register to vote in each state. If you are interested in mass incarceration specifically, I would encourage you to take a look at the Waging Nonviolence article in the “Further Reading” section, which lists seven ways to support incarcerated individuals.The more knowledgeable and passionate we are as a society about these issues, the more likely that significant change will occur.


Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration

Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America.    New York: Random House, 1967.

“Chapter 3: We Have to Talk About Systemic Change.” Freedom Is a Constant Struggle:   Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, by Angela Y Davis,    Haymarket Books, 2016, pp. 31–51.

“Chapters 1, 3, 4.” Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship, by Charles R.       Epp et al., The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Law, Victoria. “7 Ways to Support People in Prison.” Waging Nonviolence, 5 Feb. 2015,

Miller, Robert J. “American Indians, the Doctrine of Discovery, and Manifest Destiny.”      Wyoming Law Review, vol. 11, no. 2, ser. 2, 2011, pp. 330–349. 2,            2F2&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages.

Mitchell, Koritha. “Identifying White Mediocrity and Know-Your-Place Aggression: A Form of    Self-Care.” African American Review, vol. 51 no. 4, 2018, pp. 253-262. Project MUSE,            doi:10.1353/afa.2018.0045

The Sentencing Project. “Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System.”, Aug. 2013,

Time: The Kalief Browder Story. Dir. Jenner Furst. Roc Nation, 2017. Film. (Available on Netflix)

13th.Dir. Ava DuVernay. Kandoo Films, 2016. Film. 

Take an Implicit Association Test here:

Learn about voting and voting registration here:


ACLU. “Mass Incarceration.” American Civil Liberties Union, Aclu,

Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration

Bierria, Alissa. “Black Action & Criminal Intent: A Challenge For Agency Theory”. 11 Jan            2019. University of Washington. Lecture. 

Blow, Charles. “The Shooting of Samuel DuBose.” The New York Times, The New York Times,   29 July 2015,          samuel-dubose.html.

Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America.    New York: Random House, 1967.

“Chapters 1, 3, 4.” Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship, by Charles R.       Epp et al., The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

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Dunning-Lozano, Jessica L., and Hannah Celli. “Mass Incarceration, Politics of.” The American     Middle Class: An Economic Encyclopedia of Progress and Poverty, edited by Robert S.      Rycroft, vol. 2, Greenwood, 2017, pp. 809-813. Gale Virtual Reference Library,      xid=4593bf36. Accessed 29 Jan. 2019.

Greenwald, Tony, et al. “ProjectImplicit.” Select a Test, 2011,

Hasen, Richard L. “Stacey Abrams’ New Lawsuit Against Georgia’s Broken Voting System Is Incredibly Smart.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 27 Nov. 2018,

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Kochhar, Rakesh, and Richard Fry. “Wealth Inequality Has Widened along Racial, Ethnic Lines since End of Great Recession.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 12 Dec. 2014,

McCarthy, Ciara. “Philando Castile: Police Officer Charged with Manslaughter over Shooting Death.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 Nov. 2016,

Miles, Corey. “Mass Incarceration.” St. James Encyclopedia of Hip Hop Culture, edited by             Thomas Riggs, St. James Press, 2018, pp. 272-276. Gale Virtual Reference Library,   xid=3464d02a. Accessed 29 Jan. 2019.

Miller, Robert J. “American Indians, the Doctrine of Discovery, and Manifest Destiny.”      Wyoming Law Review, vol. 11, no. 2, ser. 2, 2011, pp. 330–349. 2,            2F2&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages.

Mitchell, Koritha. “Identifying White Mediocrity and Know-Your-Place Aggression: A Form of    Self-Care.” African American Review, vol. 51 no. 4, 2018, pp. 253-262. Project MUSE,            doi:10.1353/afa.2018.0045 

Office of Policy Development and Research. “HOUSING DISCRIMINATION AGAINST RACIAL AND ETHNIC MINORITIES 2012: Executive Summary.”, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, June 2013,

Page, Joshua. “Eliminating the Enemy: The Import of Denying Prisoners Access to Higher Education in Clinton’s America.” Punishment & Society, vol. 6, no. 4, 2004, pp. 357–378.

Pierre-Louis, Francois. “Institutional Racism.” Race and Racism in the United States: An    Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic, edited by Charles A. Gallagher and Cameron D.             Lippard, vol. 2, Greenwood, 2014, pp. 590-593. Gale Virtual Reference Library,      xid=84d44fb2. Accessed 29 Jan. 2019.

Schwirtz, Michael, and Michael Winerip. “Kalief Browder, Held at Rikers Island for 3 Years          Without Trial, Commits Suicide.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 June 2015,     3-years-without-trial-commits-suicide.html.

Scott, Eugene. “Stacey Abrams Showed Why Voting Rights Must Be a Key Issue for Democrats   in 2020.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 Feb. 2019,  must-be-key-issue-democrats/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0d141bf69fd4.

Shin, Laura. “The Racial Wealth Gap: Why A Typical White Household Has 16 Times The             Wealth Of A Black One.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 25 Jan. 2016,      household-has-16-times-the-wealth-of-a-black-one/#7d3ee7c11f45.

Solid Ground. “Definition & Analysis of Institutional Racism.”, 2008,

The Sentencing Project. “Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System.”, Aug. 2013,

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “E-16. Unemployment Rates by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic      or Latino Ethnicity.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor,            4 Jan. 2019,

U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Civil Rights Data Collection Data    Snapshot: School Discipline. Mar. 2014,           discipline-snapshot.pdf.

Vandermaas-Peeler, Alex, et al. “American Democracy in Crisis: The Challenges of Voter Knowledge, Participation, and Polarization.” PRRI, 17 July 2018,       2018/.

13th.Dir. Ava DuVernay. Kandoo Films, 2016. Film.