Going Beyond the Politics of Institutional Racism

“Institutional racism” was a flawed framework for understanding inequality when it was first introduced by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in 1967. Today, as a synonym for “racial disparities,” it is even more obfuscating.

Going Beyond the Politics of Institutional Racism
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee poster, 1966.

“Institutional racism” is now mainstream. Or at least talking about it is. What was once a term heard mostly in academic lecture halls is now commonly uttered by anyone with a daytime talk show or social media account. While the phrase seems to add intellectual heft to an argument, in reality it usually acts as a placeholder for a variety of interpretations that obfuscate the root causes of contemporary racial inequality, while also lending credibility to neoliberal policy agendas. 

Part of the issue is the lack of clarity on what the term even means today. What are the roots of the institutional racism framework, and how have the conditions that produce racial inequalities changed over time? One of the earliest and clearest explanations of institutional racism came from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael and political scientist Charles V. Hamilton in their seminal 1967 work, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation.

Black Power cannot be separated from its context. Written after a feverish period of civil rights activity culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the authors sought to analyze the enduring forms of racism that the movement still seemed unable to address. They distinguished institutional racism from “overt acts by individuals, which cause death, injury, or the violent destruction of property.”

Institutional racism was “less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts.” Instead of locating its cause in the individual, Carmichael and Hamilton claimed it “originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type.” 

This analysis seems to align perfectly with a Left critique that emphasizes structural and systemic issues rather than the choices of individual people. This framework stresses material concerns such as jobs, housing and education. 

They further elaborate, “When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of society. But when in that same city—Birmingham, Alabama—five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities… that is a function of institutional racism.” 

Carmichael and Hamilton use the term “white power structure” to describe the complex web of domination that upholds and reproduces institutional racism. Again, to their credit, they attempt to explain how this power structure operates in concrete material terms. The “white landlords who come only to collect exorbitant rents and fail to make necessary repairs,” the white cop who will “brutally manhandle a black drunkard in a doorway, and at the same time accept a pay-off from one of the agents of the white-controlled rackets,” and the city department that oversees “the streets in the ghetto lined with uncollected garbage” are all examples of this white power structure in action.

While this analysis of racial inequality is much more grounded in material reality than a lot of the discussion in our time, there were fundamental problems with this framework even in their time. Labeling persistent social inequalities as expressions of an “institutional racism” is a misdiagnosis of what are structural features of capitalism, and doing so produces an incomplete picture of the other groups in society who may be experiencing similar problems.