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6.5: Social Institutions

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    (White) Social Institutions

    In his seminal work, Racism Without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva surmises that liberal social thought informs our (white) perspective on the world and justifies our (white) social, economic & political institutions. Bonilla-Silva's parenthesis of white is intentional in that liberal white social thought equates with colorblindness whereby we consider cultural differences as meaningless. As white is the default within our society, it has been made to seem normal. However, scholars of critical race theory seek to call attention to how whiteness has been structured into the fabric of society, particularly our social institutions. In their dissection of critical race theory, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (2001) include one of the key elements of critical race theory is that "our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material." A century before, W.E.B. DuBois had coined this as the wage of whiteness.

    Research shows the distribution of resources and opportunities are not equal among racial and ethnic categories, and white groups do better than other groups (Konrad & Schmidt, 2004). Regardless of social perception, in reality, there are institutional and cultural differences in government, education, criminal justice, sports, the workplace, and mass media media and racial-ethnic groups have received subordinate roles and treatment in society. These social institutions are generally controlled by white Americans. Certainly, these institutions were created by white Americans. Though we may access these social institutions in our everyday lives to a greater or lesser degree, we certainly do not all have equal control over these institutions.

    In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo presents the following statistics which help to understand how our social institutions reflect white dominance:

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): White Dominance in the U.S. (Chart by Jonas Oware with data from White Fragility)

    Category % white
    10 Richest Americans 100%
    U.S. Congress 90%
    U.S. Governors 96%
    Top Military Advisors


    Current U.S. President & Vice-President 100%
    Current U.S. Presidential Cabinet 91%
    People Who Decide Which TV Shows We See 93%
    People Who Decide Which Books We Read 90%
    People Who Decide Which News is Covered 85%
    People Who Decide Which Music is Produced 95%
    People Who Directed the 100 Top Grossing Films Worldwide 95%
    Teachers 82%
    Full-Time College Professors 84%
    Owners of Men's Professional Football Teams 97%

    White Americans on average have far greater wealth than other race-ethnic groups. All U.S. Presidents except Barack Obama have been white men. The U.S. Congress remains disproportionately white (men) as are Fortune 500 CEOs. Even the Oscars have been called out for being overwhelming white (#OscarsSowhite). This is significant considering not only the billion dollar media consumption in the U.S., but also the global consumption of U.S. mass media. All of this "business as usual" in our (white) social institutions adds up, to cumulative, systemic benefits for white Americans.

    The Hollywood Sign
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Hollywood Sign, not far from the Oscars Awards. (CC BY 2.0; raindog808 via Wikimedia)


    Take professional sports as a first example. Based on data gathered by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, the following tables reveal the imbalance of who the players are versus who the coaches, owners, and/Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) are of the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football Association (NFL) (Lapchick, 2019). Clearly, the majority of players are of color whereas the majority of the owners or CEOs are white. The NBA has made more progress than the NFL with regards to hiring more head coaches of color, but clearly the majority of coaches in either sport remain white. It must be noted that during the 2020 protests against racial injustice, the NFL Commissioner has stated his verbal support for Black Lives Matter, which is a striking contrast from only a few years prior when quarterback Colin Kapernick was ostracized for taking a knee during the national anthem to call attention to racial injustice. In the summer of 2020, most NBA teams, including players, coaches, referees, and owners, have not only taken a knee during the national anthem, but many players were slogans on their jerseys supporting the movement (e.g. Black Lives Matter, Vote, Ally, Equality).

    Table \(\PageIndex{3}\): Diversity in the NBA. (Chart by Jonas Oware with data from the University of Central Florida)
    Players Head Coaches Majority Owners League Office Staff
    White 18.1% 66.7% 91.4% 62.4%
    African-American 74.8% 26.7% 2.9% 15.9%
    Latino 2.4% 3.3% 0% 6.7%
    Asian >1% 3.3% 2.9% 10,4%
    Other 3.9% 0% 2.9% 4.6%
    Table \(\PageIndex{4}\): Diversity in the NFL. (Chart by Jonas Oware with data from the University of Central Florida)
    Players Head Coaches CEO/President League Office Staff
    White 26.8% 81.3% 95% 67.3%
    African-American 58.9% 9.4% 0% 10.2%
    Latino .5% 3.1% 0% 6.6%
    AAPI 1.6% 0% 4.9% 9.3%
    AI/AN 0% 0% 0% .1%
    Two or more races 9.6% 0% 0% 1.7%
    Not disclosed 3.1%     4.7%


    A second example is education. Gall-Peters Projection calls attention to the content of our K-12 education which favors a Eurocentric lens when presenting history and geography. Eurocentrism is a worldview that is centered on or favors Western, often white, civilization. For decades we have seen inequitable student outcomes both in K-12 and in higher education which can be in part attributed to the Eurocentric curriculum. Gloria Ladson-Billings and William Tate’s (1995) seminal writing on critical race theory of education examined how school inequities emanate from a racialized society. Christine Stanley (2006) presented one of the key arguments in critical race theory, that the subtleties of institutional racism are rarely acknowledged publicly, particularly by the dominant Euro-American culture. Stanley (2006) further stated, “Many institutions value diversity, but they often do not look deep enough to ascertain how habitual policies and practices work to disadvantage certain social, racial or cultural groups” (p. 724).

    Criminal Justice System

    A third example is the criminal justice system. White Americans are underrepresented in our prisons, while African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated. Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow that the criminal justice system, especially prison, is specifically designed as a form of social control over African American men. Most recent U.S.Presidents beginning with Nixon have used the campaign phrase "law and order" which is ultimately a code word for the racial control of people of color, as presented convincingly in the documentary, 13th. The school-to-prison pipeline is used to explain the disheartening statistics for young people of color, particularly African American males, who are overrepresented in prison and underrepresented in higher education. Most of our schools and prisons are also run by white male or female principals, presidents, or wardens.


    Finally, let us consider how the the workplace, situated in the social institution of our economy, often fosters a climate of white supremacy, though we may be entirely unaware that it is at play. As Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun (2001) present, the following characteristics of white supremacy culture show up in organizations such as the workplace:

    • perfectionism
    • sense of urgency
    • defensiveness
    • quantity over quality
    • worship of the written word
    • only one right way
    • paternalism
    • either/or thinking
    • power hoarding
    • fear of open conflict
    • individualism
    • progress is bigger/more
    • objectivity
    • right to comfort those with power

    The characteristics listed above are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without actually being selected by the group members. They are damaging because they promote hegemonic, white supremacist thinking. They are damaging to both people of color and to white people because they detract from our humanity and our capacity to value difference. These characteristics may be prevalent in a predominantly white institutions (PWI) or in organizations led by people of color.

    By listing characteristics of white supremacy culture, we point out how organizations unconsciously use these characteristics as their norms and standards, thereby making it difficult, if not impossible, to open the door to other cultural norms, standards, practices, and ways of leading. These practices inhibit a truly multicultural organization; Section 6.6 considers antidotes to these practices.

    Thinking Sociologically

    Consider these questions posed by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun (2001) in Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups:

    Which of these characteristics of white supremacy culture are at play in your workplace or other organizations in your community? How do they stand in the way of racial justice? What can you and your community do to shift the belief(s) and behavior(s) to ones that support racial justice and a multicultural organization?

    Web of Institutional Racism

    Previously discussed in Chapter 4.4, institutional racism can be understood simply as "business as usual." It is business as usual that people of color tend to be underrepresented in powerful positions in the aforementioned social institutions; conversely, it is business as usual that white Americans tend to be in positions of power in our major social institutions - though it is easier to point out exceptions to that rule in the past 30 years as opposed to the rest of U.S. history.

    Institutional racism is the policies and practices within institutions that benefit white people to the disadvantage of people of color. An example of institutional racism is how children of color are treated within the U.S. education system. On average, children of color are disciplined more harshly than their white peers. They are also less likely to be identified as gifted and have less access to quality teachers. Racism in schools can and does have severe consequences for students and our future (National Museum of African American History and Culture).

    Shirley Better explains the web of institutional racism which is rooted in housing inequality which in turn impacts educational, employment, health, and criminal justice outcomes. Housing patterns in the 20th century served to provide opportunities for mobility for white Americans, to the detriment of communities of color, particularly African African Americans. After WWII, the GI bill provided white veterans incentives to own their own homes in the suburbs. Communities which used restricted covenants offered only whites the opportunity to own homes and property in these restricted neighborhoods. This government-funded segregation cemented wealth for white Americans. On the other hand, African Americans experienced redlining (inability to get standard mortgages in African American neighborhoods), steering (swayed away from home ownership in white neighborhoods), substandard public housing, white flight (white mobility from neighborhoods in which African Americans were moving in) and gentrification (replacing poor neighborhoods with middle class individuals).

    The words stop gentrification spray painted on a wall
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Protest on the wall, with message: "Stop Gentrification." (CC BY-SA 4.0; Prof.lumacorno via Wikimedia)

    As home ownership is the traditional, tried and true key to accessing wealth in the U.S., it becomes easier to understand the web of institutional racism that Better describes. Where we live generally determines where our children attend school. The quality of schooling we receive impacts our potential for higher education, our entrance into the job market, and quite possible our interactions with police and the criminal justice system. Additionally, the type of job we work generally determines the type of health care we receive or do not receive.

    Key Takeaways

    • Social institutions such as sports, education, criminal justice system, and the workplace reflect white dominance.
    • The web of institutional racism, rooted in housing inequality, negatively impacts educational, employment, health, and criminal justice outcomes for many communities of color, while simultaneously advantaging Euro Americans/white Americans.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Works Cited

    • Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, NY: New Press.
    • Better, S. (2007). Institutional Racism: A Primer on Theory and Strategies for Social Change. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
    • Delgado, S. & Stefancic, J. (2001). Critical Race Theory. New York, NY: New York University Press.
    • Bonilla-Silva, E. (2001). White Supremacy and Racism in the Post Civil Rights Era. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers.
    • DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for white People to Talk about Racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
    • Du Bois, W.E.B. (1977). [1935]. Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860 -880. Atheneum, NY.
    • Duvernay, A. & Moran, J. (2016). 13th. [Motion picture]. Kandoo Films.
    • Gall-Peters Projection. Wikipedia.
    • Jones, K. & Okun, T. (2001). Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. ChangeWork.
    • Ladson-Billings, G. & Tate, W. (1995, Fall). Toward a critical race theory of education. Teachers College Record, 97(1), 47-68.
    • Konradi, A. & Schmidt, M. (2004). Reading Between the Lines: Toward an Understanding of Current Social Problems. 3rd ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
    • Lapchick, R. (2019, October 30). The 2019 racial and gender report card: national football league. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
    • Lapchick, R. (2019, June 18). The 2019 racial and gender report card: national basketball association. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
    • National Museum of African American History and Culture. (n.d.). Talking about race: being anti-racist.
    • Stanley, C.A. (2006). Coloring the academic landscape: Faculty of color breaking the silence in predominantly white colleges and universities. American Educational Research Journal, 43(4), 701–736.