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9.5: Social Institutions- The Structural Legacy of Whiteness

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    Color Matters

    "Pick any relevant sociological indicator—life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, access to health care, income level—and apply it in virtually any setting, global, regional, or local, and the results will be the same: the worldwide correlation of wealth and well-being with white skin and European descent, and of poverty and immiseration with dark skin and "otherness." Sure, there are exceptions: there are plenty of exploited white workers, plenty of white welfare mothers both urban and rural, plenty of poor whites throughout the world’s North; and there are a smattering of wealth-holders "of color" around the world too. But these are outliers in the planetary correlation of darkness and poverty" (Winant, 2002, p. 305).

    Web of Institutional Racism

    Previously discussed in Chapter 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. In addition, sports, media, and entertainment are included. This page will explore these topics as instutitional oppression.

    (White) Social Institutions

    In his seminal work, Racism Without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2007) surmises that liberal social thought informs our (white) perspective on the world and justifies our (white) social, economic & political institutions. Bonilla-Silva's (2007) 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, Delgado and 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 (2018) 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 \(\PageIndex{3.5}\): 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).

    James D. Anderson discusses how whites kept Blacks from high quality education in the late 1800s/early 1900s because they deemed it to be a “subversive” way to gain equality (1988, p. 95). Part of the fear resided in how reading might inspire Blacks to want to vote. Keeping Blacks from getting an education thus attempted to keep Blacks in an underclass. Although voting was not allowed for Blacks yet, the fear of schooling encouraging voting also idealized who was considered a citizen and thus who was humanized. It was further propagated that “industrial schooling” was ideal compared to other schooling so that the status quo would remain intact (p. 86). Again, this exemplifies the desire for white political and economic leaders to deny humanization for Blacks and thus equity in school and life, let alone excellence.

    Lisa Delpit (1988) is often cited for her work that describes how there is a culture of power in schools that socialize students to perpetuate White middle-class norms. She calls for educators to teach students about the culture of power: that it exists and that sometimes you must play by those rules (of White middle-class norms in schools) but that doesn’t mean your home culture isn’t valued. Delpit (1988) says that we must not just teach children tools like code-switching, or knowing how to speak, say, their native African American Vernacular English or other language but then also know when, where, and why to use the “culture of power” in order to gain access to spaces and operate within places where they are unable to resist or draw from their home cultures.

    Cultivating identity and multiple epistemologies in schools, even classrooms, can work to counter the misrecognition and dehumanization of students’ identities and cultures. Bernal (2013) pointedly states, “Although students of color are holders and creators of knowledge, they often feel as if their histories, experiences, cultures, and languages are devalued, misinterpreted, or omitted within formal educational settings” (p. 390). In order to counter this, she says that these aspects must be “recognized and valued in schools” (p. 403). In these ways, Bernal points to epistemology, “how we know what we know” as the popular definition says. Student of color epistemologies are not valued in schools often not beyond superficial celebrating of differences that also do not delve deeper into issues of discrimination due to the differences and other issues of inequities. Such epistemologies are exemplified by Bernal (2013) when she writes,

    What are often perceived as deficits for Chicana/Chicano students within a Eurocentric epistemological framework—limited English proficiency, Chicano and/or Mexicano cultural practices, or too many nonuniversity-related responsibilities—can be understood within a Chicana feminist perspective as cultural assets or resources that Chicana/Chicano students bring to formal educational environments (pg. 397).

    Studies suggest that when a student has a positive racial identity and positive student identity, they tend to do better in school (Akom, 2003). Not only does Ethnic Studies help students achieve academically in other courses, but it helped to build and cultivate positive identities that had been otherwise devalued in a white supremacist society.

    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.

    We will explore this topic in depth in Chapter 12


    Research shows that medical doctors have actual biases against Black and Brown patients (Ventura, Denton, Asack, 2022). One of the issues is doctors and medical workers believing that patients of color have a higher tolerance for pain or don’t need to be prescribed medications as quickly or as much as others and having implicit bias against them (see more about the impacts of "Systemic Racism and Health" in Chapter 3: Africana/African American/Black Studies). Medical racism such as research done on Black patients without their knowledge and consent like in the Tuskegee Experiment and forced sterilization against patients of color ("Eugenicists and Forced Mass Sterilization" for more information) are all examples of bias and racism that does occur against minoritized patients.

    Studies and even popular news and technology sources recognize that self-driving cars can be racist. Self-driving cars weren’t created to recognize people of color that are in front of the car and are therefore more likely to hit people of color. Stanford Fellow Dr. Lance Eliot in Forbes Magazine (Jan. 4, 2020) discussed that white engineers created and tested the algorithms that recognizes white people as people that the car should be cautious of and avoid hitting. Thus, the predominance of white male engineers created a crisis of diversity where the lack of people of color as engineers that would test these features then create a lack of recognition of people of color whenever the self-driving cars encountered them. Because these tests involved only white engineers, self-driving cars didn’t see people of color as people. This shows not only the importance of diversity in STEM fields but also that people of color need to be included in initiatives that affect us all. It shows that representation in science and tech matters.

    In a study of engineering departments in universities, studies overwhelmingly show that programs that have more engineering professors that are Black and Asian women are more likely to have students who are also Black and Asian women. This also shows the importance of diversity and representation amongst faculty in STEM departments.

    students watching presentation
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): "High School Students Discover STEM Careers at College of DuPage 2017 23". (CC By 2.0; COD Newsroom via Flickr)

    Studies show that when there is diversity amongst educators, students feel more seen, acknowledged and heard, and experience less discrimination than with white educators (Darling-Hammond, 2020). Studies in elementary schools show how white educators often not only view Black and Latinx students differently but then also treat them differently compared to white students (Darling-Hammond, 2020). For example, white educators may view white students as more intellectually superior to Black students and will therefore view them as more academically capable. This results in white educators giving white students more advantages, assistance, guidance, and accolades. This also results in Black students receiving more punishment and harsher discipline than white students. Studies show in particular that Black and Latinx children are criminalized in schooling. Relatedly, Portillos, Gonzalez, and Peguero (2011) show the criminalization of Latinx students also in terms of immigration status. This trend of preferential treatment is not only with white educators but also with white administrators. Especially in fields like STEM, this type of representation is also important to help show these students that they too can succeed in STEM when they see professors who look like them.

    Sidebar: Texas and Florida

    Texas has been a state that has attempted or completed alterations to their curriculum that aims to revamp efforts that expose racism and critical discussions of race. One example of this is a recent initiative to change any mentioning of slavery to be called “Involuntary relocation.” Recently, Texas passed a bill that largely limits the teaching of recent events, and even teaching about the history of the Alamo as part of a target bill to limit the teaching of critical race theory. These efforts aim to maintain white history as heroic and mask any racist and harmful struggles committed against people of color.

    In July 2022, a law in Florida took into affect to ban the teaching of "racism and privilege" (Sullivan, 2022). This law is called the Individual Freedom Act and used to be called Stop W.O.K.E. Act or Stop Wrongs to our Kids and Employees Act (Sullivan, 2022).


    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?


    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.

    Sidebar: Redlining

    Redlining is the labeling of certain communities predominantly occupied by people of color to be red and as distinct and inferior to white communities. This creates inequitable housing opportunities and maintains wealth for white people by rejecting people of color from obtaining home loans to purchase homes in white communities and also financially devaluing homes in communities of color that make it nearly impossible to accumulate wealth. In home ownership deeds in white communities, there would be explicit directions that prohibited people of color to buy homes in white communities. Policies like this help to perpetuate the accumulation of wealth within white families that already have legacies of generational wealth compared to Blacks because of slavery and the wealth from profiting off Black bodies.

    Teaching in Ethnic Studies often points to structural/institutional racism such as described in this sidebar as what creates the biggest racial inequities in our society. Whereas equality is equal, same, “fair,” having the same exact access to resources, equity recognizes that people do not occupy the same positions that grant them the same access as others so there needs to be differentiated treatment such as particular resources and services that can help give access that people were left out of initially. When naysayers argue that there shouldn’t be “hand-outs,” what they fail to acknowledge is deep history that creates such inequities in the first place. In terms of racism as racial inequity, this is vastly due to structural/institutional racism. Slavery, for example, was an economic, political, cultural, and social system which was the law. Because it was sanctioned by the government, there was no avoiding it and it seeped into every fabric of society for centuries, creating a devastating impact of how Black people are seen even today. This includes the lack of access to the levels of generational wealth that whites have, and being denied privileges associated with freedom, safety and security, which are typically afforded to whites.

    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