This is the Weakest Argument Ever for “Debunking” Institutional Racism

The presence of legal equality doesn’t disprove the existence of institutionalized injustice

Tim Wise
Momentum
Published in
5 min readMar 1, 2023

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Image: Evgenyrychko, Shutterstock, standard license, purchased by author.

Of all the arguments made by conservatives to debunk the existence of institutional racism, one stands out above the rest as the most idiotic of them all.

I’m sure you’ve come across it.

It sounds like this:

Institutional racism is a myth because, unlike during segregation, there are no laws mandating racial oppression. Indeed, the law prohibits discrimination, so whatever racism still exists cannot be institutional. Instead, it is the work of isolated individuals, acting without any structural authority.

If anything, I’ve made the argument sound more intelligent than it is. But whether in my iteration or the more common, “It’s not 1963 anymore, Black people!” version, the argument is nonsensical.

Institutional action is not merely another way of saying “legal action.”

Indeed, that limited interpretation comports with no definition of “institutional” found in any dictionary or in common usage.

Institutions such as the labor market, justice system, housing markets, schools, or electoral systems, operate based on more than just laws dictating their practices or prohibiting others.

They function within a milieu of policies, practices, and procedures, some formal, others informal.

And these policies, practices, and procedures can either further racial injustice (and thus amount to forms of institutional racism) or diminish racial injustice (in which case they are effectively anti-racist).

To accept that institutional racism can only exist when there are formal racist laws mandating racialized injustice would lead to a preposterous reading of history.

Under this intepretation of the concept, we would have to conclude that there was hardly ever institutional racism in the U.S. outside of the American South — a self-evidently absurd proposition — because most of the North and West maintained racial subordination through informal customs and practices more so than legal apartheid.

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Tim Wise
Momentum

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)