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Issue In Institutional Racism Essay, Research Paper

The history of the United States is one of duality. In the words of

the Declaration of Independence, our nation was founded on the

principles of equality in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Yet, long before the founders of the newly declared state met in

Philadelphia to espouse the virtues of self-determination and freedom

that would dubiously provide a basis for a secessionary war, those same

virtues were trampled upon and swept away with little regard. Beneath

the shining beacon of freedom that signaled the formation of the United

States of America was a shadow of deception and duplicity that was

essential in creating the state. The HSS 280 class lexicon defines

duality as ?a social system that results from a worldview which accepts

inherent contradictions as reasonable because this is to the believer?s

benefit.? The early years of what would become the United States was

characterized by a system of duality that subjugated and exterminated

peoples for the benefit of the oppressors. This pattern of duality,

interwoven into our culture, has created an dangerously racialized

society. From the first moment a colonist landed on these shores,

truths that were ?self-evident? were contingent on subjective

?interpretation.? This discretionary application of rights and freedoms

is the foundation upon which our racially stratified system operates


English colonists, Africans, and Native Americans comprised the early

clash of three peoples. Essentially economic interests, and namely

capitalism, provided the impetus for the relationships that developed

between the English colonists, the Africans, and the Native Americans.

The colonialization of North American by the British was essentially an

economic crusade. The emergence of capitalism and the rise of trade

throughout the 16th century provided the British with a blueprint to

expand its economic and political sphere. The Americas provided the

British with extensive natural resources, resources that the

agrarian-unfriendly British isles could not supply for its growing


When Britons arrived in North America, the indigenous population posed

an economic dilemma to the colonists. The Native Americans were settled

on the land that the British colonists needed to expand their economic

capacity. To provide a justificatory framework for the expulsion of

Native Americans off their land, the English colonists created a

ideology that suited their current needs.

The attitude of Anglos toward the Native Americans began as one of

ambivalence and reliance. When the English first arrived in North

America, they needed the Indians to survive the unfamiliar land and

harsh weather. Once the English became acclimated to their surroundings

and realized that the Indians were living on valuable land, it was only

a matter of time before guns and shackles replaced treaties and


In the name of Christianity and capitalism, the English colonists

quickly turned their backs on the short lived missionary zeal that

characterized the early colonial period. Now, the ?savage Indians? were

viewed as unable to save themselves and extermination would be a worthy

enterprise in the sight of the Lord. The idea that one possesses a

God-given right to mistreat others runs through much of Western culture

and became especially acute in North America after the emergence of


For example, in New England many settlers rejoiced at the extraordinary

death brought upon the Native American population by the introduction of

epidemic diseases. It was viewed as a way of ?thinning out? the

population. In the world of the New Jerusalem, where a city was to be

build upon a hill, such trite concerns were of little consequence for

those with divine providence.

Duality, and its means of placing the truth and its allied freedoms in

the hands of the powerful, furnishes the ?chosen ones? with wide

latitude to create theoretical arguments that justify and perpetuate

systemic arrangements of inequality. John Winthrop outlined his

reasoning for the British right to North American land in terms of

natural rights versus civil rights. Natural rights were those that men

enjoyed in a state of nature (i.e. Native Americans). When some men

began to parcel land and use tilled farming, they acquired civil rights

(English colonists). Inevitably, civil rights took precedence over

natural rights. This method of thinking enabled privilege to the

English and provided a justification for the institutional and systemic

extermination of the indigenous people (Growth 83).

Before addressing the subjugation of African-Americans by the English,

I think it is important that I make an important theoretical point in my

argument. All political systems are rational, in the sense that there

is a logic and a thinking that guides those making the rules. White

supremacy and its associated beliefs (Christianity, patriarchalism, etc)

provided the rationale for the creation of a system of duality that

institutionalized racism. Robert Smith writes about the inherent

contradiction of espousing the self-evident equality of men and their

God-given right to liberty while at the same time sanctioning genocide

and slavery (Smith 8). The only way this incongruity could be remedied

was to deny the fundamental humanity of those being oppressed. That

negation of one group humanity by another is the crux of duality and a

principle tenet of all forms of oppression and subjugation. To

objectify a group of people provides an oppressor with a recourse for

the actions one takes. In the case of the United States, subjugated

groups are often reduced to a stereotype that is not based in fact:

Native Americans were wild savages; Africans were lascivious, lewd

beings that engaged in bestiality with apes; Asians were sneaky,

mysterious and not to be trusted. What is important is the stereotype

fit an institutional definition that allows the group to be oppressed

without self-reflection about one?s perverse actions. Professor Turner

mentioned in class the Sarte quote, ?To be a stone, you must make all

around you stone.? And to act as a savage, one must make those around

oneself savages.

To address the enslavement of Africans, it becomes necessary to once

again look at the economics that fueled the decision to bring slavery to

the United States. In capitalism, a driving force is to minimize costs

and, as a result, maximize profits. The labor intensive tobacco and

cotton fields presented the need for a low cost labor supply. Impelled

by white supremacy, the English began to move away from the system of

indentured servitude that characterized the early years of

colonialization and towards slavery.

By definition slavery must be sanctioned by the society in which it

exists and such approval is most easily expressed in written norms and

laws. From the moment Africans set foot in North America, they faced a

system that perpetuated and encouraged their enslavement.

Throughout the 17th century, laws and regulations regarding slaves were

becoming more explicit in their dehumanization. All questions of

whether these men and women would be seen as such were erased with a

number of legislations that sough to erase any ambiguities. By 1705 the

only real question remaining was what type of property the slave was to

his captor.. Ringer writes ?by 1705, Virginia had rationalized,

codified, and judicially affirmed it exclusion of blacks from any basic

concept of human rights under the law? (Ringer 67).

Intrinsic to the subjugation of Africans was an ideology that reduced

Africans to lesser beings. Reasoning behind this idea has gone from

Christian beliefs to ?scientific? evidence to current day beliefs in

African-American laziness (an idea whose roots are as old as white

supremacy) and the use of IQ tests as measures of innate intelligence.

What has stayed constant is a manipulation of the ?truth? and a myopic

self-interest by those parties with an interest in keeping privilege.

White supremacy and it dualistic vision of society became

institutionalized in colonial North America, emanating from the base and

structure of society. The Civil War Amendments to the Constitution were

no more than words on paper, with short lived legislative muscle. From

the vision of Forty Acres and a Mule, the newly freed African-Americans

moved on to sharecropping, lynchings, and segregation.

The mid to late 19th century witnessed the beginning of Chinese

migration to the United States. Immediately, they were met by various

laws and ordinances designed to restrict their economic, political, and

social advancement. This was combined with racial commentaries that

echoed those levied against Native Americans and Africans. The Chinese

were heathen, morally inferior, savage, and childlike. The Chinese were

also viewed as lustful and sensual. Often Chinese immigrants were

depicted in cartoons with devil-like features and devious expressions.

Economics also played an important role in the discrimination Chinese

faced in the United States. Chinese exclusion, a policy initiated in

1882, banned U.S. entry to Chinese laborers. After the U.S. acquisition

of California in 1848, there arose a need for cheap labor, and Chinese

flocked there to work on the railroads. By 1867 they numbered 50,000;

their number increased after the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, which

permitted Chinese immigration but not naturalization. Anti-Asian

prejudice and the competition with American workers led to anti-Chinese

riots in San Francisco in 1877, then to the Chinese Exclusion Act of

1882, which banned Chinese immigration for 10 years. Once again

inherent contradictions were seen as reasonable because it was to the

believer?s benefit. A scarcity of employment opportunities combines

with prejudices to create a atmosphere of hatred and political blame

directed toward the Chinese immigrants (The Heathen Chinese 230-240).

Another case of dualistic application of justice towards the

Asian-American community is the case of Japanese-American internment

during the Second World War. In 1942, Lt. Gen. John L. De Witt

rationalized the deportation of Japanese nationals and

Japanese-Americans with ?A Jap is a Jap?. When second-generation

Japanese-Americans in the nation?s ten concentration camps were drafted

for the war effort for cannon fodder, outraged Japanese-Americans formed

the Fair Play Committee to protest the conscription of those who were

not guaranteed the least bit of civil rights. In reply, the US

government jailed those who refused to serve, questioning their loyalty

and admonishing them for not embracing the opportunity to discharge the

duties of citizenship. Perverse logic such as this often guides racist

policies and the institutions they uphold in a dualistic society

(Okihiro 118-20).

Latino Americans have faced similar obstacles other disadvantaged

groups have endured within the United States system of duality. A prime

example was the relations between the United States government and the

island of Puerto Rico. When the Puerto Rican people joined the United

States in its war against Spain, they were promised the ?blessings of

the liberal institutions of our government.? What they received was the

Foraker Act, which made the island the first legally defined

unicoroporated territory without any promise of statehood or protection

of the Constitution. Since the Northwest Ordinance of 1790, all

previous conquered lands had been treated as colonist extensions of the

United States, with the promise of eventual statehood. But for

commercial and industrial interests, the island of Puerto Rico was

denied this right of self-governance. Combine those interests with good

old fashioned racism and you have a pretty damn punitive system.

Beliefs such as that Puerto Ricans were inherently incapable of

government for the people and by the people provided justification for

an authoritarian system. The inability to engage in effective

self-government was based on theories of racial purity and proximity to

the equator (Puerto Rico 947-1001).

A contemporary issue that illustrates the relationship between

individual attitudes about race and the consequences of institutional

racism is the debate over affirmative action in admissions to institutes

of higher education. The Regents of the University of California v.

Bakke was the last definitive statement the Supreme Court has made on

affirmative action in an educational setting. It allowed race to be a

factor in admissions to universities and colleges but forbid the use of

quotas. In response to those that argued that the Constitution should

be color-blind, Thurogood Marshall wrote in the Bakke decision, that

?for several hundred years Negroes have been discriminated against not

as individual, but rather solely because of the color of their skins.?

While interpretation is widespread and diverse on what that decision

actually meant, it has generally been interpreted as accepting the

prevalence of institutional racism. Justice Blackmun stated in his

opinion that to overcome racism it may be necessary to take into account

race, not in order to subjugate a race but for the purpose of ending

subjugation (Smith 158).

So the question I would like to address is the furor over so-called

?reverse racism? brought on by affirmative actions programs. A

conservative argument against these programs states that any program

that addresses race is racist in nature. But the basic equation

Professor Turner outlined in dealing with racism was:

Power + Privilege + Prejudice = Racism.

Preconditions for racism include the ability to define the requirements

of participation and the power to subordinate a certain disadvantaged

group. In this academic framework, it is absurd to consider affirmative

actions that seek to increase participation of African-American and

other disadvantaged minorities in education racist because of the nature

of the power and of the privilege relationships involved in these

policies. Unfortunately, the individual view of racism, defined in

narrow personal terms, has come to dominate the public debate. No

longer are politicians and the courts willing to address the

institutional basis of racism. This brings me to the final point of the

paper: Should public policy be color blind in a race conscious society?

In The Truly Disadvantaged, William Julius Wilson brought to the

forefront the crisis of the underclass. Robert Smith critiques Wilson

for his lack of recognition of racism as a factor in perpetuating an

underclass. Placing the blame for poverty and the underclass on

economic causes, Wilson supports universal policy initiatives. But this

does not address the fact that African-American poverty is more severe

than white poverty. And most importantly it does not address the

structure of racism and, consequently, of poverty. Institutional racism

is a problem that lies at the heart of the African-American underclass.

In the American Dilemma , Gunner Myrdal defined the cumulative nature of

discrimination, where discrimination in one area can result in

discrimination in another and then another, creating what is commonly

called the vicious cycle (Smith 160). Specific programs are needed to

try to break this cycle. A recent Cornell Review article, addressing

affirmative action in the California school system, stated that

African-American students were admitted to the universities with an

average SAT score of 300 points below what the average white, accepted

student achieved. While this article attacked affirmative action

policies as unfair to white applicants, I think as a society we need to

address the question of why there is a 300 point gap between the two

groups. In Myrdal?s framework, it makes perfect sense to attack a link

in the cycle, by providing an educational opportunity that will pay

dividends in the long run.

In a 1965 speech to Howard University, Lyndon Johnson provided this

argument for affirmative action programs to address institutional

racism: ?We seek not just freedom but opportunity – not just legal

equity but human ability – not just equality as a right and a theory but

equality as a fact and as a result ? (Smith 160). Institutional racism

is embedded in our society and will be most difficult to extricate

because it involves a forfeiture of privilege. But the stakes are high

and the consequences of inaction seem to be severe. Freedom is only the

first step towards the establishment of true equality.

Okhiro, Gary. ?The Victimization of Asians In America.? The World And

I. April 1993, pp. 397-413

Racism In The United States Course Packet. ?Growth of the English

Ideology of Race In America,? ; Ringer, John We The People And Others ;

?The Heathen Chinee,? And American Technology?; ?Puerto Rico As An

Unincorporated Territory: The Early Years And The Struggle Over

American Citizenship.?

Smith, Robert. Racism In The Post Civil Rights Era. SUNY Press. Albany


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