In today’s America, most people are confident that they can recognize and disapprove of overt racism between people—using a racial slur like the n-word against African Americans, or refusing to sell a house or give a job to people because of their skin color. But what if the racist action is not performed by an individual against another person but is result of the way a law or policy is written or interpreted or a result of custom? Then it is institutional, structural, or systemic racism, and there is much less agreement among people about when this has happened or what should be done about it, if anything.
Recently in Grosse Pointe Park, a Detroit suburb, two neighbors, a White man and an African American woman, got into a dispute and the woman called the police. The man had, this time, hung a Ku Klux Klan flag in a window visible to the neighboring woman. She was offended and felt targeted. He said it had nothing to do with her; someone in his house explained that they just needed a window covering.
The police spoke to both neighbors but refused to take action against the man because, they maintained, there was no legal violation. Their decision was supported by the Wayne County prosecutor, although she decried the framing of the law that required physical contact between people to qualify as “ethnic intimidation, ” according to The Detroit News(March 2, 2021).
The woman, other neighbors, and protesters who came to the neighborhood to support her argued there were actually two kinds of racism occurring: (1) a pattern of racial harassment by the man (personal racism) and (2) a police or city pattern of failure to protect or support people of color in this neighborhood (institutional racism).
The overt personal racism is pretty easy to spot: a hate group’s banner in a window where only the African American could see it. Hanging a KKK banner in her line of sight appears to intend to remind the Black woman that others hate her and her family. The full gas can left in her family garbage that exactly matched a gas can left on his front porch also communicated to her a personally violent intention, recalling the historical record of house and cross burnings by KKK torch bearers.
Less obviously, say the neighbors and supporters, the city and police failure to act to protect the woman and arrest the man for a hate action is also racist, whether or not the city or police personally feel racial enmity towards her. The African American woman felt threatened by this man but felt the police did nothing to protect her from this man’s violent indirect threats.
She also perceived in the police a lack of understanding of how it feels to be a Black woman threatened by a White man when their only action was to help the man: they bought him a neutral shower curtain to replace his banner.
According to the public safety director in the same issue of The Detroit News, buying the man a shower curtain for the window solved the problem of discord by removing the evidence of the man’s enmity towards the woman. They also did not investigate the gas can incident.
While not overtly racist, these failures to address the woman’s need for physical and emotional safety fall short of protecting a member of the public. They also evidence a lack of empathy on the part of the police with the African American history of violence at the hands of White people in the U.S, including in the Detroit suburbs.
Another article in Detroit Metro Times pointed out that the Grosse Pointe Park police force has always been all White, reducing the likelihood that any officer would fully understand or sympathize with the experience of being racially threatened. Moreover, as described in The Guardian, Grosse Pointe Park itself has a long record of segregation against people of color, having only recently removed one of its most obvious symbols of resistance to non-white people: a large wall that blocked Detroit traffic from entry into Grosse Pointe Park.
The wall, like the city failure to integrate and appropriately train police officers so that they would equitably protect all members of the public, was a result of decisions made or not made by multiple people that produced a racist effect, no matter what the personal feelings of any of the city administration or police force. Institutional, structural or systemic racist can produce racist results without any personal enmity against people of color. When racism works without personal action or interaction, it is still racist, even if it has no one person’s name on it.
For more on institutional, structural, or systemic racism, see Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016) or for a shorter read, Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist (2019).
A Detroit store display