Institutional Discrimination: An Inadequate Concept
This post is based on a sociological riddle: How is it possible that we live in a country full of racism and sexism, and yet very few people are willing to admit that they are racist or sexist? In other words, how can racism and sexism be so pervasive in a country devoid of racists and sexists?
This sociological riddle has been gnawing on my mind for many years. And my preoccupation with it has gotten much worse with the election of Donald Trump. Trump ran on a campaign of open and unabashed racism, sexism, and xenophobia, among other forms of intolerance. He was even endorsed by white nationalist groups like the Klu Klux Klan. And yet, during his campaign and after his victory many of his supporters denied that they harbored racist or sexist sentiments. Donald Trump himself even proclaimed on many occasions that “I am the least racist person” and “there’s nobody that has more respect for women than I do.”
It is certainly troubling that the president-elect of the United States is now the poster child for a society of racist and sexist deniers; however, the deeper problem is that if no one is willing to admit to holding these views then the possibility of ever ridding ourselves of these forms of oppression is remote to nil. And to make matters worse, the situation is unintentionally exacerbated by the one answer that is often given to this sociological riddle: institutional discrimination.
Sociologists point to institutionalized discrimination as one of the primary mechanisms through which things like racism and sexism continue to flourish. According to this argument, individual acts of racism and sexism are not as common today as they were in the past. What is more common is finding examples of discrimination in the fabric of social institutions—in the processes, procedures, and practices of these organizations. So although we may not hear as much about incidents of blatant interpersonal discrimination, racial and gender oppression still exist because discrimination is pervasive in our institutional arrangements.
Institutional discrimination is a central concept of sociological analysis. Students are taught about this idea in their introductory sociology classes and researchers cite it as a go-to concept in their scholarly work. I myself invoke it countless times when I teach sociology and also when I am writing about the complexity of social inequality.
But as I’ve thought more about the concept of institutional discrimination I realize it is an unsatisfactory answer to the sociological riddle. In fact, I have come to believe that institutional discrimination is an inadequate and misleading sociological concept. My reason for thinking this way is because institutional discrimination is not really about processes, procedures, and practices. It’s a about a fourth “P” that is often left out of the equation: People.
The classic textbook definition of institutional discrimination is “bias built into the operation of society’s institutions.” The problem with this definition and with the concept of institutional discrimination more generally, is that it does not tell us who is responsible for the bias. Definitions like this make it seem as if societies, institutions, and organizations are discriminating. But these entities cannot discriminate; only the people who make up these entities can discriminate.
I understand the reasons behind the concept of institutional discrimination. It is important for us to recognize that forms of oppression like racism and sexism are deeply entrenched in the bedrock of society. But in practice, saying that discrimination is institutionalized diminishes our ability to effect change. Many of us feel unqualified and incapable of altering the structure of organizations, institutions, and societies. Where and how do we even begin to take on such tasks?
The only way to change these systems of oppression is by changing the attitudes and actions of the people who make up these entities. Institutional discrimination is built on a foundation of individual acts of bias and prejudice. Without these individual actions institutional discrimination will cease to exist. But if we fail to identify these individual acts, and we situate them collectively under the umbrella of institutional discrimination, then we will not know where to direct our energies. How can we begin to eliminate these forms of inequality if we are only focusing on the abstract institutional level and negating the concrete individual level?
What I’m proposing is that we stop relying on the argument of institutional discrimination and we shift our attention to the individuals who are enacting bias in these institutions. When we invoke the argument of institutional discrimination we are unwittingly letting people off the hook, we are not making individuals accountable for their actions, and we are suggesting that institutions and not people are responsible for the perpetuation of social inequality. In effect, when we say that discrimination is institutionalized we are confirming that it is possible for racism and sexism be so pervasive in a country devoid of racists and sexists.
Here are some concrete examples that are often categorized as institutional discrimination:
Banking. It has been well-documented that African Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to be denied mortgages and loans even when the credit histories of the applicants are identical. When sociologists explain this we often refer to the “3 P’s” of institutional discrimination: the processes, procedures and the practices of the banking and lending industry. But why not emphasize and identify the fourth P: the people who are responsible for these unfair actions: the bankers, loan officers, credit trackers, administrators, and realtors, among others. Without these individuals making biased decisions institutional discrimination in the banking industry would not occur.
Health Care. It has also been well-documented that women and people of color do not receive the same quality of health care as white men. This example is often presented as a typical case of institutional discrimination with the blame being pointed at the medical industry. But who or what comprises the medical industry? If we want to eradicate discrimination in medical institutions what would we need to do? We would need to identify the individuals who are responsible for these actions. So shouldn’t we re-focus our approach and shine our analytical lens on the doctors, nurses, health care administrators, scientists, and insurance representatives who are making these biased decisions?
There are many more examples we can cite. For example, instead of talking about the institutional sexism of the advertising industry we should be calling out advertising executives, fashion designers, photographers, touch-up artists, magazine editors, and publishers for producing and promoting sexist images of women. And instead of talking about the institutional racism of our schools, let’s expose the racist acts of principals, teachers, professors, staff, board members, and students.
The concept of institutional discrimination was created in part to emphasize that even though acts of individual racism and sexism were waning, these forms of oppression are still evident. As a concept, institutional discrimination is trying to answer the riddle that I posed at the beginning of this post. But the real answer to the riddle is not the institutions or societal structures; the answer is the people who live and work in these institutions and structures. When we rely on the concept of institutional discrimination we essentially shelter and absolve the individuals who are directly responsible for the perpetuation of inequality.
Shifting our focus exclusively to the individual acts that constitute institutional discrimination is no easy task. But if we truly want to eradicate these forms oppression I see no other way of proceeding. We need to be willing to confront these everyday acts of oppression. Many of these acts of bias are subtle, implicit, and hard to identify. But the effects are often blatant, explicit, and easily recognizable. Instead of proposing that these instances of discrimination derive from abstract institutional structures we need to pinpoint the specific acts of discrimination committed by the people in these institutional structures. After all, if we can put a name and a face to the victims of institutional discrimination then shouldn’t we be able to put names and faces to those responsible for such discrimination?
In the days after Donald Trump was elected, there was an immediate upsurge in blatant acts of discrimination. There will also no doubt be an increase in what we generally refer to as institutional discrimination. My argument is that when we become aware of examples of institutional discrimination we treat them as acts of individual discrimination: find all of the people who are responsible and hold them accountable for their biased actions. I realize this plan would take tremendous effort, commitment, and increased awareness. But if we fail to take this approach then the riddle of discrimination will remain unsolved.