So the Wall Street Journal Believes Institutional Racism No Longer Exists…Seriously?

Seriously, WSJ editorial board? After the racist Charleston Church Massacre, your best effort is to print your collective belief that institutional racism no longer exists?  Is that is the best you could do?

It seems to me that people who believe that institutional racism is dead operate from posture of privilege that prevents them from truly grasping the meaning of racism as they mute or discount the experiences of African Americans and other People of Color who work or volunteer within their institutions.

While no Jim Crow segregation laws remain on the books in the United States, there remains a frequently unacknowledged yet very active undercurrent blowing across the land, one that maintains that White people ought to be in charge of society and the world, and that White historical narratives and figures; world views; notions of beauty; definitions of success; religious values, theologies, and art; and more, ought to form the normative template that sets the shape and tone for all other expressions of human life.

This White cultural template is alive and well in the United States and beyond.  It is the operating system that can be found on society’s cultural and political hard drive and in any realm that is considered “normative” or “mainstream” (notice the bias in these terms!).  It is, simply put, the given.  This template, hardwired into mainstream institutional life, maintains that White ways of knowing, being, and doing are inherently correct and worthy of replication by all.  Whether conservative or moderate; whether liberal or tea party inclined, the template is there and it knows your email address and password.

The template dictates that non-White people form a clear and present threat to the well-being of White people.  This must account for the fact that so many White people double and triple check their car alarms, purses, and wallets when they see me approaching in the grocery store parking lot, even when I am wearing a business suit and am obviously weighed down with bags in both hands;

It is the template that determines who gets hired, who gets selected as board trustees, who gets promoted, and whose version of truth gets accepted as fact;

The template says it is perfectly fine for the White side of town to have numerous venues for high quality grocery and retail shopping while the Black and Brown sides of town must contend with few stores of any kind and accept their limited selection of products and higher prices, or drive to the White side of town;

It is the template that makes it acceptable for Black and Brown males to comprise over one half of the US prison population and to be given sentences that are sharply harsher than those given to Whites who commit the same kinds of crimes;

It must be the template that approves the narratives that lead to the mysterious terminations, resignations and buyouts, as well as scandalously poor workplace treatment of African Americans in industry, government, and even in church settings;

The template allows for rewarding White people’s creative endeavors and calling them faithful, provocative, and innovative, while denouncing the creative endeavors of African Americans, calling them reckless, unnecessary, and too costly;

I believe it was the template that created the climate of racial hatred and deadly violence that perversely nurtured Charleston’s murderous, domestic terrorist, Dylann Storm Roof and the others that we have yet to hear from;

Finally, the template calls on all people to accept and internalize its White privilege-oriented demands without critique or serious conversation about them, and… many Whites as well as People of Color, consciously and unconsciously do just that, carrying the template right into their places of work, their board rooms, their church houses, and into matrix of public and private institutional life.

Life in the Institution

When African Americans and other People of Color aspire to work in a historically White institution, be it public or private, secular or religious, they must have a track record that demonstrates competence not only in their professional or vocational areas but also in the value systems, norms, perspectives, world views, the template of White America.  In short, they must prove that they can work and play well with White people.  By comparison, it is often the case that the White co-workers, colleagues, and supervisors of African Americans and other People of Color are never required to produce a résumé that reveals enrollment in courses about or led by a Person of Color, nor must they show a track record of harmoniously and successfully working with People of Color in serious non “power-over” contexts.  Their employment requirements indicate no demands that they show mastery of an African American or People of Color cultural template, nor must they even acknowledge that one exists.  This imbalance with respect to academic, social, and professional employment preparation is staggering, and reveals the mechanics of White privilege in the workplace.  Moreover, it sets the stage for the lethal cocktail of racial prejudice and institutional power, which is racism, to shape practices and policies that work against African Americans and other People of Color in the workplace.

African Americans and other People of Color in institutional contexts are often supervised, evaluated, and judged by White people who know very little about them as persons and the rich, diverse, and complex cultures they represent.  Sure, the ways People of Color sing, dance, play sports, and even preach are appreciated and celebrated, often stereotypically, and sometimes utilized; and sure, People of Color may be hired as managers, executives, and even bishops of historically White church bodies.  However, careful observation would reveal that while some of these steps reflected honest, good faith effort on behalf of people of good will, many were often no more than mere cosmetic adjustments that were adopted in the interest of maintaining some sort of public image of compliance with existing and emerging calls for diversity that equip leaders to boast, “See, we’re not racist!”  This, of course, is tokenism 2.0.

Very often, African American and People of Color staff in historically White institutions are ignored and isolated by those charged to provide support, even as they inherited significantly difficult if not impossible work assignments and challenging institutional realities.  Instead of experiencing the satisfaction of having their successes and accomplishments lifted up and celebrated (as done with and for White staff), African American and other People of Color staff often have their mistakes – real and imagined – magnified, and find themselves scapegoated and blamed for institutional dysfunction that they did not create but tried to remedy.  On numerous occasions, African American and other People of Color staff have been victimized by leaders in historically White institutions who used their power not to support People of Color staff but to caucus themselves, promote personal agendas, hold exclusive communication forums, reach negative conclusions, and make hostile decisions (with no fair and just input from People of Color staff and often outside of the organization’s adopted methods of operating) in ways that undermined the integrity, perceptions, and success of African Americans and other People of Color staff.

This, dear reader, is how 21st century institutional racism works.  While establishing legally acceptable proof of institutional racism illogically requires that one show evidence of burning crosses, a paper or electronic trail of correspondence with the N-word, or invitations to neo-nazi or KKK meetings posted by the water cooler, African Americans and other People of Color staff know it when they see and feel its presence and effects.  They know when the institution considers them less than human and worthy of no respect and honor even when their contributions and efforts are praised by outsiders.  They know that while they may hold power positions, real and true institutional power has often been conferred onto a collection of Whites who serve as the actual faces of the institution.  The burning questions are:  Will Whites holding institutional power use it to advance the impact and influence of their institutions by supporting African Americans and other People of Color staff and helping them to succeed in their roles?  Will they call out unfair treatment of People of Color staff and demand justice?

Beyond ornamental hiring and profit driven program planning/product producing realms, historically White institutions and society as a whole would do well to consider these questions:

*How are the histories, aspirations, values, and norms of People of Color taken seriously and woven into the fabric of historically White institutional life, thus creating new ways of operating?

*How are perceptions of success, modesty, effectiveness, beauty, faithfulness, etc., of People of Color being factored into the operational stance of the institution?

*How are agenda-setting, decision-making power forums inclusive of People of Color leadership?

*In which ways are all board members, staff, and volunteers required to become students – not just participants –  in ongoing anti-racism and cultural competency training (which extends beyond diversity/sensitivity training)?

*How have People of Color leaders been fully vested and authorized to do the work they were hired to do?

*Which people among the guardians of historically White institutional life are personally committed to shaping institutional attitudes and marshalling resources toward helping African Americans and other People of Color to be viewed as valuable human beings by the institution, taken seriously, and otherwise succeed in the workplace?

*Who has the power to hold the institution accountable for its fair and just treatment of African Americans and other People of Color staff, and where can People of Color lodge grievances when they feel it necessary to do so?

*How do we encourage and support the significantly high numbers of People of Color and White people, younger and older, who categorically reject society’s racist template, and work feverishly to dismantle it in institutional life and beyond?

Until the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal demonstrates that its own organizational fabric is clear of any threads of racism, I consider its obituary on institutional racism to be premature and ill-informed, and its members unqualified to make such a judgment.


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