American Racism as an American Institution

By Eric Segall

The last few weeks have placed a spotlight on American racism in a way that holds some promise for real reforms and movement towards greater equality among and between whites and people of color. But true progress will never be made unless Americans fully accept that institutional racism is not some distant memory or remnant of a bygone era but is still very much with us today. We are a still a racist country, full stop. We must own our past and our present in order to move towards a less racist future.

The United States of America was built in large part on the foundation of institutional racism. Our Constitution continued the practice of slavery for three quarters of a century after ratification. It took a civil war to formally end our original sin of white people treating black people as their personal property.

From the mid-19th century to approximately 1964, much of our country engaged in racial apartheid, providing people of color grossly unequal access to government facilities such as public schools, hospitals, and parks, and allowing private businesses such as hotels, restaurants, and theaters to exclude people based on the color of their skin. When I was six years old, a hotel located two blocks from my current law school went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States to argue that it had the right to exclude black guests.

This history is well-known but institutional racism goes well beyond slavery and segregation. As I documented in my book Supreme Myths, many twentieth century examples of economic racism still haunt us today. The Social Security Act of 1935 provided millions of Americans retirement and disability benefits but excluded domestic workers and many agricultural jobs from that safety net, which (by design) had huge discriminatory effects on people of color.

When FDR's New Deal programs provided new protections for large labor unions, millions of Americans saw their salaries rise and work conditions improve. But these laws also allowed unions to exclude non-whites from their memberships, rolls which many did until as late as the 1970's.

And, perhaps most importantly, between 1934 and 1962, the federal government allocated approximately 120 billion dollars to support bank loans for home mortgages but roughly 98% of that money went to white families. In just Northern California, 350,000 new homes were built between 1946 and 1960 backed by federal tax dollars, but fewer than 100 of those government-backed mortgages went to African-America families. This practice of "red-lining" led to segregated neighborhoods which, even post-Brown v. Board of Education, perpetuated a system of de facto and unequal segregated public schools, which in turn still today harms opportunities for African-Americans to succeed in the workplace.

These economic policies, and many others, affect the relationship between the races today. The appreciation of housing prices mostly in the white suburbs allowed whites to invest and accumulate more wealth, increasing economic separation between whites and blacks. These conditions of inequality did not occur randomly but were the result of official laws, intentional policies, and racist programs created and administered by state and federal governments.

The very first African-American athlete to compete in a varsity SEC sport did so in 1966. The first African-American state troopers in Alabama were hired in 1972. In our entire history, there have been only ten African-American United States Senators. There have been four African-American governors in American history, and there are none today. The first African-American President of an Ivy League University was Ruth Simmons, who was appointed to lead Brown in 2001 (ten years after I became a law professor).

American racism is simply not a thing of the past. In 2017, black men on average earned only 69.7% of white men, and black women earned only 60.8% of white men. In 1953, four-fifths of white households earned more than the average black household. In 2018, almost nine-tenths of white households earned more than typical black ones. According to one expert, "even black workers with an advanced degree experience a significant wage gap compared with their white counterparts. And after controlling for age, gender, education, and region, black workers are paid 16.2 percent less than white workers."

Then there is the American criminal justice system. A recent article in the Washington Post collected an array of troubling studies demonstrating the inherent racism that infects American policing. A few low lights:

1) In Los Angeles, 24% of black drivers and passengers were searched, compared with 16% of Latinos and 5% of whites, during a recent 10-month period.

2) In the District of Columbia, over a four-week period, of 11,000 police stops, while blacks make up 46% of the city’s population, they accounted for 70% of police stops, and 86 percent of stops that didn’t involve traffic enforcement.

3) In Columbus, Ohio, while blacks make up 28% of the city’s population, about half of the use-of-force incidents by city police were against black residents.

4) A report on 1.8 million police stops by the eight largest law enforcement agencies in California found that blacks were stopped at a rate 2.5 times higher than whites. Black people were also much more likely to be stopped for “reasonable suspicion” (as opposed to actually breaking a law) and were three times more likely than any other group to be searched, even though searches of white people were more likely to turn up contraband.

5) A 2018 study of traffic stops in Vermont found that black drivers were up to four times more likely than white drivers to be searched during a traffic stop, even though whites were 30 to 50% more likely to be found with contraband.

The list goes on and on and is not limited to particular regions of the country. The reality is that black Americans are much more likely to be wrongfully targeted by our country's police officers than white Americans and much more likely to be the victims of police misconduct. These statistics are not from 1880 or 1980 but today. 

Racism is as American as apple pie. It is built into our institutions, our neighborhoods, our courts, our workplaces, and our schools. The social, legal, and economic consequences of racism dominated our politics in 1787, 1868, 1964, and are still with us today. The way forward isn't easy but one thing is perfectly clear. American racism is an American institution. Until we fully accept that tragic reality, and stop pretending that racism only haunts us around the edges, a demonstrably false proposition, real progress will be impossible.