ZNet Institutional Racism Instructional
Justin Podur (2002)

ZNet Top Page

Parts of the Instructional

1. Society, Culture, and Communities

2. The Racial Caste System

3. Racist Economics

4. Racist Geography

5. Culture and Racism

6. Racist Politics

7. Racist Sexism

8. Antiracist Strategy

9. Antiracist Visions

Racist Economics

The economy consists of an elite and everyone else.  At times 'everyone else' has been stronger relative to the elite, at times weaker.  The elite by definition has power over the rest.  But the economy is not so simple-- there are some who are more elite and have more power, some who are less.  Economic power is a combination of wealth, income, status and occupation, access to education and health care, connections, and geographic and social mobility.  These in turn translate into political power, organization, access to media, business and government.  A great deal of the damage done by racism is done through the economic system.  People of colour are denied economic power, here and in many places in the world.

Having economic power or elite status is being in an exclusive club.  How important is race in deciding who gets into this club?  Some examples: blacks search for work longer and often more aggressively than whites and are 36-44% less likely to be hired for jobs in mostly white suburbs even when they are just as qualified.  White males with a high school diploma are as likely to have a job and earn as much as black males with college degrees.  When controlling for age, experience, and other relative factors, blacks are paid at least 10% less than whites.  (Alice O' Connor, Chris Tilly and Lawrence Bobo, eds. 1999.  The Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, "Urban Inequality: Evidence from Four Cities." NY: Russell Sage Foundation.)  2% of lawyers and less than 1% of partners in law firms were black, according to a 1987 survey in the National Law Journal.  A 1988 survey of Public Advocates, Inc. showed that fewer than 0.25% of partners in the US's biggest accounting firms were black (37 out of 20 000 surveyed).  (cited in Farai Chideya, 1995.  Don't Believe the Hype.  New York: Penguin Books).  On average, African Americans have only one-tenth the net worth that white Americans do.  (also in Chideya, 1995). 

People with power do not give it away out of morality or a sense of justice.  Instead they use the means at their disposal to maintain and extend their power.  They hand out jobs and positions in society, and so have the power to discriminate based on race (and sex) and create the kind of pyramid they want.  The consequences for the economy are these: not only does racism cause the economy to be stratified as it is, and place people of colour at the bottom of the economic pyramid in terms of occupation, empowerment, income, and wealth.  Racism also splits the 'everyone else' into racial groups with different interests, and helps elites maintain their economic power against a divided opposition.

We have a society divided by class: what I would call two classes of winners (owners and managers) and one class of losers (workers, including the unemployed)-- others might cut this finer, others rougher.  Most of the winners are white, but most white people aren't winners, at least in the economy.  But what we also have is a society divided by race-- where the upper caste is white, and all whites are racial winners-- even those who are economic losers.  This scheme of things suits white economic elites-- who create and maintain the scheme by discrimination-- just fine.  Racial privilege, in terms of status, prestige, and separation, is much cheaper for them to give out than economic justice, full employment at empowering work, and equality. 

When white workers are suffering, people of colour offer convenient scapegoats for structural economic problems: overpopulation is to blame instead of corporate destruction of resources, immigration is to blame instead of deliberate technological unemployment.  The presence of more desperate, disempowered people of colour below white workers on the class ladder acts as both a consolation (it could be worse) and a discipline (your job could be given to them).  If white workers saw their interests with other workers regardless of race, instead of with other whites regardless of class, it would be more difficult for elites to prevent economic reforms that ended poverty, unemployment, environmental destruction.

In the meantime, the economy wreaks havoc on all but a very few, and worse havoc on those without the insulations of caste privilege.   

Equality is incompatible with racism.  Democracy, which is people having a say in their government to the degree they're affected by decisions, is incompatible with racism.  White workers will never have the bargaining strength they need to have economic security if they choose to accept the divisions that ensue.  This is obvious even by a quick glance at the US and Canada.  Canada has universal health care and much more progressive taxation and a viable third party-- these are all under attack and being dismantled, but they were won in the first place because of working people's fighting and struggling to win them.  The US had its own labour struggles where much was won-- but labour in the US has always been divided between fighting owners and managers on the one hand, and bashing Black Americans and immigrants on the other.  Workers in Canada, virtually the same as the US in most ways but lacking the history of slavery, could focus more on their economic interests (attacking immigrant communities on occasion, it shouldn't be forgotten) and win more.  But all this discussion of racism's integral role in maintaining economic inequality and insecurity in the US obscures the tragedy of a racist economy-- an economy that wastes human potential and condemns huge numbers to misery and poverty out of spite and cruelty.

What's so 'systemic' about it?

The reason 'racist economics' is so insidious is because it yields racist outcomes even if people are not particularly prejudiced.  It is insidious because it makes it possible for the failure of an agricultural program or a race riot decades ago to have an impact on people's economic situations today. 

Wealth is passed from one generation to the next.  This means that if, in previous generations, black people or native people had no wealth or had it stolen from them, they will have less now than whites.  This has all the potential in the world to perpetuate itself.

Jobs and other business opportunities are often not advertised and go instead according to personal and family connections.  Even without severe discrimination, in a racist society people have mostly friends and family of their own race.  If the people with jobs and opportunities to give out are white, the people who get the jobs and opportunities will be white.  This, too, has a self-perpetuating logic.  Some specific examples are given below.

Five interactions of racism and economics:

1. Globalization

The interaction of racism and class divisions and its effects are apparent in the context of 'globalization'.  Globalization means, in shorthand, that the rich can take their money anywhere in the world whenever they want.  What you as a worker have to understand about this is that if investors or corporations can move plants and headquarters like this, so long as there is anyone in the world who is more desperate than you and willing to work for less, then you cannot have economic security, you cannot make plans for your future or your family, you cannot be sure of a job tomorrow.  If white North American workers do not appreciate this, it's because corporations try so hard to spread the word that what's good for North American corporations is what's good for North Americans and that foreign workers are not potential allies but rivals.  What happens as a result is shown by a headline in the Globe and Mail in 1997, referring to the destruction of the Asian economies which led to much desperation, misery, and concentration of economic power in elite hands: 'Asian heads bow to global economy'. 

2. Closing doors and the army

One principle of racist economics is this: if a job can be given to a white person, all things being equal, it will be.  This means that black and Latino youths, especially in hard economic times, have most economic doors closed to them.  One of the few that remains open is the military.  Military spending is the largest item in the US budget, and is more than social expenditures.  Communities of colour are targeted specifically for recruitment, especially poor communities and especially in economic downturns.  Recruiters are therefore taking advantage of racially exacerbated economic desperation to recruit people into the army.  The result is that the US army, an instrument used to fight wars that are never in the interests of people of colour, usually against countries in Asia, Africa, or Latin America, has an officer corps that is 3% Latino, while casualties tallied on the Washington Monument for example were 28% Latino. (cited in 'Las Veinas Abiertas del Pueblo Latino', by Mario Hardy. Z Magazine, November 1999).

3. Unemployment

The problem of unemployment deserves special mention here.  Unemployment is wasted human potential, a horrible allocation of resources, a human tragedy, and a huge obstacle in the way of any kind of change in the economy.

But if it's so bad, why does it exist?  You'll hear many justifications from economists.  The most famous are 1) if everyone was employed, they'd all have money and want to buy things, so everyone bidding for these things would cause prices to go up and up, the money wouldn't be worth anything and workers would suffer anyway.  This theory says there's a 'natural non accelerating inflation rate of unemployment' above which we can't go.  This is an elaborate story with lots of evidence against it, and no evidence for it (see McQuaig's Cult of Impotence).  The other one is (2) the unemployed are unemployed because workers' standards are too high-- if workers would work for less, there would be no unemployment.  The limit of this scenario is slavery-- everyone is employed, no one gets paid.  My own answer to this is I'll believe that when owners give up all their profits and managers accept the same low (or zero?) salaries as their workers.  Until then, I'll think this idea is what it is-- mean ideology pretending to be scientific economics.

No, a more convincing reason for the existence of unemployment is that it's good for elites, and elites won't change what's good for them.  If there was full employment, management would no longer have the threat to fire and replace workers, workers could demand more money, more control over their work and the company's decisions, and actually win them.  This would be bad for elites-- unemployment is better.

So unemployment is a matter of deliberate policy.  In a racist society, the burden of unemployment will fall hardest on people of colour-- the unemployment rate for blacks was 14% in 1992, while for whites it's 6%, for one example (Chideya 1995).  What does this mean?  The unemployed lack political clout, access to health care, good housing, and nutrition; they are vulnerable to use as strikebreakers.

Chronic, long-term, racially-influenced unemployment creates a permanently unemployable class.  These unemployed are not even required by the elite to be unemployed-- they're completely superfluous.  As a result, they're imprisoned for trivial offenses, locked into ghettos and reserves in appalling conditions.   (more on these later)

4. Third World Poverty, Western Foreign Policy, and Immigration

Ecologists like Paul Ehrlich, who advocate 'zero population growth', and argue that North America and Europe must remain an 'island of plenty in a sea of despair', have a position easy to fit in with racism.  Indeed the environmental movement is at its most confused when dealing with issues like population, immigration, and poverty.  Is overpopulation in the 3rd world causing environmental destruction?  Should the 3rd world be kept in poverty out of fear that if 'they' consumed as we did, the earth couldn't survive?  Should 'we' restrict immigration to maintain our lands at a level of ecological integrity?

The questions themselves betray a misunderstanding about the relationship between the first and third worlds.  Population is not a cause but an effect-- of disempowered females who are not allowed to participate in society or the workforce, of poverty and insecurity (Betsy Hartmann).  People who want to immigrate do so not because of 'population pressure' but because of poverty.  Poverty itself is not a consequence of population but of injustice.  (Shiva).  It is worth describing the cycle of poverty of 3rd world countries in detail

It begins with a Western Intervention.  This intervention re-orients the economy from self-sufficient agriculture and industry to serve local markets to export-oriented agriculture and no industry.  This is done by violence, debt, and bribing local elites.  The new agriculture is more productive-- not that it produces more, but it produces different goods (goods the people who grow it can't eat, usually) using less labour.  What happens to the agriculturalists who are no longer needed?  They go to the cities, places like Mexico City, Bombay, and Jakarta, where they are now the most competitive labour force around (meaning they'll work for really cheap) because they have no bargaining power.  Western corporations are more than happy to 'invest' in such places, and leave if the situation changes. 

This situation is a horror for the citizens of most of the world, and a joy for corporations.  Every third-worlder who can escape from this does their best to do so.  Hence the hated immigrants who steal the jobs of North American workers are the creation of North America.

But the story doesn't end here.  If in a country workers begin to organize themselves, or peasants begin to agitate for land reforms, or a government promising to make these changes comes to power, that country is immediately targeted for attack.  First, come bribes, media campaigns, and subversions of the military.  Possibly mercenaries are employed.  If the people of the country keep resisting, they're bombed. (this pattern is told over and over in William Blum's book, 'Killing Hope'.)

Discussions of 'population' and 'immigration' that obscure this relationship are outrageous.  I'm tempted to offer a trade: return every scrap of property held by western corporations in the third world.  Dismantle the CIA and the US navy, airforce, and army (except what's necessary to defend against attacks from Mexico and Canada).  Cancel all debts owed to western countries and banks.  Dismantle the IMF and the World Bank.  Give the third world ten years of commodity prices that reflect the social cost of production of the commodities plus a reasonable profit.  Watch as the corrupt elites of the third world are removed from power, land reforms are enacted, and economies are reoriented.  Then, and only then, can North America unhypocritically close the borders and get hysterical about lost jobs, immigration, dilution of society's morals, and so on.

And of course, the flip side of this is that the only reason immigrants are allowed in the country is because they're wanted by corporations, to staff the sweatshops, to work on the farms and in the laundries, to raise elites' children and clean their houses and offices, and sometimes to program their computers. 


5. Climate Change

The discussion of climate change and environmental destruction usually goes the same way.  There are really two positions on the environment.  No one is for environmental destruction.  You're either for your environment-- meaning you're willing to accept environmental destruction, even global warming, so long as power relations don't change, since any costs of such destruction can be transferred to people who don't matter-- or you're for the environment, because you realize that people who suffer from environmental destruction are people who haven't the power to steal land that's lost, buy technological fixes, or move from devastated areas.  The Globe and Mail in Canada offers the first position in a spectacular way.  If climate change makes agriculture viable in the north, we (whites) will be able to settle the north (where the population is mostly native).  If it causes floods and turmoil in the south, that's not really Canada's problem is it?

The truth is that environmental destruction is old-- at least hundreds of years old.  The destruction has always been localized and wealth has always meant insulation from it.  Elites are not nervous about it because they know this.  Racial society adapts to it as it does to economic exploitation and unemployment and poverty-- by transferring costs to people of colour, and blaming them for the problems that ensue.  Winona Laduke's book 'All Our Relations' and Ward Churchill's 'Struggle for the Land' discuss case after case of environmental racism:  toxic waste sites, strip mining disposal, uranium mining, all located on Indian reservations.  This happens in urban situations as well (Jonathan Kozol talks about it in 'Amazing Grace'), with dump sites located in ghettos. 

Racism Intervenes  to Restore Inequality

A great deal about racist economics can be boiled down to a single rule: When possible, a person of colour must not have anything a white person doesn't have.  If elites of colour exist and wield power, there must be white elites who wield more power.  If there are whites who are poor, there must be people of colour who are more poor.  More than anything else, this has confounded and will continue to confound any effort to lift people of colour out of poverty, starting with the poorest.  To do so would require strong public action, whites would never stand for it: if the government belongs to you, it should not do more for other people than it does for you.  Even when public action is not involved, and black or native people succeed economically as individuals, their wealth is destroyed.  When remedial actions of any kind start to succeed, racist political interventions, sometimes grassroots, sometimes top-down, step in to restore the economic inequalities.  I'll give three examples below.

1. The Prairie Agricultural Program in Canada (from Noel Dyck)

Examining the conditions of the people trapped in the reserve/reservation system today, it is difficult to see just how many other options were available.  One of the most vicious myths racism promulgates is that if native people wanted to assimilate, they could.  Leaving aside the forced assimilation represented by residential schools, and the abuses that were a part of that system, leaving aside that forced assimilation is another term for cultural genocide, there is still the simple fact that native people are not allowed to be economic successes either.

By the late 1870s, the Buffalo had been destroyed as a matter of deliberate policy by North American governments to facilitate the settlement of the west by whites.  The American Indian economies and societies dependent on the Buffalo were also being destroyed, also as a matter of deliberate policy.  One of the instruments of this policy was a program, called the Prairie Agricultural Program, to turn Native groups into agriculturalists.  If it succeeded, the Cree and Blackfoot, and Metis would become small individual farmers like the whites: full citizens in the European-American state.

Serious farmers-- serious businesspeople-- know that nothing can be done without social support, especially at the beginning.  White settlers got land, credit, access to markets and innovations-- and continue to (Railway owners got a lot more than that-- including help destroying unions).  To have succeeded, Native farmers would have required no less.

But the largesse that railway tycoons, fur trade companies, and white farmers received as a matter of course was viewed as charity when given to Native farmers, encouraging their proclivity to idleness.  The Prime Minister of Canada bragged to Parliament that aid was being withheld from Native people until they were on the point of starvation. 

The Native people, their old economy destroyed and their new one sabotaged before it even started, revolted.  The government responded by quelling the revolt with troops and hanging its leaders as traitors.  ("The Prairie Agricultural Program in Canada", Noel Dyck, 1986.  in LF Brown and JB Waldron, eds. 1885 and after.  Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina Press)


2. The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (from 'Death in a Promised Land')

African American attempts at economic success have fared no better.  After the first world war, many black soldiers returned to the US believing that their patriotic contribution might help them gain some justice.  Expectations had risen; black people were less likely to tolerate the contempt of a country they had fought for, and more likely to try to defend themselves.

When African Americans reach for dignity, the racists reach for guns.  This happened with the creation of the KKK after the Civil War, formed to prevent and undo the possibilities for justice after slavery which could have occurred under Reconstruction; it occurred again with that group's response after World War I to destroy any hopes returning veterans may have had.

The early twentieth century was a time of lynchings.  Mobs took pride in their killing, and police, when they didn't join the mob, certainly didn't stop it.  Mobs would kill suspected criminals, political dissidents, and, of course, blacks.  They took their direction, in many cases, from newspapers which encouraged and facilitated the lynchings.

In this context, black people managed to build a small, precarious middle class and a thriving business district in Tulsa, as in many other cities.  It was precarious because many who lived in the district worked for whites; because the small businesses were not state supported; and most importantly, because the community was at the mercy of the white community it was embedded in.

Black Tulsa was aware of the dangers of the mob, as is evidenced in its own newspapers.  Black Tulsans tried to organize themselves for self-defense.  But against the mob and the police, they were outgunned and outnumbered.

The awaited riot happened in 1921.  A young black man was accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator.  He was arrested.  A white newspaper ran a headline: 'negro to be lynched tonight'.  A group of black Tulsans went to the police station to try to protect the suspect.  A white mob arrived.  The riot began. 

While black Tulsa was looted and burned, the police concentrated on rounding up and arresting blacks on the streets.  Estimates of the dead run between 27 to over 250.  The most accurate estimate is around 75 deaths, 68 blacks and 9 whites.  Black Tulsa was destroyed. About half of the black population, about 4000 people was rounded up during and after the riots.  Whites roamed freely after the riots.  Blacks were held under armed sentries and allowed to leave if a white person would vouch for them (to let employers get their employees back).  The last of the interned blacks were released 8 days later.  On the streets, blacks had to wear or carry special cards or be returned to detention for a month after the riot.

The 'rebuilding' of Tulsa was as much a betrayal as the riot itself, as whites took the opportunity to acquire real estate they wanted.  Substantive reparations were never made, and indeed the story was quickly erased from memory, as was the story of similar riots all over the country. (The memory of the story isn't totally erased.  'Death in a Promised Land: the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921', by Scott Ellsworth, 1982, Louisiana State University Press, tells it very well.)

The message: (1) Economic success is not allowed.  (2) Self-defense is not allowed.  Transgress and be destroyed.

3. Proposal 209 in California

This is a slightly different story, but follows the same rules.  Support for affirmative action flows from two simple beliefs.  The first is that ability at any given thing and potential to develop it is randomly distributed through the population (if you don't believe this, you believe that whites are 'naturally' better at some things, and blacks are better at some things, and Asians are better at some things).  The second is that opportunity is not randomly distributed-- opportunity instead flows along networks of class, gender, family connection, and race.  These two beliefs alone are enough to make you a supporter of affirmative action.  If you believe racism exists, and you believe people are equal, we're finished.  Knowing as well that 86% of jobs are not advertised but go by networks helps. (National Center for Career Strategies, cited in Gertrude Ezorsky, 1991.  Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action.  Cornell University Press.)  Knowing too that businesses cannot and have never survived long without much help from the government also helps.

It is an assumption, but a fairly safe one, to think that most of the Californians who voted against affirmative action did not do so because they believe people are not equal (although this is possible).  Many voted against it because they did not believe the system would be unfair if left to its own devices.  But if opportunities are unequal, then affirmative action is necessary to fix this.

Are opportunities unequal?  Some of the data presented above suggests that it is.  The educational data suggests that it is as well.  Black students who show potential equal to or above that of whites, they are 40% less likely to be placed in advanced or accelerated classes and 2.5 times more likely to be placed in remedial or low-track classes.  (Kunjufu, Jawanza. 1995. Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys.  Chicago: African American Images; also, Jeanie Oakes, 1985.  Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality.  Yale University; and Rebecca Gordon, 1998.  Education and Race. Oakland: Applied Research Center.) This is a cycle.  Good jobs go to those with good educations.  Only those with good jobs can afford educations for the next generation.  Only businesses with government support can employ them.  Affirmative action is a way of forcing a racist society to allow equal educational and economic opportunity in spite of continuing racism.

How was it struck down in California?  It started with an academic who couldn't get a job, and another who disliked curricular changes.  They suspected they were losing scarce opportunities unfairly.  They began to write what they called a 'Civil Rights Initiative', and were soon caught up in a political movement.  A charismatic black leader and lifelong beneficiary of affirmative action and friend to the governor was found to decry the programs he owed his success to.  Television ads emphasizing fairness and colour blindness were created.  A sympathetic Attorney-General refused to change the ambiguous wording of the initiative.  The Los Angeles Times exit poll asked voters whether they supported affirmative action programs "designed to help women and minorities get better jobs and education."  54% said yes, and 46% said no.  The vote in favour of Proposal 209, however, was 54.6% and against it 45.4%-- the reverse of the exit polls findings.

54.6 % voted to end California's affirmative action programs.  This breaks down into 63% of whites, 26% of blacks, 24% of Latinos, and 39% of Asians.  (The whole story of the campaign and Prop 209 is related in Lydia Chavez, 1998.'The Color Bind: California's Battle to End Affirmative Action.'  University of California Press, Berkeley.)  That a majority of Asians voted against the initiative is interesting, since anti-affirmative action pundits like Dinesh D'Souza frequently say Asians are deprived as a result of affirmative action.

Let's put it another way.  A pair of men with personal axes to grind and support from economic elites managed to use an ambiguous message of 'fairness' to completely subvert any discussion of inequality of opportunity in the present to take the first steps in destroying the basis of much black economic achievement since the civil rights movement.

What would it take to protect affirmative action?  A sincere belief in equality and an understanding that inequality exists in the real world.  But we might ask if affirmative action is enough-- and it certainly is not.  From an anti-racist perspective, it falls short of the multicultural vision we'll go into at the end of the instructional.  But even from an economic point of view, it is clear that no one should have their opportunity for scarce education or job curtailed because of an arbitrary thing like race or gender.  But the larger question is, why should jobs or education be scarce at all?  Anti-racism is only a part of justice: it says at the very least class stratification should not be due to race-- being of colour shouldn't increase your chances of being poor.  The next step is to say that poverty shouldn't exist, nor class at all.  In a world where workers control workplaces, circumstances, investment and research decisions, without managers or owners-- a world of economic democracy-- affirmative action would concentrate on ensuring adequate representation and decision making power for people of colour in a context of self management (or self-determination) and not on trying to prevent the destruction of the working and middle class of colour.  

Racist Economics Concluded

So ends the sketch of institutional racism in the economy.  Summarized it is the following:

1)      Economic elites who have the power to distribute economic benefits such as jobs, wealth, and credit discriminate against people of colour in North America, with the result that people of colour are poorer than whites.

2)      The poverty resulting from discrimination at home (the international system abroad) and inability of white workers to perceive their common interests with people of colour means reduced power for both groups, rendering everyone vulnerable to more severe economic exploitation.  This vulnerability means it can be more economical to exploit people of colour in the lowest paid, lowest status, most dangerous work, domestically and internationally.

3)      The rule of racist society is that people of colour must not have something whites do not.  When even a small group of colour makes limited economic gains, political interventions are made to try to undo these. 

In the next section, we'll see how what goes for economics also goes for geography.  Racism promotes class stratification and separation, and puts people in different rungs of an economic ladder.  It also separates people physically.  The separation of people and control of places is a key element of racism.

Next: Racist Geography     Previous: The Racial Caste System