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Institutional racism

What does institutional racism mean and where is the term from?

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report defines institutional racism as:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin.

It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

It can be useful to work through each element to understand it fully.

“collective failure”

  • The definition looks at institutional, not individual, racism. It’s the actions of a group and not an individual that can be challenged through this
  • The definition makes it clear that you cannot get rid of racism just by identifying racist individuals and getting rid of them: equality is everyone’s responsibility

“appropriate and professional”

  • Use of the word “appropriate” implies that different people should be treated differently – not everyone is the same and a one size fits all policy does not allow for appropriate treatment
  • “professional” indicates that quality and standards of conduct matter.

“colour, culture and ethnic origin”

  • interestingly faith/religion and belief is not included here
  • race is however not defined as a single thing. In this definition is could be one or more of these three aspects of identity

“seen or detected”

  • the definiton does not only apply to the obvious ‘seen’ things, but also to those which can be ‘detected’ through monitoring data. For example, you may go into an organisation and see a number of BME staff but it is only through detection involving employment data that you would notice that a majority of BME staff leave the organisation early….
  • When conducting the above research, ask who is seeing and detecting? Sometimes, to know what is happening in a service or an organisation, you have to ask the people who experience the discrimination.

processes, attitudes and behaviour”

  • All processes need to be equality-proofed - assessed for indirect discrimination as all processes run the inherent risk of indirect discrimination. Again, ask who is doing the assessing, are they the people who would be able to spot possible indirect discrimination?
  • attitudes and behaviour can show what really goes on in an organisation, the actual culture. This element in the definition means that its not just about what is on paper in an organisation, its about what happens on the ground.

“amount to discrimination”

  • discrimination is often not just one sole incident. It can more often be the build up on a numerous small incidents, which, if taken on their own can seem small and insignificant and yet when put together build a clear picture of discrimination. Institutional discrimination can often be about wearing people down.

“unwitting prejudice” etc:

  • the word “unwitting” is controversial
  • some people feel it can let organisations off the hook
  • it can be useful as it means you can look at the outcomes of someone’s actions rather than focusing on their intensions. This means you can look at someone’s conduct and not their character
  • we are all prejudice – as we grow up we internalise a number of stereotypes and have to actively work understand our prejudices and work through them

“disadvantages minority ethnic people”:

the effect of institutional racism is that it disadvantages people.

You might wonder why this is on a site that focuses on disability. Simple. The definition can equally be applied to any group that experiences institutional disadvantage, for example institutional disablism disadvantages disabled people, institutional ageism can disadvantage both older and younger people, institutional sexism disadvantages women, institutional homophobia disadvantages lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people… The principal is an important one in all contexts.

To read Trevor Phillips's speech (Jan 2009) marking the tenth anniversary of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry...