Can There Be Structural Anti-White Racism?

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Today I began my unit on racism in the summer course I'm teaching. One of the readings I'm using is Naomi Zack's Thinking About Race. I was looking through the section that defines various types of racism, and I noticed some pretty suspect analysis in a couple places. She stretches the definition of racism to include things that just don't seem to me to fall under that category at all, particularly with institutional racism. She also fails to allow something to count as racism when it seems obvious to me that it should (and with this kind it's not clear if it should count as institutional racism, though it is structural racism of a sort). So her account of institutional racism may well be both too strong and too weak, interestingly.

Zack's main point is to distinguish between classic racism and institutional racism. I'm not sure this is an exhaustive listing of the kinds of racism, at least not if she intends institutional racism the way it comes across. Classic racism is often viewed as one person viewing himself or herself as superior to those of other races or of another race. It can include negative attitudes or deliberately harmful actions toward those of another race. Institutional racism, on the other hand, is when structures in place in society lead to discrimination, mistreatment, or other harm to people along racial lines. Sometimes it's overt, as with a club that explicitly doesn't allow black members. Sometimes it's covert, as with an employer who simply won't hire black people but won't admit it to anyone for fear of the racist label. In both cases, it's conscious.

Zack then wants to move on to discuss unconscious kinds of institutional racism. Now I have no problem talking about unconscious racism. I've devoted whole posts to some different kinds of unconscious racism, and it's one of the ways I think her list of kinds of racism is not exhaustive, at least in terms of the ways she sees institutional racism as grounded in official institutions (see below for more on this). White voyeurism, normative whiteness, and white racial narratives may all be unconscious but not institutional, depending on what she means by institutional, and the examples in the posts I've just linked can show that.

I don't think she can allow these kinds of racism to count as institutional (though they are structural in an important way) because of what she says against the possibility of anti-white institutional racism (p.46):

Since whites control most institutions and formal structures of power in the United States, nonwhites are not in a position to instigate, administer, and carry out institutionalized racism against whites.

That seems to disallow the possibility. She does mention affirmative action as a possible exception, but she refers the reader to her chapter on that, where she argues that affirmative action is a good policy, with some pointing out harms as a result of it that she thinks aren't real or not bad enough to be worth abandoning the practice. So I don't think she really considers anything to be genuine anti-white institutional racism, at least in this country. (It would be easy for South Africa to institute something like that, not that I believe they have. I don't think she'd deny that.)

What I think proves her wrong is that all the types of unconscious racism I've mentioned can go the other direction, though not all in obvious ways. I've argued elsewhere for the existence of black racial narratives (e.g. the victimology narrative, the black separatist narrative, and what John McWhorter calls an anti-intellectual narrative, though I think that last name is extremely misleading).

White voyeurism has some elements that don't transfer well, since you can't really view something as a novelty, but it's possible for there to be something enough like it. Does that ever happen in the other direction? It's hard to say, because most ways that might be labeled "white ways" are really just mainstream. One might argue that some imitation, perhaps even to make fun of people, can and does take place. An interesting place to look for this might be most black Christians' attitudes toward most predominantly white churches. I'm not sure a lot of this is a conscious negative attitude toward white people, but it's a distancing of the self through delight in seeing the other's actions as entertainment, which is basically what white voyeurism is, and both are bad for almost the same reasons.

Probably the hardest to see is the anti-white version of normative whiteness. The example I'm thinking of isn't so much anti-white as against the perception of what's white. This comes up in my separatism post. There's a tendency among some in the black community to see certain mainstream actions and attitudes as not really black. In my earlier post, I mentioned my students who were seen this way, one because she is a swimmer and grew up in a middle-class, mostly white neighborhood, the other because she likes to hike and read for fun. These were things they themselves told me about how people have seen them. I'm not entirely sure how this works psychologically, but apparently it involves a notion that real black people don't go for white things but instead have to have their own interests and attitudes that signal distance from the mainstream (referred to as white) culture. I don't think this necessarily involves a conscious dislike of white people, but it does have a conscious component -- dislike of black people adopting ways seen as white. The insinuation, though, is either that white ways aren't good enough for black people, which is an anti-white assumption, or that black people who do these things are trying to act better than their fellow blacks, which doesn't see white people as the negative but seems to want to hold black people back from cultural expansion. Either way, it's racist, though unconsciously so. One is anti-white, and the other is anti-black. I haven't said anything in here about black anti-black racism, but it's a standard component of most race discussions across the spectrum, including Naomi Zack's.

The result of all this is that Zack has ignored the possibility of these tendencies counting as anti-white institutional racism. Maybe she wouldn't call them institutional, but then there's another kind of racism, the unconscious non-institutional racism. I'd be happy with that category, but I'd be just as happy with expanding the notion of an institution to include such cultural phenomena. Either way, her treatment is seriously inadequate.

The second problem I find is her overextension of racism to include things that I'd be hesitant to call racism. As I've just argued, there seems to be the possibility that something can be both institutional and unconscious racism. Even someone who wants to dismiss all the above types will have others to recognize. If some affirmative action advocates are right, and some kind of unconscious bias against black students at every level of education in this country is what keeps black test scores so much lower than those of most other groups, then this is an unconscious sort of institutional racism. It's not as if anyone can claim that this is a deliberate attempt to keep the black man down. Many of the teachers, administrators (and parents!) involved in this process are black themselves, probably disproportionately so. Those who might unintentionally bias their judgments down when a student is black, if they were accused of doing so, wouldn't admit it because they don't believe it. That doesn't mean it doesn't occur. I'm not convinced that this is enough to explain such a widespread effect from good to bad schools that doesn't affect immigrant children but affects most American black students, but I'm not going to rule it out as a possible cause. If it's even possible, then there's a possible unconscious institutional racism, never mind my previous examples. I'm saying this only to make it clear that I'm not opposed to the possibiliy of unconscious institutional racism.

What Zack seems to be saying is much stronger, and I can't follow her on this. Here's what she says (on p.44):

Examples of covert institutional racism are requirements for participation that nonwhites cannot fill as easily as whites and attitudes held or actions taken on the basis of socially undesirable characteristics that occur more frequently among nonwhites than whites (such as poverty). Also, whites may be privileged due to having more social assets than nonwhites (such as college-educated relatives).

I can see some kinds of "requirements for participation that nonwhites cannot fill as easily as whites and attitudes held or actions taken on the basis of socially undesirable characteristics that occur more frequently among nonwhites than whites" that I would see as racism. For instance, it's covert institutional racism when Hollywood execs decide they want a black or mixed race woman for a part so they can look inclusive but decide to choose someone with lighter skin simply because it's more appealing to a lot of white viewers. I don't want to speculate on when this occurs, but I wouldn't be surprised if Halle Berry's choice for the last Bond film had come from this sort of thing. Standards resulting from white narratives of beauty are racist. I wouldn't call someone a racist who happens to have been affected by them and thus has preferences for which people seem beautiful, but this is a kind of institution, I would argue. (As I said above, Zack can't call this an institution, or her argument against anti-white institutional racism fails.)

So I'm not even objecting to her way of describing some of the characteristics of unconscious institutional racism. What I don't like is what sorts of things she'd include in it. She seems to be saying that poverty is an undesirable characteristic that occurs more frequently among nonwhites than among whites. I think if you look at the numbers you'll see that she's technically right, but that's extremely misleading. It's only a certain segment of the black population that is overly disproportionally poor. For instance, black families with two parents living together are nearly equal income-wise with white families of the same category, and in some cities actually higher. Is it institutional racism for middle class white children, for instance, to want to associate with middle class children? Zack's claim seems to indicate that it is, because the group that's excluded is disproportionally black. This ignores that the group that's included has plenty of black people in it who would be welcomed by these white, middle-class kids. It's not racism that's the issue. It's classism. It may be true that classism has negative effects on all the poor who are viewed negatively, and that group is disproportionally black, but it's simply not racism, even institutionally. It's classism that happens to have a negative effect on a certain portion of black America, just as it has the same negative effect on the equivalent portion of white America.

The final sentence of what she quotes is a clear indication of where this is supposed to go. Institutional racism is supposed to include the mere having of more social assets, which include money and possessions but also the having of relatives who are college-educated. First, this assumes something false, that black people don't have money, possessions, or college-educated relatives (and really that black people as a whole have a lot less, which is overly simplistic unless it's mean as an average rather than comparing the more helpful typical case of each). Middle-class black people are in a place in society now where they're likely to have almost the same social resources, in these categories anyway, as white people, some moreso and some less so. If my having some resources that a particular portion of black America doesn't have, and that has negative institutional consequences, it may well be described as an institutionally negative effect on that population. However, it's not an effect that's universally, or even largely, negative toward black people, or for that matter to any race or to the collection of nonwhite races. It's a negative toward poor people, including nonwhites who are disproportionally poor but also including anyone else. The cause isn't about race but about class. Even the main effect isn't racial but according to class. The only racial effect will be on those who see race as divided in these ways according to race, those who don't know the facts. I would argue that such an effect isn't the result of the institutional classism (which is unavoidable anyway given different income and social levels in society) but of those false ideas. That's perhaps part of a system that might be seen as institutionally racist, but remove that from the system and it's no longer racist. Zack finds institutional racism in the system but identifies elements with it that she shouldn't.

I'm not sure how to revise her definition of institutional racism accordingly, or even if the definition needs changing rather than the examples she gives, but I think this is an important criticism of her view without changing much or any of the structure of her comments. I believe this to be a crucial difference between some like me who have more conservative views on these matters and those like her who advocate more liberal strategies. Even those who will resist those things, though, should see that either she needs a third category of racism, unconscious non-institutional but structural racism, some of which is non-white, or she needs to allow anti-white institutional racism.


I think race and culture are often confused. It seems perfectly natural to have a preference for apspects and charactoristics of one's own culture without being racist.

Maybe you could comment on the concepts of generalization, prejudice, culture and racism. For example, there are probably alot of legitmate generalizations one could make about any number of cultures. If you define prejudice as relying on general knowledge when more specific information is available, it would be possible to harbor prejudice about either white or black people, for instance, without being racist. This could be true whether the underlying generalization related to culteral norms was well founded or not.

Anyway, I think that alot of what gets called racism for political reasons is, in fact, much less sinister.

Generalizations are generalizations, and if they're true then there's nothing wrong with saying them. It's when people assumed that because your group has general traits that you must also have them that it's wrong. Prejudice is more about dislike or distancing of oneself because of perceived tendencies, whether real or not. Sometimes it relies of false generalizations, sometimes true ones whether true of the individual or not. I think the case you say isn't racist is at least residual racism, since the more specific information is available that would correct your judgment.

One of the points of the institutional racism and residual racism categories is to be able to talk about the effects of classic racism without treating them as all that sinister, just worth opposing when we can identify them. They're harmful, and that's why we need to call them a negative term. 'Racism' is the best term we've got, as long as it's clear that it's not classic racism.

I didn't think I was making any claims about whether it's ok to have preferences for things one is familiar with. I think such preferences can sometimes be bad (e.g. Hollywood's preferences for lighter-skinned women of color) and sometimes perfectly ok (e.g. the style of music one prefers). One problem with race and culture is that people disagree on what race is. Since many dismiss the possibility that it's a biological category, that leaves them concluding that it's more of a social grouping based on mostly biological traits, but the social groupings in any locale do have cultural traits.

Let's be a little more specific. Hypothetically let's say a teacher in a diverse school district has come to believe that disparity in educational acheivement among ethnic groups is due mostly to the value that the parents in a particular culture place on education. She specifically does not believe that it is due to a genetic advantage conferred on one group and not another. In short, this particular teacher thinks that asian kids spend more time doing homework than black kids which results - over a k - 12 eduacational career - in improved SAT scores.

Is this a racist belief? I would say no. If the disparity was attributed to race, an immutable characteristic, it would follow that the teacher would believe that efforts to imporve the scores of black children would be in vain. If, on the other hand, the teacher believed that it had more to do with attitude and beliefs then she would be more likely to herself believe in efforts to improve the situation.

I believe that a teacher who expressed the above belief would in practice likely be called a racist, when in fact such a person would be the most likely to lend support to the solution. In other words, a generalization made in good faith but lumped in with an odious belief system risks silencing important allies in the cause of improvement.

I need more information. Is this belief true? It seems to be not too far from something that does happen to be a true generalization. One study found that the threshold for getting in trouble for grades varies along racial lines. Black parents tend to be ok as long as a grade is in the C range. White parents tend to discipline their children for grades in below the B range. Asian parents do so for grades below the A range. I'm not sure how a belief can be racist if it's actually a true belief. I wasn't sure you intended it to be a true belief, though.

Also, I'm puzzled by your use of 'race' here. I would have thought that the discrepancy is according to race. I'd be careful about saying it's due to race, but I'd also be careful about denying it. It's a misleading claim, because it's not clear if you mean some biological notion or some more social or cultural notion.

For what it's worth, John McWhorter points out that white people who say this sort of thing are called racists all the time, while he just gets labeled a race traitor.

On the issue of whether this counts as racism, even if it's a false belief it doesn't count as classic racism, since there's no ill will or notion of superiority. It might count as institutional racism if it's a harmful belief. The teacher thinks it's the way to improve things, but if she's wrong and it turns out to be a harmful belief, then it could function in a system of such beliefs as institutional racism. The two important factors are whether the belief is true and whether it's harmful if it's false.

Institutional racism is the only racism there is. Each of us has inherited his or her racial views from the past and any effort to address those views or act upon them have been inherited and/or learned, previous to the aforementioned action. You would have us believe that after 400 or more years of slavery and discrimination against blacks in this country that institutional systems have not been created to perpetuate the status quo. You need only look at the demographic and economic indicators to see the deliberate planning involved in acheiving those types of numbers. Suburbs are a glaring example of the institutional nature of racism. During the booming post war years when the interstates were being built and the suburbs mushroomed around the entire country, the government subsidized the depopulation of urban america. Using low interest loans like the G.I. bill, and restricting home ownership thru methods such as real estate redlining and restrictive covenants, the institutions governing the housing, and lending industries pretty much guaranteed lilly white suburbs, all throughout the United States. As suburban home prices gained exponentially during the 80's and 90's the lilly white suburbs as a whole were able to reap the benifits of the windfall, whereas blacks on the whole were not. This trend exaserbates the poverty which has always been much greater in the black community in comparison to their white compatriots. There is also an institutional element to the racism which effects employment in the black community. The black business community is for all intents and purposes non existant. Those which weren't destroyed or sabotaged, struggled along in the constant quest for financing that all businesses face, except for the fact, that no matter how good your credit rating was or how balanced your balance sheet could be. The white guy, today it could be a white girl, would have been judging your application, and once it became known that the applicant was black, the review process would become clouded by preconceived notions and all of the the racial vitriol that could be summoned to the forefront of the reviewers mind, all of the societally and media reinforced stereotypes and hatred come into play, anecdotal evidence of black financial mismanagement and poverty begin to appear believable, and inevitably the loan would be denied. Although this did not happen every single time it has happened enough to have left a lasting impact on the American business landscape. In it's wake leaving 98% of job seeking black Americans to seek gainful employment in the government or the private sector, in which 98% of the hiring decisions are made by white people of which an overwhelming majority hold the same racist opinions as the bankers and the government policy makers,which does in fact make racism in America not only systematic and endemic, but intrenched in it's institutions as well. There is no sphere in American life where a black person cannot be touched by white racism, and as a result they tend to see the racism much more clearly, more clearly in fact than the whites who have never had such a problem.

James, I'm not sure what you're trying to do. This post isn't about this at all. It's assuming the reality of institutional and structural racism and asking if similar forces can occur that are anti-white. I think the answer is obviously yes, and I've explained exactly how that could be. You've gone and changed the subject to argue for what I've assumed from the outset, as if I wouldn't agree with you.

I do disagree with several details of your comment, however. In particular, you sound a little confused. If a structure in society is deliberate and attitudinal, then it's not merely institutional and structural. You want to say that all racism is institutional, and then you try to support that by arguing that it's deliberate and intentional, which is a very different sort of thing.

It's clear that not all racism is institutional, because someone can simply hate someone of another race. That's attitudinal. It may be part of larger structures, but that one bit is not itself institutional, and it won't perpetuate itself in larger patterns in society.

As for your more lengthy point, there are clearly actions that individual people have entered into for evil purposes. Some of that evil is racist, but some is just selfish. There are also accidental effects of understandable decisions. The fact that I am inclined to think of a generic person as white is not in any way intentional. It's just an effect on me of structural patterns in society, and it's not an effect that any individual intended me to have because they think black people are inferior. Those who have that view aren't smart enough to have thought of structural racism (of the more residual form) as a tool to serve their purposes. It happened, but it wasn't a planned effect. Structural and institutional racism are not always attitudinal.

There's also a huge issue that you're trying to smooth over, and that's the distinction between (1) structures caused by current attitudinal racism that will continue to perpetuate themselves because of continued attitudinal racism and (2) current effects caused by outright attitudinal racism but not due to any current racism, which perpetuate themselves because of reasons completely independent of the racism that spawned the structures at the outset. It's my contention that more of (2) occurs today than (1). Much of (1) has gone the way of the dodo simply because attitudinal racism is nowhere near as strong or as visible as it used to be. (I would argue that it's not as common either, but conspiracy theorists who assume negative motivations when they might not be there won't be convinced, since we can never be sure of someone's motives. It's immediately obvious that it's not as strong or visible as it was with slavery or segregation, however.)

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