INSTITUTIONAL RACISM

July 13, 2020

This is a term that first came into everyday usage after the publication of The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and the Report that followed it (The MacPherson Report, 1999).

However, the term was used by Kwame Ture in his book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, some 22 years earlier. The relevant extract from Black Power follows the sections on the MacPherson Report.

The definitions that follow are extracted from the Report. While the context of these citations is with reference to the Metropolitan Police Force, they are of general application to institutions and assist us with understanding systemic racism. 

6.4 Racism in general terms consists of conduct or words or practices which disadvantage or advantage people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. In its more subtle form, it is as damaging as in its overt form. 

6.5 We have been concerned with the more subtle and much-discussed concept of racism referred to as institutional racism which (in the words of Dr Robin Oakley) can influence police service delivery “not solely through the deliberate actions of a small number of bigoted individuals, but through a more systematic tendency that could unconsciously influence police performance generally”.  6.14 Dr Oakley indicates (in his first submission to the Inquiry, Paragraph 2) that in spite of Lord Scarman’s use of the words “hidden and unconscious” and “unwitting” the concept of “racist conduct” that became established following his Report “was one of the overt acts of discrimination or hostility by individuals who were acting out their personal prejudices. Racism was, therefore, a problem specifically of individual officers, of ‘rotten apples’ within the service who ‘let the side down’. On this diagnosis, the solution to the problem would lie (a) at the selection stage, at which prejudiced individuals should be identified and weeded out, and (b) through the application of disciplinary sanctions against those who display such behaviour on the job. This conception of racism appears still to be the normal understanding in police circles, and appears also to have informed the conclusion by the PCA”. 

6.15 When Lord Scarman [Lord Scarman chaired the Inquiry into the Brixton Disorders of 1981 and produced a Report, published in November 1981] asserted in his final conclusion that “institutional racism does not exist in Britain: but racial disadvantage and its nasty associate racial discrimination have not yet been eliminated”, (Para 9.1, p 135), many took this statement as the classic defence against all allegations that “institutional racism” exists in British society. His earlier words “knowingly, as a matter of policy, discriminate” and “practices may be adopted …. which are unwittingly discriminatory,” were not separated and given equal weight. Whilst we must never lose sight of the importance of explicit racism and direct discrimination, in policing terms if the phrase “institutional racism” had been used to describe not only explicit manifestations of racism at direction and policy level but also unwitting discrimination at the organisational level, then the reality of indirect racism in its more subtle, hidden and potentially more pervasive nature would have been addressed. 6.17 Unwitting racism can arise because of lack of understanding, ignorance or mistaken beliefs. It can arise from well-intentioned but patronising words or actions. It can arise from unfamiliarity with the behaviour or cultural traditions of people or families from minority ethnic communities. It can arise from the racist stereotyping of black people as potential criminals or troublemakers. Often this arises out of uncritical self-understanding born out of an inflexible police ethos of the “traditional” way of doing things. Furthermore, such attitudes can thrive in a tightly knit community, so that there can be a collective failure to detect and to outlaw this breed of racism. The police canteen can too easily be its breeding ground. 6.18 As Lord Scarman said (Para 4.97) there can be ” …. failure to adjust policies and methods to meet the needs of policing a multi-racial society”. Such failures can occur simply because police officers may mistakenly believe that it is legitimate to be “colour blind” in both individual and team response to the management and investigation of racist crimes, and in their relationship generally with people from minority ethnic communities. Such an approach is flawed. A colour-blind approach fails to take account of the nature and needs of the person or the people involved, and of the special features which such crimes and their investigation possess. As Mr Dan Crompton, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC), helpfully said to us it is no longer enough to believe “all that is necessary is to treat everyone the same. …. it might be said it is about treatment according to need.” (Part 2, Day 2, p 57). 

6.27 The MPS Black Police Association’s spokesmen, in their written submission to the Inquiry, para 3.2, said this:- 

“…. institutional racism …. permeates the Metropolitan Police Service. This issue above all others is central to the attitudes, values and beliefs, which lead officers to act, albeit unconsciously and for the most part unintentionally, and treat others differently solely because of their ethnicity or culture”. 

6.28 …It should be read in full, but we highlight two passages from Inspector Paul Wilson’s evidence:- 

(Part 2, Day 2, p 209):  “The term institutional racism should be understood to refer to the way the institution or the organisation may systematically or repeatedly treat, or tend to treat, people differentially because of their race. So, in effect, we are not talking about the individuals within the service who may be unconscious as to the nature of what they are doing, but it is the net effect of what they do”. 

(Part 2, Day 2, p 211): 

“The second source of institutional racism is our culture, our culture within the police service. Much has been said about our culture, the canteen culture, the occupational culture. How and why does that impact on individuals, black individuals on the street? Well, we would say the occupational culture within the police service, given the fact that the majority of police officers are white, tends to be the white experience, the white beliefs, the white values. 

Given the fact that these predominantly white officers only meet members of the black community in confrontational situations, they tend to stereotype black people in general. This can lead to all sorts of negative views and assumptions about black people, so we should not underestimate the occupational culture within the police service as being a primary source of institutional racism in the way that we differentially treat black people. Interestingly I say we because there is no marked difference between black and white in the force essentially. We are all consumed by this occupational culture. Some of us may think we rise above it on some occasions, but, generally speaking, we tend to conform to the norms of this occupational culture, which we say is all powerful in shaping our views and perceptions of a particular community”.  We believe that it is essential that the views of these officers should be closely heeded and respected. 

6.29 The 1990 Trust in their submission wrote:-  “…. racism can be systemic and therefore institutional without being apparent in broad policy terms. Racism within the police can be both covert and overt, racism can be detected in how operational policing decisions are carried out and consequently implemented, and indeed how existing policy is ignored or individual officers’ discretion results in racist outcomes”. 

6.30 The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in their submission stated:- “Institutional racism has been defined as those established laws, customs, and practices which systematically reflect and produce racial inequalities in society. If racist consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs or practices, the institution is racist whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have racial intentions”. 

(Para 2).  “…. organisational structures, policies, processes and practices which result in ethnic minorities being treated unfairly and less equally, often without intention or knowledge”. (Para 3). 6.31 Dr Robin Oakley has submitted two helpful Notes to our Inquiry. It is perhaps impudent to cite short extracts from his work, but these passages have particularly assisted us:- “For the police service, however, there is an additional dimension which arises from the nature of the policing role. Police work, unlike most other professional activities, has the capacity to bring officers into contact with a skewed cross-section of society, with the well-recognised potential for producing negative stereotypes of particular groups. Such stereotypes become the common currency of the police occupational culture. If the predominantly white staff of the police organisation have their experience of visible minorities largely restricted to interactions with such groups, then negative racial stereotypes will tend to develop accordingly.” 

In Dr Oakley’s view, if the challenges of ‘institutional racism’ which potentially affect all police officers are not addressed, this will:- “result in a generalised tendency, particularly where any element of discretion is involved, whereby minorities may receive different and less favourable treatment than the majority. Such differential treatment needs to be neither conscious nor intentional, and it may be practised routinely by officers whose professionalism is exemplary in all other respects. There is great danger that focusing on overt acts of personal racism by individual officers may deflect attention from the much greater institutional challenge … of addressing the more subtle and concealed form that organisational-level racism may take. Its most important challenging feature is its predominantly hidden character and its inbuilt pervasiveness within the occupational culture.” He goes on:- “It could be said that institutional racism in this sense is, in fact, pervasive throughout the culture and institutions of the whole of British society, and is in no way specific to the police service. However, because of the nature of the police role, its impact on society if not addressed in the police organisation may be particularly severe. In the police service, despite the extensive activity designed to address racial and ethnic issues in recent years, the concept of ‘institutional racism’ has not received the attention it deserves.” (Institutional Racism and Police Service Delivery, Dr Robin Oakley’s submission to this Inquiry, parts of paras 6, 7, 8, and 11). 

6.32 …  “The term institutional racism should be understood to refer to the way institutions may systematically treat or tend to treat people differently in respect of race. The addition of the word ‘institutional’ therefore identifies the source of the differential treatment; this lies in some sense within the organisation rather than simply with the individuals who represent it. The production of differential treatment is ‘institutionalised’ in the way the organisation operates”. (Para 2.2). 

6.33 We are also grateful for the contribution to our Inquiry made by Dr Benjamin Bowling:- “Institutional racism is the process by which people from ethnic minorities are systematically discriminated against by a range of public and private bodies. If the result or outcome of established laws, customs or practices is racially discriminatory, then institutional racism can be said to have occurred. Although racism is rooted in widely shared attitudes, values and beliefs, discrimination can occur irrespective of the intent of the individuals who carry out the activities of the institution. Thus policing can be discriminatory without this being acknowledged or recognised, and in the face of official policies geared to the removal of discrimination. However, some discrimination practices are the product of uncritical rather than unconscious racism. That is, practices with a racist outcome are not engaged in without the actor’s knowledge; rather, the actor has failed to consider the consequences of his or her actions for people from ethnic minorities. Institutional racism affects the routine ways in which ethnic minorities are treated in their capacity as employees, witnesses, victims, suspects and members of the general public.” Violent Racism: Victimisation, Policing and Social Context, July 1998. (Paras 21-22, pp 3-4). 

6.34 For the purposes of our Inquiry the concept of institutional racism which we apply consists of: 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 persists because of the failure of the organisation openly and adequately to recognise and address its existence and causes by policy, example and leadership. Without recognition and action to eliminate such racism, it can prevail as part of the ethos or culture of the organisation. It is a corrosive disease.”The widespread nature of institutional nature is such that if you are reading this and are employed, it is likely that you work for an organisation that is institutionally racist. 


“Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutional racism. The first consists of overt acts by individuals, which cause death, injury or the violent destruction of property. This type can be recorded by television cameras; it can frequently be observed in the process of commission.

The second type is less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life.

The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type. When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city – Birmingham, Alabama – five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutional racism. When a black family moves into a home in a white neighborhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which many people will condemn – at least in words.

But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. The society either pretends it does not know of this latter situation, or is in fact incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.” 
― Stokely Carmichael, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation

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