Racism – institutional or social?

It saddens me that hundreds of years after slavery, racism continues to haunt society – here in the UK, and especially in the US. Have humans made any real progress towards absolute equality of worth and opportunity? 

Having looked up the words ‘institutional racism’, it seems the term refers to – discrimination or unequal treatment on the basis of membership of a particular ethnic group…. arising from systems, structures or expectations established within an institution or organisation. What a mouthful to get  our heads around. Further, ‘systemic racism’ is defined as policies and practices that exist through a whole society or organisation that support continued disadvantage to some, and unfair or harmful treatment, based on race – embedded into the structures of society, affecting housing, employment, health, education and finance. 

So if an advertisement for workers stipulated ‘black applicants will not be considered’ that would be a blatant example of institutional racism. On the other hand, if the jobs were advertised as completely open to all, but a black or Asian worker, with equivalent qualifications was not employed because the interview panel did not really want a mixed workforce, is that social or personal racism? 

The whole issue of racism has become something few people wish to talk about for fear of saying the wrong words. A few weeks ago, a white member of our writing group, without thinking, used the unfortunate phrase, ‘n***** in the wood pile’, in the presence of a black member in our group.  It was, of course, unintentional. The phrase merely slipped out. I don’t really think any offence was taken by the black member of our group. However, this week, we were informed that this lady would not be attending the group any more because she did not feel welcome. I was surprised. As far as I understood, this lady has not been treated any differently than any other member of the group. So I don’t understand her reasons, and wonder what we have done or not done. 

There is little doubt that many people in our country are racist. Why? Do they fear black people? Do they think that black people are more likely to attack them? Do they not like having to look into black faces? Is it because they are merely different? Is it because humans generally prefer to live amongst people who look the same as themselves – which is why society tends to have clusters of Asian, black and white communities – people having naturally gravitated towards ‘sameness’? 

Yet, the truth is that all humans are born with the same capacities for kindness and compassion towards others, with equal potential to achieve and succeed as citizens within a caring, yet law abiding, society. 

Why then do police ‘stop and search’ procedures involve more black people than white? Why do black children perform less well at school? Why (as we have seen on the news) do more black people inhabit poor housing, mainly rented? Why are black people more likely to have ‘dead end’ types of jobs? 

Where are the solutions? I believe that UK racism is far more social than institutional, arising more from personal prejudice than from stated policies and organisational systems. But we must stamp it out and come down hard on individuals who continue to promote racist attitudes. Thankfully, they are the few, rather than the many. 

Sylvia Edwards is also author of ‘Time of the Virus’written through the lockdowns of Covid, as a reflective and thought-provoking book about what is wrong with society and what needs to be changed. 

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