ZNet Institutional Racism Instructional
Justin Podur (2002)

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

Society, Culture, and Communities

With virtually no exceptions, people live in societies.  Societies shape and constrain individual lives, options, even thoughts and beliefs.  Society can be thought of as a set of roles waiting to be occupied, with various rules of behaviour associated with those roles, and forces designed to push people into them.  A social system or an institution is a subset of society, but it does the same thing-- sets out roles, rules of behaviour, and sorts and keeps people in them-- or out of them.

Systems of social organization exist to fill some human needs.  For example, consider the economy.  It fulfills human needs for food, clothing, and material goods generally.  To do this it assigns people roles-- worker, manager, owner-- according to certain rules.  The people in the roles must act in certain way (workers have to obey orders, managers give them, owners… own). 

The roles in the economy put some people in power over others.  That is, the economy divides people into groups with differing interests (people with power want to keep and extend it, groups without power want to resist and win power).  If you're on the side of people without power, you're trying to reorganize society to meet human needs without putting some people in positions of power over others-- or at the very least, to limit these hierarchies as much as possible.

The book Liberating Theory discusses this in more detail.  There, the authors describe how the human needs to socialize children, have sex, and mediate relations between young and old is met by a sexist role structure that elevates men over women and heterosexuals over homosexuals; how the human need to reconcile differences is met by an authoritarian role structure that concentrates power in a few hands and leaves the rest at their mercy; and how the human need for identity is met by a racist role structure that elevates dominant groups and cultures over subordinate ones.  Moreover, the authors discuss how these four systems of oppression (the three above and the economy) are linked, and how advances against one can be unmade by regression in the others.  Fitting racism as a social system into this framework, explaining how that system works, and developing visions for a decolonized, non- (or at least anti-) racist society is the purpose of this work. 

The authors of that book think that culture is about identity, and it is.  But identity forms around any kind of group membership.  A person can have an identity as a parent, a child, a young person, a man, a woman, gay, and so on.  Culture is at least as much about communication as it is about identity.  Colonization is about leaving people out of communication, communicating about them, and forcing them to communicate in the language of the colonizer.  Cultural genocide is about destroying a group's existence as a group and its means of communication and forcing its members to use the colonizer's channels of communication, even to talk to each other.  This was the purpose of the residential schools which destroyed the lives of native children, of the deliberate separation of slaves from their families and language-groups.

What the authors of Liberating Theory do that is useful is set out the concepts they are going to use very carefully, and try to build their analysis based on those concepts.  I'm going to try to do that here, as well.  I'll offer definitions of the concepts that I need to use to talk about racism.  The definitions I offer will be familiar sometimes, but might also be different from what readers are used to.  If that is the case, I ask that you make a note of it and continue.  The concepts and definitions were chosen as they are specifically because I'm trying to get as far as I can into what racism is, what its roots are, and how it might be dismantled.  Those are the goals.  I invite you, however, to be critical of the effort.  If you find this way of analyzing leaves something important out, or limits insights that could be found with another set of concepts or different definitions, I would like to know. 

So here are definitions of concepts I'll be using.  Like all definitions, these are imperfect and incomplete. 

Race, from a biological perspective, is a group of organisms that can interbreed and differs from other groups in the frequency of certain hereditary traits.  So for biology, the only kind of race that makes sense is the human.  As far as the social perspective goes, the dictionary.com definition is fine: 'A local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics; A group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographic distribution.'

The dictionary.com definition of nation is also fine: 'A people who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language';

This is very similar to the definition of ethnicity: 'a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage.'

I'll be using caste, 'A social class separated from others by distinctions of hereditary rank, profession, or wealth'.

Now the toughest definition, that of culture.  The dictionary offers several possibilities:

    1. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.
    2. These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population: Edwardian culture; Japanese culture; the culture of poverty.
    3. These patterns, traits, and products considered with respect to a particular category, such as a field, subject, or mode of expression: religious culture in the Middle Ages; musical culture; oral culture.
    4. The predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group or organization.

This is too wide a net.  If culture is 'the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought', then the economy is part of culture, and so is kinship and politics. 

If culture is all the products of human work and thought, there is only one human culture.  There is no need to even worry about the problem of how people of different cultures can relate to one another. 

I think it is true that there is only one human culture, in the same sense that linguists say there is only one human language.  If someone from Mars came to earth, they would probably decide there was only one human race, one human language, and one human culture. 

But for non-martians, there are serious questions.  There is a continuum of culture and of cultural difference.  Like people who speak different languages, people of different cultures can often be incomprehensible to one another.  And to analyze specifically cultural oppression, to understand how cultural groups relate to each other, it is useful to try to separate culture from economics, politics, and kinship. 

So I will offer this modification of the dictionary definition of culture.  Culture is those tools, practices, assumptions, and behavioural patterns members of a group use to communicate with one another and to demarcate themselves from other groups.  The communicative function of culture is what I will emphasize throughout, but the identification function is important as well.  So to the extent that there are tools, practices, assumptions, and patterns common to all humans, that all humans use to communicate with one another and demarcate themselves from non-humans, there is one human culture.  To the extent that white people have practices, assumptions, and patterns they use to communicate with one another and demarcate themselves, there is white culture.  And so on.  This allows for a continuum of practices and for people to have multiple cultural affiliations.  It also helps in the definition and understanding of racism, as I'll show below.

Using the concepts we've just defined I can offer a definition of racism.  Racism is a caste system of hierarchically ordered races that uses economic, political, kinship, and especially cultural practices to maintain the separation and hierarchy of races.

This instructional is about institutional racism in North America. 

Next: The Racial Caste System