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

Culture and Racism

A culture is thriving if it keeps providing ways of communicating and understanding that are relevant to the group and its situation.  A group with such a culture is very difficult to suppress: it is innovative, easy to organize, confident, difficult to lie to.  In order to suppress a group, it is crucial to suppress its culture.  This is part of the tension of racism: on the one hand it splits people into groups and maintains their separation.  On the other, it must continually interfere in the lives of the members of oppressed races to disrupt their cultures and prevent their development.  This is done in two ways.  First, by the denying cultural resources needed for an autonomous cultural life to people of colour, and second, by using the relative monopoly over cultural resources to spread myths about whites and people of colour, their abilities, their relationships, and their roles.  These myths reinforce the racist beliefs that underpin the social system.


There are a lot of different ways of looking at education:

1) individually, to develop the capacities of each individual child to her fullest

2) socially, to give a child skills to contribute to society

3) culturally, to teach children how to communicate in various cultures and produce cultural items

4) in terms of kinship, to raise and socialize children

5) economically, to prepare a child for the role she will play in the economy—or to keep her from taking an adult’s job

6) politically, to make someone a loyal and obedient citizen or subject

Imagine if 1-4 dominated.  You would expect schools with lots of independent learning, where students had access to ‘experts’ of all kinds, artists from different cultures, scientists, artisans, technicians, helping them with projects they believed in.  (5) is actually neutral—but in our economy most roles require obedience and endurance of boredom: so that’s what’s taught in schools.  (6) gets closer to race: history classes for example must teach justifications for the inequalities and injustices students see everywhere and might otherwise rebel against, and the daily actions of the school systems must teach people of colour certain myths about themselves and about whites: that the cultures they have learned from their parents and communities are inferior, that they are not intelligent or educable, that they are ugly, and that they are suited for a very few cultural, economic, and political roles.  All this is accomplished by denying people of colour education resources on the one hand, and by using the educational system to spread racism-enforcing ideas and images on the other.

Resources  Are people of colour denied the resources they need for autonomous cultural life?  This comes from a web report on educational funding by Daphne Whitington


'The funding disparity is a racial issue as well as an economic one. African American and Latino students are consistently over-represented in those districts that lack adequate funding for education, as is the case in Illinois. Although African Americans represent 14.8% of Illinois’ total population, they make up only 2.1% of the population in the state’s wealthiest county, while Illinois’ poorest county is 34.7% African American. (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education) Of the nine states that have attained school funding equity, only two (Mississippi and Texas) have significant African American populations. This racial bias in educational resources can help to explain, amongst other things, lower SAT scores, grade point averages, and college achievement, as well as higher rates of remedial education amongst African American and other students of color. (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education)'.  

The mechanism for this difference is in part the spatial concentration of blacks and the concentration of poverty among them, which combined with a school funding formula based on local taxes rather than national taxes does the job perfectly.  The absence of public funding for universities means that poverty helps keep blacks and Latinos out of higher education as well.  12% of black women and 11% of black men have completed 4 years of college, compared to 9% of Latino women and 10% of Latino men, and 19% of white women and 25% of white men.  (1992 figure, from Bureau of the Census, "School Enrollments and Expenditures," The Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1993, table 232:152, cited in Farai Chideya's 'Don't Believe the Hype')

Funding isn’t the only weapon racism has.  Here is an entire arsenal of educational weapons for (1) ensuring people of colour cannot develop their own cultures and (2) controlling their presence and role in the dominant culture.

Tracking is based on the premise that you can tell how intelligent a child is (whatever intelligence is) based on spending a few hours a day with her and 30 other children.  Based on this assessment, children are sorted into classes, with the higher classes getting more resources and more attention, and the lowers getting less.  This too is odd, because you might think that more resources should be dedicated to children who are assessed as less intelligent, since they would need more attention and resources to thrive.  There is a correlation of tracking with race.  Two explanations are available: children of colour are less intelligent (as defined by their teachers) or the teachers believe children of colour are less intelligent.  Unless exceptionally trained, there is no reason to think teachers are immune to racism and racist assumptions.  The track you end up in determines your life chances, along with the grades you’re given in class, and on standardized tests. 

Grading could be useful, perhaps for giving feedback to students about their work—even though in the real world, real work isn’t graded.  In schools though, it’s another way of sorting people according to supposed ‘intelligence’ and thereby class position.  It’s also a means for controlling children and students: do what you’re told, get good grades, have a chance at class mobility—don’t, and don’t.  But since schools’ reputations matter as much as individual student grades, and schools with many students of colour have lower reputations, even high grades from these schools mean less.  Knowing that school performance can’t even help one’s life chances makes students of colour much less keen to go through the degrading experience of trying to please adults who already think they’re inferior.  Schools thus become strictly places of punishment, in some cases.  No wonder dropout rates were 13% for blacks, compared to 9% for whites, in 1990 (these are down sharply from 22% for blacks and 13% for whites in 1973.  US Department of Education, Dropout Rates in the United States: 1990, cited in Chideya, 'Don't Believe the Hype').

Standardized Testing is a big and growing business which is of tremendous value in marginalizing people of colour and making it seem like it’s their fault.  Tests can test what you know: they can test what you’ve learned in school and picked up from family and media and cultural background.  If a standardized test in Quantum Physics were administered to high school students, they would all fail.  If a test that referred constantly to musical scales, harmonies, instruments, rhythms and beats were administered, students with a musical background would do better than students without one.  Likewise if a test referring to white, middle class life, culture, and experiences were administered, working class and people of colour would be expected to do worse.  Farai Chideya (in 'Don't Believe the Hype', 1995)cites two examples of analogy questions from the SAT: 'dividend is to stockholder' and 'oarsman is to regatta'.  The 'oarsman is to regatta' question was answered correctly by 53% of whites and 22% of blacks.  (Chideya 1995).  The best indicator of how well a student will score on the SAT is family income.  In 1992, test takers from families with incomes over $70 000 scored an average 1000/1600 maximum; students from families with incomes under $10 000 scored an average of 767/1600.  (The College Board, College Bound Seniors: 1993 Profile of SAT and Achievement Test Takers.  Princeton, NJ: 1993, cited in Chideya 1995).  Likewise, a student’s performance on standardized tests determines her class position and life chances. 

 There are two kinds of tests.  One is to determine whether a person is qualified to do a thing.  You might be tested to determine whether you could safely do surgery, or fly a plane, as part of a course of study.  The other kind of test is to distinguish test-takers from each other.  This could still make sense, in some limited context, for example in trying to decide who needed more attention in what areas (exactly how tests do not operate today).  But what is the ultimate goal of this testing program?  Uniform scores of 100% by every student in every school?  If this occurred, they’d change the test!  No, the purpose isn’t to improve education, but to sort people.  And sort people it does.  In fact, test scores correlate most strongly with class, as mentioned above.  Also, while race seems to trump income on the SATs, with middle class blacks often doing worse than poor whites, the black-white gap disappears when you correct for wealth, rather than for income. (Richard D. Kahlenberg, The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, New York: Basic Books, 1996, pp. 168-70, 301n93. See also Dalton Conley, Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.)

Cultural Bias isn’t confined to tests.  Learning to be at home in a second culture is faster and easier if you have a translator—someone to explain things to you in your language.  This was how teachers using Ebonics (or Black English) were able to teach Standard English to their black students so much more effectively than those who didn’t use it (Delpit, ‘The Real Ebonics Debate’).  Being taught through their own language, students learned that their language, their culture, they themselves, weren’t a substandard version of the real thing, but instead an equally legitimate mode of expression, neither inferior nor superior.  And it worked—until the powers that be learned about it.  Several hysterical media articles followed, in which it was alleged that black students were being robbed of their chances and condemned to speak an inferior dialect of English.  That Ebonics was being used as a vehicle to teach Standard English wasn’t mentioned, nor was the fact that it was promising.  The program was discontinued—and students were back to learning that they were substandard after all.

School is compulsory, and racist society wouldn’t waste such an opportunity for a captive audience in order to teach myths about history and culture that reinforce racism.  Students are not taught about the importance of class struggle in US history (Zinn), or about the racism of leaders like Woodrow Wilson, or the socialism of heroes like Hellen Keller (Loewen).  They learn about Martin Luther King but aren’t given access to his most radical words, nor to the words of Malcolm X or the Black Panthers, nor to the truth about the dispossession and genocide against Native people (Churchill, Zinn).  They are taught that slavery was ended by a white president’s heroic action and not the long struggles of abolitionists.  They aren’t taught how much of the country’s wealth was built by immigrants.  Students of colour see nothing that speaks to them, and learn that they are extras in the drama of history.  Even white students have trouble believing the hype.  Rather than consume the junk that passes for history, students prefer to not bother.  They end up doing far worse in history than in any other subject. (Loewen)

Taken together, these mechanisms ensure that people of colour don't have the resources either to educate themselves on their own terms or to get equality in the mainstream.  Instead, they are forcibly included as inferiors in the dominant culture, and reminded of it every day in school.


Spreading the story that people of colour are different and worse doesn’t stop in school.  The same two problems: (1) concentration of cultural resources in white hands and (2) the use of these resources to spread stereotypes and reinforce racist ideas, occur in the media.

The concentration in the media is immense.  In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman set out a model of media which explains how news which could be dangerous to elite interests is filtered out.  They are discussing elite economic and political interests, but the same applies for race.  Their first filter is ownership and concentration.  For a media outlet to have any substantial outreach, a large investment is needed.  This excludes people and groups without large amounts of money from being able to set them up.  They talked of 24 'media giants' making up the top tier of media companies in the US, massively wealthy and powerful, linked personally and professionally to other massive corporations and to the government, setting the agenda for other media.  Their data comes from the 1980s, and things have only become more concentrated since then.   The second filter is advertising revenues.  Media that attract ads can sell well below production costs, putting newspapers (or TV or radio) that do not attract advertising at a huge disadvantage-- they would have higher prices, lower sales, less surplus to invest in improving the salability of the paper.  Mainstream media cannot survive without ads.  This means that advertiser's influence their survival, and therefore their product.   The third filter is sources.  The media need sources of news, and they have to concentrate on where news often occurs.  This means they stick close to the government, and thus start inevitably from 'the official line'.  Official sources like the government, in turn, use massive amounts of resources to get their line and their story out to the media.  So do right-wing 'think tanks'.  The fourth filter is flak, or negative responses to a media statement or program in the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, lawsuits, or petitions to the government.  Obviously the ability to produce flak is related to power.  Between these four filters, messages that do not serve the powerful are 'filtered out'.  Chomsky and Herman offer as case studies the treatment of human rights violations by official enemies and official allies in the news.  (Herman and Chomsky, 1988.  Manufacturing Consent)  But the same things apply for domestic racism.

For example there’s welfare.  In 1991, 39% of welfare recipients were black, 38% non-hispanic white, 17% Hispanic, and 3% asian.  The average payment for a family of three was $4,656 per year.  Welfare spending accounted for less than one percent of US federal outlays in 1991.  Welfare and food stamps combined were less than 2.5%.  The typical woman on welfare is someone who has worked and will work most of her life, has only one or two children, and uses welfare as a fallback when she's unemployed.  Farai Chideya cited one indicative 'This Week with David Brinkley' in 1992, that made special effort to explain that most welfare recipients were white, lived in the suburbs, and did not live the high life-- then illustrated welfare with repeated images of inner-city blacks.  The portrayal of welfare in the media as being (1) a program for blacks, (2) a program for undeserving poor, has the effect of making 'welfare' a dirty word.  A New York Times/CBS News poll asked people about assistance to the poor, and 2/3 said there was too little.  When people were asked whether there was too little welfare, 23% said yes.   (All cited in Chideya's 'Don't Believe the Hype'.  Another good book is 'Why Americans Hate Welfare'). 

Another example is crime.  Mihal Muharrar from FAIR cites in an online article:


'Done by UCLA professors Franklin Gilliam and Shanto Iyengar, "Crime in Black and White: The Violent, Scary World of Local News" [Press/Politics, Spring 1996] found through a content analysis of local television station KABC in Los Angeles that coverage of crime featured two important cues: "crime is violent and criminals are nonwhite." The real revelation, however, was that television viewers were so accustomed to seeing African-American crime suspects on the local news that even when the race of a suspect was not specified, viewers tended to remember seeing a black suspect. Moreover, when researchers used digital technology to change the race of certain suspects as they appeared on the screen, a little over a half of those who saw the "white" perpetrator recalled his race, but two-thirds did when the criminal was depicted as black. "Ninety percent of the false recognitions involved African-Americans and Hispanics," Gilliam said.'

(Mihal Muharrar from FAIR has great articles about this, Jerome Miller's 'Search and Destroy' is an excellent book as well).  Part of this is because police police blacks more heavily than whites, but it’s a cycle: part of why police police them so heavily is because of the idea that they’re criminal, spread by the media.  Politicians use and proclaim racist stereotypes about crime to win white votes.  In the US, Bush Sr. used Willie Horton, portraying him as a big, dangerous black monster (see Feagin's book 'White Racism') to show how he’d be tougher on such people than his Democratic rival in the presidential election.  In Toronto in 1999, the police union endorsed a Conservative candidate, running ads in the subway portraying a Latino gang (there are no Latino gangs in Toronto) saying: ‘there’s just one thing these guys fear: your vote’. 

The filters of the ‘Propaganda Model’ do even more filtering for TV News.  There are 3 networks; advertising supplies all the revenue; the news sources are the same elite experts on the party line; and flak isn’t even necessary because TV hardly ever gets out of line.  In addition to the usual filters, TV News has sharp time constraints, which means you never get anything but superficial coverage of anything, which in turn means the only things people can say are conventional thoughts (Chomsky and Barsamian, 'Chronicles of Dissent') stereotypes, or things people are used to seeing.  Images of people of color recur and recur in the same way in the TV media.  How many times have you seen each of these: a black man in handcuffs being escorted to a car or courtroom; an Arab throwing rocks; an Asian or South American huddled in a blanket after a natural disaster.  These are pretty much the only contexts in which you’ll see these people in the media, except in film (next).  Danny Schecter tried to organize a TV show about human rights when he worked for a major network and his supervisors told him that it was an insufficient organizing principle for a TV show—unlike, say, cooking.  He noted that it’s easier to learn about African lions on TV than Africans.

Whatever the media, the news shapes the way whites and people of colour view themselves, the country, their relationship, each other, the world.  The concentration of media resources gives elites the chance to tell the stories they want, and deny people of colour the chance to speak for themselves, even to themselves, by simply shutting them out—or drowning them out. 

Film, Literature, TV, Music

Drowning out people of colour is as important in the artistic media as it is in the news.  These areas of culture are where myths, emotions, and deep beliefs about people and groups are built and disseminated.  These areas are so important to a group’s cultural survival and self-image that it’s no wonder how much the US invests in its film and TV industries.  The technologies to produce these media are expensive, and wealth, as we know, is concentrated.  This means these media lack adequate involvement of or control by people of colour. 

What kinds of images and myths do the film and TV industries produce about people of colour?  In Dances With Wolves, or Pocahontas, you have white heroes saving Native people from each other or themselves, and at the end you see that the Native ‘way of life’ is coming to an end, its time simply passed, not because of any deliberate program of extermination and dispossession.  In American History X  you have an interesting exploration of hate and racism—and yet every young black man in it is a criminal, and the white racist is won over by a friendly black clown.  This movie is far better than 187, which portrays an inner-city school populated by very dangerous black students who eventually get into a shootout with their principal.  The Cheech and Chong movies bring you debauched, weed-addicted Mexicans.  Schwarzenegger’s True Lies  give you comically incompetent Muslim fanatical Arab terrorists, while Lethal Weapon 4 gives you inscrutable Chinese kung fu villains (who, despite their skill, are bested by the white hero in the end).  Star Wars episode 1 manages to combine a subordinate black buffoon, tight-fisted physically cowardly Chinese villains, and a stingy Jewish merchant in a 2 hour movie with time left over for light-sabering with the only truly menacing villain, the only villain equal to the heroes, who happens to have an English accent.  (For some really excellent reviews of racial stereotypes in movies, art, and literature, read Ward Churchill’s ‘Fantasies of the Master Race’, bell hooks’ ‘Outlaw Culture’, and Toni Morrison’s ‘Playing in the dark’.) 

Literature is less expensive to produce—all it takes is a single writer—but still difficult to get from a writer to as many readers as possible.  There are a lot of great writers of colour, and I don’t dare to try to list even a fraction of them.  But apart from the concentration of resources, there’s another phenomenon that leads to the marginalization of many interesting voices in art: market production and distribution.  The biggest, wealthiest market is white.  Companies who produce entertainment aim at this market, and this means not saying things this market doesn’t want to hear, producing palatable messages from palatable artists.  A white man can write ‘the Memoirs of a Geisha’ and have it become a bestseller: would it have done so well if it were written by a Geisha?  White artists produce music derivative of black artists and sell extremely well, while those black artists struggle.  Art which would be of tremendous value to smaller markets and communities of colour doesn’t get produced or distributed. 

This dynamic is more obvious in the music industry, particularly hip hop, than anywhere else.  Hip hop is irrepressible.  It’s an art form and language that speaks so clearly that I doubt any movement that isn’t fluent in it will be appealing to the black community at all.  You can hear it on any street corner.  It’s a language, and can be used to talk about anything.  And like in other media, if artists are using it to talk clearly and honestly about things of real relevance to large groups of people of colour, racism will make sure those artists don’t get a hearing.  This is done by drowning out, and happens through the market.  Rappers who rap about sex, money, or violence against other rappers or women have a chance at a record deal that will win them millions, courtesy of a record company that has the resources to promote them, ensure them radio play, and sell them to white markets.  Those who rap about prisons, police violence, economic violence, racism, or other issues of burning concern to the black community aren’t palatable to white audiences (or, at least, to white executives).  These rarely get to the megaphone at all.  Which means that if you want to hear black music, and you don’t have access to an underground scene of people who produce music and don’t get paid for it, you’re stuck listening to the materials packaged and prepared by white-controlled corporations.  If you look at the way right-wing (racist) white elites react to the music, outraged by the violence and misogyny (as if they were against violence and misogyny), you can see the value of sponsoring this side of hip hop for white racism—presenting caricatures of the black community, of black men and women, and the relationships between them.

So: concentration of cultural resources and market considerations ensure that the loudest voices in the cultural arena are serviceable to racism.  These voices and the things they say guide the way we think, understand the world, treat each other.  They affect executives who make hiring decisions, police who make profiling decisions, teachers who decide on their students’ futures.  And in some ways more painfully, they affect the way people of colour see themselves, their prospects and options, their capacities and limitations.  The presence of racist stories everywhere helps make them come true.


Academic Racism

The scientific enterprise takes place in universities.  Here academics are given tremendous resources to try to understand the world.  Working people make huge sacrifices to make universities possible.  In return, academics—natural and social scientists—are supposed to create knowledge about the world which is the best and truest available, teach students to do the same, and share this knowledge with society. 

In order to ensure that what they produce is true, scientists follow rules: they are to be guided by logically consistent theories, they are to be explicit about their assumptions, they are to pay attention to evidence and make sure their theories are consistent with it.

These rules, and the language that has evolved, with the media of scientific journals which the community uses to exchange ideas, constitute a culture (according to the definition above).  Science has a culture all on its own, a very productive and unique one at that, and because it’s been so productive and successful it has prestige.  Racists try to use this prestige by presenting racist ideologies and myths of white supremacy and adopting the cultural trappings of science, and sometimes by making it out that science itself is properly an exclusively white or European enterprise.

How can they succeed?  Surely the truth is on the side of the anti-racists, and if science is about truth, then there shouldn’t be any racism in places of science.  Well, the truth is on our side, and science is about truth—but scientists aren’t, always.  83% of tenured faculty in the US are white. (1995 Glass Ceiling Commission Report).  The decision to end affirmative action at the University of California is beginning to have an effect.  Latino residents are 30% of the population but in 1997 39 Latinos, down from 80 the year before, were offered admission into the Boalt Hall School of Law.  Black admissions dropped to 14 (down 80%).  One African American entered Boalt in 1997.  (cited in Lydia Chavez, 'The Color Bind').  There is no reason to think a physicist or specialist in literature would have made any special study of racism.  They would be as reliant on mainstream media sources and prejudice as everyone else.  As for those academics who study racial issues, they are products of this society as well, with axes to grind and agendas of their own—to say nothing of careers to make.  A physicist’s racism is unlikely to affect the calculations he or she makes for the trajectory of an electron in a cloud chamber.  But a psychologist’s racism could well affect his or her results about the intelligence of different races.  Especially since ‘intelligence’ and ‘race’ are ideologically loaded concepts, unlike ‘electron’ or ‘cloud chamber’. 

The flexibility of concepts like intelligence is what gives racist scholars the ability to manipulate definitions of concepts until they find what they wanted in the first place.  The latest round of academic nonsense is cultural racism: people of colour aren’t biologically different and inferior, they’re culturally different and inferior (D’Souza).  As I said before, this boils down to ‘blacks are bad because black society is bad’, or ‘blacks are bad because blacks are bad’.   If you heard that kind of reasoning on the street, you’d laugh.  But hearing it from a professor at a university, with a serious expression and a big vocabulary, people find it harder to dismiss.

So: there’s a lot of academic racist rubbish, produced and maintained because academia is mostly white and privileged-class.  Because academic studies are expensive, people of colour don’t have the resources to fight all this rubbish on its own domain.  But even sadder than that is all the perspectives and knowledge that are lost, the potential that is wasted, by denying these resources to people of colour.  Think of how much the community has gained from academics like Ward Churchill, bell hooks, and Derrick Bell.  Imagine having two or three of those on every campus.  Why don’t we?

Culture and Racism Concluded

Racism splits people into groups, based on physical characteristics having to do with historical patterns of oppression and rationalization of that oppression.  Groups create cultures, and groups with thriving cultures are difficult to repress.  Racial society suppresses the cultures of people of colour by concentrating cultural resources in the hands of white-controlled institutions, by subjecting cultural production and distribution to a market logic, and then by using this relative cultural monopoly to spread myths about the races, their abilities, and their roles, which provide the bases for racist belief and action in the other social institutions.

Next: Race and the State   Previous: Racist Geography