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

Racist Politics

We’ve already seen how economic and cultural power is concentrated in white hands and used to perpetuate racism through those institutions.  This section will discuss how political power to make and enforce laws and resolve disputes is also concentrated, and how white elites use political power to reproduce racism and extend it on the one hand, and to physically smash any attempt at racial progress on the other.


Police are serious purveyors of physical violence to people of colour.  This wasn’t always so: independent vigilantes like the KKK used to play a much larger role.  Police violence one of the ugliest and most stark facts of racism.  I’ve tried until now to bring the points up with statistics, and the statistics here are shocking, but some incidents are so shocking we remember the names.  Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Dudley George come to mind.  The violence, the fear of violence, is why people of colour force themselves to tolerate indignities heaped on them at work, at school, in the media, in the mall, on the street.  They know what happens to someone who rebels (and to many who don't rebel).

How does this happen?  How can police act this way?  There’s a theory of guerrilla warfare that says that the people are the sea and the guerrillas are the fish that swim in the sea.  White people are the sea, and the police are the fish, here.  Some activists of colour have exhorted the white left to take up arms against the police (Churchill, 'Pacifism as Pathology').  I don’t know about arms, but I can see why they’re so frustrated—they want whites to do something about their own police force!

Police have the arms and the training.  They have the physical power.  But their agenda is set by political elites (who are white) and their power is constrained by the fact that they need the community to obey them and respect their authority.  They do not control the press nor do they raise money independently.  It should be said, though, that both of these things are changing for the worse, with aggressive police unionism that mounts political campaigns and does raise funds—these are bad trends.  But as of now the police are subject to the economic control and monitoring of the community, in particular the press, and civil political authorities. 

The communities that suffer the violence of the police do not control the press nor do they control the economy or the political overseers of the police.  And the community that does control these powers, the white community, doesn’t care what the police do to people of colour.  It doesn’t care in part because it doesn’t know; recall the geographical and occupational segregation; and it doesn’t care because it believes its own myths about crime and people of colour.  These myths are spread by the cultural media, described in the culture section.  If you believe that crime is on the rise, that more police are the way to stop it, and that people of colour are the criminals, you’ll support the police in what they do.  If you’re a police officer and you hold these beliefs, you’re ready to become a racial profiler.  The sea and the fish.  Everything is set for police to smash people into their racial roles, in brutal ways.

Stephen Shalom points out various cases (in a Z Commentary, 1999).  In 1996, a Superior Court judge in New Jersey found that black drivers were 5 times as likely as white drivers to be pulled over by police.  In April 1998 two NJ state troopers fired 11 shots into a van with 4 unarmed black and brown males on their way to a basketball clinic.  They claimed the van was trying to run them down and that they’d pulled the van over for speeding, detected by a radar gun.  The troopers had no radar and witnesses claimed the van was moving too slowly to be a threat.  Blacks and Latinos were 77.2% of those searched by police on the NJ turnpike.  In a 2000 commentary, Shalom describes the behaviour of the Street Crimes Unit of the New York City Police Department.  This SCU stops and frisks people.  The New York State Attorney General data shows 175 000 such stops from January 1998-April 1999—and officers say they fill out reports in only 1 in 5 or 1 in 10 cases.  The SCU accounts for 10% of all these stops, and 62% of their stops were black, 27% Hispanic, in a city about 25% black, 25% Hispanic.  Even after correcting for differing crime rates, blacks were stopped 23% more often than whites and Hispanics 39% more often than whites.  For every nine stops, one resulted in an arrest—breaking it down by race, for the SCU, 1 in 16 black stops yielded enough evidence for an arrest, 1 in 10 white stops.  The Attorney General found that 25% of the reported stops did not provide evidence amounting even to reasonable suspicion. 

But just in case you think that racist violence needs to hide behind a badge and legal sanction, you should know about the Barnett Boys.  These white ranchers from Arizona lead an armed vigilante posse that stops vans and trucks on the public highway, illegally searching for migrants, tying them up, and radio-ing the Immigration and Naturalization Service (Vijay Prashad reports about this in a Z Commentary of 2000).  Since 1994, 32 violent vigilante actions have been reported.  In May 2000, after 4 racist shootings, ranchers circulated flyers asking others to join them in ‘hunting the Mexicans for sport’.  The economics section showed why the violence can’t stop immigration.  What it can do, however, is serve elites by showing Mexicans they are in constant physical danger and hence deter them from forming attachments or communities or confidence to resist being exploited.  It can also cause a lot of unnecessary deaths.  In addition to the ones who are shot there are the ones who die of hypothermia and sunstroke, trying to cross the border at dangerous places to avoid the police and vigilantes.  One estimate is that 450 have died this way since 1994.  There are a number of ways this situation can go.  It can continue as it is, or the US government can complete its takeover of the repression of Mexican immigrants from the vigilantes (which isn’t really a change and what the racists are asking for anyway), or the US and Mexican governments can negotiate some kind of sensible resolution.  A very minimalist, short term resolution would include land reform in Mexico with income guarantees and real development for people on the land, macroeconomic policies in Mexico to increase employment, changes in labour relations to allow unions to support workers' efforts to win higher wages and better protections, and protection of the human rights of people who immigrate to the US.  Unfortunately, even such a policy would require major changes in US policy toward Mexicans.  In the meantime, Mexicans, like other people of colour, live in fear of racist violence.  

The ‘Justice’ System

But the racism doesn’t stop on the streets and highways.  Every part of the justice system is filled with it.  Judges, lawyers, and white juries ensure that the court system has as disparate an impact as policing.

Recall from the economics section the way racism places fewer people of colour in positions of power by discrimination, concentration of wealth and educational and job opportunities, connections, and income.  The educational and occupational process which ends in a job as a lawyer or judge acts in such a way that people of colour who tend to reach these positions have a proven ability to at least tolerate racism and a good chance of believing racist myths about their own people.

At every stage of the justice system, authorities have some discretion in their actions.  In an overall context of racism, this discretion invariably gets used to the detriment of people of colour. 

We could start in childhood, with Dr. Frederick Goodwin’s proposed Violence Initiative. (Most of the data here and below comes from Farai Chideya’s ‘Don’t believe the hype’)  His analysis begins with the idea that monkeys kill each other by violence and some monkeys are more violent and sexual.  From this observation Dr. Goodwin planned to identify 100 000 ‘inner-city’ (a code word for black) children as violent, and administer drugs to them to combat their natural tendencies.

Arrests.  Black people are arrested at rates disproportionate to their commission of crimes.  Victimization reports, for example, show 35% of women reported raped said their assailant was black, and black rape suspects are 43% of those arrested. In Florida in 1993, police rounded up black males between 15 and 21 in Jefferson county to look for a murder suspect.  In 1992, all black men at Oneona College in New York were questioned as suspects in a crime because of their race—college officials provided names and locations of all black male students to police when asked. 29% of those arrested are black, but the US population is about 10% black. 

Conviction.  Black sentences on weapon and drug charges are 49% longer than for whites and are disproportionately convicted—even officials admit this.  In a New Jersey poll, 26% of judges said prosecutors were more likely to insist on more serious charges against minority defendants than whites and 20% said sentences for minorities were more severe.

Drug Sentencing is even worse.  Five grams of crack cocaine, a ‘black’ drug, gets you five years, and 500 grams of powder cocaine, a ‘white’ drug, gets you the same penalty.  500g of powder is worth $40 000, 5g of crack is $250.  Arrests for possession are two times the rates for manufacture.  91% of prisoners sentenced under mandatory minimum sentencing are nonviolent, first time offenders.

The Death Penalty.  A murderer is 10 times more likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white person than for killing a black person.  Even at equal ‘brutality’, murderers are 4 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white. 

Prisons. In 1995, 3 250 of every 100 000 black males were imprisoned.  In 1996, 1 571 of every 100 000 were serving sentences of at least a year in federal or state prisons.  688 of 100 000 Latinos were serving such sentences, and 193 of 100 000 whites.  (This is from Shalom’s 2000 commentary). 

Prisons are being operated as welfare programs, with small communities aggressively lobbying for them because they want the jobs and incomes.  Meanwhile real development, featuring useful goods and services and meaningful work and education is not happening or on the agenda.  A prison built for the jobs will be filled, and discretion and racism will ensure its racial composition.

The US also has the honour of being the only country on earth to take away the vote for life from offenders who have finished serving their sentences.  Through this process, as of 1999, 1 367 100 black men have been denied the right to vote, and that number is growing (also from Shalom, 2000).  This group is one of many whose disenfranchisement won George W. Bush the 2000 election. 

This is so much sadder because the causes of crime and violence at such high levels are known.  Elliott Currie and other criminologists have shown that economic equality, employment, education, social bonds, and participation reduce crime, while heavier justice system responses do not.  The economic system precludes equality in income, wealth employment, or education for blacks and Latinos; the police’s disruptive presence and use of informants destroys social bonds, as does removing so many black people from their families to prisons; and things like voting laws, as well as spatial segregation help chip away at participation.  On the other hand, if you consider that black youth are 48 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses than whites with the same record (cited in Tim Wise's Znet Commentary 'an Open Letter to the Pioneer Fund' of November 3, 2000) you realize that police will find more criminals where and when they look hardest.  Where do they look the hardest?

Political Campaigns

Between the justice system and vigilantes, racism has the violence it needs to contain its victims.  But, like the media, politicians' rhetoric and campaigns keep the racist sea favourable for the justice system's fish to do their work. 

David Duke's 1991 campaign for the Louisiana governorship was such a campaign.  He used his platform to spread all the usual myths: of the black welfare queen and her high birth rate, of the affirmative action monster denying whites jobs rightfully theirs, that the Klan and the NAACP were the same, and more simply, that blacks were closer to the jungle.  Duke won 55% of the white vote with his campaign.  But Duke is just an extreme example of something that is part of the political system.  George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign made a symbol of Willie Horton, a black criminal.  Clinton approved the execution of a black mentally ill (he'd lobotomized himself trying to commit suicide) prisoner in the midst of the 1992 presidential campaign. 

These politicians traffic in racism because they think it will get them votes, and it does.  But their campaigns and misinformation also help create the context, frame the issues, and set the terms of debate.  Hate groups flower when overtly racist politicians are in power.  They did in the 1910s under Woodrow Wilson and they did again in the 1980s under Reagan (James Loewen talks about this in 'Lies My Teacher Told Me'). 

Destroying Racism's Enemies

Dissidents of colour, in North America and abroad, have an excellent chance of being jailed or simply murdered by authorities.  The Black Panthers were decimated  by the FBI's COINTELPRO program, as were many members of the American Indian Movement.  Members of the MOVE were murdered by the Philadelphia police force.  Mumia Abu Jamal is on death row, Leonard Peltier is in prison after being passed over for clemency by Bill Clitnon (who pardoned some white and white collar friends).  Again, reducing police's power to kill and jail antiracist activists, and reducing white society's acceptance of the criminalization of dissent, of poverty, and of people of colour, would be a huge help to all struggles for social change.  Even a simple reform like making police stick to their own laws and operate openly would be a huge help.  (Ward Churchill has done great work on COINTELPRO, in 'Agents of Repression' and 'The COINTELPRO papers')

Foreign Policy

The economic interventions of the IMF, World Bank, WTO, FTAA, and multinational corporations, act to preserve a racist colonial world.  But when these fail and are resisted, elites have many political resources to deploy.  Economic and ideological support for sympathetic Third World elites against those who would pursue some kind of self-determination starts the process.  If those third world nationalists are still successful and popular, they can be vilified in the press through the US's many international media connections.  If this doesn't work, it may be time to deploy armies-- private or state, purchased and trained and armed courtesy of first world taxpayers or first world drug users via the CIA (the CIA often uses drug money to fight dissident guerrilla movements in the 3rd world, as that saves having to account for public funds.  It does so in Colombia, did so in Southeast Asia, and in Afghanistan as well).  If even this doesn't work, bombings, and marines directly by the colonial governments are available, if they aren't deterred by their own populations.  (For about 100 examples of this pattern, see William Blum's book 'Killing Hope')  Taking these instruments away from elites would do the world a world of good.

But what about preventing genocide, or terrible human rights abuses?  Shouldn't the US maintain its forces and foreign policy to make the world safer, or if not the US, the UN?  The question sounds fair, but it isn't.  The US doesn't prevent genocides.  It has attempted them (against blacks and native people), aided attempts by others (Indonesia's against East Timor, Turkey's against the Armenians), and was complicit in others, refusing to take action until too late (the Nazis against the Jews) or even preventing others from taking action (the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis).  If the US government weren't either an armer, perpetrator, or preventor of action to stop horrible crimes against humanity everywhere; if the governments of most countries weren't either its clients or afraid of it; if indigenous nations had some kind of self determination; if the existing international body were even close to democratic and not controlled by the veto, military, and financial power of the US, maybe it would make sense to talk about what kind of international political systems could prevent horrible crimes from occurring in the 3rd world.  But the first answer must be for the 1st world to stop perpetrating them, get rid of its means to do so, and start over from there.

Next: Racist Sexism    Previous: Culture and Racism