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

Dismantling the Racial Caste System

The racial caste system works through economic, geographic, political, kinship, and cultural institutions.  The following treat some of the institutional changes that are needed for the removal of this system. 

Economic Justice (Participatory Economics) and Anti-Racism

A participatory economy is an economy in which

  •      Remuneration is according to effort and sacrifice

  •       Jobs are balanced so everyone does some skilled and some unskilled, some rote and some empowering work such that everyone's job is equally empowering

  •       Decisions are made, to the extent possible, with each participant having a say proportionate to the degree they are affected, in workplace and community councils

  •      Exchange occurs by a participatory planning procedure with goods exchanging in light of their full and true social costs and benefit. 

The details are spelled out in many books and at www.parecon.org

A racist social system is one in which members of some racial groups are oppressed by others.  In such a system oppressed groups are typically:

  1. Denied the cultural and physical space to express their group identity and communicate with one another and forced to adopt their oppressor's cultural modes in order to express themselves
  2. Relegated to low-paid, low-status, difficult, rote, disempowering work, unemployment, underemployment, and poverty
  3. Prevented by taboos, stereotypes, physical and cultural borders, from relating on an equal basis with their oppressors
  4. Politically disempowered, disproportionately repressed by the justice system, lacking the power to influence the administrative, legislative, and judicial systems in their interests, lacking autonomous decision-making structure.

A participatory economy removes (2), and takes some significant steps towards (1) and (3).  This discussion will explain which elements of racism will be done away with in a participatory economy, and which parts of racism are 'extra-economic' and cannot be addressed through the economic system.


In a participatory economy the racially oppressed are not shunted into poverty, unemployment, or the worst jobs, because these things do not exist.  Everyone works jobs balanced for quality of life and empowerment and everyone is paid according to effort.  In a racist and class divided society the racially oppressed will be found in the most oppressed economic classes.  In a participatory economy there are no economic classes so there is no bottom rung of the class ladder for people to be shunted into.

Decision Making in Workplaces and Communities

In a participatory economy production and consumption decisions are made in workplace and community councils.  Workers of colour do not depend on whites for jobs nor do they work in workplaces managed or owned by whites-- a participatory economy has no owners or managers, but councils where decisions are made by diverse decision-making tactics (majority vote, super-majority vote, consensus, or other tactics depending on the type of decision and the impact) in accordance with proportionate influence or self-management.  Each actor has a say in decisions in proportion to the degree they are affected. 

Regional Inequalities and Environmental Racism

A participatory economy also ameliorates regional inequalities and environmental racism to a large extent.  Incomes in a parecon are in accord with effort and sacrifice.  The basis for incomes, however, is the overall average income.  This means that if there is an improvement in one area or industry, the benefits go to everyone in an improved average and not only to workers in that industry.  The reverse is also true.  If a plant or waste site diminishes the quality of life in an area, this will be borne by everyone in the form of a lower average income, and those most affected would be compensated so they suffer no more than average.  Because the effects of local environmental destruction or lack of development are felt throughout the economy, there is no incentive for the majority to concentrate such unpleasant things in communities of colour.  There would be an opposite incentive-- to develop technologies and innovations to mitigate the hardest hit workplaces or communities first, since such improvements would cause the biggest improvements in the overall average.


A parecon has everyone doing some skilled, empowering work.  It has everyone participating in decision-making in their communities and workplaces.  It will therefore allocate considerable resources to education.  It would not put up barriers to education that would hurt people's eventual ability to manage the economy and participate in it equally.  This means there are disincentives in a parecon for the unequal funding, tracking, unfair testing and grading and discipline that students suffer now, whose purpose is essentially to keep blacks and latinos from getting an education.  Education in a parecon would be to import skills, knowledge, and empowerment for people to participate and make decisions (as compared to education today which is to teach obedience, the endurance of boredom, and low expectations).  In a parecon people are free to forego some income in order to partake of educational opportunities or simply recreation. 

Cultural Workplaces

In a parecon, cultural workplaces, like media outlets, artistic, musical, and television studios, schools, and publishing houses, operate on the same norms as other workplaces.  They have balanced job complexes and workplace and industry-wide councils for decision-making.  If a group of workers seek resources to create or expand a cultural outlet, like a new journal or a hip-hop recording studio, they make a proposal to the appropriate industry council who evaluate it.  Making a proposal to one's peers in an industry rather than trying to prove to capitalists that a venture will make a profit removes some of the market logic that represses free cultural expression of minority cultures.  Moreover, once certain cultural industries are established cultural expression will have a real chance to flower, since artists will answer to one another and to consumers, without worrying about profit potentials, trying to fit cultural expressions to please dominant elites, or even the dominant culture. 

But a parecon does not say anything about how these cultural spaces are opened or these industries established in the first place.  A parecon could not prevent a proposal from being squashed by a majority on a culturally ignorant council.  Imagine a black worker pitching a new hip-hop studio that would produce music for the black population of a city to a white-dominated industry council who didn't hear or understand the music well.  There is nothing to prevent this in a parecon.  In order to open and establish the spaces at the outset or on an ongoing basis, political intervention might be necessary.  One way of doing this as part of a transition to a participatory economy is by using reparations funds to establish cultural industries for the black community, for example.  

Property Ownership

In a participatory economy no one owns any productive property.  Incomes are equalized to the overall average with deviations for effort, but property ownership does not exist.  The concentrations of property in white hands and the attendant inequality and dependence of people of colour on those resources disappears. 

A parecon does allow personal property, however, including personal homes.  The current housing situation has far fewer blacks owning homes than whites, blacks living in less desirable places, and a wealth gap caused principally by the difference in home equity between black and white.  A participatory economy does not automatically change this.  Nor can it prevent 'white flight' from an area when black people begin to move in. 

Nor does a participatory economy have any norms for the disposition of communal property.  It does not say anything about how a given piece of land is to be used.  Is a forest on traditional native lands to be used for hunting by native people or made into an open-pit mine?  If the mining option occurs, a parecon ensures the local people would be compensated.  It does not, however, automatically recognize the rights or jurisdiction of any groups to any parcels of land.  This, too, is a political problem that will have to be settled by negotiation.

Summary of Race and a Just Economy

A participatory economy would remove a number of the components of the racist social system by eliminating:

  •       Poverty

  •       Regional economic inequalities

  •       Differential decision-making power in the economy

  •       Profit motives for cultural production

  •       Incentives for educational inequality

  •       Productive property ownership differentials

A parecon is not sufficient to eliminate racism, however, because of the following extra-economic issues:

  •       Taboos, stereotypes, physical/geographical and cultural borders could still prevent the oppressed from relating on an equal basis with their oppressors

  •       People of colour could still be politically disempowered, disproportionately repressed by the justice system, lacking the power to influence the administrative, legislative, and judicial systems in their interests, lacking autonomous decision-making structures

  •       The initial configuration of communal assets and land, personal property, and cultural resources could be set (or left) in a racist way

  •       The proposals of minority groups could be trampled without explicit protections

These issues must be dealt with outside of the economy.

Sharing Physical Space

The idea of cultural space was introduced above.  In the analysis of racism,, it was shown how segregation and control of physical space by elites is an integral part of racism.  If the root of cultural oppression is, as I've argued above, in the lack of cultural space for people to express their multiple affiliations and communicate with one another at different levels, the solution is an expansion of cultural spaces and the development of shared cultural spaces at all levels. 

The solution to the geographical component of racism is similar.  The solution is the development of ways for people to share physical space so they can express their affiliations and coexist with one another.  There has to be physical space for Native Americans to do their economic, political, and cultural activities.  It's important to note that even the most radical interpretations of this idea do not involve the ethnic cleansing of whites, but some kind of Native nationhood in which whites are free to participate on Native American terms or live as residents (see Ward Churchill's 'I am Indigenist' at www.zmag.org/chiapas1/wardindig.htm, Winona Laduke's 'All Our Relations', and Taiaiake Alfred's 'Peace, Power, Righteousness: an Indigenous Manifesto', for some proposals).  There has to be physical space for African Americans and Latino Americans to do the same.  The same note about the non-necessity of ethnic cleansing applies there.  There also has to be physical space for all Americans to share, and everyone's right to this 'common space' must be protected. 


Sharing Cultural Space

The program of multiculturalism, or of sharing cultural space, was discussed above.  The idea is to liberate the common culture, and expand and protect the other cultures.  People have the freedom to choose and express their cultural affiliations at different levels.  Having an affiliation at one level (for example being European American) does not preclude having another affiliation (being American).

The concept of biculturalism was mentioned in the preview of multiculturalism.  Being bicultural means being able to express yourself in different cultural spaces.  Anyone who is bilingual is bicultural.  Anyone who finds themselves using different speech patterns, different body movements, and different vocabularies in different groups understands biculturalism.  Biculturalism is a reality today, for most people in the world.  It is people's capacity to be bicultural that will make a multicultural society possible.

Liberation in the cultural sphere of society is therefore the presence of sufficient cultural spaces such that everyone can express and communicate their cultural affiliations to members of groups they belong to.  This means people need cultural 'rooms of their own', and also a protected right to talk to and hear from everyone in the big, common room.  In practice, it means groups are guaranteed resources and political protections for cultural exchange and expression, commensurate with size and with need.  There is no formula for allocating cultural resources, but there are criteria.  Two such criteria are: 

  1. Larger groups whose cultural survival is not at risk will have to moderate their requests when they are in conflict with groups whose cultural survival is less guaranteed. 
  1. The presence and representation of cultural 'minorities' in common forums has to be guaranteed by some kind of affirmative action.  Again in practice this is not simple since the will of the majority must be protected even as it is prevented from trampling on the rights of minorities.

Race and a Political Democracy

This section will be even more speculative than the others. But it is important, because, while cultural oppression has to do with group identity and communication, the mechanisms for oppression, and the institutional protections for liberation, are often located in the polity. This means that the cultural and physical spaces needed for a multicultural society are established and protected through political institutions.  Political institutions are those that deal with collective decision-making, the resolution of disputes, and making and enforcing of laws. This section will have few definitive answers, but it will provide some ideas regarding the issues that an anti-racist polity will have to address.


Political jurisdiction deals with the following questions: To whom do laws apply? On what territories? Who is a citizen of a polity? How are territorial boundaries of political authority set?  Some of the thorniest issues of a multicultural society are those of jurisdiction. Consider:

The borders of the countries in north America were set by war. War brought much of the US territory into the current political formation. California, Texas, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado were all part of Mexico until the 19th century. Their populations, and their descendants, are now considered the descendents of 'immigrants' as a result of the conquest.  On the other hand, descendants of Anglo-Americans who emigrated to Texas or California after 1840 are not considered immigrants.  This is a general feature of immigrant societies.  An 'immigrant' in such societies 'someone who arrived after me'.  

African Americans were brought into the US political formation as slaves and were only granted full legal status throughout the US decades ago. Immigration policy has historically been racist, with an essentially racist quota system operating. Immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America have been accepted during labour shortages but frequently denied the full rights of citizenship. 

The US and Canadian governments use 'blood quanta' to decide who is and is not indigenous.

There are some general principles, as well as specific principles, for the resolution of each of these problems of jurisdiction.

An indigenist political vision includes self-determination and nationhood on native lands. Most of these proposals (for example, those of Ward Churchill, Taiaiake Alfred, and Winona Laduke) include shared jurisdiction and political institutions for matters of shared responsibility between indigenous and non-indigenous society. None of the proposals include ethnic cleansing of non-indigenous people from indigenous lands. There is no formula for exactly where those lands would be, exactly what laws would apply to people on them and off them. These issues must be settled by negotiation between the native nations and the wider society. Some criteria that can be set out:

1. Group members decide who is in or out of the group. Neither blood quanta nor 'self-identification' are adequate. Instead, the recognition of the group, as well as self identification, are important.  If you self-identify and indigenous people recognize you as indigenous, you are indigenous. The same goes for other cultural or citizenship groups. It is also why, in a multicultural society, a person can choose to belong to whatever group or groups accept him/her.

2. The principle of autonomy can help. Matters that affect only the community are decided upon only by the community. Other matters are decided in negotiation with the wider society.

African American autonomy could be built on the resource base of reparations. The extent of autonomy that the African American community will desire or exercise is not something that can be predicted. Distinct nationhood, self-determination, and a kind of 'dual citizenship' like that of native people is a possibility and so are lesser degrees of autonomy combined with an opening up of American political institutions to ensure the adequate representation of African Americans in them.

For immigrants of colour, from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa, inclusion and representation is more important than autonomy and self-determination, since their participation in the current polity is on a more voluntary basis than that of indigenous or black Americans. I say 'more voluntary' rather than 'voluntary' because many emigrate from poor countries seeking economic opportunities. Any vision for the inclusion of immigrants in a polity must also address the root causes of immigration, one of which is the huge disparity in quality of life between the third and the first world. Some details of inclusion and representation are discussed below.

For American citizenship to be inclusive and representative, it should extend its rights and duties to everyone who lives in America, include every opportunity to learn and participate in the common cultural life, and not penalize learning and participation in any other cultures of the country.

What about the question of who should be allowed to live in America, or what a fair immigration policy would be?  Howard Zinn has proposed the elimination of all immigration restrictions (ZNet Commentary, 'Notes for a Gathering', January 2, 2000).  In a world without such a vast disparity of quality of life between the first and the third world, the number of people who are eager to immigrate will be far lower.  Freedom of people to move, travel, and choose where they live is important.  But so are the needs and considerations of the people already living in a place and that a society could need time and resources to adjust for changing populations and demographics.  If there were to be limits on the number of people allowed per year, these could be set in a fairer way than they are set now.  One possibility is quotas based on the population of the country immigrated from, with modifications for humanitarian crises. 


Since an anti-racist polity respects communal autonomy, the norms for legislation apply to the 'commons', the wider community, for things that affect all, since things that affect only a certain community are decided exclusively by that community according to its own norms. But standard democratic norms for legislation are: freedom to participate in decision-making on an equal basis with all others; say in decision-making proportionate to the degree an actor is affected; this probably implies some mix of direct and representative democracy.

In order to ensure inclusion and representation, an anti-racist society might employ affirmative action in legislative institutions, to ensure a minimum presence of blacks, indigenous people, ethnic communities, women. It might deploy voting and constitutional mechanisms to protect minority and majority interests, and legal protections for communal autonomy .


The implementation of decisions, the executive and administrative functions of government, in a good polity, are done fairly and consistently. An anti-racist society might additionally use affirmative action in this sphere to ensure the inclusion and representation of cultural groups.


In addition to possibly ensuring the representativeness of judicial personnel, an anti-racist or intercommunal judicial system would be different from the current system in at least the following ways.

Drug Policy- A good society does not fight a war on a drug that kills thousands while tolerating if not promoting a drug that kills hundreds of thousands (tobacco).  A humane drug policy would feature: treatment of addiction and abuse as health problems; drug education, control, and legalization; research into ever-less addictive and ever-safer drug options. A drug policy for a good society and for our current society is discussed by Steve Shalom (www.zmag.org/racewatch/shalomdrugpolicy.htm). In a polity without a war on drugs, there would be no way for that war on drugs to be a war on blacks and Latinos.

Prison Policy- In addition to being one of the only advanced industrial countries in the world with the death penalty, the US locks up between 5-14 people for every 1 person who would be locked up in Europe (see Michael Albert's August 1999 ZNet Commentary, 'Prison Policy'). A good society would imprison only violent offenders whose presence in society was a danger to people, and would concentrate on rehabilitation. Because the economic inequality, poverty, discrimination, and disempowerment that are the root causes of many crimes are ameliorated in a good economy, a good society would have far less crime and far fewer people incarcerated, and particularly far fewer people of colour.

There are deeper questions about a justice system in a good society that have not been answered to date. Would it still have a judge, juries, defense counsel and prosecutors, or some other setup? Would the defense have their own police to investigate the crime and its details? Would all legal advice and council be publicly funded to remove the element of money from outcomes? Would communities have their own police, courts, judges and lawyers for disputes within the communities, and an option to try intercommunal disputes involving their members, the other option being the case be taken to an intercommunal court where the communities are represented in juries and judgement panels? I think these are some questions and possible steps which could help justify calling it a justice system. Even more minimally than these, Jerome Miller ('Search and Destroy: African American Males in the Criminal Justice System') suggests some other reforms to the justice system:

Halt inner-city 'sting' operations that entice vulnerable individuals into crime

Stop recruiting snitches and informants, as this is probably the single factor most responsible for increased inner city violence and is devastating to social bonds

Scrap 'just desserts' models of justice

Divert young offenders from criminal justice, stressing individualized programming and alternative supervision (as is done for rich youths)

Close all state-run reform schools and use the money for alternative care and supervision

Shift fiscal priorities from prison to prevention, treatment, supervision, care and civilian conservation-corps type programs

Tailor sentences to the strengths and weaknesses of the offender as well as the crime

Announce the cost of the sentence at the time of the sentencing. Return probation officers to their role as advocates of defendants. They should sit with defense and pursue the least restrictive alternative to incarceration.

Demand accountability of publicly funded human service professionals-they should keep police type hours and be ready to respond to drug, alcohol, domestic violence, and public order emergencies which are now handled by police and exacerbated by the justice system.

Make it more difficult for teachers and social workers to involve police.

Reject the triage philosophy of crime control that writes off populations as criminal

These points might serve as a jumping off point to designing a justice system worthy of the name, and at least they can highlight what a less racist justice system would look like.

Representative Courts and Juries? In Race, Crime, and the Law Randall Kennedy argues against having racial representativeness criteria for jury selection. Such criteria would be a disaster, in Kennedy's opinion, because it would be a statement that justice is not, and can never be, colour-blind. This is also an argument against the black community (for example) having its own courts for resolution of disputes between black people. Such courts would also be a statement that blacks cannot get justice in an integrated system.

I believe Kennedy's point needs to be acknowledged. A truly fair system is colour-blind. But I am willing to entertain the possibility of autonomous courts for internal disputes and representative courts for disputes across communities as a possibility. A sane and consistent justice system is one that is not unnecessarily punitive against people of colour because it is not punitive at all, but restorative. It is one that does not discriminate. The question is what is required to make such a system a reality. Is it simply consistency in the application of colour-blind justice, or is it institutional changes to a system that includes representativeness and autonomy.


Information is a political issue. Access to information in a good society is free and equal. Spaces to exchange, deliberate, debate, and formulate ideas and policies (such as media outlets, discussion forums, and so on) must be guaranteed by the polity at all the needed levels (local, communal, national). A multicultural society will provide and protect forums for cultural groups, including media outlets, art studios, servers and terminals for discussion forums for example, as well as open forums where all participate. In these open forums and media outlets, representativeness criteria will again be applied in order to ensure every cultural group has the chance to speak to the others.

In summary, then, an anti-racist society depends on (1) communal autonomy in internal matters, (2) representativeness in intercommunal matters, and (3) the presence of adequate cultural and physical space for cultural groups to express their affiliations and communicate with one another. These must be guaranteed by the political institutions of the society.

Liberated Kinship Relations

Without the boundaries set by sexual stereotypes, taboos, racist ideas of purity and beauty, and violence, who knows what would happen?  What if whites could not project their fears and taboos on people of colour? 

Institutionalized sexism and homophobia have a lot in common with racism.  They also have cultural, political, and economic components.  They also involve dividing society into groups and placing some groups in power over others.  To the extent that sexism and heterosexism curtail the cultural space for women or LGBT to express themselves, a free multicultural society is incompatible with them and an anti-racist or multicultural society would have to be anti-sexist as well. 

Another issue at the interface of culture and gender or kinship relations is the issue of cultural choice.  Since an important part of culture is communication with a group, the freedom to choose groups, as opposed to being bound only to the one you are born into, is a feature of multiculturalism.  But an individual cannot simply choose to join a cultural group.  Because all the members of a group are affected by such a change, they have a say in the decision.  That is, I can't simply choose to be African American tomorrow, European American the next day.  Could this lead to people being shunned and left without any cultural group at all?  This seems unlikely, since people would be brought up in several cultures (at least the common culture, and likely another) to begin with. 

This raises an interesting question.  Because children develop agency as they grow, they won't be able to choose their cultural affiliations at birth, but will be 'stuck' speaking the languages of those who teach them, at first.  There is no way to change this, but if cultural information about all the diversity of the world is available in the common culture, and children have as much freedom to choose as is commensurate with nurturing them and letting them make their wills felt in liberated kinship relations, its effects need not be too oppressive.


Partial Solutions to Racism

Can there be liberation in some of the component parts of institutional racism without liberation in the others?  Is an anti-racist program compatible with liberation in other spheres of society?  Is it compatible with oppression in other spheres?

Antiracism without economic equality

Could there be an anti-racist society that is class divided?  An anti-racist society without economic justice?  Such a society would have people of colour equally represented in all classes.  There would be rich and poor, but there would be rich blacks and poor blacks, rich whites and poor whites.  Being black or white would have no effect on one's economic prospects, even though one's economic prospects could be miserable.

A multicultural society could also protect capitalist enclaves, who used autonomy as a justification for practicing wage-slavery.  Multicultural norms do not preclude this.

One source of incompatibility is that the presence of cultural spaces, protected and guaranteed, for whatever groups felt the need for them, would mean that working people and poor people would have guaranteed resources and spaces to communicate and develop cultural expressions.  They would also have space guaranteed in the 'common culture' to communicate with the managers or owners or wealthy classes.  This guaranteed, free-flowing cultural exchange would either lead to the rich shutting down the multicultural system however they could, or the poor using the cultural tools they had to organize for changes in the economy. 

Antiracism with borders

What about an anti-racist society with strong immigration controls, geographical segregation, and racial elite control of shared spaces?  No, since these things are a part of the definition of racism.

Antiracism without multiculturalism

Could there be an anti-racist society where cultural spaces are not protected?  No.  Like 'antiracism with borders', the lack of spaces is the definition of racism.  The closest thing to either scenario (antiracism without borders or antiracism without multiculturalism) are the two 'non-solutions' to racism discussed above: assimilation into a homogeneous society or separation into homogeneous societies.  

Antiracism without political democracy

What about an anti-racist dictatorship, or an anti-racist police state?  Or a multicultural society that protected the autonomy of a group that was run as a dictatorship?  These again seem possible, but the protection and guarantee of cultural expression seems to never occur alongside authoritarian political relations.  It would lead to an instability that would either see the political elites repress the cultural expression or the oppressed to use cultural expression as a basis for fighting for political changes. 

Antiracism without gender equality

What about an anti-racist society that is sexist and homophobic?  A society in which blacks and whites are equal, and black and white men oppress black and white women equally?  Or a society where autonomous enclaves are protected according to multicultural norms, but where sexist practices are rampant in these enclaves?  This is also possible, and nothing in anti-racism precludes it.  But guaranteed cultural expression of women with each other and with men in the wider society seems incompatible with it.  Men, like the political elites or economic elites in the above examples, would either destroy women's opportunities for expression or they would have to give in to women's demands for equality. 

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