The Lingering Wound of Institutional Racism in America

Written by Liam Costello. Edited by Eleanor Winn.

In 1965, Malcolm X described institutional racism by saying, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made”. It can be said with some confidence that in America after the civil rights movement the knife of racism was removed.  But the wound is still healing; for many, four hundred years of persecution still has a profound effect on their lives.

In Malcolm X’s analogy, the knife can be interpreted as institutional racism. Prior to the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 there was a legal system that discriminated against many non-white groups, limiting the opportunities available to all minorities. Today, legally speaking, the same opportunities do exist; the greatest testament to this being the fact that Barack Obama is the current president of the United States. The fact that there are now many affluent black individuals is further evidence that the same opportunities are readily available to the black American. There is a problem with this though: while legally black Americans have the same rights, statistics show clearly that they are not equal to white Americans in reality.  The 2010 census showed that 28.4% of all black Americans live in poverty, compared to only 9.9% of white Americans ; it’s a stark difference. Also, there are 4607 black people per capita out of 100,000 who are incarcerated, compared to only 769 white people per capita. These statistics, as well as many more, highlight the difference that exists between the two ethnicities. So what caused these differences?

Well, there are many reasons, the most important of which being the decades of discrimination in housing and employment. The fact of the matter is that for decades after emancipation white people did not want to integrate with black people and this often helped to create predominantly black neighbourhoods. These often became ghettos or slums, formed as white businesses fled, leaving millions of black people unemployed. Those who did try to find work had great difficulty because people wouldn’t hire them. The only jobs many black people could find were in industrial labour; involving long working days that paid a minuscule amount. The problem only worsened during the great depression, and the government’s attempts at housing reforms were almost entirely unsuccessful. The housing act of 1934 reinforced racially homogenous neighbourhoods in two ways; first through redlining, where areas that were made up of middle and lower class white people received heavy investment whereas poor black neighbourhoods did not receive the same investment. Secondly, slums were cleared and replaced by expensive housing which the original occupants could not afford, so they moved to new housing projects which were being built around existing ghettos. The depression thus saw a growth in the size of ghettos and poor black housing projects and it saw poverty increase in these areas because of a lack of government funding.

If black people wanted to leave the ghetto to move to better neighbourhoods where there was more work available, they could not. Most were restricted by the fact that they could not afford to live outside of the ghetto and the rest were simply not welcome. While housing discrimination was illegal, it still happened and was not prevented by the federal government. Black people had more trouble receiving mortgages or loans, they would often be driven out of white neighbourhoods by vicious racists, and many would struggle to find a landlord who would sell to them. The situation became worse by the fact that white people left the inner city, where most of the ghettos were. The 50s saw huge amounts of ‘white flight’, where white people fled to the suburbs, leaving black people behind to live in their own poor areas. Some black people did manage to escape, some even managed to find their fortune and live the American dream, but most were trapped in a system of poverty and many remain trapped today.

The government has made attempts to deal with this situation and whilst there have been some successes the problem has not been fully resolved. The 1964 and 1968 Civil rights acts helped many people as they prevented discrimination in both housing and work and ended legal discrimination. For many the legal restrictions were lifted and they could escape the inner city ghettos and move to more affluent neighbourhoods, but for a large number of black people, years of living in concentrated poverty meant that economic limitations had not been removed. Many continue to live in predominantly poor black neighbourhoods where poverty is rampant. The American government has continued to build public housing projects, which provide homes for some of the worst affected people, but the projects continue to be the least favourable place to live. The conditions are poor, education has been shown to be worse, crime is high because many cannot find work and so turn to crime to live, and government investment in these areas is low.

Things have improved. Since the 1960s racism and persecution have declined on a huge scale, and many black people in America now lead good lives. But so many millions of black Americans live in a system of poverty; they are unemployed, cannot receive decent education and are trapped in the inner city ghettos and projects. They were born into a system that was created by decades of institutional racism, years where the government, in the words of Stokely Carmichael, failed “to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”. Many will be trapped in this system for their whole lives. Racism and persecution have declined, but the actions of the government and of the white majority in the past still claim victims in the present.