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- 1 What Is Institutional Racism?
- 2 Voter Suppression
- 3 Responsiveness of Political Institutions
- 4 Political Representation
- 5 Role of Institutional Racism in the 2016 Election
- 6 Criminal Justice System
- 7 Solutions
What Is Institutional Racism?
Institutional racism describes the ways in which political and social institutions treat people differently depending on their race. We are documenting information about institutional racism and its effects here.
In the United States, institutional racism makes it harder for people of color to participate in the political process. Most notably, voter suppression measures such as strict voter ID laws significantly reduce the number of people of color who vote, without significantly reducing the number of white people who vote, because voters of color are less likely to have valid photo ID. In North Carolina, for example, lawmakers specifically designed voting restrictions with the intention of disenfranchising black voters. Using data on racial differences in voting behavior, North Carolina lawmakers passed legislation that made the forms of voter identification disproportionately used by white people the only acceptable forms of voter identification. Other voter suppression measures include reducing or ending early voting and same-day voting, ending early voting on Sundays (when many black churches conduct "Souls to the Polls" voter drives), purging voter rolls, restricting the use of absentee ballots, and reducing the number of polling locations or funding for poll workers, particularly in communities of color. While felon disenfranchisement laws are not technically voter suppression, they also disproportionately reduce the voting power of communities of color, particularly black people.
Responsiveness of Political Institutions
Research shows that US political institutions are less likely to respond to the preferences and concerns of black people, compared to their white counterparts. A 2008 study found that black voters had significantly less influence over Congress compared with white voters, even after accounting for their relative numbers in the electorate. Similarly, researchers at the University of Chicago found that where black and white policy preferences differ, the policies (both federal and state) supported by white Americans are more likely to be passed, while the policies supported by black Americans are less likely to be passed.
People of color are vastly underrepresented within every major US institution—especially within the Republican Party, which currently controls the federal and most state governments. This limits the power of communities of color to translate their interests into US politics and public policy. For example, people of color are 38% of the US population  but only:
- 27% of police officers
- 22% of US House members
- 22% of US Supreme Court justices
- 17% of Trump cabinet picks
- 11% of state and federal judges
- 10% of all elected officials
- 9% of US Senators
- 5% of elected prosecutors
Role of Institutional Racism in the 2016 Election
Institutional Racism made it easier for Trump to be elected President in 2016. The electoral college system—which was built as a compromise to appease slaveholding states—gave white voters disproportionate voting power in the 2016 Presidential election.
Other forms of institutional racism—strict voter ID laws, felon disenfranchisement laws, targeted cuts to early voting hours and polling locations—also likely reduced black turnout in pivotal swing states such as North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Florida.
Criminal Justice System
Institutional racism is evident throughout the criminal justice system in America. At every stage, the system treats black people worse than their white counterparts. This results in a compounding effect, whereby racial disparities are exacerbated the further one progresses through the criminal justice system.
Stages of Criminal Justice System
Black people are nearly three times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses as white people, even though they use and sell drugs at similar rates as white people. Black people are also more likely to be victims of police use of force and three times more likely to be killed by police during an arrest, a disparity that exists even after controlling for crime rates.
Black people have been found to be more likely to be detained prior to trial. For example, researchers in New York City showed that black people were more likely to be in jail while they await trial, even after controlling for the seriousness of charges and prior record.
Prosecutors are nearly twice as likely to charge black men with an offense that carries a mandatory minimum sentence than white men facing similar circumstances.
Once arrested, black people are more likely to be convicted for the same offenses as their white counterparts. For example, while black defendants represent about 35% of drug arrests, 46% of those convicted of drug crimes were black. Black jury candidates, who tend to be more lenient toward black defendants than white jurors are, are more likely to be excluded from participating in juries.
Judges have been found to be 30% more likely to sentence black defendants to prison time for the same offenses as their white counterparts. Among defendants sentenced to prison time for drug trafficking, black people receive a 13% longer prison sentence than their white counterparts. Specific laws contribute to black people receiving harsher sentences. For example, the 18-1 crack-cocaine disparity in sentencing imposes severe sentences on crack possession, which is more likely to be found in black communities, despite there being no meaningful distinction between crack and powdered cocaine.
Black people have been found to be more likely to have their probation revoked than their white counterparts, even when controlling for other characteristics of the probationers, such as their age, crime severity, and criminal history.
Examining the Role of Racism in Institutional Decisions
Consideration Prior to Decision-Making: Racial Impact Statements
Some jurisdictions (for example,King County, Washington, and Oregon) have begun to require racial impact statements to be produced and shared with legislators and the public prior to voting on any new criminal justice (or other) legislation. Racial impact statements are reports that show how the proposed legislation will impact populations differently by race. This strategy is intended to address implicit biases, by making legislators aware of how their actions will impact people of color. Such measures could be strengthened even further by establishing higher procedural barriers for passing legislation that is found to disproportionately harm people of color—for example, requiring such legislation to receive a supermajority vote to be adopted.
Overturning Racist Decisions: The NC Racial Justice Act
North Carolina has enacted the Racial Justice Act, which allows capital defendants to challenge their death sentences if they successfully prove that race was a significant factor in decisions to seek or impose the death penalty at the time of their trials. This measure has resulted in several defendants successfully getting their sentences changed from the death penalty to life in prison. Further legislation could empower defendants to challenge any sentence by showing that race played a significant role in leading to this outcome.
Repealing Laws and Ending Practices that Target People of Color
A number of laws and practices have been shown to be enforced in a severely discriminatory manner, despite being written in "nonracial" language. These include Stop-and-Frisk practices, the death penalty, local ordinances criminalizing "spitting" and "lurking," and school discipline codes that punish students for the vague offense of "willful defiance." Policies and practices that have a disparate and unwarranted impact on people of color should be repealed. Moreover, legislation should be passed similar to the Community Safety Act in New York City, which empowers people to challenge these laws and practices in court (a private right of action) to help secure policy changes.