Bernie Sanders’ “Institutional Racism” vs. Hillary Clinton’s “Systemic Racism”

March 7, 2016  |  

Is Race-Talk Fatigue The Reason Democratic Voter Turnout Is Low feat

Race, racism particularly, took center stage at last night’s presidential debate for democrat nominee. Like, literally.

In fact, the race issue amassed more than 20 minutes of the two-hour long debate (you can watch the entire debate here). That is not bad considering the last presidential election, we barely heard a peep about Black folks…

Of course most of the discussion centered on each candidate’s support, or quasi-support, of past crime bills and welfare reform acts. And of course the candidates made a bunch of noise about how each had learned a bunch of things since then and were going to do better to address racism, particularly in the criminal justice system.

But what I found most interesting is what kind of racism Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Hillary Clinton each pledged to address.

More specifically, Hillary’s emphasis on attacking systemic racism.

The first time she mentioned it was when CNN moderator Don Lemon raised the point about her past support of the Crime Bill of 1994 and then asked Clinton why should Black people trust her now to “end the era of mass incarceration.”

After initially explaining away she and her husband’s support of the crime bill – and then asking flippantly why Lemon wasn’t asking Sanders the same question (eventually he did) – Clinton added:

That’s why I am focused and have a very comprehensive approach to fixing the criminal justice system, going after systemic racism that stalks the criminal justice system, ending private prisons, ending the incarceration of low-level offended.”

Clinton would promise to address systemic racism three more times during the debate.

On the flip side, Sanders made no pledges to address systemic racism in our government and in our courts. He did, however, promise to tackle institutional racism.

More specifically he said:

When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or get dragged out of a car. And I believe in a nation in the year of 2016, we must be firm in making it clear, we will end institutional racism and reform a broken criminal justice system.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the faux pas he made here. In particular, the idea that White folks, specifically those in the Flint debate audience, don’t know what it is like to be poor and live in a ghetto – and that racism is just a matter of economics.

Nevertheless, I found Sanders’ insistence of calling it “institutional racism” as opposed to systemic racism” very curious. Perhaps it is just a matter of personal semantics?

However, some of you all would be surprised to know that institutional racism and systematic racism have their own unique definitions and theories.

More specifically, “systemic racism” is a term credited to Joe Feagin, who in the book, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, & Future Reparations define the critical race theory as:

Systemic racism includes the complex array of antiblack practices, the unjustly gained political-economic power of whites, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines, and the white racist ideologies and attitudes created to maintain and rationalize white privilege and power. Systemic here means that the core racist realities are manifested in each of society’s major parts […] each major part of U.S. society–the economy, politics, education, religion, the family–reflects the fundamental reality of systemic racism.

 

On the other hand, “institutional racism” is a term credited to Sir William Macpherson who in a 1999 Lawrence report defined the theory as:

“The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

In laymen’s terms?

Anecdotally, systematic racism looks like slavery, Jim Crow South and apartheid in South Africa, where laws were passed to oppress a specific group of people (in this case, Black folks) for the benefit of another group of people (in this case, White folks).

Whereas institutional racism are workplace entrance exams that amount to predominately White spaces and university legacy clauses, which do not explicitly say “no Blacks allowed” but operate in the such a way to ensure that Black folks are discriminated against and excluded.

So what does all this mean and more importantly, why should you as a Black voter care?

Well, it depends on what you feel is the most important step in addressing racism.

But as an informed voter, when Clinton talks about “going after the systematic racism that stalks the criminal justice system,” she is touching on a set of beliefs that deals more directly with the root causes of racism and calls it what it is. The problem is how much of racism is blatant and more importantly, how do you regulate attitudes?

And when Sanders vows to end institutional racism and reform the criminal justice system, he is touching on a set of beliefs that suggest we can do away with racism by getting rid of barriers that deny people access. The problem is that institutional racism kind of whitewashes over how individual and systemic bigotries play into inequality and injustice in America. And more importantly, to get rid of the barriers means in some cases, actually dismantling the entire institution itself.

For instance, the criminal justice system itself. As really, where do you start?

I swear, it sure would be nice to have a candidate that understood the value of addressing both. But anyway, what do folks think: whose plan to address racism feels most beneficial to the Black community?

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