Obviously, it’s both, to some degree. But I’ve been thinking lately about which way of looking at the problem is more helpful. Is racism fundamentally individual or institutional? I lean towards saying that individual racism is the cause of institutional racism, and that structural remedies can only do so much before they start doing more harm than good. After all, institutions are created by people, and not the other way around.
The post-WWII housing market was heavily segregated, in large part as a direct result of government action. Without government support, the rapid suburbanization of America could not have taken place. Developers created suburbs with the help of the government and then intentionally excluded African-American home-buyers. This is an obvious example of institutionalized racism. However, this racism had its roots in individual attitudes and prejudices. Developers believed that allowing black people to live in a suburb would lower property values because of aggregate individual racist beliefs.
In large part, this turned out to be true, which is why we ended up with the phenomenon of “white flight.” Even when the government started to prohibit people from engaging in housing discrimination, neighborhoods didn’t integrate. When black families started to move into suburbs in any significant numbers, white families moved away in droves. The racist preferences of a critical mass of individuals prevented the structural remedy from being effective.
The lesson to learn from this is that even a neutral system can result in racist results if enough of the people participating in that system harbor racist attitudes.
So we’re confronted with a problem. How can we eliminate racism if removing structural biases doesn’t suffice? The problem is made virtually intractable if by “we” we mean the State. There just isn’t a way for the government to modify individual attitudes and preferences that doesn’t effectively amount to government indoctrination. That’s a very dangerous road to go down. The State can introduce structural biases with the aim of counteracting individual biases (like affirmative action), but this can sometimes breed racial resentment or reinforce racial stereotypes, exacerbating the root problem.
I think this is why some conservatives tend to be more skeptical of government attempts to eliminate racism. The problem is too complex for the government to solve, because racism isn’t just about warped institutions, it’s about warped souls. The government can reform institutions, but it cannot reform souls. The solution to the root causes of racial injustice has to lie outside the state.
On the other hand, progressives tend to emphasize the structural nature of racial injustice. I think they do so because this implies that racism is really not that hard of a problem to solve. All you have to do is dismantle the oppressive systems. You are made racist not by your individual prejudices, but by your opposition to dismantling the oppressive system. This way of thinking is a product of misguided Rousseauian optimism, the belief that, in the absence of society’s corrupting influence, we are naturally good. Such optimism regarding human nature, along with the scapegoating of “society” that tends to accompany it, is far more popular than it ought to be.
It’s become common in recent years for people to promote a new definition of racism that assumes the primacy of structural bias over individual bias. Supposedly, racism is about power, and not about prejudice. Thus, black people cannot be racist against white people, and all white people are necessarily racist against black people. This redefinition of “racism” is a clever move by the progressives, as it pushes us toward state-centered solutions to racism even though they won’t work. As such, we should resist this definitional change. The solution to racism isn’t the destruction of all of our liberal institutions any more than the cure for cancer is suicide. But we can’t continue to affirm this simple truth unless we recognize that racism infects souls before it infects institutions.