Structural Racism

Arts & Social Justice Workshop

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 20, No 1 (Spring 2009)


All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Strength to Love, 1963

On Sunday, October 12, 2008, the Arts and Justice Funders Working Group presented a pre-conference workshop for grantmakers who wanted to strengthen their skills in addressing questions of racial equity in order to increase the overall effectiveness of their work. The session drew on the wisdom of peers in the room and on GrantCraft's “Guide to Grantmaking with a Racial Equity Lens.”

A primary focus of the workshop was understanding structural racism. As the conference brochure noted, “Though many of us have lived long enough to see schools and eating establishments desegregated and the inclusion of people of color in leadership roles in the public sector and corporate America, racism remains a structural problem in the United States.” The workshop was facilitated by Maya Wiley, founder and director of the Center for Social Inclusion and by Lori Villarosa, executive director of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE).

The workshop was interactive. Participants heard presentations, worked together and in small groups to identify patterns of inequity that they saw both in society and in their own grantmaking, and discussed what opportunities exist to decrease structural racism and make racial equity a priority.

To extend the impact of the workshop, the following definition of structural racism is offered. The definition comes from the Center for Social Inclusion and was presented at the beginning of the workshop day.

What Is Structural Racism?
Structural racism is the silent opportunity killer. It is the blind interaction between institutions, policies, and practices that inevitably perpetuates barriers to opportunities and racial disparities. Conscious and unconscious racism continue to exist in our society. But structural racism feeds on the unconscious. Public and private institutions and individuals each build a wall. They do not necessarily build the wall to hurt people of color, but one wall is joined by another until they construct a labyrinth from which few can escape. They have walled in whole communities.

For example, a government agency decides that low-income housing must be built, which will house low-income Blacks and Latinos. It fails to look for locations near jobs and important infrastructure, like working schools, decent public transportation, and other services. In fact, it is built in a poor, mostly Black and Latino part of town. When the housing is built, the school district, already under-funded, has new residents too poor to contribute to its tax base. The local government spends its limited resources on transportation to connect largely white, well-to-do suburban commuters to their downtown jobs. The public housing residents are left isolated, in under-funded schools, with no transportation to job centers. Whole communities of people of color lose opportunities for a good education, quality housing, living wage jobs, services and support-systems.

In this example, no one individual stands in front of the doorway to a better life and says, “No Blacks/Latinos/ Native Americans/Asians allowed.” Race, however, is the unspoken motivator behind a series of actions which lead to decisions about where to place the walls. Often times the government locates the housing where it will have the least opposition. White neighborhoods tend to oppose public and affordable housing. Resource expenditures, whether public or private, often follow whites who flee urban problems for white suburbs.

The structural arrangements produced by the walling off of resources and opportunities produces the racial disparities we see today—like higher poverty rates, greater infant deaths and lower high school graduation rates in communities of color. Racial disparities are the symptoms of our collective illness—structural racism. Whether it's education reform, the environment, the workplace, urban planning and development, affordable housing or health care, we must make the role of race visible and understand the structures our institutions construct so that we may rebuild them to create opportunities for us all.

The Center for Social Inclusion (CIS) works to build a fair and just society by dismantling structural racism. It partners with communities of color and other allies to create strategies and encourage policy reforms to end racial disparity and promote equal opportunity. With its partners CSI conducts applied research, translates it, teaches, informs the public, convenes stakeholders, nurtures multiracial alliances, and supports advocacy strategies.

The Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE) is a multi-year project intended to increase the amount and effectiveness of resources aimed at combating institutional and structural racism in communities through capacity building, education, and convening grantmakers and grantseekers.