Racist Institutions in the United States

By Lauren Griesedieck

Over the summer, I completed a research project for an Honors personal project about the institutions in the United States as they pertain to race. This report covered six different institutions and examined the origins, evolution, and modern practice conducted by the respective institution. The full report includes many components in the institutions of criminal justice, police, housing, healthcare, welfare, and education. For the purpose of this article, I want to share the key points of each section, as well as a few facts that I found the most alarming. This project was limited in the sense that it does not, and could not, fully represent all aspects of racism in each institution without more time and resources. It is important to note that these institutions do not stand alone; they overlap and interact with one another to create and perpetuate a cycle of inequality.

For those who may not know me, I have lived most of my life in North Carolina, a southern and formerly confederate state. All of my education, except for university, has been done in North Carolina’s public schools. Originally this project was going to look at how history is taught in high school textbooks, mostly for the reason that I have learned the most about American history using outside sources and on my own time. It eventually evolved into an analysis of racism and domestic institutions. Although this article is geared towards the United States in particular, I want to encourage everyone to take a critical look at their own country’s history. Many of us have been taught a watered-down version of the truth, even if we do not immediately recognize it. 

Criminal Justice

The creation of prisons was originally for whites, as Blacks were enslaved during this time. The 13th Amendment, the amendment to the Constitution which was supposed to outlaw slavery, created a loophole which allowed slavery in the case of criminality (DuVernay, 2018). Once Blacks were increasingly subjected to the criminal justice system, the punishments and treatments of criminals started to resemble conditions of slavery. Many of these people were imprisoned for very minor infractions, such as absence from work (Davis, 2001).

President Richard Nixon’s aide, John Ehrlichman stated, 

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (DuVernay & Moran, 2016) 

Similarly, President Ronald Reagan’s campaign strategist, Lee Atwater stated,

 “You start out in 1954 by saying n*****, n*****, n*****. By 1968, you can’t say n*****, that hurts you. It backfires. So, you say stuff like forced bussing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now. You’re talking about cutting taxes. And all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things. And the by-product of them is Blacks get hurt worse than whites.” 

Today, the US has 25% of the world’s prison population (DuVernay & Moran, 2016). More Black men are imprisoned today than were enslaved in 1850 (DuVernay & Moran, 2016). 97% of people who are locked up did not go to trial and took a plea bargain instead (DuVernay & Moran, 2016). This happens because prosecutors make the alternative of going to trial so much harsher, even when the accused person did not commit the crime (DuVernay & Moran, 2016).


In the South, modern police forces evolved from slave patrols. These patrols began as temporary, unpaid, voluntary militias (Shirley & Stafford, 2016). Controlling slaves, formerly the responsibility of the slave owner, turned into a public responsibility of white Americans, which led to the establishment of permanent police forces (Shirley & Stafford, 2016). These pre-civil war police forces, in both urban and rural areas, contained preventative functions, were permanent, paid, controlled by civilians, and policed Black neighborhoods (Shirley & Stafford, 2016). Police were further entrenched into society during Reconstruction. The rules imposed by the North, modernity, industrialization, and racial reconciliation, all relied on the role of the police (Shirley & Stafford, 2016). 

In the North, the primary function of the police was to control crowds, namely, the working class and Blacks (Whitehouse, 2014). The main duties of the first police forces were surveillance and intimidation of these two groups (Whitehouse, 2014). 

There were only 27 days in 2019 where the police did not kill someone (Mapping Police Violence, 2020). Black people account for 28% of people killed by police since 2013, but are only around 13% of the total population (Mapping Police Violence, 2020). Blacks are 3x more likely to be killed by police, and are also 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed compared to whites (Mapping Police Violence, 2020). Police are essentially untouchable; in practice, the law is not applied the same to police as it is applied to civilians. 99% of killings by police from 2013-2019 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime (Mapping Police Violence, 2020).


From the very beginning, public housing was segregated with the neighborhood composition rule, established by Roosevelt’s first public housing director (Rothstein, 2014). This prevented the mixing of races in neighborhoods. After World War II, the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration hired contractors to build houses in suburbs to counteract the housing shortage, with an explicit condition that loans were given only if these homes were not sold to Black families (Rothstein, 2014).

Segregation was further institutionalized by the creation of the highway system and urban renewal programs. Highways were created to force the relocation of Blacks and to put a physical barrier between Black and white neighborhoods or important business districts (Rothstein, 2014). In urban renewal programs, low income Blacks were forcibly moved away from hospitals, universities, or business districts, and placed in new, overcrowded ghettos (Rothstein, 2014). 

Bank regulators from the Federal Reserve and other institutes approved redlining policies where banks refused loans for Black families going to white neighborhoods (Rothstein, 2014). However, it was more common that these banks refused loans to Blacks residing in Black neighborhoods (Rothstein, 2014). 

Housing is still segregated today. 67% of Black families in the poorest areas of neighborhoods are still there from a generation ago, versus 40% of white families (Rothstein, 2014). Black neighborhood poverty is multigenerational: 48% of Black families have lived in poor neighborhoods over at least 2 generations in comparison to only 7% of white families (Rothstein, 2014). Therefore, many Blacks are likely to inherit poverty at birth. This means that there is very low socioeconomic mobility, making it much harder for them to escape poverty. This creates a vicious cycle of poverty when combined with the effects of other institutions, such as education. Furthermore, studies have shown that neighborhood segregation and low mobility have been tied to education and welfare inequality (Rothstein, 2014). 


A study from 2019 showed that Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women (American Heart Association, 2019). Black women are undervalued, dismissed, and not monitored as closely as white women (American Heart Association, 2019). 

A study of Covid-19 deaths by race groups, updated up to 8 August 2020, shows that Black Americans have the highest mortality rates, more than twice as many as whites (APM Research Lab Staff, 2020). Adjusting for age, Black, Native Americans, Pacific Islander, and Latino Americans all have mortality rates triple or more than the mortality rate of white Americans (APM Research Lab Staff, 2020). This age adjustment makes such a big difference, because, as another study finds, Blacks are dying from Covid-19 at the rate of white people more than a decade older, with death rates of Latinos lying in between Blacks and whites (Ford, Reber, & Reeves, 2020). In Maine, Blacks make up around 23% of the cases, while they represent less than 2% of the total population. In a July study, at least 836 out of the 3600 Covid-19 positive people in Maine were Black. 


Agriculture workers, the main occupation of Black men, and domestic servants, the main job of Black women, were excluded from the core benefits of the Social Security Act of 1930 (Quiroz-Martinez, 2001). Many other spending programs focused away from the South, where the poorest people lived, mostly Blacks. This was because these people were thought to be already on FDR’s side for his re-election (Powell, 2003).

Other New Deal programs had detrimental effects on Blacks. The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) cut farm production and increased food prices to help farmers, but this meant that Black sharecroppers had less work and had to pay more for food (Powell, 2003). The Wagner Act made labor union monopolies legal, which meant that union members could exclude those without jobs in order to protect themselves (Powell, 2003). Many times, the union with the monopoly discriminated against Blacks and excluded them from joining (Powell, 2003). The National Industry Recovery Act resulted in an estimated 500,000 Blacks in the South losing their jobs (Powell, 2003).  

In the job market, Black women earn less, are less likely to be employed full-time, and are overrepresented in low-wage jobs than whites are (Gooden, 2001). When applying for a job, Blacks are asked twice as many times to complete a pre-application, and 36% of respondents in the study were subjected to drug tests and criminal record checks in the interviewing stage (Gooden, 2001). Another study in Detroit concluded that low-skilled, unemployed Blacks take an average of 167 hours before getting a job, while the average for low-skilled, unemployed whites is only 91 hours (Gooden, 2001).  Blacks, especially Black women, are subjected to significant racial prejudice in the job market. 


Although schools are no longer allowed to discriminate due to the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), academic exclusion still exists and takes on many different forms. Black and Latino students are placed in lower “tracks” and systematically excluded from Advanced Placement classes (ERASE Project, 2001). Black third graders were half as likely as white students to be chosen to participate in gifted and talented programs (Grissom & Redding, 2016). The SAT, a standardized test which is required for many university applications, removed any questions for its criteria for validity in which Black students scored better than white students (ERASE Project, 2001). However, the questions in which whites scored better were kept (ERASE Project, 2001).

Schools remain very segregated today. A study by Orfield and Yun in 1999 found that the only racial group that attends schools where the majority of students are from their own race are whites (ERASE Project, 2001). This segregation also has an impact on the quality of teachers working at schools. Black students are more than four times as likely than white students to go to schools in which teachers do not contain all state certifications and license requirements (CRDC, 2014c).

Schools with high concentrations of racial minorities are more likely to use strict security measures than mostly white schools (Johnson et. al, 2001). Black students are expelled and suspended 3 times more than white students who commit similar infractions (CRDC, 2014b). Black girls alone are suspended at a higher rate than all other girls and most boys in other races or ethnic groups (CRDC, 2014b). Black students make up 16% of student enrollment, 27% of students referred to law enforcement, and 31% of students in a school-related arrest (CRDC, 2014b). Students that commit a discretionary violation are three times more likely to be in the juvenile justice system the next year (ACLU, n.d.). Even in preschool, Black children are disciplined and punished the most. In the school year 2011-2012, Black children made up 18% of preschool enrollment, but were 48% of the children who were suspended more than once (CRDC, 2014a). 


This project ends with the question: Are the domestic institutions of the United States racist? Each institution examined has at least some aspect of racism in their foundation stories. These institutions are all complicit in disadvantaging Black Americans, with effects ranging from imprisonment, minimal job opportunities, or even death. There is absolutely no doubt that minorities are treated much worse in comparison to whites. 

It’s important to note that these institutions do not stand alone, they intersect and affect one another. This is seen in the school-to-prison pipeline, which combines aspects of education inequality, policing of schools, and the criminal justice system. Housing affects the type of education available to students. Institutions overlap and work together to create a cycle of inequality. 

I did this project with the intention of trying to understand why these institutions are the way that they are today. There is no way that we can begin to talk about reforming institutions without understanding their full impact, and the only way we can understand the full impact is to look at the foundations and evolution of these institutions. 

Edited by Zuzanna Mietlińska

Artwork by Chira Tudoran

Works Cited

American Heart Association. (2019) Why are Black Women at Such High Risk of Dying from Pregnancy Complications? Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/news/ 2019/02/2/why-are-Black-women-at-such-high-risk-of-dying-from-pregnancy-complications.

APM Research Lab Staff. (2020) The Color of Coronavirus: Covid-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/ deaths-by-race.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1). (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved from https://www.oyez. org/cases/1940-1955/347us483.

Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). (2014) Data Snapshot (Early Learning), U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Retrieved from https://www. thenation.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/crdc-early-learning-snapshot.pdf.

Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). (2014) Data Snapshot (School Discipline), U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Retrieved from https://www. thenation.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/crdc-discipline-snapshot.pdf.

Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). (2014) Data Snapshot (Teacher Equity), U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Retrieved from https://www. thenation.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/crdc-teacher-equity-snapshot.pdf.

Davis, A. (2001). Are prisons obsolete? Toronto, ON: Seven Stories Press.

DuVernay, A. & Moran, J. (2016) 13TH [Documentary]. USA.

Expose Racism and Advance School Excellence (ERASE Project), (2001). Education Policy. In Persistence of White Privilege and Institutional Racism in US Policy: A Report on US Government Compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (pp. 39-53). Transnational Racial Justice Initiative. 

Ford, T., Reber, S., & Reeves, R. (2020) Race gaps in covid-19 deaths are even bigger than they appear. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020 /06/16/race-gaps-in-covid-19-deaths-are-even-bigger-than-they-appear/.

Grissom, J. A., & Redding, C. (2016). Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs. American Educational Research Association.

Johnson, T., Boyden, J. E., & Pittz, W. J. (2001). Racial Profiling and Punishment in US Schools: How Zero Tolerance Policies and High Stakes Testing Subvert Academic Excellence and Racial Equity. Applied Research Center.  

Mapping Police Violence (2020). National Trends. Retrieved from https://mappingpolice violence.org/nationaltrends.

Rothstein, R., (2014). Modern Segregation. Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved from https://files.epi.org/2014/MODERN-SEGREGATION.pdf 

Shirley, N. & Stafford, S. (2016). Delusions of Progress: Tracing the Origins of the Police in the Slave Patrols of the Old South. Retrieved from https://itsgoingdown.org /delusions-progress-tracing-origins-police-slave-patrols-old-south/

Quiroz-Martinez, J. (2001). Welfare Policy. In Persistence of White Privilege and Institutional Racism in US Policy: A Report on US Government Compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (pp. 17-26). Transnational Racial Justice Initiative. 

Whitehouse, D. (2014). Origins of the Police. Retrieved from  https://worxintheory.wordpress .com/2014/12/07/origins-of-the-police/.