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Why Is Institutional Racism So Important To Our Understanding Of Racial Inequalities In Britain Today?

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Why is institutional racism so important to our understanding of racial inequalities in Britain today?

The Commission for Racial Equality has stated that institutional racism involves a process by which a range of public and private bodies systemically discriminate against people of ethnic minorities. Sivanandan, the director at the Institute of Race Relations defines institutional racism as "that which, covertly or overtly, resides in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions - reinforcing individual prejudices and being reinforced by them in turn."

It can be defined as established law, practices and customs which in practice systemically reflect and produce racial inequalities within society. It has been noted that discrimination can occur irrespective of the intent of the individuals or the institution simply due to the fact it becomes rooted in widely shared values, attitudes and beliefs. Therefore cases of institutional discrimination are difficult to police without the fact that being acknowledged that racist outcomes are occurring without the actors knowledge. It becomes an invisible process, which inevitably may be unintentional but puts up barriers and selection/ promotion processes which result in the disadvantage of members of minority ethnic groups. There is indeed a sustained attempt to see unwitting prejudice, thoughtlessness and deployment of racist stereotypes as located in the norms and values through which many ethnic minorities become disadvantaged in many spheres of life. Institutional racism can be both direct and indirect, cases brought under the Race Relations Act 1976 provides good examples of both forms of discrimination on racial grounds, but often arising out of unintentional thoughtlessness, stereotyping or ignorance.

Stereotyping has been acknowledged as critical to the way in which racism become institutionalised in everyday practices and procedures (Phillips, 1998, vol 14 p146). The disparate elements of racism and bigotry in institutional racism in an integrated manner, leads one to find it is often functionally integrated, but should not be used to label the individuals as 'racist' but to be acknowledged as being a problem for the organisation as a whole. Law (2004) believes that stereotypes and biases underlying institutional racism are forms of cultural and historical constructs; these have been formed during colonial history and become rooted in beliefs and attitudes of everyday society. Therefore throughout the generations energies and attitudes can come to encompass unconscious forms of racial discrimination.

Since the 1960s the notions of institutional racism has been developed, is has now been acknowledged that it does not necessarily mean that racism is declared, but yet that that it may be present in the consciousness of people who may have been seen more as agents than actors.

Carmichael and Hamilton have been key thinkers on the forms of institutional racism; they state that it maybe overt and individual or covert and institutional.

Overt may be in an explicit form, whereas covert racism does not need to appear to be intentional, but becomes implanting in everyday functioning of an organisation (Wieviorka, 1995).

Scarman (1981) drew attention to the problem of police racism but also in doing so he defined institutional racism as 'over racist policy consciously pursued by an institution' (cited in Lea, 2000 p.220). Scarman also responded to the suggestion that 'Britain is an institutionally racist society' (Lea 2000) by stating he rejected the notions that Britain is a society is knowingly being institutionally racist. But he agreed with the suggestion that practices may be adopted by public bodies and private individual which are unwittingly discriminatory against ethnic minorities (para 2.22).

For Macpherson there are three categories of racism which link to issues of racial inequality, firstly, racism of overtly prejudice individuals, secondly racism as a conscious and deliberate policy held by public institutions, and thirdly, racism which is believed to be unintentional in the discriminatory practice within institutions which are formally non-discriminatory (Lea 2000). Therefore the latter form of institutional racism is found widespread in British public institutions. Racial inequalities are rife in housing, education, health, politics and authorities.

The problem of defining the line between individual and institutionally racist behaviour is encountered due to the fact that the working of the institution is encountered as actions performed by individuals within it, therefore making it difficult to defer between the two. Macpherson struggled in many respects in showing that racism he identifies is institutional as opposed to individual.

Race based discrimination in housing, education, employment of financial organisations are all forms of institutional racism and can be distinguished by bigotry or racial bias of individuals within these institutions though the prevalence of systematic and pervasive polices which work to the disadvantage of minority ethnic groups.

* Employment

It has been argued that the labour market position and employment status of minority ethnic groups are significant to understanding the different experiences they face and the extent to which institutional racism can severely affect their life chances.

Modood et al (1997) has noted that discrimination whether it being direct or indirect, individual or institutional, still appears a powerful constraint on career prospect of Britain's minorities and cannot be ignored. The resources which one gains through employment are essential to accessing many other desired goods and services (Mason, 2003). The concentration of ethnic minorities in certain employment sectors has been linked to initial immigration and the settlement patterns that were first formed due to the demand for labour at that time. But with wide economic changes in the 1980s there was a sever decline in manufacturing employment and a consistent growth of the service sector which lead to significant changes in employment for many groups and many facing unemployment. Although when economic factors are controlled for, there still remains an abundance of evidence to suggest that the inequalities ethnic minorities face are multi layered. This lead studies on to consider an equally serious problem, sometimes called indirect discrimination within institutions. This could be found in selection criteria when applied equally to everyone but there they are such that they disproportionately effect people form certain groups (Mason, 2003).

For example indirect racism can take place within

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