Tensions at North Atlanta High School are introducing some of the Buckhead community’s white residents to an unfamiliar concept known as “institutional racism.”
While most people think of racism as a deliberate act – like someone using a slur, for example – institutional racism often isn’t intentional, experts say. It’s a self-perpetuating system benefiting the privileged while oppressing others.
People often are often unaware the system stacks in their favor, experts say. A white father sitting at a dinner table with his son’s black friends may not think he benefits from racism, according to the experts’ definition of the term. But institutional racism experts say the system the father and his son benefit from is one designed by other white men, ensuring a better shot at college, employment and prosperity.
“That’s the whole point of institutional racism. The idea is built into the way we do things and we don’t even see it,” said Maureen Costello, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project. “The difference is institutional racism is not driven by bigotry necessarily. It’s not intentional, it’s often not seen. It’s often actually got the best of intentions behind it, too.”
One parent at North Atlanta, Shawnna Hayes-Tavares, said there is a structure in place at the school that benefits whites and hurts blacks and Hispanics.
Hayes-Tavares said there are subtle things at North Atlanta that contribute to it: lower expectations for students, communicating with parents via email when some don’t have a computer and a lack of outreach to minority families.
While the “racism” label might sting white parents, Hayes-Tavares said it shouldn’t detract focus from what some black families feel is a real problem.
“Black people at the school get the feeling they’re being ostracized,” she said. “It’s real to them and you can’t just throw that away and say because I’m not racist all of a sudden that’s not real.”
Understanding the term provides important context for a frank email exchange between Atlanta Board of Education members Nancy Meister, District 4, and Chairman Reuben McDaniel.
In the weeks leading up to Atlanta Public Schools officials removing the leadership at North Atlanta High, McDaniel told Meister that she was part of the “empowered” class who was unaware of the institutional racism he said exists at North Atlanta. Meister called McDaniel’s conversation with her “hurtful.”
According to Mary Poplin, professor of education at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., “institutional racism” is a new label for an older idea. Poplin has studied the effects of institutional racism in education. She said French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu promoted the notion that society tends to develop structures, like education, in a way that recreates the different social classes.
Bourdieu called it “social reproduction,” Poplin said.
“A lot of times people are totally unaware of how the institution can be socially reproducing the classes,” Poplin said. “And another thing is how do you respond to that?”
Racism can be reinforced by what President George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” when he pitched his No Child Left Behind law. Teachers may unconsciously think poor black students can’t do as well as white students and don’t push them academically for a variety of reasons, Costello said.
There is no conclusive data showing institutional racism at North Atlanta. Costello said concerned parents can’t prove institutional racism exists using test scores and hiring data alone. She recommended school leaders take a more thorough approach called an equity audit.
She said the audit would study the racial makeup of clubs at the school. An audit may examine the number of blacks disciplined compared with the number of whites or the number of minority teachers relative to the percentages of minority students. It would list any existing achievement gaps, she said.
“It depersonalizes it,” Costello said. “Now it’s not, ‘Are you a racist?’ It should never be this way. It should be about, ‘We have a pattern in this school. What can we do to change this?’”