Constitution Day panel discusses institutional racism

By Jayne Yerrick

For 7 minutes and 46 seconds, a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck. This short amount of time left an innocent man dead and sparked a national outcry for justice. George Floyd, like so many people of color before him, was killed while being arrested. His death is just one upsetting example of a much broader issue: institutional racism. 

Due to the recent Black Lives Matter protests, more people have been discussing institutional racism. 

Each year, Ohio University’s Center for Law, Justice and Culture organizes a panel to discuss current issues in the U.S. to honor Constitution Day. Fittingly, this year’s group of panelists focused on institutional racism when they gathered for a virtual event on Sept. 17.

Photograph by Kelly Lacy via Pexels

Smoki Musaraj, an OHIO associate professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Law, Justice and Culture, led the discussion about the extent of institutional racism in policing and education. 

Musaraj started by asking panelists to define institutional racism and explain how they use the term in their everyday life. Kirstine Taylor, an assistant political science professor, weighed in by first telling the audience that racism is not always obvious. 

“All of us in attendance today can probably think of incidents in which someone’s feelings of racial prejudice have resulted in bias behavior,” Taylor said. “But racism is much more than feelings and behavior. It is deeply systemic and institutional.” 

Even though the U.S. has moved past more overt forms of racism, like slavery and the Jim Crow laws, it still is alive and well within U.S. institutions. Panelist Theda Gibbs Grey, an assistant professor in the Patton College of Education, went on to explain just how deeply racism is embedded in society.

“Because it is rooted inside institutions, it has multiple branches,” she said. “It has implicit and explicit impacts. It can be seen in the language that is used and the language that is not used throughout an institution. It’s basically woven throughout an institution… and it serves as a means to oppress based on race.” 

Bayyinah Jeffries, an associate professor and chair of African American studies, explained how institutional racism can seem invisible at times. 

“When I think about institutions, I think about tradition,” she said. “We have to keep in mind that they’ve been around for a long time, they become very resistant, they even become obscured and invisible.” 

If institutional racism is so deeply rooted in long-standing institutions in the U.S., how can the nation overcome it? 

When it comes to institutional racism in education, Grey and Jé Exodus Hooper, a Ph.D. candidate, offer some possible solutions.

Hooper was a teacher in New York before studying at Ohio University. Hooper witnessed first-hand the lack of resources for students of color, and how these limited resources put students at a disadvantage. 

“How we were just putting all these people, these children of color, in these rooms with very little resources?” Hooper asked. “The idea of a classroom being a part of the of the industrial prison complex, that’s a real thing for most inner city, urban environments.” 

Hooper drew attention to how schools with a majority of students of color are often based in urban environments and left without proper classroom resources and funding. This is a major issue because it puts children of color at a disadvantage before they even grow to be adults. 

In addition, Grey has noticed an issue with how teachers treat students of color. In her research, Grey found that black students are suspended from school more than white students, even when they break school rules in the exact same way. Oftentimes, these suspensions are without homework, which leaves many black students behind academically.  

Grey believes that educating teachers is the first step in solving the unfair treatment of black students. 

“What we’re seeing is that over 86% of the teaching force is predominantly white,” she said. “And while being a white teacher, and the race of a teacher, does not matter, what matters is that…. the majority of teacher education programs across the United States only have one compulsory diversity class. That is supposed to be the catch-all for training teachers to go out into the world and understand race and racism.” 

Grey thinks that one diversity class is not nearly enough to teach educators about the complexities of students from all different backgrounds. More diversity training is just one solution that Grey offers to tackle the immense issue of institutional racism in schools. This one solution may not be enough to overcome the racism ingrained in U.S. society, but it is certainly a strong start. 

Over 200 years ago, the U.S. Constitution was written. Since then, it has been amended multiple times, including with the 14th Amendment. In 1868, this amendment was added to the Constitution to guarantee all U.S. citizens “equality under the law.” 

As the Constitution Day panel demonstrated, there is an increasing awareness that equality is an ideal that Americans are still reaching for today. The Constitution alone can’t solve institutional racism. Part of overcoming institutional racism is left up to people like the Constitution Day panelists, who are actively talking about racism and proposing thoughtful solutions. 

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