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5 Examples of Institutionalized Racism Today

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

As trauma-informed leaders, we often confront individuals who misunderstand (or are completely unaware of) systemic and institutionalized racism. It can be challenging to change the mindset of someone who believes we live in a post-racial society, especially when they are not open to hearing about others’ lived experiences.

But we must continue to confront the belief that racism is a “thing of the past.” Structural violence, including racism, is alive and well today. And we have several concrete examples to prove it.

Here are 5 examples of institutionalized racism that are embedded into our everyday lives that every trauma-informed leader should be aware of.

1. Loitering Laws

We’ve all seen them: “no loitering” signs posted around local businesses, plazas, and parking lots. Loitering is a uniquely American crime, which can be defined as “standing or waiting around idly, without an apparent purpose.” It doesn’t make much sense for a person to be illegally standing around a public space—until we consider the history of loitering.

Loitering laws were specifically designed to control Black communities after the 13th Amendment was ratified. The 13th Amendment states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”

The 13th Amendment doesn’t specify the severity of the crime. Combined with loitering laws, the police had a free pass to harass, persecute, and enslave newly freed Black Americans for simply existing in public.

When you get into the specifics of loitering laws, it’s easy to see how these laws were developed and used to target marginalized groups all across America. And loitering laws aren't the only example of racist laws, also known as Black Codes or Jim Crow laws.

2. Zoning Regulations

Zoning regulations may seem harmless at first, but a deeper look into why we have zoning laws and how they impact our communities reveals that zoning laws are a concrete example of institutionalized racism and classism.

Zoning laws function to segregate certain types of buildings—such as suburban residential neighborhoods and mixed-use buildings where a home may also be a business. By separating types of buildings, zoning laws also function to separate people according to wealth.

A statement from the White House clearly states that “zoning laws have been used to discriminate against people of color.” What’s worse is that zoning laws are fueling the housing crisis by driving up housing prices. The housing crisis only further exacerbates problems of inequality and structural violence.

3. Healthcare

Racism in healthcare is “a problem with roots over 2,500 years old,” according to a study from the National Medical Association. This study explores how racism perseveres through outdated medical practices and beliefs, and it sheds light on historical racial violence, such as unethical experimentation, medical abuse, lack of access to health care, and faulty medical education.

The American healthcare system has a detailed history of wrongdoing against marginalized groups, and the violence of that system still impacts us. If you want to learn more about how healthcare and structural violence intersect, read about the social determinants of health.

4. Prisons

It’s no secret that the criminal justice system in America is extremely racialized. Remember that loophole in the 13th Amendment? “Except for the punishment of a crime.”

This loophole has allowed the American prison system to exploit labor from prisoners, who coincidentally are often people of color—not because POCs commit more crimes, but because they are unjustly persecuted.

In some US states, slavery never truly ended. “The system [of convict leasing] incentivized the mass incarceration of Black people to create a supply of cheap, if not altogether free, prison labor to replace the slave labor upon which the plantations and other industries had previously relied.”

If this fact weren’t horrific enough, the conditions of these prisons are not much different than those people faced when slavery was legal. An international judge even deemed Texan prison conditions to be a violation of international human rights.

5. Police

The Black Lives Matter movement brought police brutality to the forefront of American consciousness—but police brutality is not new. I used to wonder why those sworn to “protect and serve” would commit such heinous acts until I realized that the police do their job exactly the way it was intended to be done.

The American police force can trace its roots back to slave patrols established in the 1700s. These slave patrols evolved through time, along with Black Codes and Jim Crow laws—but none of these examples of institutionalized racism ever truly disappeared.

The problem is that the culture has not changed. Like American slave patrols, the police still possess a culture of toxic masculinity, violence, and racial bias.

Final Thoughts: The List Goes On

Although these five examples serve as stark proof that racism—and slavery—are not “things of the past,” these are not the only examples out there. The list is painfully long.

If you know someone who believes that racism doesn’t affect us today, these are the truths they need to hear. In fact, these are truths that every American should be aware of—especially trauma-informed leaders.


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