The Invisibility of Structural Discrimination

This is one of the hardest things to teach when one teaches the sociology of race and ethnicity: that racism and discrimination is not simply a matter of racist individuals, burning crosses and white sheets but a systemic matter, that which results in inequalities in results. It is hard to teach to white students because it is largely invisible and has no obvious cause (as opposed to individual discrimination).

This is why this post by Tim Wise is really useful in exposing structural discrimination:

“How many have heard that persons with “white sounding names,” according to a massive national study, are fifty percent more likely to be called back for a job interview than those with “black sounding” names, even when all other credentials are the same (5)?

How many know that white men with a criminal record are slightly more likely to be called back for a job interview than black men without one, even when the men are equally qualified, and present themselves to potential employers in an identical fashion (6)?

How many have heard that according to the Justice Department, Black and Latino males are three times more likely than white males to have their vehicles stopped and searched by police, even though white males are over four times more likely to have illegal contraband in our cars on the occasions when we are searched (7)?

How many are aware that black and Latino students are about half as likely as whites to be placed in advanced or honors classes in school, and twice as likely to be placed in remedial classes? Or that even when test scores and prior performance would justify higher placement, students of color are far less likely to be placed in honors classes (8)? Or that students of color are 2-3 times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled from school, even though rates of serious school rule infractions do not differ to any significant degree between racial groups (9)?

Fact is, few folks have heard any of these things before, suggesting how little impact scholarly research on the subject of racism has had on the general public, and how difficult it is to make whites, in particular, give the subject a second thought.”

It is also a subject of annoyance to students to have it pointed out to them that assuming that one knows better than minorities when it comes to racism and discrimination is a blatant assertion of privilege and yes, it is racist. This form of racism occurs especially when minorities are accused of “playing the race card” when they point out examples of racism or discrimination. The difference in perspective is neither new nor limited to race (it is present in class and gender inequalities as well). The underlying assumption is that if the white person does not see racism, then, it is not there and to invoke it is playing the race card, which minorities are accused of playing too much of.

It is indeed a major social privilege not only to have one’s perspective never questioned and taken as the default, objective stance (while minorities are seen as “overreacting” or “being too sensitive”, note the feminization), but also to be able to make claims that one knows better about minorities’ experiences.

Read the whole thing.

5 thoughts on “The Invisibility of Structural Discrimination

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Invisibility of Structural Discrimination | The Global Sociology Blog --

  2. Is structural racism a further expansion of institutional racism? Racism, is in my mind’s eye the most vital and challenging issue in our country, and it is so pernicious, it deserves further expansion of its descriptives. What really is the difference between institutional and structural racism.Thank you for the article.

    • @Esther, It is actually the same. Both refer to system-based discrimination, as opposed to individual discrimination. Harder to see, harder (and more controversial to fix).

  3. I have to ask about the “feminization” of “being too sensitive”.
    I’ve been seeing this more and more. Why is being too sensitive, a feminization?
    Are these Grad or Undergrad students? Just curious.

  4. @James, I teach only undergraduates, so, I limit my observations to that.

    The feminization thing: when one looks at the way gender is culturally polarized in our society, one sees that anything relating to emotions and sensitivity is coded as feminine. Nothing natural about that, again, it is cultural coding.

    Also, gendering in society is not just a matter of difference, it is also a matter of hierarchy. Most things feminine are devalued.

    Ergo, to associate racial minorities with sensitivity and emotional overreaction (as opposed to cool, calm, collected and objective view of situations bu whites) is a further demeaning: they can’t see situations for what they are (in this case: not involving racism).

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