The Breadth and Depth of American Racism

By definition, institutional racism is a pattern whereby institutions — such as governmental organizations, schools, banks, courts of law — exercise prejudice by giving negative treatment to a group of people based on that group’s race.  Systemic racism is a broader context under which institutional racism often exists.  Sociologist Joe Feagin, credited with originating the term defines systemic racism:

Systemic racism includes the complex array of anti-black practices, the unjustly gained political-economic power of whites, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines, and the white racist ideologies and attitudes created to maintain and rationalize white privilege and power. Systemic here means that the core racist realities are manifested in each of society’s major parts […] each major part of U.S. society–the economy, politics, education, religion, the family–reflects the fundamental reality of systemic racism (Cole).

As such, the St. Louis County DOJ report is evidence of institutional and systemic racism in the Juvenile Court System because both the courts and other institutions – police, prisons, schools, politics, and businesses subscribe, expressly or implicitly, to the continued unequal and unfair treatment of non-whites, especially Black Americans.  The report confirms both the institutional and systemic racism in the juvenile courts with explicit details of the inadequacies found in both the conduct of juvenile justice matters and the racially-biased manner in which justice is dispensed.  In short, the system is broken and racist.

The DOJ report includes six findings of due process violations (prohibited by the United States Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment), including failure to adequately represent children, failure to protect children from rights against self-incrimination (also a violation of the Fifth Amendment), failure to provide probable cause determinations, failure to provide children adequate due process when tried in adult courts, failure to ensure a child’s guilty pleas are entered knowingly and voluntarily (violating the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments), and failure to protect defendants against conflicts of interest in representation.  These findings are relevant to race, because the report goes on to say that, “Black children are subjected to harsher treatment because of their race (USDOJ).”  For example, according to the report, one and one-half more cases involving Black children are handled formally which narrows options for alternative outcomes.  Blacks are also two and one-half times more likely to be detained in custody before trial.  Black children under Court Supervision who violate rules are almost three times that of whites to be “locked up.”  Black children are also about three times as likely to be remanded to the state corrections institutions which carries a heavier mark on their record.  The courts are the middle ground of the justice system.

The front end – the law enforcement institutions, i.e. police – are also prejudicial in their treatment of Black juveniles.  School policing often “turns up” problems and persons – erroneously or on trivial matters – that begin the process of injustice.  These encounters are often violations of the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures and probable cause protections and protections against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment.  The education system is a party to this over-policing model built on an Authoritarian model of “one-size-fits-all” social justice that largely ignores the differences in mental, emotional and physical development that make youth more vulnerable to impulsiveness and acting out.  The “system” doesn’t just treat Black children wrongly, it treats children wrongly, in general.  What schools need are more social workers and more programs to preclude or correct the manifestation of problem behaviors before they boil over.  Unfortunately, the funding is not adequate in education budgets and so the burden of dealing with social issues becomes largely part of law enforcement, an agency that is woefully unqualified to deal with youth in crisis and overzealous in their attendance to youth behaviors as more problematic than they are.  The “whack-a-mole” style of policing is short-sighted.  The behavior problems are not rooted in the person but are found in socio-economic and political structures that promote inequality and poverty that create a steep slope of disadvantage for many Black urban youths.

What nearly all legal and education agents appear not to accept and fully appreciate are the struggles that children are faced with, particularly urban non-white youth.  Poor sleep, poor nutrition, poor health, poor community programs, dual working or single parents working long hours in low wage jobs, parents with critical-mass marital discord that often involves physical and emotional abuses of spouse and children, and a whole host of other stressors make concentrating in and caring about education a very difficult task (WashU/SLU).  The real causes of poor school performance and antisocial behavior are found in the external environment where so many disadvantaged children are victims of debilitating socio-economic conditions and forces, i.e., delinquency, substance abuse, violence, and crime.

Our justice system and educational system institutions are so poorly equipped to accommodate and address the uniqueness of children’s natural growth experiences and the lens of justice, in general, is white tinted. Black youth are at a disproportionate risk of unequal treatment that has lasting effects that compound the societal injustice that Black people – as a community – face in America.  The saying that “Justice is Blind” is a double entendre because it is often blind to the real practices that are heavily influenced by institutional and systemic racism.  Moreover, the adage that, “when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” is too often how we address childhood behaviors in a grossly flawed paradigm and system of juvenile justice.


Cole, Nicki Lisa.  (2016).  Definition of Systemic Racism in Sociology.  Retrieved on 9 December 2016 from

United States Department of Justice (USDOJ), Civil Rights Division. (2015).  Investigation of the St. Louis County Family Court.

Washington University Saint Louis and Saint Louis University (WashU/SLU). (2014).  For the Sake of All: A Report on the Health and Well-being of African Americans in Saint Louis.  Retrieved on 30 November 2016 from


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: