Volume 2, 2010
T. J. Berard
Unpacking “Institutional Racism”
Insights from Wittgenstein, Garfinkel, Schutz, Goffman, and Sacks
Overt racism and discrimination have been on the decline in the United States for at least two generations. Yet many American institutions continue to produce racial disparities. Sociologists and social critics have predominantly explained continuing disparities as results of continuing racism and discrimination, albeit in increasingly covert, anonymous forms; these critics suggest racism and discrimination have to be understood as historical, systemic problems operating at the level of institutions, culture, and society, even if overt forms are now rare. With increasing reliance upon a proliferation of notions including “institutional racism,” “institutionalized discrimination,” and “glass ceilings,” however, scholars and critics alike have grown increasingly dependent upon statistical data on inequalities and institutional outcomes as grounds for theoretical and political inferences concerning collective motives or prejudices. In this crucial respect, insights from beyond studies of race and inequality, drawing especially on Wittgensteinian and Schutzian contributions to social thought, stand to illuminate the pragmatic, moral reasoning at work in the institutional racism argument and similar approaches. Such reflexive attention to a central conceptual resource of contemporary social criticism stands to bring attention back to the basic empirical and critical questions of how to study and engage with continuing inequalities in the post-civil rights era. These questions can certainly be addressed through theoretical stipulation and political claims-making, but a more viable conceptual and empirical
foundation for both theory and criticism can be gained by attending more respectfully to foundational issues of meaning and interpretation in the human sciences and human relations.