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Reexamining history: The roots of structural and institutional racism in the U.S.

Human Services

Picture four runners lined up on a track, ready to race. With the crack of the starting pistol, they take off. Two white runners sprint ahead, their path clear. However, for the two other runners, both people of color, obstacles spring up that impede their progress. A gate prevents them from even starting the race. When they’re finally allowed to begin, rain clouds form overhead. Boulders line their lanes and cages take them out of the competition altogether. They hit a dead end.

This shows us what structural racism looks like in America.

To help Kresge staff and partners learn more about the historic roots of structural and institutional racism in the U.S. and its impact, the foundation’s Human Services program hosted Derrik Anderson, executive director of Race Matters for Juvenile Justice for a learning session in late February.

After sharing this video, Anderson asked staff to reflect on the questions:

– What were your key impressions?
– What did you learn?
– How will this information benefit you and your organization as you work to advance racial equity?

Kresge’s Human Services Program is focused on advancing social and economic mobility from one generation to the next. A key priority in this effort is understanding the roles that racial injustice and inequity play as barriers to this vision.

As the team works to understand why the issue of race is so important to social and economic mobility today, first it must understand the history. How did we get here?

Anderson said it was important to develop this seminar because he found many people from different backgrounds and experiences often considered it difficult or frustrating to have a healthy and objective conversation regarding race, racism, institutional racism and white supremacy. He also wanted to show how some racial groups had a structural disadvantage, burden, and were denied access to institutional resources while another racial group had a structural advantage, unearned benefit and access to institutional resources through economic and social policies and practices.

It’s not about just looking at individual acts of bigotry, Anderson said.

“Instead, we want to focus on institutions and systems that continue to impact people based on their race. We need to analyze why inequities continue to persist and develop practical changes that can result in different outcomes,” he explained.

“It took us more than 500 years to get here. It’s going to take a while to get out,” Anderson said. “But this work of racial equity is around shared responsibility. It is about being intentional and sustaining the work each and every day. To advance racial equity, we all have a role to play.”

Reexamining History

Many times, we may not even be aware of some of the deep-rooted values, attitudes, and beliefs we hold and how they influence our behaviors and decision making, Anderson said.

“Ask yourself: What are the stories and narratives that we hold to be true about our Black, Latino, Asian and Native American brothers and sisters?” Anderson asked. “What do we believe, and where did we receive our information from?”

As we all travel through our nation’s educational system, we don’t often hear the full truth about the contribution of different racial groups throughout our society.

“We need to reexamine what we know to be true,” Anderson said.

Who is Burdened and Who Benefits?

Whether it is who is considered a citizen, who can vote, who can own property, who a person can marry or whose military service will be honored, systems, policies and procedures in this country create a trajectory for Black, Indigenous and other people of color that is baked into our social fabric. Throughout our history, there are people who have been structured out of opportunities by people in power.

“We have to be conscious of and acknowledge those who have been oppressed, and at the same time, we have to acknowledge those who are benefiting as a part of this dynamic,” Anderson said.

Though the obstacles are structural, inaccurate narratives lead people to believe the challenge is individual responsibility.

“Equity needs to drive change. Providing a more equitable and generous safety net would help address the nation’s history and structural racism and improve economic opportunity,” Anderson said.

In addition to that, Anderson said, according to Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), the root cause of the racial inequities is institutional and systemic racism, as well as white supremacy. Racial Equity Institute defines white supremacy as the idea that white people and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs and actions are superior to people of color and their ideas, thoughts and beliefs and actions.

Questions to Ask 

“The teaching of GARE indicated that although we’re not responsible for history, we are responsible for what happens today, and for what happens in the future,” Anderson said. “Racism impacts all of us. And we all have a role to play in ending it.”

Ready to test your knowledge of history? Take a short quiz here.

Was any of this information new to you?

– Why is so much of the history of racism in America excluded from formal education and even American History museums?
– How will this information benefit you and your organization as you work to advance racial equity?
– With this knowledge, how can you affect change? How can you be a part of the solution?

To learn more about Derrik Anderson and Race Matters for Juvenile Justice, please visit