The four quadrants of racism

I remember when I first found out about racism as a child. I was astonished that people were mean to each other based on the color of their skin, and resolved that I would do something nice for a Black person every day (holding open a door, letting them go first if we arrived at a line at the same time, etc.). I think this resolution lasted about one day — I was a child after all — but my mental picture of racism as people being mean to each other, and that it could be remedied if we just all resolved to be nicer and not perpetuate racial stereotypes, stayed around long after.

It wasn’t until much later, in early college, that I learned that there’s another kind of racism: institutional racism that operates on the level of policies and cultural norms with the effect of disadvantaging one or more racial groups compared to others. I had a hard time grappling with the idea that you could be racist without intending to be racist, just by continuing to do things the way you’ve always done them, even if (or perhaps because) you weren’t thinking about people of other races at all.

Recently, I’ve started thinking about examples of racism along two axes:

  • Is it PERSONAL or INSTITUTIONAL? Is it the effect of one or a few people’s actions, or is it the result of a rule, norm, or custom?
  • Is the racism INTENTIONAL or UNINTENTIONAL? In other words, conscious or unconscious? By design or by accident?

We can make a 2×2 grid of the four possibilities:

These aren’t pure dichotomies — unintentional bias can be intentionally unexamined, and laws with racist effects are put in place by a relatively small group of people — but nevertheless they can be a useful way to approximately organize some different types of racism.

  • PERSONAL and INTENTIONAL: everything from racial slurs to lynch mobs.
  • PERSONAL and UNINTENTIONAL: bias due to unexamined racial stereotypes, or insensitivity from assuming everyone’s experience is similar to yours.
  • INSTITUTIONAL and INTENTIONAL: redlining, voter suppression, Jim Crow laws, etc.
  • INSTITUTIONAL and UNINTENTIONAL: “Solutions” that backfire like predictive policing or the ban the box campaign, or algorithms that learn racial bias from their training data. (Note that it can be a little hard to tell whether a given example of institutional racism is intentional or not, since it changes what we consider the default, “intentionless” behavior to be.)

According to this framework, here’s what I thought racism was as a child:

And here’s what I thought it was as a college student:

Here’s what I think it is now:

But this isn’t just an intellectual exercise. I made this grid for myself to better understand what the antiracist literature I’ve been reading has been asking me to do. It can be difficult to synthesize different author’s viewpoints, since their definitions and focuses vary, but the more I read the more I see the same call to action. Here’s what we’re being asked to prioritize eradicating:

Yes: the common focus is on countering institutional racism, whether intentional or unintentional, and in that sense the intentionality dimension doesn’t matter.

For some authors, the focus is on trying to focus on what will have the greatest effect. As Ijeoma Oluo explain with characteristic directness:

We can get every person in America to feel nothing but love for people of color in their hearts, and if our systems aren’t acknowledged and changed, it will bring negligible benefit to the lives of people of color.

Ijeoma Oluo, “So You Want to Talk about Race” p. 31

Other authors urge us not to let token acts of individual racial reconciliation prevent us from advocating for larger changes, like Austin Channing-Brown in this interview with Brené Brown:

I’m not convinced [proximity to Black people as a component of anti-racism] is necessary. And there’s a lot of anti-racism educators who would deeply disagree with me! … I think that white people are not children; I think grown white people are adults, who can think critically on their own, who can read books, and listen to podcasts, and study history, and be self-reflective, and get a therapist, and look at the world, and say, “Something’s not right here — let me change the way I vote. Something’s not right here — let me give to an organization that I have researched, who is trying to change this. Something’s not right here — let me go do.”

Austin Channing-Brown, “Unlocking Us with Brené Brown”, 6/10/2020

Or Jemar Tisby in “The Color of Compromise” (on the history of the Christian church’s complicity with racism):

This chapter presents practical ways to address the current state of racial injustice in America. Most of the solutions focus on structural and institutional methods to combat inequality. I understand that this approach may provoke resistance in some readers since the default way of thinking for many conservative Christians is to focus on the relational aspects of race. To be clear, friendships and conversations are necessary, but they are not sufficient to change the racial status quo. Christians must also alter how impersonal systems operate so that they might create and extend racial equality.

Jemar Tisby, “The Color of Compromise” p. 193

Ibram Kendi even defines merely-personal racism out of existence:

Racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas… “Institutional racism” and “structural racism” and “systemic racism” are redundant. Racism itself is institutional, structural, and systemic.

Ibram Kendi, “How to Be an Antiracist” p. 20

Even Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” which has been criticized for its emphasis on soul-searching and the neverending quest to overcome personal bias, points out early on that racism is not just personal prejudice:

Racism differs from individual racial prejudice and racial discrimination in the historical accumulation and ongoing use of institutional power and authority to support the prejudice and to systematically enforce discriminatory behaviors with far-reaching effects… A person of color may refuse to wait on me if I enter a shop, but people of color cannot pass legislation that prohibits me and everyone like me from buying a home in a certain neighborhood.

Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility” p. 22

and concludes by saying friendly race relations are not enough:

The default of the current system is the reproduction of racial inequality; our institutions were designed to reproduce racial inequality and they do so with efficiency. Our schools are particularly effective at this task. To continue reproducing racial inequality, the system only needs white people to be really nice and carry on, smile at people of color, be friendly across race, and go to lunch together on occasion. I am not saying that you shouldn’t be nice. I suppose it’s better than being mean. But niceness is not courageous. Niceness will not get racism on the table and will not keep it on the table when everyone wants it off.

Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility” p. 153

So now, instead of my childhood resolution to do something nice for a Black person every day, I try to do something regularly about institutional racism: protest injustice, petition for change, donate to antiracist organizations, write to my representatives, or vote for policies that reduce racial inequity.

Before I go, a quick note: This post represents my views on racism at the time of writing: August 31, 2020. Just as my views are not the same as they were when I was younger, I don’t pretend that they are finished changing. If there are inaccuracies or misperceptions in my understanding, you can help me change them for the better by letting me know in the comments! I promise to accept any corrections with grace and gratitude.


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