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Societal racism is the formalization of a set of institutional, historical, cultural, and interpersonal practices within a society that more often than not puts one social or ethnic group in a better position to succeed and at the same time disadvantages other groups in a consistent and constant matter that disparities develop between the groups over a period of time.[1] Societal racism has also been called structural racism, because, according to Carl E. James, society is structured in a way that excludes substantial numbers of people from minority backgrounds from taking part in social institutions.[2]

Background and importance

According to James Joseph Scheurich and Michelle D. Young, racism can be categorized into five types:

  • overt racism, for example, when an individual says something racist;
  • covert racism, which is also an individual phenomenon;
  • institutional racism, which is when institutions treat people of different races differently;
  • societal racism, and
  • civilizational racism.[3]

Structural Racism is harder to detect because it requires data to be examined over time to determine how the set of institutional, historical, cultural, and interpersonal practices maintain racial inequalities over a period of time. However, structural racism is the most prevalent form of racism because of how it pervades every level of society by incorporating the institutional, historical, cultural, and interpersonal practices within a society that perpetuate racial inequalities therefore evaluating society as a whole.[4] The same facts that make structural racism the most prevalent in society make it difficult to analyze and a poor choice when looking at an individual organization because it needs to analyze every level of a society not just a certain organization. The decisive factors for if structural racism is active in a society is if there are racial inequalities present in wealth, power, education, healthcare, and opportunities.

In the United States

George M. Fredrickson has written that societal racism is deeply embedded in American culture and that in the 18th century, societal racism had already emerged with the purpose of maintaining a white-dominated society.[5] and that "societal racism does not require an ideology to sustain it so long as it was taken for granted".[6] When looking specifically at structural racism within the United States of America it is the formalization of practices that frequently puts whites, or Caucasians, in a position of advantage while at the same time being consistently detrimental to people of color, such as African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Asians, and Middle Easterners. This position of advantage often entails: more opportunities to hold positions of power; privilege, white privilege; and superior treatment by institutions. This results in racial inequalities between whites and other ethnic groups which often manifest as issues of poverty or health disparities between the groups. Although structural racism often manifest as poverty or healthcare disparities it actually includes the whole structure of white supremacy that pervades the United States including cultural, political, historical, and socioeconomic parts of society; therefore one can see that structural racism exists within and around every level of society and allows the formalization of structural racism by maintaining it across all levels of a society.[7]

The analysis of poverty levels across different ethnic groups can give an indication of structural racism. To start one must look at the current poverty level in each race group and then the trends over a period a time. The 2017 poverty guideline for the contiguous United States for a household of 3 is $20,460.00 according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.[8] A household size of three was chosen since the average size in the United States is about three. Using the poverty guideline for a household size of three from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a baseline to compare incomes by household in each ethnic group, one can see the trends and compare the groups. Based on the 2017 U.S. census data and the poverty guideline roughly 13.4% of households who identify as white only make at or below the poverty level and about 20.3% make double or less than double the poverty limit; for those households who identify as black about 26.8% are at or below the poverty line and about 26.9% make double or less than double the poverty limit; for the households who identify as Asian about 12.6% are at or below the poverty line and about 15.1% make double or less than double the poverty limit; and for the households that identify as Hispanic about 18.1% are at or below the poverty line and about 26.2% make double or less than double the poverty limit.[9] Compared to households who identify as white those who identify as Black or Hispanic have higher rates of poverty. The households who identify as Asian actually have lower rates of poverty whether it is due to higher education here or immigrating already educated and ready to work but one thing is certain this contributes to the model minority stereotype that comes with, bringing along a whole new set of concepts not always good and causes more distance between Asians and other ethnic groups. Regardless of what the difference is between the Asian household sand the others the disparities between the others is clear. A little more than twice the percentage of Black households are impoverished compared to white households and Hispanic households are about five percent more likely to at or below the poverty line. Both Hispanic and Black households have about a six percent amount of households that make less than or double the poverty line compared to white households. As expected these differences in also translate when considering households of each ethnic group that bring in six figures or more. Still based on the 2017 U.S. census data the percentage households that identify as white alone who have over six figure incomes is 32.9%; only 16.1% of households that identify as Black have six figure incomes; 41.7% of households that identify as Asian have six figure incomes; and the percentage of Hispanic households that have six figure incomes or more is 19.8%.[10] Once again the same trend emerges here as with the poverty lines. There are disparities between the white households and the Black and Hispanic households. There are more than twice the percentage of Black households with six figure incomes compared to white households;on the other hand Hispanic households have 13% lower amount of households with six figure incomes comparatively. This shows how extensive the wealth gap is between the ethnic groups because they have more impoverished and less wealthy households. The wealth gap between ethnic groups has been present for a while and can be seen over time as median income in the following figure from the U.S. Census website.

This figure shows that even though as a whole every group got wealthier, the gap between the ethnic groups has stayed relatively the same or slightly grown. This is one of the key concepts of structural racism, there are poverty inequalities that have persisted for decades. Poverty leads to health issues, less higher education, more high school dropouts, more teenage pregnancy, and less opportunities. Therefore, a large part of structural racism has to do with perpetuating a cycle of poverty onto other ethnic groups which makes it substantially harder for them to get to same point or work there way up as a white person in America. This is because the impoverished start with less and because it has been a cycle of poverty most ethnic families do not have property, savings, or valuables to pass on, which just perpetuates the cycle further. These comparisons were not intended to ostracize,exclude, or lump any ethnic groups; there was not current data on Pacific Islander,Native American, or Middle Easterners in the U.S. Census Bureau study that was used.

The cycle of poverty that structural racism imposes on minorities has adverse effects on their overall health, among other things. Health inequities can manifest as disparities in several aspects of health such as obesity, heart disease, life span, infant mortality, sexual education, exercise, drug use, and cancer. Furthermore, racism itself is thought to have a negative impact on both mental and physical health. According to a paper that analyzed published research, on PubMed from the years 2005-2007, on the connection between discrimination and health there is an inverse relationship between the two; furthermore, the pattern is becoming more apparent across a greater variety of issues and data.[11] The fact that a pattern has emerged from the study of this published research data shows that these health inequities are being maintained and reinforced by structural racism. Although this study relies on data from 2005-2007 to support it and show the pattern,this pattern was noticed as far back as 1985 and since then healthcare has come an even longer way. According to the 1985 Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Black and Minority Health by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in general Americans were getting healthier and had increased longevity but there is a persisting inequality between Blacks and other minority groups in the rate of death and illness contrasting to the overall population; furthermore, the report notes that this inequality has been around for more than a generation at this point or since better, more factual federal records have been kept.[12] This is definitive proof that the federal government noticed these racial inequalities in health long before the 2005-2007 study of research data that revealed a pattern. More importantly it shows structural racism has maintained these health inequalities across decades even though the in general Americans have become more healthy and have increased lifespans. Based on the studies they reviewed it became apparent that regardless of socioeconomic status there are racial inequalities in health were present between minority groups for several health issues such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and obesity.[13] This shows the health inequities caused by structural racism can be alleviated by increasing socioeconomic status but they still persist at all levels, showing the overarching power and cycle that structural racism submits minorities too. In addition, there is data that supports the fact that as health care has advanced worldwide overall there are more increases in health inequalities between races. One such study that supports this is The Progress Toward the Healthy People 2010 Goals and Objectives which is a review, done by members of the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Center of Excellence on Health Disparities, Morehouse School of Medicine, that explores progress towards improving the overall health quality and longevity of Americans and the health disparities between ethnic groups. To accomplish this they used a system of 31 measures to analyze the progress and disparities; which consisted of 10 leading health indicators (LHI), created by the Department of Health and Human Services, with a few objectives each for twenty two total and the remaining measures were formulated by the group who did the review.[14] The ten leading health indicators are: Physical activity, overweight and obesity, tobacco use, substance abuse, responsible sexual behavior, mental health, injury and violence, environmental quality, immunization, and access to healthcare; the group who did the review supplemented the leading health indicators with 7 more objectives and 2 more measures, infant mortality and life expectancy to give 31 in total.[15] They used these measures to track the disparities be tween Asians, Hispanic or Latino, Black Non-Hispanics, white non-Hispanic, American Indian or Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders; However it is important to note that data is not available for every ethnic group for all 31 measures. However using the available data for the objectives they have more than one time period on they found 6 objectives showed a decrease in disparity between ethnic groups and the national average while they found 18 disparity increases across 11 objectives.[16] This confirms that even as healthcare is advancing and new scientific discoveries are being made overall the disparities between ethnic groups are increasing. This is a trend that was noticed in the 1985 report and has continued through the time worsening its effects and contributing to greater health inequalities. Therefore, it can be said that structural racism acts in such a way that it actively hinders the health and longevity of minorities.

Structure and agency are opposites. Agency is the idea that a person's life outcomes are due entirely, or significantly influenced by their own individual efforts. Social structure is the idea that life outcomes are due entirely, or significantly influenced by the individual's race, class, gender, social status, inherited wealth, legal situation, and many other factors that are outside the individual's control.

A society, even a "colorblind" society, can be structured in a way that perpetuates racism and racial inequality even if its individual members do not hold bigoted views about members of other racial groups. Society can still effectively exclude racially disadvantaged people from decision-making or make choices that have a disparate impact on them.[17]

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