The opposition between individual racism and institutional racism has from the beginning stood on pretty shaky theoretical grounds. Aren’t individualist expressions of racism, in both their “spontaneous” and continuous forms, always underwritten by statist practices? And haven’t state institutions’ rationalized borders and operations been partly enforced by substrata of popular exclusions and (threats of) routine violence?
But at least in its initial iteration the distinction between individual and institutional racisms served a couple of useful purposes. For one, after the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the federal government’s enforcing of desegregation, it found a way to describe the micropolitical ways in which race operated; that is, it showed how institutions’ formal prohibition of racial discrimination was compatible with real racism. Second, and more urgently, the distinction insisted that the effects produced by racism were not the result of a few recalcitrant consciousnesses who refuse to recognize new realities but were continually produced and maintained by quotidian institutional processes.
Invocations of “institutional racism” today, however, serve just the opposite purpose: where racism exists, it is because there is a lack — of morality, of compassion, and, mostly, of the state. So that, for instance, even the report on the killing of Stephen Lawrence could conclude that the killing was attributable to institutional racism and its attendant absence of understanding and compassion. Today, institutional racism exists where the state is inoperative or derelict; if it is to blame, it is for its inertia and cowardice. Racial exclusions are a free-floating, already-existing problem, and the state’s reterritorializations are notable only for their insufficiency.