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​GORMAN: Individuals — not institutions — perpetuate racism

We need to be careful in applying the label of institutional racism

The student body at the University was rocked last week by the brutal arrest of Martese Johnson, an African-American student and a prominent leader in the University community. His arrest was the most recent occurrence in a series of instances of police brutality, all of which have contributed to placing the idea of institutional racism at the forefront of the American conversation. However, a question needs to be asked about this concept: is racial discrimination truly reinforced by our nation’s legal institutions, or is it caused by the biases of these organizations’ individual enforcers?

In order to understand where we are, it is important to understand from where we have come. I recently contacted John Bolich, an alumnus of Ole Miss who was a junior during the famous 1962 riot concerning James Meredith, the first African-American student to enroll at the university. Bolich recounted his story to me in a lengthy email, which illuminated the harrowing foundation that racism had in southern state politics at the time. He described the social milieu during his time in Mississippi as a period in which “not only did the local laws actively support such discrimination, but even if there were people in the community who did not support such discrimination... their willingness to be reasonable and unbiased was completely overwhelmed by the force of the laws and the state authorities.”

It is safe to say the scope of institutional racism in today’s society — if it even exists — is relatively limited compared to the blatant racial prejudice that existed in southern institutions only half a century ago. Thankfully, an African-American student no longer must fear for his life when enrolling in a university, and no state or national official will ever be able to take radically inhumane stances on social issues without being impeached from his post. That being said, we have certainly not “cured” racism in this country. It does not take a genius to realize that incarceration disparities between African-Americans and whites are not the results of coincidence; in fact, a strong case can be made that racial prejudice is rampant in court sentencing and various other legal settings across the nation.

A distinction must be made, however, between instances of subjectivity and consistent, established precedents. Just as correlation does not imply causation, discriminatory actions taken by individuals — however horrifying or overt they may be — are not necessarily indicative of the virtues of the institutions they represent. The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control may indeed be an inherently flawed police force, though it does not appear to consistently show a racial bias in its arrests of underrage perpetrators. In fact, an argument can be made that the most horrific abuse of ABC power was used on a student of a racial majority, when two out-of-uniform officers wielded their weapons on a white female purchasing a case of sparkling water.

Furthermore, from a macro perspective, the United States pushes for the equality of individuals under the law, even if the ideological backwardness of certain entities persists in slowing this push down. Unlike the legal construct in this nation half a century ago, in which — as Bolich described — “the attitudes and hurdles faced by (racial minorities) were widespread, institutional and ‘legal,’” the perpetuation of racism is no longer a tenet of any local, state or federal institution, though that is not the true issue in the case of Martese Johnson. The underlying cause of Johnson’s arrest was not due to the ABC police force being a racist organization; rather, it was caused by a fundamental flaw in the scope of ABC police power and by the individual racial biases of the officers involved.

The behavior of the officer who arrested Johnson was an utterly clear indication that a portion of this nation’s legal enforcers act in fundamentally inhumane fashions, and for an officer to believe that acting in such a way is acceptable, the institution he represents must indeed be partially to blame. Even if the ABC is not an organization that directly perpetuates racial discrimination, it is clear that the organization provides its individual officers with the ability to do so on an arbitrary case-by-case basis. The fundamental flaw, then, with the ABC — and with all police forces in general — is that the power of its individual enforcers extends far beyond the scope of the power of the institution as a whole.

Martese Johnson is indeed a symbol for a heated issue in today’s society, but he is also a human being who fell victim to the regrettable behavior of other human beings, not to the ABC as an institution. His arrest represents a flaw in human nature, but to a greater extent, it proves the true intentions of legal institutions have been lost among the tyranny of their own enforcers. Johnson is without a doubt a vehicle for social evolution in this nation; his case proves that our nation’s leaders must peer inward at themselves and see who is truly holding the power.

Ryan Gorman is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at r.gorman@cavalierdaily.com.

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