Many Americans insist that prejudice is extinct in our post-racial society, where we have a black president and everything. Of course, the officially sanctioned use of racism (À la Jim Crow laws) is a distant relic of the past, and no governmental or academic institution still exhibits racist behavior.
Nor would Wells Fargo Bank have coughed up $175 million to settle claims that it “engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against qualified African American and Hispanic borrowers” that forced ethnic minorities seeking mortgages to pay “higher rates for loans solely because of the color of their skin.”
Nor would police officers, now over 20 years after Rodney King got walloped, still be targeting “drivers for traffic stops because of their race.”
Nor would several states be instituting new laws to prevent so-called voter fraud, a modern-day poll tax to suppress the votes of ethnic minorities.
But for a concrete example of institutional racism, we have a study by Professor Donna Ginther, of the University of Kansas, who looked at grants awarded through the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The study by Ginther, et al, looked at individuals who received research dollars from the NIH. The report found “that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding.”
According to Dr. Ginther, there are two explanations for why blacks don’t get funded. First, they don’t write competitive proposals because, as Professor Ginther puts it, “they’re not getting the mentoring and support needed to be successful.”
In other words, white applicants are more likely to have an experienced mentor help them create killer proposals. It’s sort of an academic old (white) boys’ club.
The other possible explanation is pure and simple bias in the peer-review process.
“If your peers don’t know you or don’t like your work, your chances of getting funded are low,” Dr. Ginther says.
Of course, if they don’t like you because you’re different looking, they’re predisposed to not care for your work either.
In essence, then, we have a governmental institution, devoted to the betterment of the nation, that claims it accepts the work of the best and brightest, regardless of race or ethnicity. In truth, however, it says, “We’re really only interested in white people’s ideas.”
So what does all this mean?
Well, it indicates that despite great progress over the past half century, racism is still embedded in our cultural institutions. It also implies that the idea that everyone can succeed — if they just really work hard — is at best simplistic. It’s also dismissive of the racial issues that continue to plague the country.
Of course, as you may have heard, you can now just pop a pill and banish those nasty bigoted thoughts. Perhaps the heads of our major institutions should gulp one of those down each morning.