#oscarssowhite is a perfect example of how institutional racism works

For those who may not have heard, prominent actors are either boycotting the Oscars or thinking about boycotting the Oscars on the basis that the awards lack diversity. They contend that this lack of diversity is the result of racism that tends to give short shrift to the accomplishments of all minorities and African Americans in particular. This is a textbook example of institutional racism.

Institutional racism is racism which is expressed in the form of social and political institutions. One reason this is an example of the Oscars situation is that conversations around institutional racism tend to be limited and seemingly unprovable.

Let’s break it down. A necessarily limited number of actors and movies have been nominated for awards that display that they have done the most outstanding work in the industry for a given year. Depending on the category there are between 3 and 10 nominees. They are picked from potentially hundreds of movies each year. Every year there are great performances and outstanding work that is left off the list of nominees. #oscarssowhite seeks to bring attention to the fact that the work of minorities is being chronically overlooked.

The problem with identifying institutional racism is that we limit it to a discussion about plausibility. Plausibility is a very loose standard when addressing something as serious as racism. It allows us to rationalize the racist results of a biased structure. Although Straight Outta Compton was nominated for screenwriting (done by white people) it is plausible that none of the performances or directing (done by Black people) that brought that movie to life was Oscar worthy. Similarly, it is plausible that although Sylvester Stallone did an Oscar worthy job of supporting Michael B. Jordan in Creed, the leading actor himself did not stand out quite well enough to garner a nomination. It is similarly plausible that A-list actor Will Smith did not turn in a good enough performance in Concussion even though other actors playing similar roles in have gotten nominations in previous years. In addition, it is plausible that Abraham Attah or Idris Elba’s performances in Beasts of No Nation were not brilliant enough to garner a nomination despite the rave reviews and its status as the most watched movie on Netflix. Individually all these things are plausible. Taken together they are still plausible although much less so.

To accept this plausibility we must ignore the fact that we operate in a biased society in which racist ideas have had hundreds of years to find expression within our social, political, and cultural institutions. In order to accept  the plausibility that none of those performances were Oscar worthy historical context must be ignored.

Among the snubs my favorite example is the movie Beasts of No Nation. As I said before it was released on Netflix, largely bypassing the Hollywood model of movie theater releases. This occurred for a number of socio-economic reasons which illustrate the structure of institutional racism. The subject matter of Beasts of No Nation (child soldiers in Africa) is not the type of fare that Hollywood tastemakers believe is profitable. The argument is an economic one that has racist results. The people who greenlight movies in Hollywood believe that movies that concern issues that are relevant largely to people of color will not sell in a national market that is concerned with mainstream (read White) issues. Therefore, they won’t invest in that type of movie, not because they don’t like Africa or don’t think it’s a worthy endeavor, but rather because they believe it simply won’t make money.

It is fair for the people who have money to decide what they will do with their money, but the outcome has racist results. Due to the socio-economic history of this country which includes slavery and Jim Crow, there are few Black people in Hollywood in position to greenlight a movie. In general, Hollywood is risk averse and that is doubly so when it comes to minority movies of a type that might be deemed experimental due to the lack of funding for such projects. Beasts of No Nation has an all-minority cast that deals with issues in developing nations. In the socio-economic confines of Hollywood it had little hope of being funded. Only an outlet such as Netflix, which doesn’t make its money at the box office would have an incentive to greenlight such a movie.

The marketing strategy for Netflix runs directly counter to the interests of Hollywood, which already puts the movie at a disadvantage. Since Beasts of No Nation was not released in many movie theaters and the marketing push for the theaters was nonexistent, there was not enough momentum for the movie to surface among Oscar voters. Finally, even if the voters did watch it and were widely aware of it, they may not have been able to relate to the movie because it concerns subject matter that is foreign to them. It has been widely documented that the Oscar voters are not a very diverse group of people, which is evidence that there is an inherent bias in the voting. This is important because it may not be an intentional bias, but the result is that deserving performances by minorities don’t get the recognition they deserve.

Institutional racism is difficult to identify because it is the business end of overt racism. It implements and weaponizes past racist attitudes by giving them the camouflage of institutional legitimacy. For 350 years racism ensured that Black people would not be in position to determine the socio-economic environment in this country. As a result institutions at all levels of our society produce racist results. Concerning the Oscars it is not simply illustrated by the reality that there are no minority candidates this year. It is illustrated by the fact that there are few minorities who can greenlight the kind of movie that would garner Oscar consideration, few people who would consider casting a minority in a role that could gain Oscar consideration if the role does not specify that the person be a minority, and few voters who would be likely to vote for that performance as on par or better than other performances without bias.

The current conversation around #oscarssowhite is limited, and on that limited basis it might be plausible to think that perhaps this was a bad year for Black cinema (on the contrary it actually was a good year for Black cinema.) However, when the socio-economic reality of the nation is appraised in a historical context it becomes much more plausible that even the most well-meaning organizations may end up with racist results. We should pay attention to the struggles going on in institutions of higher education, the protests about police brutality, and the #oscarssowhite boycotts. These are the means by which minorities are trying to articulate their concerns about institutional racism.

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