levels of racism: individual, organizational, institutional, and systemic

Discussions of racism tend to get tangled up in issues of level of analysis.1 Sociologists (e.g. Bonilla-Silva) and critical race theorists (e.g. Haney-López), among others, have long argued that we need to understand racism as something that works “beyond” or “above” the individual, building on arguments that go back to Stokely Carmichael’s distinction between individual and institutional racism. In talking through these ideas with friends and students, I’ve found that the terminology can be confusing – in part because sociologists (and non-sociologists) have used terms like institution and structure to mean so many different, overlapping things. In this post, I outline my idiosyncratic terminology for characterizing different levels of racism when trying to explain these interwoven concepts. For me, it’s been useful to break down racism into four levels that are at least partially nested: individual, organizational, institutional, and systemic.2

Individual: This level includes racist beliefs and practices of individuals, simple enough. It includes attitudes under the heading of “prejudice” as well “implicit bias” and perhaps some attitudes and practices not always categorized as prejudice but which also result in justifying or enacting racism. Specific beliefs or preferences might include opposing interracial marriage, not wanting to be the only white person on your block, believing that Black people feel less pain on average, or not believing racial inequality is a problem. Connected actions might include moving out of a neighborhood after a Black family moves in, voting for a racist party or politician “despite” their racism because of your priorities around tax cuts, or not hiring or promoting someone because of their race (or because of your evaluation of their work which already was filtered through your appraisal of their ability based on race). Contemporary theories that focus on this level, while situating it inside larger structural accounts, include Bonilla-Silva’s colorblind racism and Mueller’s theory of racial ignorance.3

Organizational: This level focuses on formal organizations and their explicit rules and informal norms. Ray’s theory of racialized organizations is an excellent starting place for understanding racism at this level. Organizational racism can take the form of explicitly racist rules about the treatment of individuals, such as the outright exclusion of non-white members, students, or employees. But, more typically in the present, organizational racism takes the form of either formal rules that reinforce racial inequality without explicit reference to race, or informal norms. For example, Kalev documents how formalized layoff rules that emphasize seniority benefitted white men because of historical patterns of exclusion at large firms meant that white men were more likely to have longer tenure. Here, formal rules constrain discretion but in ways that exacerbate racial (and gender) inequality. In other cases, formal rules enable racist discretion, as when large employers give managers unchecked discretion over hiring and promotion, or task allocation (see Wingfield and Alston) or when guidelines give judges significant latitude in sentencing (for more, see Reskin’s exploration of this pattern of discretion + biased decision-makers = inequality). Finally, informal norms of various sorts can prevent anti-racist action (such as norms against salary disclosure making it difficult to learn about wage disparities). In particular, Ray emphasizes “racialized decoupling”, when (potentially anti-racist) formal rules are ignored in practice.

Institutional: While organizational racism is about the formal rules and informal norms of a single organization, institutional racism is about the interlocking sets of organizations that characterize larger domains.4 Think here of education, healthcare, or criminal justice rather than a single school, hospital, or sheriff’s department. For example, Van Cleve’s work examines racism in criminal justice in Cook County, exploring the interactions of organizational and individual-level practices and beliefs across cops, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and more. Markets – like the residential real estate market – may also make sense to analyze at this level. For example, Korver-Glenn looks at the interactions of appraisers, realtors, listing agencies, and banks to understand institutional racism in the Houston housing market.

Systemic: While the institutional level examines interactions across multiple organizations and individuals within a given domain, the systemic level includes analyses of the interactions across institutional domains. Systemic analysis asks how residential segregation connects to political power connects to the distribution of environmental toxins connects to K-12 schools connects to public transit, to job opportunities, to policing, and so on. Bonilla-Silva’s theory of “racialized social systems” captures this dynamic. Most empirical analyses focus on a subset of domains, such as Murphy’s work on the absence of employment, non-profit services, and public transportation in poor Black suburbs originally built with middle-class white families in mind. Systemic racism analyses are especially valuable in contexts where overtly racist institutional dynamics, organizational rules, or individual practices are seemingly absent or diminished and yet racial inequality persists because of how a given domain reinforces racism in other domains.

Hopefully that helps makes a bit of sense of at least one way to think about what it means to talk about racism at levels beyond the individual. Beyond that, what do we learn by breaking things apart this way? Let’s take a current example: racial health disparities. Researchers may examine racial health disparities by focusing on any or all of the four levels: 1) many doctors hold biologically racist beliefs about Black patients which can lead to differential treatment, 2) formal organizational rules and technologies may embed implicit or explicit racism into screening and treatment, 3) the institutional domain of health care and public health (especially the absence of universal healthcare), and 4) systemic because health disparities start with disparities in access to safe living and working conditions (see especially Pirtle on how “racial capitalism is a fundamental cause of the racial and socioeconomic inequities” around COVID). 

Existing scholarship documents the importance of thinking across levels of analysis like this in understanding the determinants of racial inequality in a given domain. Probably closest to the schema employed here is Van Cleve and Mayes, who analyze racism in criminal justice by focusing on the interactions of three levels: cognitive, cultural, and institutional. They show how much prior work in criminology focused too narrowly on the role of (binary) race as an individual-level variable and was thus too quick to interpret null findings (such as race playing no role in judges’ sentencing decisions) as an absence of racism precisely because they failed to look across multiple levels of analysis: “these findings are often filtered through colorblind lenses and are misinterpreted as race having no effect—rather than race having a pervasive but decentralized impact.” (Van Cleve and Mayes 415) So, what’s novel in this post, if anything, is not the argument for the importance of looking across levels of analysis to understand racism, but rather the particular breakdown of the levels. For example, Van Cleve and Mayes separate out “cognitive” and “cultural” as two of their three layers, but in light of recent work on the importance of conceptualizing culture itself as existing at both a public and personal level (Lizardo), I try to avoid invoking culture itself as a term for a level of analysis. The goal is not to rule out cultural analysis, say, but to ground it in concrete analyses of personal culture (individual level) or public culture as generated and communicated through the concrete practices of individuals, organizations, collections of related organizations (institutions), and groups of interconnected fields (systems). This terminology also helps to carve out a space for analysis specifically of the organizational level by distinguishing it from higher levels of analysis, which I find useful for helping to clarify how a given organization’s policies fit into larger (and smaller) levels.

Whichever typology works best for thinking through a particular research context, it’s useful to distinguish across levels because sometimes a given level is less important, relative to the others, in explaining a given outcome or disparity. In particular, as Van Cleve and Mayes document, people can get tripped up when the most immediate individual-level racism is not central to the causal story and this sort of finding can lead to a claim that racism doesn’t explain the outcome. For example, in the case of COVID racial disparities, differential treatment by doctors (individual-level racism) may be less important than access to affordable health care (institutional-level). Similarly, people can get tripped up when the sources of a disparity originate in a different institutional domain, as when disparities in employment (higher levels of employment in risky “essential” jobs) lead to disparities in health outcomes, or disparities in exposure to pollution and toxins lead to higher rates of asthma which is a risk factor for serious COVID complications, etc. (see Pirtle again).

These are often important empirical questions that can and should shape responses to particular racial disparities. But keeping in mind these four levels can help us make sense of situations where individual-level or organizational-level factors play less of a role than seemingly more distant factors without tempting us to say that racism “fails to explain” a particular racial disparity. As Fields and Fields show, there is no race without racism. To study racial differences is always to study the how and where and when of racism.


  1. This post was updated to clarify its debt to prior literature, and especially that the novelty of the argument is in the terminology only, not the general argument for analyzing racism across multiple levels of analysis.
  2. Though I don’t offer a specific definition of racism or anti-racism, throughout the whole post I am inspired by Kendi’s writings on varieties of racist ideas and anti-racism and other recent discussions of anti-racism, especially Smith’s analysis of why anti-racist movements fail and definition of racism as “those factors that prevent anti-racist movements from mobilizing supporters in the pursuit of change.” Although focused specifically on social movements, this definition is a good example of a long tradition of writing that points to how seemingly “non-racist” actions reinforce racial domination in their effects, and should thus properly be categorized as racist.
  3. One especially important way in which theories interested in individual-level racism connect to other theories is that racist individual beliefs and practices are taught and learned in racist organizations (schools, churches, political parties, etc), institutions, and systems, and in turn individuals inhabit and lead those organizations, institutions, and systems. It’s dynamic and looping.
  4. A major caveat: some scholars use “institution” as a synonym for “organization” (or a particular kind of organization) whereas I’m using at more like the term “field” (a collection of interacting or related organizations). Part of my goal here is to try to usefully disentangle these levels, but in practice terminological disagreement or slippage is super rampant. So, when you read someone writing about “institutional racism” sometimes they might mean what I’m calling organizational racism (or systemic racism) rather than what I’m calling institutional racism. For me, it’s helpful to have a way of thinking about racist outcomes that result from (and thus are potentially addressable by changing) the practices inside a single organization vs. those that result from the interlocking patterns of racism in multiple organizations or institutions.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

One thought on “levels of racism: individual, organizational, institutional, and systemic”

  1. Thanks for taking the time to articulate this, both concepts and application. It’s helpful to disaggregate the supra-individual categories of organizational, institutional, and system.


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