You can say that racism is of the Institution (a function of the “majority” group through which society is established; e.g white people, collectively), or you can say it is of the Individual. But you cannot say it is of both. If the institution is the cause, then the individual by definition must be absolved. If the individual is the cause, then the institution is absolved.
This has to do with the fact that while “groups (of individuals)” and “individuals” are conceptually distinct, that which makes them relevant and rational in a practical sense is how they are related. The collectivist assumes, whether he admits or knows it or not, that the individual is a direct function of the group/institution. The individualist assumes the opposite. In order for “individual” and “group/institution” to have any rational meaning, and thus any practical efficacy or relevancy, this relationship cannot be ignored or denied. Which means that one cannot say a given single social outcome is a function of both. It is either a function of one or the other, since the necessary relationship between them means that one must act as a direct extension of the other. Existentially and conceptually, individuals are not institutions and institutions are not individuals. Yet each must necessarily define the other when we speak of outcomes because they are utterly related.
An institution either acts as a function of specific, autonomous, morally distinct individuals, or the individual acts as a function of the institution. It must be one or the other. When a man makes a choice–to act in a racist way, for instance–he either makes it himself or the institution makes it for him. But it cannot be both.
It cannot be both.
Now, the the problem is that, empirically, the individual is the actual, material thing. The individual is the concrete; the institution is the abstraction. The institution doesn’t have any agency itself because it’s not actually real. Therefore, when we reverse this relationship, as the collectivist does, the individual cannot be held responsible for any decision or action, because he is merely an abstract concept which utterly serves and is given categorical relevancy by the group. He does not actually possess material existence. And this is why the title of this essay is: If Racism is Institutional Then the Individual is Absolved. Because what is not real cannot think; cannot will; and thus cannot act.
Let’s look at it this way:
Say Tom’s family has a single apple. Either Tom can eat the apple or someone else in the family can eat the apple. Or, we can that say the family ate the apple; and what we mean by this is that each member of the family ate part of the apple. The family, as a single entity, cannot eat the apple, because “family” is an abstraction; it, as a material thing, doesn’t actually exist.
Yet somehow, when it comes to institutional racism, when one person “eats the apple”, we say the whole group ate the apple, as though the group is a single entity who acts as the agent, which then subordinates the individual to “its” will. This then naturally makes the individuals of that group the abstraction, all of whom are guilty of eating the apple because all of them serve as abstract notions which equally express the actions of the actual, material group; of the institution. If the institution is racist, then all individuals, as merely abstract extensions of the institution, are racist. But not qua themselves…again, only insofar as the institution is racist.
Now, the practical consequence of this in today’s America is that white individuals who haven’t a racist bone in their body and haven’t committed anything even close to a legitimately racist act are scratching their heads in confusion because some pundit on the news declared them racist simply by virtue of being a function of the racist “institution”, by which they mean white people as a collective. They are racist because they were born of “whiteness”.
And yet the logic demands the exact opposite: Since these individuals are an utter function of the institution, they are, ipso facto, purely abstract. Which means they do not exist. Which means they do not think and do not act.
Which means that they cannot possibly be racist.