White Out at the Oscars Again: Institutional Racism and Racial Anxiety in Contemporary U.S. Society

02/26/2016 01:31 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2017

Race as a complex and multidimensional phenomenon is more than merely a socially constructed moniker of individual or group identity. It is both a category of human difference and a social system.

In the history of the United States, the development of a binary system (white/non-white) of racial classification based on white supremacist beliefs, counterbalanced with perceptions of black inferiority, has led to an unequal distribution of resources between blacks and whites. Furthermore, race as a system of power and inequality has meant the systematic unequal treatment in educational institutions, housing, healthcare, policing and in the entertainment industry for people of color, in general and for African Americans in particular. That said, institutional racism - as a compendium of patterns, practices, and processes that disproportionately deny black people equal opportunities to resources - permeates contemporary U.S. society and culture.

Hollywood is an institution, and it is a logical fallacy of the simplest form to suggest that the failure of Italian-American actors such as Leonardo DeCaprio to secure the Academy Award for Best Actor is the same as the historic denial of opportunity that blacks have faced in 100 years of American film or in U.S. society more generally. Italians have endured discrimination in U.S. society but they were not enslaved or Jim Crowed, and they do not make up the disproportionate numbers of people who have been denied access or recognition within the entertainment industry (or at the Oscars, when one considers all categories) as a whole and in the movie business more specifically.

Institutional racism goes beyond the individual to encompass the practices, patterns and processes of institutions as a whole. The racial binary that emerged in this country through the era of enslavement, Jim Crow and structural crisis at the present emerged as a result of discrimination against black people. This racial state has not dissolved but has been merely reconfigured, and it continues to have an impact on the lives of African Americans in contemporary U.S. society and culture as reflected in the most recent Oscar white out.

And the nominees are: white people. The overwhelmingly white male composition of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is reflective of the historic denial of opportunity leveled against black people in U.S. society. This current Oscar white out where in all 20 of the acting nominations are white people suggests that Hollywood has a race problem.

Hollywood's issue with race is in fact a microcosm of the institutional racism that takes place in the United States as a whole, but much of the lay public fails to see racism beyond individual acts of prejudice, such as those who would seek to compare the experiences of Italian Americans with African Americans in the movie business. The fact that few Italian Americans might have won a Best Actor Award and DiCaprio has repeatedly failed to win does not correlate to the disproportionate numbers of blacks who have been discriminated against over time within the movie industry or the entertainment business as a whole. It is an act of obfuscation or form of white denial to infer that Italian Americans have faced comparable institutional racism in relation to the experiences of blacks (though it may be accurate to state that some individuals have been discriminated against because of their ethno-racial identity) in terms of the functioning of the Academy and the film industry as a whole. I concur here with the statement made by Dr. Robin DiAngelo that, "white people can face barriers, but systematic racism won't be one of them."

This type of denial has become increasingly coupled with a strident white anxiety now more apparent in the United States today amid the backdrop of the rapidly changing ethno-racial composition of this nation. The U.S. Census has recently projected that the U.S. population will be roughly 46 percent white by or before the year 2050. White anxiety abounds as evidenced in the nativist sentiments of presidential candidates who seek to "take the country back," while supporting the idea of anachronistic race-based immigration policies, racialized mass shootings, such as with the assassination of nine black people in a South Carolina Church, or the more recent uproar over the black power stance taken by Beyoncé in a recent music video as lampooned in a "Saturday Night Live" satirical skit entitled "The Day Beyonce Turned Black."

This most recent Oscar white out might be understood as a reassertion of white identity at the level of representation as juxtaposed with the broader white racial anxiety that has come to take a hold of U.S. society at the present.