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Impunity is a kill switch for racial progress

A chasm opens when institutions get away with wrongdoing — over and over, without consequence

H. Hopp-Bruce/The Emancipator/Adobe

The looming midterm election and ongoing threats to the election process itself remind us of stalled hopes for racial progress in policing, wealth building, and critical arenas, such as economic policymaking.

The institutions that structure our society — voting systems, schools and universities, law enforcement and the judiciary, churches and temples, workplaces, commercial news and entertainment, retail corporations, and more — signal to us daily what is acceptable and what isn’t. When those institutions can get away with doing the wrong thing over and over, without meaningful consequences — the essence of impunity — a chasm opens. The real shifts in popular attitudes, aspiration, and moral exhortation about racial equity are in stark contrast to deeply inequitable and contradictory outcomes that institutions still shape in society.

All too often, institutional impunity remains unacknowledged and unchallenged, in large part because public and private institutions have shields, such as prestige or claims to be serving the public in some unassailable way, which insulate them from real accountability. This applies from Wall Street banks to elite universities, from police departments to medical centers, the military, the museum industry, and other institutions. We jump instinctively to the question of which changes would advance equity, such as shifts in college admissions, investment, policing, or hiring practices, without calling out the impunity that drastically limits such changes.

As we approach the second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by police and the mass protests for justice it triggered from small towns to big cities, we have an opportunity to build on something that’s foundational and positive. A seismic shift, long thought impossible, is clear in a large body of research on public opinion trends. It’s the long-run improvement obscured, over the past year, by the focus on the immediate before-and-after of 2020′s protests for Black lives. That improvement is a broad-based recognition of racism as a persistent feature of American life, after generations of denial, largely by White people.

Not for the first time in America’s history, we are facing the fraught gap between real moral awakening and stubborn resistance to institutional change.

As weaponized as the issue remains in our party politics, and in debates over what’s taught in public schools, sizable majorities of Americans across race, class, geography, and other boundaries now acknowledge that racial discrimination is real and pervasive — even if we continue to disagree, especially along party lines, on two things: whether it’s systemic or mostly a matter of individual “bad apples,” and how much measurable racial progress America has actually made in education, health, wealth, and other domains. White people, especially conservatives, consistently overestimate that progress.

Being clear about where we mostly agree, and where we don’t, is obviously important. But there’s an equally important reality check we need now, two years on from the largest protests in American history, and it explains why racial progress so often stalls in spite of changing attitudes.

Not for the first time in America’s history, we are facing the fraught gap between real moral awakening and stubborn resistance to institutional change. This is central to understanding the partisan divide on racism as well: a divide between those who say that they are in favor of treating people fairly, no question, and those who are also willing to make the institutional changes required to create a fair and just society.

See something, say something

Now, what does impunity look like in practice?

It’s the museum that can “value diversity” in its annual report but make no measurable progress expanding representation on its board or curatorial leadership. It’s the university dean who can, year after year, accept non-diverse candidate pools and hire faculty who shape those institutions for decades. It’s the C-suite that can do the same when it comes to executive promotion or the makeup of the corporate board; the research review committee that can approve clinical studies of diseases that disproportionately affect Black and brown communities without sample sizes adequate to produce good science; and the police department where officers can apply excessive, sometimes lethal, force and expect to be exonerated for doing the hard-but-necessary work of public safety.

Impunity is also on display in the selection process for the nation’s highest court and central bank when the process can discount hard-won qualifications, not to mention the importance of lived experience, offered by more diverse public servants.

As wide-ranging as these scenarios are, the keyword in all of them is “can.”

Impunity is a central feature of institutional life, except, perhaps, when a public official is on trial for alleged abuse, in which case the preferred narrative is still that of the individual, not the unaccountable institution to which they belong. Naming impunity as a culprit is strikingly rare in our public conversation about racial equity, how systemic racism operates, and what it will take to end it.

What’s more, it’s easy to draw the wrong lesson and conclude that becoming individually “woke,” or however we want to describe personal learning, is the hardest work and that doing it will unlock institutional change. We wish it were so, but the evidence suggests otherwise. There will be no dramatic progress on racial equity unless we tackle institutional impunity itself because it’s a kill switch.

We’ve spent decades working for change in a wide range of institutional arenas and have learned two crucial things. First, it takes both the outside game of sustained external pressure and the inside game of practical innovation and authentic organizational leadership to end impunity and deliver real change. Too many efforts have foundered on the either/or. Because impunity is an expression of power, the winning coalitions for change require those on the inside and the out, so their work becomes as mutually reinforcing as possible.

Because impunity is an expression of power, the winning coalitions for change require those on the inside and the out, so their work becomes as mutually reinforcing as possible.

Second, ending impunity also requires what may seem small in a historic window of opportunity like the one right now: It takes concrete efforts to redefine what counts as success or failure. What does it mean for an organization to create content; recruit and develop talent; define strategic direction; serve all customers, constituents, or stakeholders in measurable ways; catch and prevent bad behavior; and so on well? Setting and pursuing transparent goals for performance changes helps avoid the caustic witch-hunt dynamic that sets in when the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.

These two ingredients matter for moving beyond racial equity lip service by companies, but they also apply much more broadly. For example, in the halls of government agencies, in a movement that started at the local level, the word “delivery” is joining “equity,” as in: Is an agency or jurisdiction competent enough to deliver the racial equity its leadership now espouses?

In the foreground, America’s electoral politics has its own, uniquely dangerous expressions of impunity. This is especially true when public figures, through a steady program of racial fear-mongering and misdirection, demonstrably fail to serve the expressed interests of their voter base, over and over, and yet are not sanctioned by those voters at the ballot box. We need real democracy reforms, from voter protections to sensible regulation of our Wild West media environment and dark-money campaign finance, to address that impunity. But at the same time, we need to change the organizations operating in the institutional arenas that shape our lives most immediately, day to day: educating young people, deciding what gets researched and how and what counts as expertise, entertaining us and telling us stories of who we are and what we share or don’t share, enforcing the law, selling us products and services in ways that are changing our lives and the planet.

Which brings us back to law enforcement, one of society’s most critical and contested institutions, where the consequences of impunity are extreme. Here, as we think about how to regain momentum for meaningful change across the nation, policing reform in Camden, New Jersey, offers a stark and hopeful example of what such change requires.

In 2012, with encouragement from the state government, the cash-strapped city transferred policing to county government, disbanding the municipal force. But that shift led to more excessive force complaints and a much less racially diverse and representative police force. In 2020′s tumultuous debate after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Camden was initially misread as an example of what “abolishing” a police department could achieve.

But real improvements in public trust and police performance came after the institution itself was reformed. After sustained community pressure, public officials worked with the NAACP and other groups to implement two critical policy changes. The first, in 2015, directly addressed use of force, requiring officers to focus on de-escalating conflict and training them in how to do it. The second, implemented in 2018, requires officers to intercede when a fellow officer is incorrectly using force. By 2020, excessive force complaints were down roughly 95% from a 2014 peak.

Making it right to call out wrong

The ingredients for success — the combination of external pressure with sustained internal leadership, plus an insistence on changes in how organizations define success and perform against new standards — matter in other institutional arenas, too. From higher education to the corporate C-suite, we are seeing progress where steps are taken to make it unacceptable to keep doing the wrong thing, when institutions are pushed to lower those protective shields enough to embrace real changes in practices and performance.

We should continue to work for the reforms we need to hold individuals with power accountable for extreme abuses, whether in law enforcement, elected office, or other roles. And we should celebrate the shared conviction, even if it’s often messy and too performative, that racism is real and pervasive.

But until we recognize and undo institutional impunity itself, we won’t make nearly enough racial progress — and not nearly as fast as we must.

Xavier de Souza Briggs is a senior fellow at Brookings Metro and the author of “Democracy as Problem Solving.” Lora-Ellen McKinney is a pediatric psychologist, writer, artist, and activist who runs Cedar River Creative Productions, a nonprofit that supports Black arts and artists.