From: The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks Institutional racism is a term that describes the way government and other public and private institutions systematically afford white people social,...

From: The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks

Institutional racism is a term that describes the way government and other public and private institutions systematically afford white people social, political and economic advantages while marginalizing and putting at a disadvantage African Americans and other people of color. Racial prejudice, on the other hand, is a personally held negative attitude or belief that is based on a perceived difference and generalized toward a group of people.

Discuss incidents of both institutional racism and racial prejudice in The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks. How are the results of these incidents the same or different?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think Parks shows that institutional racism and racial prejudice are different in scope, but feature the same result.

Throughout the narrative, Newt experiences racial prejudice.  Examples of this can be found in the following settings:

  • Whites degrade him by using the "N" word
  • Arcella and he cannot sit at the counter to enjoy their ice cream because it is for "Whites Only"
  • The circus promoter uses him and Marcus as a sideshow attraction to display "Sambos" fighting.  

These are examples of racial prejudice because their reach is local. They reflect the denigration of African-American people on a personalized level. Newt personally feels the sting of racism in each setting.

In speaking to his all-black graduating class, Newt says "Our class does not expect life to be easy."  He speaks this as an act of defiance toward the racial prejudice he and his classmates have experienced.  Saying this reflects how racial prejudice has personally impacted African-Americans that live in a world where their lack of power results in personalized degradation.

The presence of institutional racism is what Parks suggests causes this lack of power.  In Cherokee Flats, white people are in positions of economic, social, and political power.  For example, the judges, police, and superintendent of schools are all white.  When Sarah suggests that Cherokee Flats should be Newt's "learning tree," it is because he must learn how to live in a world bound by institutional racism. The framework that forces people like Newt to leave and strike out on their own is one controlled by white people.

In his graduation speech, Newt argues that "Our race is not the best liked in the world."  People of color are not in positions of power and control.  Their autonomy is limited, and his speech recognizes this fact.   Newt leaves on the train because he recognizes how institutional racism would limit his opportunities in Cherokee Flats.  

Parks shows both experiences as different in their reach.  However, they have the same effect as they serve to weaken individual resolve and autonomy.  In this light, the results of both elements reflect different ways of exacting the same suffering on its targets.   

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