The science of eliminating racial health disparities requires a clear understanding of the underlying social processes that drive persistent differences in health outcomes by self-identified race. Understanding these social processes requires analysis of cultural notions of race as these are instantiated in institutional policies and practices that ultimately contribute to health disparities. Racism provides a useful framework for understanding how social, political and economic factors directly and indirectly influence health outcomes. While it is important to capture how individuals are influenced by their psychological experience of prejudice and discrimination, racism is more than an intrapersonal or interpersonal variable. Considerable attention has focused on race-based residential segregation and other forms of institutional racism but less focus has been placed on how cultural values, frameworks and meanings shape institutional policies and practices. In this article, we highlight the intersection of cultural and institutional racism as a critical mechanism through which racial inequities in social determinants of health not only develop but persist. This distinction highlights and helps to explain processes and structures that contribute to racial disparities persisting across time and outcomes. Using two historical examples, the National Negro Health Movement and hospital desegregation during the Civil Rights Era, we identify key questions that an analysis of cultural racism might add to the more common focus on overt policy decisions and practices.