Almost everyone agrees that "racism" is bad. Yet no one
agrees on just what, exactly, racism is. There is a reality of social inequality
all around us today. And socioeconomic inequality is often closely correlated to skin
color and perceived racial affiliation in many parts of the world. Unequal treatment, individual and
systemic, is a reality that poisons our social environment. As writers struggle
to understand the roots of this injustice and define it, the words
"racism" and the corresponding "racist" are not infrequently
invoked. Calling someone a racist is a strong
charges of racism result in stigmatization and social exclusion. Many
organizations have sanctions against racist behavior and speech, and many
countries have passed laws against racism. Yet despite all this hostility
towards racism and racists, and all the general and specific measures to
eliminate it, no exact definition exists.
The word "racism" is used to describe an extremely
broad range of things. Nobody agrees on exactly what "racism" should be, and
the range of definitions is incredibly broad. One prominent historian of the
subject, George Fredrickson, writing in a book titled Racism: A Short
History, concludes, "Racism is too ambiguous and loaded a term to
describe my subject effectively." A
typical person will quickly explain what a racist is, however.
A racist is a "hater", someone with animus towards those who are
different from themselves, and who feels that the racial aspect of the
difference plays a role. The figure of the bigot is a stereotype that almost
everyone can agree to hate. But the term "racism" is employed to
describe other behaviors and beliefs as well. These are detailed below.
It is usually thought that for "racism" to exist,
the existence of "races" per se is a prerequisite. It is
subsequently argued that if races did not exist, racism could not exist either.
Many people assert that race does not, in fact, exist. Thus they argue that since race does not actually
exist, anyone, now or in the past, who claims that race does actually exist is
- a racist! That is, by one definition, any mention of race at all is ipso
facto proof of "racism."
These two definitions span the range. On the one extreme, "racism"
is outright and outspoken bigotry. At the other end of the spectrum, any person
who is naïve enough to believe that such a thing as race exists is a
"racist". Having such vastly different definitions of
"racism" in circulation gives rise to all sorts of confusion and
endless arguments about what is, or isn't, racism and who is, or isn't, a racist. In many such arguments
people are arguing past each other, because they have different conceptions of
what is meant by "racism." By one definition, the number of racists
in the world is small. By another, it includes a vast number.
To clarify the issue of the various definitions, a few
examples might prove useful. Let us start with a simple dictionary definition
1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences
among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement,
usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to
2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon
or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other
thing to note about dictionary definitions is that they seem to take the
existence of race for granted. That is, by the most extreme definitions of
racism, dictionaries are racist! In fact, virtually all short definitions of
racism seem to take the existence of race in some form for granted.
dictionary definitions are all short and unambiguous (traits desirable in a
dictionary). The common elements are always
and discrimination based on differences, and
2. a belief
in the superiority of one over another.
start to touch on additional elements. These elements become explicit in other,
Functional, or Sociological,
trait among the sociological definitions of racism is that they define racism
backwards from its results. The results of racism include, among other things,
social inequality based on apparent racial affiliation. Thus, anything that
causes social inequality becomes racism, regardless of intent. This allows the
possibility of unconscious racism, evident in the definition offered by
the Christian Anti-Racism Initiative in South Africa:
Racism is essentially a conscious or unconscious belief in
the inherent superiority of one race over another\others and thereby the right
by that race to use power to dominate.
brings to our attention the sociological phenomena of groups and of power
dynamics. Racism is a tool for domination and social control. Sociologically it
is a psychological tool for the dominance of one group over another. The
practical methods of the perpetuation of racism on an individual level are
described in the next definition by Daniel Pouzznerr:
Racism, defined most completely, is the practice of
employing a decision-making methodology according to which decisions can be
changed based specifically on the race or races of the people affected by the
racism is discrimination based on race. Racism is still an individual decision.
The next definition describes racism as a more abstract, structural phenomenon:
Racism is a structural relationship based on the
subordination of one racial group by another. The notion of race can be defined
within this according to [various criteria].
no longer describes individuals and their beliefs and thoughts. Rather it is a sociological
phenomenon. An attempt to explain how such a structure results in the absence
of individual prejudices, David Wellman argues for an expanded definition of
Racism extends considerably beyond prejudiced beliefs. The
essential feature of racism is not hostility or misperception, but rather the
defense of a system from which advantage is derived on the basis of race. The
manner in which the defense is articulated - either with hostility or subtlety
- is not nearly as important as the fact that it insures the continuation of a
privileged relationship. Thus it is necessary to broaden the definition of
racism beyond prejudice to include sentiments that in their consequence, if not
in their intent, support the racial status quo.
defined beyond an individual's conscious beliefs about others. Instead racism
is defined backwards from its results, and is any action that perpetuates
inequality, regardless of the intent or belief-system of the doer. This line of
thinking is expressed more radically in the following quote:
Racism is an ideological, structural and historic
stratification process by which the population of European descent, through its
individual and institutional distress patterns, intentionally has been able to
sustain, to its own best advantage, the dynamic mechanics of upward or downward
mobility (of fluid status assignment) to the general disadvantage of the
population designated as non-white (on a global scale), using skin color,
gender, class, ethnicity or nonwestern nationality as the main indexical
criteria used for enforcing differential resource allocation decisions that
contribute to decisive changes in relative racial standing in ways most
favoring the populations designated as 'white.'
Racism is a
process whereby one group (vaguely defined) has oppressed all those not in that
group. This functional definition is careful to avoid describing any specific
belief or thought. Racism is a sociological process. It is defined (if that is
the proper term) as the entirety of what allows one group to dominate another.
It also avoids the word race entirely in describing racism.
prohibiting racism exist in many countries, courts charged with upholding these
laws have had to decide on the legal definition of racism. Legal scholars in
the United States define racism in two categories, or legal theories:
Theory: Actions are racist when done with the intent of disadvantaging
persons [because] of their race.
Impact Theory: Practices/ institutions are racist when they
systematically result in disadvantaging a subordinate racial group relative to
a dominant one.
Theory is the one that defines legally those behaviors most commonly understood
as discriminatory, or "racist", and applies mostly to the actions of
individuals. The Disparate Impact Theory correlates to the structural
understanding of racism, the influence of which can be seen in the following
Racism. Refers to a pattern of distribution of social goods,
including power, which regularly and systematically advantages some ethnic and
racial groups and disadvantages others. It operates through key institutions:
organised social arrangements through which social goods and services are
distributed. These include the public service, the legal and medical systems,
the education system... People working in these institutions hold expectations
and beliefs which influence how they do their jobs, and how these institutions
affect other people."
mixture of the two is evident in the ICERD (International Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) definition. Racism is:
"Any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference
based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the
purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment, or
exercise, on equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the
political, economic, social, cultural, or any other field of public life."
The word or
in the phrase ".has the purpose or effect of." nicely combines the
Intent and Disparate Impact theories.
Racism as the Presence of Race
"racism" broadly as any use of the word or concept "race"
may seem a bit extreme. Yet this definition exists and is used by some people:
Racism is the application of the concept of race.
use of the word "racism" has already been incorporated in some
1. noun [MASS NOUN] the belief that all members of each race
possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race,
especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or
2. prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against
someone of a different race based on such a belief.
2002 edition of the New Oxford Dictionary of English gives a definition of
"racism" that essentially applies to any use of the concept
"race." For what is a "race" but a grouping of people by characteristics?
While the dictionary adds ". especially as to distinguish it as inferior
or superior." this portion is not strictly required to match the
definition. This definition also references the older meaning of racism in the
second definition offered. These additional factors are entirely absent in the
Racism: doctrine, belief, or assumption that inherited
biological differences cause some human subpopulations to be fundamentally
different from, or superior to, others.
Encarta definition is also interesting because it changes ".and
superior to." to ".or superior to.". This shift from and
to or indicates the growing trend of seeing any mention at all of race
as racist. No longer does it have to be accompanied by any hostility or belief
in superiority. Merely asserting that differences exist is racist! This
definition is so extremely broad as to classify just about everyone as racist,
including most physical anthropologists, since they have indeed found inheritable
genetic differences in human subpopulations (more on this below). The only
people in this definition who are not racists are those who maintain, against
science and logic that no clusters of inheritable differences exist among human
subpopulations. Yet this is the official definition of racism offered by a
major online Encyclopedia, owned by no less than the largest software company
many definitions of racism. The ambiguity has driven even the experts to
exasperation. George Fredrickson cites Loïc Wacquant, "a prominent
sociologist of race" as advocating, "forsaking once and for all the
inflammatory and exceedingly ductile category of 'racism' save as a descriptive
term referring to empirically analyzable doctrines about beliefs about
most commonly used definition is the most widely understood, if not the narrowest.
The simple, ordinary understanding of the word "racism" is: prejudice
against other races and the actions caused by this prejudice, combined with the
belief in the superiority of one race over others. Other definitions, more
commonly used in academia, focus on the sociological structure of advantage and
disadvantage, and define racism backwards as anything that perpetuates this
advantage when people not of European descent are affected negatively. Several
definitions of racism allow for the possibility of unconscious racism.
In this line of thinking, whenever the results disadvantage one group, the
intentions of the perpetrators are irrelevant. Both personal and structural
racism are recognized in legal theory.
racism without making any reference to the existence of race provides a
challenge to both language and logic. Expanding and diluting the term in an
attempt to harness its potency to remedy a host of social ills appears to be
behind much of the efforts to expand the definition. One result is that any
mention of the word race at all, in any context, can be taken as evidence of "racism"
by some definitions. This represents a departure from many earlier, narrower,
April 17th, 2005