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What is Racism: Definition


According to a book written in 1970 by Pat A. Bidol, the definition of racism is a two part answer. In Bidol’s book Developing New Perspectives On Race, racism is reduced to a simple formula, “power + prejudice = racism (1).” While an over simplification, the formula does illustrate the fact that racism requires leverage: a means by which a person(s) can force, manipulate or control a group or individuals.

In other words, prejudice is a necessary component of racism, but prejudice is not always racism.

Bidol broke racism down into a rudimentary formula, but there is more to racism than just power and prejudice. There are other components and factors that are equally important. Because of the wide range of factors that produce racism, understanding exactly what racism is requires more than a three word proverb.

Bidol’s oversimplification, as-well-as that of others, is part of the reason there is so much confusion regarding racism. Before racism can be addressed as a social failure, it must be understood.

What Falls Within the Sphere of Racism

It is impossible to answer the question what is racism without identifying the victims of racism. In order to identify the victims of racism, it is important to identify those groups that are not victims.

Groups that can not be identified using generalizations pertaining to physical features can not be victims of racism. Prejudice against homosexuals, for example, is not racism. Prejudice based on a person’s country of origin is not racism. In other words, disparaging remarks about Mexicans are not racist comments — ethnocentric, but not racist. Generalizations based on religion are not racist. While doing so is religious discrimination, it is not racism.

Racism requires prejudice based on race.

Identifying Latinos and making broad generalizations about them can be racism. Identifying blacks using sweeping generalizations can be racist. Belittling those of Chinese origin based on a physical feature can be racist. Being prejudice against middle-class, white males can be racism.

But again, not all prejudice is racism because racism requires the ability to recognize an individual or group using physical features unique to a particular race.

Racism Versus Anti-Semitism

One of the requisites for racism is that a person can easily be recognized as one race or another and therefore easily preyed upon. It is easy to be racist against blacks, Latinos, and orientals as a white person because the differences between those races and you are easily recognized.

However, anti-Semitism is not a form of racism. Yes, it is prejudice and it is discriminatory, but anti-Semitism is not racism because Judaism is not a race, but rather, a religion. Claiming that anti-Semitic sentiments are racist is no more practical or realistic than saying that the prosecution of John Smith and his Mormon followers was racist.

If the simple religion versus race is not enough to compel a person to agree racism and anti-Semitism are two separate entities, consider this. There was never any doubt about who were and were not slaves in Colonial America. Blacks without papers saying they were free men — in other words, the vast majority of black people — were easily recognized as slaves.

However, when the Nazis were persecuting the Jews in an effort to rid the world of Jewish ideology, it was much more difficult to recognize them. In fact, the task was so difficult that once a person’s religious faith was recognized, they were generally forced to wear clothing with identifying marks — typically the cross of David — or suffer through the indignity of forced tattoos.

In other words, racism is not a necessary component of slavery nor is it a necessary component of persecution. Prejudice, persecution and slavery can all exist independent of racism.

Just as important as understanding what forms of prejudice and discrimination are and are not racism is understanding that prejudice and discrimination in and of themselves are different than racism even if race is used to autonomize and diminish an individual or group.

Prejudice Vs Racism

Per the Oxford dictionary, prejudice is a, “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience (2).” While generally considered an opinion developed from ignorance, without power, prejudice is benign. Prejudice alone can not hurt an individual or groups.

However, combine prejudice with power — whether it be economic or social leverage or physical coercion — and prejudice is one of two components that create an extremely dangerous and abusive force, racism.

But again, prejudice against a group is not racism unless that group has been identified racially. Saying all politicians are liars and thieves is not racism. Saying all minority politicians are liars and thieves is.

World History: When did Racism Start

While it is a common misconception that racism has existed for as long as there have been differences between individuals and groups, the fact is, racism is a relatively new concept. According to, it is, “reasonably well documented that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing about race (9).” In an article titled 800BC-Today: A Brief History of Racism, it is made abundantly clear that racism is a product of capitalism.

In ancient Greece and Rome, there were slaves of all races — black, white and oriental, — but the vast majority were white. This is to say, slavery was not necessarily associated with racism until the 16th Century when blacks were accused by whites as being an inferior race and therefore fairly subjected to slavery.

Why Are People Racist

The very definition of prejudice is the notion that uneducated and/or close-minded people are more apt to charge against the things and peoples they do not understand. Gordon Hodson and Michael Busseri of Brock University proposed a hypothesis, “and tested mediation models in which lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice (3).” The conclusion of their study showed that, “cognitive abilities play a critical, albeit under appreciated, role in prejudice.”

Simply, the study showed that unintelligent people have a propensity to be more prejudice than more intelligent people because those with lower cognitive skills grasp at conservative ideologies in an effort to mask their short-comings as thinkers. This is to say, those people whom are less intelligent tend to try to over-simplify the realities of the world they live in by making broad generalizations that allow them to avoid the difficulties presented by critical thinking.

However, being unintelligent does not necessarily mean a person is prejudice. More importantly, being prejudice does not make them racist. Without the power to negatively — or positively — effect the lives of those people within a race that someone is for or against, that someone is not capable of being racist.

A person must be in a position of power and be prejudice to be racist. Being irrational and in a position of power are requisite catalysts for being racist, but at the root of it all is a superiority complex.

Superiority Complex and Racism

Superiority is always the justification behind prejudice and racism, the notion that one group of people — or that a particular race — is superior to another(s). While there are always pseudo-empirical arguments as to why one race is superior to another, at its core, every racist comment, idiom, theory and philosophy is simply a member(s) of one race claiming they are better than other races because of X, Y, and Z.

Superiority Complex – Fine Line Between Recognizing Race and Racism

In January of 2014, Yale professor and author of New York Times best-seller Tiger Mom, Amy Chau, argued that, “some groups like Jews, Indians and Mormons do better in America than other groups African-Americans, Hispanics and Protestants (4),” according to Forbes Magazine.

Of Chinese-American origin, Chau also included the Chinese on the list of those that are superior.

In her new book — The Triple Package — Chau claims that a superiority complex is one of three components required to, “generate drive, grit, and systematic disproportionate group success.” Chau believes that there are 8 groups of people — cultures — in America that dominate all others.

  • Jewish
  • Indian
  • Chinese
  • Iranian
  • Lebanese-Americans
  • Nigerians
  • Cuban exiles
  • Mormons

Chau believes that a superiority complex is vital for a culture to thrive. However, the verbiage Chau uses is very similar to those of Neo-Nazis, the Klaus Klux Klan and Neo-Conservatives. Chau is aware or the fine line she is walking at takes measure to separate what she believes to be an academic book from the ideologies of radical groups.

In an effort to avoid racism, Chau attempts to only speak of cultures, not races.

However, she fails to keep that distinction obvious. In failing to keep a definitive separation between culture and race, she fails to prevent her comments from being racist. When describing superior “cultures,” Chau is careful only to mention groups’ nationalities and religions: Chinese, exiled Cubans, Mormons, Indians, Iranians, Nigerians, and Lebanese.

However, when speaking of less successful “cultures,” she mentions race: African-American and Hispanic specifically.

How is she racist you might ask?

As a Yale Professor and a well known author, she has the power to adversely affect the races of which she believes are inferior by implying that they are less capable or motivated. Since she has the power — leverage — to subvert others, all she requires is prejudice to be racist.

Again, prejudice simply requires, “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.” Chau’s The Triple Package is littered with metaphysical anecdotes — as opposed to empirical data, — which means her judgments are not based on actual experience. For example, Chau writes, “[if] you think about it, what kind of person dares to go to a strange country where he or she doesn’t know anyone and may not even speak the language. Typically, it’s individuals with some drive and grit, and maybe something to prove.”

While those statements may or may not be true, they are supported by suppositions as opposed to evidence. In addition, even if that is the case, it hardly explains why she would consider Hispanics and blacks less capable as many of them are illegals that do not speak the language and crossed the border on foot or in the back of a coyote’s truck.

It is difficult to say whether or not she is truly a racist, one thing is for certain, if she is, Chau veils her discrimination under the guise of academia. Hidden racism is the most common type in today’s uber-politically correct United States.

There are a number of ways that racism not only survives in America’s 21st Century, but thrives.

Types of Racism in the 21st Century

As varied as race are the types of racism. It is irrelevant which type of racism in America is the worse. Each is destructive in its own way. What is important is recognizing the different types in order to develop an understanding of which people in institutions might fall within the definition of racist.

Colorblind Ideology is the New Racism

When Martin Luther King Jr. asked Americans to judge one another by content of character and not the color of one’s skin, he did not mean to imply that refusing to recognize color in any capacity was the solution. As Monica Williams, Ph.D. wrote in an article titled Colorblind Ideology is a Form of Racism, “color-blind = ‘people of color — we don’t see you (at least not that bad colored part) [10].'”

It is argued that by not recognizing color, racism can not occur because the color of a person’s skin can not be used to discriminate against them. However, the truth is actually quite the opposite. By refusing to recognize the individuals within a race, those individuals — and the group as a whole can be marginalized.

As Williams points out, color blindness looses sight of the macroscopic failures of society and corporations in relation to racism. By minimizing group stereotypes yet exaggerating the shortcoming of each individual of a certain race in a microcosmic model, the bigger picture of racism is never recognized.

In other words, colorblindness is the process of discriminating against individuals within a group rather than the group as a whole. The stereotypes and generalizations used for groups are not acceptable in society today, but using them to diminish an individual is. This can only be done if race is not recognized.

However, the colorblindness ideology is not the only form of racism that is affecting Americans today. There are also other types that are just as damaging, if not more-so.

Individual Versus Institutional Racism

There are two primary themes with respect to racism today, individual and institutional. According to W. Carson Byrd of the Center for Race and Social Policy Research at Virginia Tech, while individual racism is equally abhorrent, institutional racism affects people and groups on a much broader scale (5).

Vernellia R. Randall explains in her essay that, “[when] white terrorists bombed a black church and killed five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But, … [when] black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter, and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally, and intellectually because of conditions f poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is the function of institutional racism (6).”

Randall explains that there are three types of institutional racism and that almost all institutions are one type of racist or another. There are reformed, overt, and reluctant racist institutions. Institutions that are reformed racist have biases against minorities, but to do discriminate against them. Overt racist institutions treat races differently by giving one an advantage over another. Reluctant racist institutions claim to have not racist bias, but discriminate in covert manners.

Often times reluctant racist institutions are not aware they are discriminating against a group. However, “[once] an institution becomes aware of the discriminatory impact of its policies and practices and yet fails to change the policies and practices, then the institution is no longer a reluctant racist but and overt racist.”

Neoracism in Institutional Racism

One of the most widespread and impactful forms of institutional racism is neoracism. Kerry Sheridan of the Agency France-Presse explains in an article titled New forms of racism arise in science research that, “advances in genetic sequencing are giving rise to a new era of scientific racism, despite decades of efforts to reverse attitudes used to justify the slave trade and Nazi theology (8).”

At the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago on February 14, 2014, the associate dean of research at the Universality of Carolina Joseph Graves said, “[the] assumption is that African ancestry predisposes one to grater disease and mortality profiles in the United States.” However, it is Graves contention that most of the discrepancies between blacks and whites is a product of economic and cultural differences.

The implications of neoracism can be devastating on a national scale. Minority groups can be denied medication, suffer from higher insurance rates and premiums, be passed over for clinical trials and fall victim to a variety of other discriminatory acts as a result of the stigma.

Effects of Racial Discrimination

Once a person can define racism, particularly the different forms and modes in which it can present itself, it is important to realize just exactly how racism can affect people. There are two ways to consider the effects that racial discrimination have: how racism affects individuals and how it affects groups.

The effects of racial discrimination on groups is much easier to categorize and evaluate than understanding how racism affects an individual. Racism can affect entire generations. A group of people can be prevented from economic advancement when they are paid less for work than their counterparts of a different color. Their children are put in dangerous situations and fail to attain the education required to thrive in America when they suffer housing discrimination. Groups of individuals are stigmatized and suffer the consequences of generalizations pertaining to behavior and capacity.

The effects of racism on an individual are much more difficult to understand and categorize. In addition to the financial and situational disadvantages an individual suffers as the result of being part of a group that is discriminated against, there can be severe mental and emotional consequences. Lower self-esteem; less motivation and drive as a result of a sense of hopelessness; substance and alcohol abuse; domestic violence and criminal behavior… the consequences of racism are far too varied to pin down, but it is easy to see that those who suffer from the abuses of racism carry a heavy burden.

Sources: (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7), (8), (9), (10),

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