Racism refers to beliefs, practices, and institutions that negatively discriminate against people based on their perceived or ascribed race. Sometimes the term is also used to describe the belief that race is the primary determinant of human capacities, or that individuals should be treated differently based on their ascribed race.

Since the last quarter of the 20th century, there are few mainstream groups in developed nations who will admit to racial prejudice or discrimination, so identification of a group or person as "racist" is nearly always controversial. Terms like supremacist and racialist have come into vogue, but are often dismissed as smokescreens.

Assuming that every individual's character can be adequately determined by racial or ethnic stereotypes, is considered "prejudice", and giving or withholding privileges based on such stereotypes is considered "discrimination". The term racism is sometimes used to mean a strong and persistent bias towards these activities.

Whether there is any validity to the concept of race is an issue that is discussed in the article on race. The issue of how past discrimination ought to be remedied is discussed in the article on affirmative action.

Table of contents
1 Origins of racism
2 Expressions
3 History of racism in the modern world
4 Some examples of specific types of alleged racism
5 External link

Origins of racism

One view of the origins of racism emphasizes stereotypes, which psychologists generally believe are formed by cultural factors. People generally respond to others differently based on what they know, which may include superficial characteristics such as are often associated with race. A "white" person walking after dark in a primarily "black" neighbourhood in an American city might be anxious for a combination of reasons. A police officer who spends most of his day in that same city interacting negatively with people of a certain ethnic background, might be expected to react negatively to a member of that same ethnic group whom he meets off-duty. In both cases, theories of conditioning may apply.

A famous experiment in cognitive psychology showed that the majority of Americans would remember a lower-status "black" man as having a knife in his hand, after viewing a picture which in fact showed a "white" man in a suit with a knife facing this lower status man.

Debates over the origins of racism often suffer from a lack of clarity over the term. Many conflate recent forms of racism with earlier forms of ethnic and national conflict. In most cases ethno-national conflict seems to owe to conflict over land and strategic resources. In some cases ethnicity and nationalism were harnessed to wars between great religious empires (for example, the Muslim Turks and the Catholic Austro-Hungarians). As Benedict Anderson has suggested in Imagined Communities, ethnic identity and ethno-nationalism became a source of conflict within such empires with the rise of print-capitalism.

In its modern form, racism evolved in tandem with European exploration and conquest of much of the rest of the world, and especially after Christopher Columbus reached the Americas. As new peoples were encountered, fought, and ultimately subdued, theories about "race" began to develop, and these helped many to justify the differences in position and treatment of people whom they categorized as belonging to different races (see Eric Wolf's Europe and the People Without History).

Another possible source of racism is the misunderstanding of Charles Darwin's theories of evolution. Some took Darwin's theories to imply that since some "races" were more civilized, there must be a biological basis for the difference. At the same time they appealed to biological theories of moral and intellectual traits to justify racial oppression. There is a great deal of controversy about race and intelligence, in part because the concepts of both race and IQ are themselves controversial.


Racism may be expressed individually and consciously, through explicit thoughts, feelings, or acts, or socially and unconsciously, through institutions that promote inequalities among "races". Although some speakers attempt to express a semantic distinction by using the word racism rather than racialism (or vice versa), many treat the terms as synonymous (see below).

Racism may be divided in three major subcategories: individual racism, structural racism, and ideological racism. Some categories of racism are:

  • Racial prejudice is pre-formed personal opinions about individuals on the basis of their race. (E.g. John thinks that Mary will have bad attribute X solely because Mary is a member of race Y.)
  • Racial discrimination is differences in treatment of people on the basis of characteristics which may be classified as racial, including skin color, cultural heritage, and religion. (e.g. Mary refuses to hire John because he is of race Y.)
  • Institutional racism or structural racial discrimination -- racial discrimination by governments, corporations, or other large organizations. (e.g. Mary cannot get a job, despite her qualifications, because she is of race Y.)
  • Cultural racial discrimination occurs when the assumption of inferiority of one or more races is built into the culturally maintained image of itself held by members of one culture. (e.g. Members of group X are taught to believe that they are members of a superior race, and, consequently, members of other races are inferior.)

  • Historical economic or social disparity is alleged to be a form of discrimination which is caused by past racism, affecting the present generation through deficits in the formal education and other kinds of preparation in the parents' generation, and, through primarily unconscious racist attitudes and actions on members of the general population. (E.g. A member of Race Y, Mary, has her opportunities adversely affected (directly and/or indirectly) by the mistreatment of her ancestors of race Y.) However, many people dispute the idea that this can be called racism; many hold that this view infantilizes members of a given ethnic group (e.g., blacks or Hispanics) and treats an entire race as victims unable to improve themselves through their own efforts. In this opposing view, it would be "racist" to believe that a group is being held back by such concerns. Yet, some recent studies have suggested that this latter view may not be altogether plausible.

Researchers at the University of Chicago (Marianne Bertrand) and MIT (Sendhil Mullainathan) found in a 2003 study that there was widespread discrimination in the workplace against job applicants whose names were merely perceived as "sounding black." These applicants were 50% less likely than candidates perceived as having "white-sounding names" to receive callbacks for interviews, no matter their level of previous experience. The researchers view these results as strong evidence of unconscious biases rooted in the country's long history of discrimination.

Racism is usually directed against a minority population, but may also be directed against a majority population. Examples of the former include the enslavement of black Africans and repression of their descendants in the United States. The existence of the latter is often controversial, but agreed upon examples include racial apartheid in South Africa, wherein whites (a minority) discriminated against blacks (a majority); this form of racism also occurred during the former colonial rule of such countries as Vietnam (by France) and India (by the United Kingdom).

Reverse racism is a controversial concept; it refers to a form of discrimination against a dominant group. In the United States, many people, mostly conservatives, criticize policies such as affirmative action as an example of reverse racism. They say that these policies are race-based discrimination. Supporters of affirmative action argue that affirmative action policies counteract a systemic and cultural racism by providing a balancing force, and that affirmative action does not qualify as racist because the policies are enacted by politicians (who are mostly part of the white majority in the United States) and directed towards their own race.

Some Americans believe that reverse racism exists in the United States, but that it is cultural racism, and not primarily systemic. For example, some African-Americans discriminate against white people -- this too can be called reverse racism. But some would argue that this is not racism (which they would see as primarily systemic) but actually personal prejudice because African-Americans lack the cultural, political and economic resources to systemically disenfranchise European Americans.

In addition, some white people believe that political correctness has led to a denigration of the white race, through perceived special attention paid to minority races. For example, they consider the existence of Black History Month (February) but not a White History Month, Hispanic History Month or Asian History Month to be de facto racism directed at the majority and non-black minorities. Yet again, others argue that the lack of a White History Month is due to the fact that much of the school year is devoted to teaching history from the viewpoints of white conquerors and slave owners.

Racism is and has been official policy in many countries. In the 1970s, Uganda expelled tens of thousands of ethnic Indians. Until 2003, Malaysia enforced discriminatory laws limiting access to university education for Chinese students who are citizens by birth of Malaysia, and many other laws explicitly favoring bumiputras (Malays) remain in force. Russia launched anti-Semitic pogroms against Jews in 1905 and after. In some towns Israel has limited land ownership to Jews. Many Arab nations forbid Jews from immigration or becoming citizens; in these nations it is often forbidden to sell land to a Jewish person.

In the United States, racial profiling of minorities by law enforcement officials is a controversial subject. Some people consider this to be a form of racism.

Supporters of racial profiling believe it to be a necessary tool for law enforcement because members of certain minority groups are statistically much more likely to commit certain types of crimes. For example, most terrorists have been young Arab males, while female Christian Europeans have only participated in terrorist actions on extremely rare occasions. Thus, they would argue, it is both logical and useful to have security officers at airports take special note of young Arab male fliers, and not to examine all fliers equally. Critics of this policy hold that any form of special treatment is racist by definition, and thus immoral and illegal. In addition, some experts have also pointed to the fact that drug use and abuse, for example, is much more common among white suburbanites than urban blacks and Hispanics, yet police have most often targeted poor minorities for drug law enforcement; and there has been no public call to profile white suburbanites, despite this evidence (as this would likely be extremely unpopular among the white political majority).

Some claim that profiling young Arab male fliers at airports will only lead to increased recruitment of older, non-Arab, and female terrorists. (Some terrorism experts disagree with this claim.) Many critics of racial profiling claim that it is an unconstitutional practice because it amounts to questioning individuals on the basis of what crimes they might commit or could possibly commit, instead of what crimes they have actually committed. See the article on racial profiling for more information on this dispute.

Another form of racism is simple negative assumptions. For instance, if a "white" person is saying something negative about a "black" person, the mere suggestion to the "white" person that the "black" person may be informed of that fact can be, and sometimes is, represented as a direct threat to the life of the "white" person. This is the assumption that the "black" person has no way of, or no interest in, dealing with conflict than violence, combining with the rational fear of dealing with someone one has slandered, to create a single and racist conclusion. This is probably the most common form of racism.

History of racism in the modern world

The history of racism is closely tied with the history of the concept of race itself, which is the topic of the article on race. The following is a brief summary of the parts that are relevant to racism in the modern world.

In 19th century Europe and America, scientists developed various theories about biological differences among races, and these theories were in turn used to legitimize racist beliefs and practices. Much of the work that was done in the name of science is now rejected as pseudoscience, but the fundamental problem was the assumption that studying superficial differences between humans would reveal categories with profound significance.

Today there is a general consensus amongst scientists that "race", in the general sense in which the term is used, is a social construct: the way in which individuals are classified into racial groups varies from person to person, and from place to place, and from time to time. Furthermore, it is now understood why this is so: the superficial characteristics which are associated with racial groupings are poor predictors of genetic variability. There can be more genetic variation within a racial grouping than between two racial groupings.

In the last part of the twentieth century, one of the scientific theories that lent considerable weight to the idea that there is a biological basis for racial classification is the multi-regional hypothesis of human origins. The hypothesis has several variations, but, roughly speaking, if there were distinct regions of human evolution, then one could call the original populations of these regions the ancestral "races" of modern humans. The weight of evidence has gradually been shifting away from this hypothesis, and many observers believe that most versions of the hypothesis are no longer tenable in the light of findings published in 2001, as described in the article on multi-regional origin; see also single-origin_hypothesis.

United States of America

In colonial America, what few African slaves there were served alongside poor whites in indentured servitude; a term of service meant freedom and a land grant afterward. A number of black Africans became landowners this way, before colonial slavery became based on racial lines. In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a revolt against the Governor and the system of exploitation he represented: exploitation of poorer colonists by the increasingly wealthy landowners. However, Bacon died, probably of dysentery, and the revolt lost steam.

The central cause of concern to landowners was the unity of Bacon's populist movement. It raised the question to the landownders of how to divide the population politically in ways that would keep the poorer colonists divided enough to rule. To the Governor, the most threatening, and unexpected, aspect of Bacon's rebellion was its multi-racial aspect. So from that time on, the wealthy landowners determined that only Africans would be used as slaves - and white colonists were promised whatever benefits would have gone to Africans had they continued to be indentured servants. This change began the infamously long period of the American slave society, in which slaves were primarily used for agricultural labor, notably in the production of cotton and tobacco. The social rift along color lines soon became engrained in every aspect of colonial American culture.

Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary

In the 19th and 20th century many Germans, Austrians came to accept a form of racism towards Jewish people, racial anti-Semitism. Many people in these countries believe erroneously that the Jewish people were a distinct race, and further, that this race was inherently morally inferior to the putative "Aryan races". (Scientists today reject the existence of any Aryan race as fictitious, and as a recent ideological construct.) Jews were commonly referred to as inherently greedly, selfish, and "parasitical". They were often referred to as viruses or parasites. Over time these ideas lead many people in these nations to accept the Nazi teachings that the Jewish "parasites" must be exterminated in a literal sense; this led to the Holocaust.

Nazi Germany

South Africa


United Kingdom

There were race riots across the United Kingdom in 1919: South Shields, Glasgow, London's East End, Liverpool, Cardiff, Barry, and Newport.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority

Many Arabs accuse Israelis of harboring racist beliefs towards them. One fringe Jewish extremist group, Kach, does preach racism towards Arabs. Many Jews accuse Palestinian Arabs of harboring anti-Semitic beliefs towards them. Many schools and mosques run by the Palestinian Authority quote from anti-Semitic sources such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf; in many madrassas and Palestinian mosques Jews are described as descendants of monkeys and pigs.

Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia.

Some examples of specific types of alleged racism

  • Afrocentrism - (not always considered racist); the belief that black African cultures were historically more powerful and influential than is widely believed
  • Anti-Semitism - usually, racism directed towards Jews, though Arabs are sometimes included as well.
  • Apartheid - a system of racism, now abolished, that once existed in South Africa; some refer to current Israeli policies towards Palestinians as apartheid as well.
  • Black supremacy - the belief that those of African descent are the superior race.
  • Colorism - racism among blacks, based on skin-tone, exemplified in terms such as "high yellow" (sometimes written and/or pronounced as "high yaller") as well as the brown paper bag test. There seems to be an implicit calculus behind this belief that makes the goodness of the individual inversely related to the darkness of his/her skin.
  • Eurocentrism - the sometimes unconscious practice of historically and culturally focusing on white Europeans, to the exclusion of study, or even mention of, significant achievements of other groups of people.
  • Islamophobia - the manifestations of hatred and hostility towards Muslims and Arab people in general.
  • Manifest Destiny - a historical form of the racist belief that asserted that white Americans had the right and duty to colonize the west and "civilize" the Native American inhabitants.
  • Nazism - a historical form of political organization (called national socialism) coupled with extreme racism, that directed its energies against the Roma (the so-called Gypsies), Jews, Poles, Russians and Slavs, among other groups. Some adherents of Nazi ideology continue to exist today.
  • Racial segregation - (not always considered necessarily racist) the belief that the so-called races should be kept separate, either geographically or culturally.
  • Racial purity - the belief that the various so-called races should be kept "pure" by not permitting interbreeding
  • White supremacy - the belief that those whose skin color is what is commonly described as being "white" (but strangely not the similarly colored Ainu people of Japan or albino members of non-European stock) are the superior race, or 'master race'.
  • Attitudes of suburb and gated community developers, who are often accused of pandering to racist views by emphasizing "crime risk" in more racially diverse downtowns, especially in North America.
  • Zionism in its modern political form, including "settlement" of areas established by UN resolutions to belong to Arabs.

Some examples of allegedly racist organisations

See also: affirmative action, Afrocentrism, anti-racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid, ascribed characteristics, The Bell Curve, black supremacy, chauvinism, Civil rights movement, collectivism, Criminal Blackman Myth, discrimination, essentialism, ethnic stereotype, ethnocentrism, Eurocentrism, genocide, hate crime, homophobia, Islamophobia, Jim Crow laws, Ku Klux Klan, master race, Miscegenation, Naziism, nigger, race, race riot, racial segregation, racialism, Racism/racial and ethnic slurs, sexism, skinhead, social stereotype, White Australia policy, white supremacy, white trash, wog

List of ethnic slurs

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