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An African-American man drinks out of the "colored only" water cooler at a racially segregated street car terminal in the United States in 1939.

Racism refers to a belief system that humans can be separated into various groups based on physical attributes and that these groupings determine cultural or individual achievement and the value of human beings. This can lead to Racial discrimination against individuals based on a perceived or ascribed "race". This racist outlook in assuming that the human species can be hierarchically divided into races, is often bred of ignorance, fear, and prejudice. Racism often includes the belief that people of different races differ in aptitudes and abilities, such as intelligence, physical prowess, or virtue. Most individuals who use the concept of racial categories believe that different races can be placed on a ranked, hierarchical scale. By definition one who practices racism is known as a racist.

A distinction can be made between racialism and racism. W.E.B. DuBois argued that racialism is the philosophical belief that differences between the races exist, be they biological, social, psychological, or in the realm of the soul. He then went on to argue that racism is using this belief to push forward the argument that one's particular race is superior to the others.

Racism can more narrowly refer to a system of oppression, such as institutional racism that is based on ideas that one race is superior to other races. Organizations and institutions that practice racism discriminate against and marginalize a class of people who share a common racial designation. The term "racism" is usually applied to the dominant group in a society, because it is that group which has the means to oppress others, but readily applies to any individual or group(s), regardless of social status or dominance.

Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, there have been few in developed nations who describe themselves as racist, which has become a pejorative term, so that identification of a group or person as racist is nearly always controversial. Racism is regarded by all but racists as an unacceptable affront to basic human dignity and a violation of human rights. A number of international treaties have sought to end racism. The United Nations uses a definition of racial discrimination laid out in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and adopted in 1966:

any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life..

The European Union has a wide definition on factors that can but must not be reasons for discrimination: "Article 21 of the charter prohibits discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation and also discrimination on the grounds of nationality."[1]

Further information: Race (historical definitions)

Origins of racism

One view of the origins of racism emphasizes stereotypes, which psychologists generally believe are influenced by cultural factors. People generally respond to others differently based on what they know, which may include superficial characteristics often associated with race. A "white" person walking after dark in a primarily "black" neighborhood 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 encountering criminality or hostility among 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. A law-abiding African-American man is less likely than a law-abiding European-American man to view that same police officer as an ally and protector, and more as a threat to his or her personal safety and well-being. In both sets of cases, theories of conditioning may apply.

Debates over the origins of racism often suffer from a lack of clarity over the term. Many use the term "racism" to refer to more general phenomena, such as xenophobia and ethnocentrism. Others 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 rally combatants in 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.

Notions of race and racism, however, often have played central roles in such conflicts. Historically, when an adversary is identified as "other" based on notions of race or ethnicity (particularly when "other" is construed to mean "inferior"), the means employed by the self-presumed "superior" party to appropriate territory, human chattel, or material wealth often have been more ruthless, more brutal, and less constrained by moral or ethical considerations. Indeed, based on such racist presumptions, the political or moral decision to enter into armed conflict can be made less weighty when one's potential adversaries are "other than," because their lives are perceived as having lesser importance, lesser value. One example of the brutalizing and dehumanizing effects of racism was the attempt to deliberately infect Native Americans with smallpox during Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763, itself a war intended to ethnically cleanse the "other" (Anglo-Americans) from Native American land. According to historian Daniel Richter, Pontiac's Rebellion saw the emergence on both sides of the conflict of "the novel idea that all Native people were 'Indians,' that all Euro-Americans were 'Whites,' and that all on one side must unite to destroy the other." (Richter, Facing East from Indian Country, p. 208)

In the western world, racism evolved, twinned with the doctrine of white supremacy, and helped fuel the European exploration, conquest, and colonization of much of the rest of the world -- especially after Christopher Columbus reached the Americas. Basil Davidson insists in his documentary, Africa: Different but Equal, that racism, in fact, only just recently surfaced—as late as the 1800’s, due to the need for a justification of slavery in the Americas. The idea of slavery as an "equal-opportunity employer" was denounced with the introduction of Christian theory in the West. Maintaining that Africans were "subhuman" was the only loophole in the then accepted law that "men are created equal" that would allow for the sustenance of the Triangular Trade. New peoples in the Americas, possible slaves, were encountered, fought, and ultimately subdued, but then due to western diseases, their population decreased innumerably. Through both influences, theories about "race" developed, 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). Some people like Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda even argued, during the Valladolid controversy in the middle of the 16th century, that the Native Americans were natural slaves because they had no "souls". In Asia, the Chinese and Japanese Empires were both strong colonial powers, with the Chinese making colonies and vassal states of much of east Asia throughout history, and the Japanese doing the same in the 19th-20th centuries. In both cases, the Asian imperial powers believed they were ethnically and racially superior to their vassals, and entitled to be their masters.

It has been suggested by some that Pan-Arabism (or Arabism) is embedded with bigotry against all non-Arabs. Victims of this racism include: Kurds (mainly in Iraq & in Syria), Berbers (in north Africa), Jews, black Africans (mosly in the Sudan, Mauritania, Egypt.

History of Racism

Main article: Racism by country

Racism in different forms has existed in all parts of the world in different forms over time, especially in the period from the eighteenth century onward in which notions of biological race became a standard form for the classification of people. Below are a few well-known examples of racism in the Western world, and are not in any way exhaustive.

European Colonialism

Advances in European political, economic, and technological conditions empowered Europeans to subjugate, displace, and even genocidally eliminate an unprecedented number of people. This unprecedented power and capacity to subjugate other humans led to rationalizations of acts which would otherwise be considered loathsome.

Many colonialists sincerely believed that subjugating, enslaving, and dismantling the traditional societies of indigenous peoples was a humanitarian obligation as a result of these racist rationalizations. Other colonialists recognized the depravity of their actions but persisted for personal gain and there are some Europeans during the time period who objected to the injustices caused by colonialization and lobbied on behalf of aboriginal peoples.


The fascist regimes which rose to power in Europe and Japan before WWII advocated and implemented policies and attitudes which were racist, xenophobic, and often genocidal. While racism, xenophobia, and genocide weren't new, the scope of the atrocities committed by the German Nazis and the Japanese Imperialists was without precedent

Slavery in the United States

Contention over the morality and legality of the institution of slavery was one of the cardinal issues which led to the American Civil War. The failed attempt at seccession by the Southern United States led to the 13th Amendment, which was the official end of legal slavery in the United States.

Emancipated blacks in the United States still had to struggle against institutional racism, forced segregation, violation of voting rights, and even terrorism. The Ku Klux Klan is perhaps the most notorious of these organizations espousing racist ideologies and enforcing discriminatory cultural norms with murderous violence and the threat of murderous violence.

Types of Racism

Main article: Categories of Racism

Racism may be expressed individually and consciously, through explicit thoughts, feelings, or acts, or socially and unconsciously, through institutions that promote inequalities among "races", as in institutional racism. The concept of "Hate speech" has been created in order to prosecute discriminative discourse, which may be penalized in various countries (US, European countries such as France.).

Individual racism, structural racism and ideological racism

Racism may be divided in three major subcategories: individual racism, structural racism, and ideological racism. Examples of individual racism include an employer not hiring a person, failing to promote or giving harsher duties or imposing harsher working conditions, or firing, someone, in whole or in part due to his race.

Researchers at the University of Chicago (Marianne Bertrand) and Harvard University (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. Results were stronger for higher quality résumés. The researchers view these results as strong evidence of unconscious biases rooted in the country's long history of discrimination. This is an example of structural racism, because it shows a widespread established belief system. Another example is apartheid in South Africa, and the system of Jim Crow laws in the United States of America. Another source is lending inequities of banks, and so-called redlining.

"Reverse racism", minority vs. majority

Racism is usually directed against a minority population, but may also be directed against a majority population. Examples include racial apartheid in South Africa, wherein whites (a minority) discriminated against blacks (a majority), in Latin America, where predominantly African-descended peoples are often marginalized; 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 is a perceived, reactionary, race-based hostility or antipathy of an oppressed and/or relatively powerless minority toward an oppressive and/or powerful majority group. In the United States, it is often used to refer to programs which attempt to correct the effects of previous instances of racism, such as affirmative action, but are perceived to simply be racism of a different form to a different group. The standard example is that if a policy is made to give African-Americans more jobs, based on their racial status, then the policy is effectively discriminating against whites who apply for the same jobs. In Finland, Swedes are getting many privileges like free university studies for almost all even if they actually are the richest and healthiest ethnic group. This is called "positive" discrimination and it is the official policy of Finland. The concept of reverse racism, much less its application in any given situation, is highly contested.

Racial discrimination as an official government policy

Racial discrimination is and has been official government policy in many countries. In the 1970s, Uganda expelled tens of thousands of ethnic Indians. Until 2003, Malaysia enforced discriminatory policies limiting access to university education for ethnic Chinese and Indian students who are citizens by birth of Malaysia, and many other policies explicitly favoring bumiputras (Malays) remain in force.

In the Russian Empire, official segregation of the Russian Jews in the Pale of Settlement was compounded by oppressive legislature against them. Waves of anti-Semitic pogroms, in many cases state-sponsored, were launched in the 1881-1884, 1902-1906 and 1914-1921. See History of the Jews in Russia and the Soviet Union.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Jews fleeing the Holocaust were prevented from immigrating to the Land of Israel, then the British Mandate of Palestine and other locations. Following the creation of Israel, much state land was placed in the hands of the Jewish agency and became unavailable to private purchasers. Most of this land ultimately was used for the development of towns which had a Jewish majority. During this period Jews were expelled or fled Muslim countries. In 2003 the State of Israel passed a law preventing Palestinians married to Israelis from gaining Israeli citizenship [2]. In the summer of 2005 the State of Israel expelled all Jewish residents from Gaza, thus adding Gaza, like Jordan, to the areas of the former Mandate of Palestine that exclude Jews. Plans for further expulsions from areas in the West Bank are in the works.

In Sweden, killing a Forest Finn was officially rewarded. Speaking Finnish at school was punished even in 1950s. Aland island (Finland) applies even today policy that officially in Finnish Television by a top leader of Aland was characterized as "kind discrimination" against Finns.

In the United States, racial profiling of minorities by law enforcement officials is a controversial subject. Law enforcement looks for people who "fit the profile" to commit a crime according to experience and statistics. Some people consider this to be a form of racism. Some claim that profiling young Arab male fliers at airports will only lead to increased recruitment of older, non-Arab, and female terrorists, as well as Arab males who might be mistaken for white males. Some also state that this is unnecessary, as it brings the mistrust of many people. 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.

Further information: Racial profiling

Related concepts

  • Affirmative action is the practice of favoring or benefiting members of a racial minority in areas such as college admissions and workplace advancement, in an attempt to counter-balance what are perceived as systemic biases towards the racial majority. Though presented as an effort to ensure equal opportunity, the practice is condemned to be racially discriminatory by others.
  • 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.)
  • Institutional racism or structural racial discrimination -- racial discrimination by governments, corporations, or other large organizations with the power to influence the lives of many individuals. See Affirmative Action.
  • 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.)
  • Same-race racism can occur where members of one race associate behaviors or appearances of other members of their race as being in relation to another race which is regarded negatively. For example, there have been issues with darker-skinned African-Americans disliking lighter-skinned African-Americans because of their lighter shade of skin, which may be associated with White parentage at some point in their genealogy (but may also not). A form of cultural racism (see above) can also be related to this, where members of a racial group are chastized by members of their own group for co-opting a culture which is perceived to be associated with another race (for example, there exists a stigma in many African-American communities against "acting White").
  • 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.) This is a concept not unanimously agreed upon. While this usually refers to discrimination against minority racial groups in Western societies, it can also (arguably) refer to the opposite situation, and in that case is often called reverse discrimination when it is due to affirmative action or other attempts to remedy past or current discrimination against minority racial groups. Many do not consider this racism, but simply a form of discrimination.
  • Racialism is a term often found within white separatist literature, inferring an emphasis in racial origin in social matters. Racism infers an assumption of racial superiority and a harmful intent, whereas separatists sometimes prefer the term racialism, indicating a strong interest in matters of race without a necessary inference of superiority or a desire to be harmful to others. Rather their focus is on racial segregation and white pride. In most English dictionaries currently there is no sharp distinction between "racism" and "racialism".
  • 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.)
  • Global apartheid is a phrase used by those who argue that the international economic and political system is racist and is designed so that a white minority internationally accrue more wealth and power and enjoy more human and legal rights than the non-white world majority.

See also


  • Elazar Barkan, The retreat of scientific racism: changing concepts of race in Britain and the United States between the world wars (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • Bruce Dain, A hideous monster of the mind: American race theory in the early republic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002). (18th century US racial theory)
  • Vincent F. Rocchio, Reel Racism. Confronting Hollywood's Construction of Afro-American Culture, Westview Press 2000
  • Ann Laura Stoler, "Racial histories and their regimes of truth," Political Power and Social Theory, 11 (1997): 183-206. (historiography of race and racism)
  • Bagley, C. and Verma, G.K. (1979) Racial Prejudice: the Individual and Society, Farnborough: Saxon House.
  • Marsh, A. (1970) Awareness of racial differences in West African and British children, Race 11: 289-302.

Further reading

  • Kurzban, R., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2001). Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(26), 15387-15392. Full text

External links

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