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Defining Racism

Defining Racism, an Essay


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 pejorative.[1] Proven 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.

An Imprecise Term

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.”[2] A typical person will quickly explain what a racist is, however.[3] 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.

Dictionary Definitions

To clarify the issue of the various definitions, a few examples might prove useful. Let us start with a simple dictionary definition from Websters:

rac-·ism (noun)

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 rule others.

2.- a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.

3.- hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.[4]

The first 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.

In general, dictionary definitions are all short and unambiguous (traits desirable in a dictionary). The common elements are always

1. prejudice and discrimination based on differences, and

2. a belief in the superiority of one over another.

They also start to touch on additional elements. These elements become explicit in other, lengthier definitions.

Functional, or Sociological, Definitions

A common 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 anotherothers and thereby the right by that race to use power to dominate.[5]

This definition 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 decisions.[6]

That is, 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].[7]

Here racism 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 racist behavior:

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.[8]

Racism is 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.'[9]

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.

Legal Definitions

Since laws 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:

The Intent Theory:- Actions are racist when done with the intent of disadvantaging persons [because] of their race.

The Disparate Impact Theory:- Practices/ institutions are racist when they systematically result in disadvantaging a subordinate racial group relative to a dominant one.[10]

The Intent 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 Australian definition:

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.”[11]

A nice 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.”[12]

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

Defining “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. [13]

The above use of the word “racism” has already been incorporated in some dictionaries:


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 races.

2. prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief. [14]

Above, the 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 next definition:

Racism: doctrine, belief, or assumption that inherited biological differences cause some human subpopulations to be fundamentally different from, or superior to, others.[15]

This MSN 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 on earth.


There are 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 ‘race’.”[16] The 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.

Defining 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, definitions.

Daniel Hindes

April 17th, 2005

[1] “There is no doubt that the most offensive four-letter word in America today is ‘race’. . Absurd though it is, the convention that the Left have [sic] forced onto American society by their torrents of abuse is that anyone who mentions the word “race” is a “racist”. And ‘racist’ is in fact the most potent term of abuse that there is in most of the world today.”

“Race, Racism and Stereotyping”. Israpundit. 24 Dec. 2004.-


“The word racism is almost always used pejoratively, with accusations of racism being common but with few describing themselves as racist.”

“Racism”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 23 Dec 2004. <>.

See also:

“List of pejorative political slogans”. 2004. 24 Dec. 2004. <>.

[2] Fredrickson, George M. Racism: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002. Page152.

[3] “If asked, most people could easily offer a simple definition of racism. In fact, the Oxford Dictionary offers the simplest definition of racism as “prejudice based on race”, and this is how most people understand the concept.”

“Defining Racism”. Canadian Race Relations Foundation. Jennifer Roy. 23 Dec. 2004.


[4] Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. New York: Random House, 2002.

Other dictionaries give similar definitions:


1. The prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races

2. discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race[4]

Kellogg, Michael. “Racism”. 24 Dec. 2004.- <>.


1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.

2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Boston, MA: Houghton, 2000


1: the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races

2: discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race [syn: racialism, racial discrimination]

“Racism”. WordNet 2.0. CD-ROM. 2003. Princeton: Princeton University, 2003.


Is any action or attitude, conscious or unconscious, that subordinates an individual or group based on skin colour or race. It can be enacted individually or institutionally.

US Civil Rights Commission. Cited in “Defining Race Racism and Racial Discrimination”. Race Racism and the Law. Vernellia R. Randall. 23 Dec. 2004. <>.

[5] “Definition of Racism”. Christian Anti-Racism Initiative. 23 Dec. 2004.


The Christian Anti-Racism Initiative is a South African group.

[6] Pouzzner, Daniel. The Architecture of Modern Political Power. 2002. 23 Dec 2004. < >.

[7] Hick, Steven. Social Work with People of Colour. 2000. 23 Dec. 2004.


[8] Wellman, David T. Portraits of White Racism. Second Edition. Cited in: “Definitions of Racism”. Center for the Study of White American Culture, Inc. 2001. 23 Dec 2004. <>.

Note that this definition takes the basic existence of race for granted.

[9] Page, Helen. Cited in: “Definitions of Racism”. Study of White American Culture, Inc. 2001. 23 Dec 2004. <>.

[10] Duncan, Craig. Racism Defined. 23 Dec. 2004. <>

[11] Chambers, Barbara and Pettman, Jan. Anti-racism: A Handbook for Adult Educators. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service. 1986, p. 7.

Cited in “Anti-Racism Policy”. University of Southern Australia. 1998. 23 Dec. 2004. <>.

[12] “Definition of Racism.” South African Human Rights Commission. 23 Dec 2004. <>.

[13] “Talk:Racism–archive 1”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 23 Dec 2004. <–archive_1>.

[14] The New Oxford Dictionary of English. New York: Oxford 2002.

[15] “Racism”. MSN Encarta. 2004. 23 Dec. 2004. <>.

[16] Fredrickson, George M. Racism: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002. Page152-53.


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