Racism refers to ideologies, actions, and policies that create and maintain a system of social inequality based on race (socially constructed categories on the basis of physical characteristics imbued with social significance). As a social problem, racism has been connected to substantial inequalities between whites and African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos/as in such areas as life expectancy, education, employment, health, housing, income, poverty, and wealth. These disparities have remained remarkably consistent in the United States in recent years. Racism is also manifest in unequal access to and treatment by criminal justice, health care, political, and economic institutions, as well as in the impact of policy decisions (e.g., housing, transportation, and location of environmentally hazardous sites). On a societal level, analysts connect racism to the loss of human potential, the economic costs of poverty- and inequality-related social problems, and the social conflicts stemming from segregation and division.
The Changing Nature of Racism
As Michael Omi and Howard Winant observed, the nature of racism varies according to historical and social context. Consequently, it is useful to outline how both racism and scholarly thinking about racism evolved over time. Most observers agree that the use of race-like categories for differential treatment stretches far back into history; however, the use of such categories was by no means widespread or consistent. Perhaps the most significant development in the history of racism was the late 18th-century emergence of a more systematic racist ideology. Often termed classical racism, this perspective held that (a) the human race could be divided into biologically distinct subspecies; (b) members of each race inherited shared physical, intellectual, cultural, and moral traits; and (c) races could be rated as “superior” or “inferior” in terms of these inherited traits. Accompanying the rise of classical racism was a flurry of “scientific” activity (later discredited) that purported to prove the superiority of Northern Europeans and the inferiority of other races. Socially, theories of racial superiority were used to legitimize European colonization and the dispossession of native peoples, the practice of slavery in the Americas, and other forms of domination such as racial segregation and exclusion. In Europe, classical racism reached its peak with the Aryan racial superiority theories of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, which provided the justification for the genocidal murder of millions of European Jews during the Holocaust.
Countering classical racism in the mid-20th century were emerging scientific attacks against its basic claims, most notably by anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Ashley Montagu. Benedict is often credited with the first use of the term racism in her 1943 critique of classical racism. Subsequent events, including post-World War II decolonization and the civil rights movement in the United States, and additional work by scientists led to the further decline of classical racism, to the extent that its present support is generally limited to a few scholars and marginalized groups of white supremacists.
Given changes in society and in the nature of race relations, scholars have attempted to describe the changing nature of racism. Beginning in the 1950s, much of the attention of mainstream social science focused on racism as individual prejudice and discrimination. This in turn led to social-psychological research that attempted to understand the roots of prejudice. One significant development in the 1960s was the emergence of a distinction, first proposed by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton, between individual and institutional racism. In contrast to individual racism, institutional racism is the cumulative and unequal effects of institutional policies and practices in such areas as housing, education, health care, politics, employment, and the environment. This is evident in unequal rates of treatment for disease, approval of mortgage loans, graduation, arrest, prosecution, and sentencing and in exposure to environmental hazards. Subsequent work distinguished between direct institutional racism, such as the system of segregation in the U.S. South prior to the 1960s, and indirect forms, such as a system of public school attendance and funding that, in concert with other social forces, creates a significant number of public schools that are highly segregated and unequally funded. One final distinction often made is the difference between overt and covert racism, the former being unequal treatment that is obvious and blatant, the latter being discrimination that may be invisible to the victim (e.g., telling a prospective tenant that a vacant apartment has already been rented because the landlord does not want to rent to individuals from certain racial groups).
Following the civil rights movement, researchers continued to study the changing nature of racism in the United States. One strand of investigation attempted to explain the paradox between an apparent decline in individual racial prejudice among white Americans, as manifest in survey results that showed increasing acceptance of African Americans as political leaders, neighbors, and even family members, and continuing white opposition to policies such as busing and affirmative action that were designed to promote racial integration and increased equality. This led to the notion of symbolic or modern racism, which described an individual belief that rejected the ideas of classical racism but maintained that racial minorities, especially African Americans, experienced social and economic problems because they failed to conform to traditional U.S. values of hard work, persistence, and relentless pursuit of success. Instead, minority group members made excessive demands for government action and requested preferential treatment that violated basic ideas of fair play and equal treatment. Some scholars working in this tradition also suggested that symbolic racism was driven by overt or covert fears that gains for minorities would come at the expense of whites. Although it was quite popular in academic circles, symbolic racism theory was also criticized for its individualistic focus and lack of a clear causal mechanism.
Another, more recent, perspective on racism began with the assertion that racism was subsiding as a significant factor in U.S. society in the face of declining prejudice and social and economic gains for racial minorities. Thus, it is only a matter of additional time before racism and racial inequality would be eliminated. One important variant of this perspective is the position that the persisting racial inequality in the United States is an effect of social class more than racial barriers. This “declining significance of race” thesis, whose most notable proponent was the sociologist William J. Wilson, maintained that while racism is declining, the impact of past racism and current social changes (deindustrialization, globalization) have combined to create a minority underclass for whom social and economic progress is very difficult. Both of these positions are also compatible with the assertion that racial inequality is due to the cultural deficiencies of minority communities.
During the past decade, significant analytical attention centered on what has been characterized as colorblind racial ideology or color-blind racism. Indeed, for many scholars of race and ethnic relations, color blindness is viewed as the dominant racial ideology in the contemporary United States. As described by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and others, the core of colorblind racial ideology is the claim that race no longer matters in any meaningful way in U.S. society. What remains is a superficial identity that can serve as an indicator of “diversity” in organizations or communities but is not connected to life chances or social experiences. If racism does persist, it is in the form of prejudice or hate crimes by individuals who may be of any race and who will face condemnation from most members of society.
A key question for color-blind racial ideology is that if race no longer matters, how does society explain the persistence of racial inequality? One type of response is “naturalization,” the claim that racial patterns in such areas as housing and health care or the impact of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina either are coincidences or reflect the accumulation of individual preferences. Another explanation is “cultural racism,” the claim (shared with other perspectives discussed previously) that any remaining racial inequality or social problems are due to pathological behavior on the part of minority individuals and communities. In either case, social problems can be dismissed as not resulting from race and therefore require no corrective action on the part of society. Race-based remedies such as affirmative action can then be denounced as unwarranted special treatment that violates norms of racial equality—and even cited as “reverse discrimination” or racism against whites. Critics of color-blind ideology have asserted that it ignores the realities of persistent institutional racism and makes it possible for white advantages to continue without significant challenge.
Racism and Racial Politics
Despite a mainstream belief in the declining significance of race, claims regarding racism continue to play an important role in U.S. racial politics. Indeed, it could be argued that the discussion of the nature of racism and what constitutes racism takes on even more importance as a political question than as an academic issue. Given the discrediting of classical racism, charges of institutional racism or that an individual is a racist carry an extremely negative valuation and become a serious matter for all concerned. In recent years, U.S. society experienced a series of “racial events” that triggered extensive national discussions of issues of race and racism. Examples of this include comments by entertainers and public figures such as Michael Richards and Don Imus, the debate regarding allegations (all charges were eventually dropped) that white members of the Duke University lacrosse team raped a black woman, and the claim that the government response to Hurricane Katrina would have been faster had the victims in New Orleans been white. In each case, charges of racism produced an intense debate between those who adopt a color-blind perspective and those who believe in the continuing significance of racism in the United States.
Once a claim of racism is made, it generally initiates a debate regarding whether or not the act was racist and a series of counterclaims regarding the initial accusation. One common response is denial; that is, the assertion that race had no bearing on the actions or policies in question. A second reaction is minimization, either by stating that any offense or harm was unintentional or to suggest that those claiming injury are oversensitive or “always bring race in” to the discussion. Countercharges are also a frequent tactic, including the allegation that the claim of racism constitutes “name-calling” or the suggestion that the individual or group making the claim is “playing the race card” for personal or organizational gain. On a more general level, advocates of color-blind racial ideology have claimed that racial categories are a form of racism and have even proposed legislation, such as the unsuccessful Proposition 54 in California to ban the collection of racial data by government agencies. Another general claim is that the problem of racism would be minimal if advocates would stop making claims about racism and racial inequality in the United States. Given trends in the recent past, it is likely that U.S. society will continue to experience a series of racial events and debates between those who minimize the role of race and those who make claims about the persistence of institutional racism.
Racism and Social Change
It seems apparent that the 21st century will bring changes to race relations in the United States. The estimated 15 million immigrants per decade in the 1990s and the 2000s, approximately 50 percent of whom are from Latin America and another 25 percent from Asia, have and will continue to change the racial demography of the United States. If current trends continue, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050 non-Hispanic whites will be a bare majority of the population and that shortly thereafter no majority racial group will exist in the nation as a whole (a situation that is already true in California, Texas, and Louisiana). These demographic changes, in concert with such other changes in the distribution of groups, the increasing number of multiracial individuals, and the slow movement of minority group members into higher social, economic, and political positions, carry the potential for significant local, regional, and national changes in intergroup relations.
What is less apparent, however, is how the nature of race relations and racism in the United States will change. Certainly issues of immigration and racial diversity will dominate the political arena in the near future; however, their direction remains to be determined. It is possible to foresee increased racial conflict as whites, threatened by a loss of power, seek to defend their current advantages in face of increasing claims from a rapidly growing minority population. It is also possible to envision increased racial equality amid shared political and economic power in a pluralistic society. Some scholars of race and ethnic relations have suggested a more nuanced view. Bonilla-Silva argues that the United States in the future will undergo a “Latin Americanization” of race relations with various Asian and Latino/a groups occupying an intermediate position in a more complex racial order. George Yancey asserts that the key issue in the future will be the division between blacks and “non-blacks” and that many recent Latino/a and Asian immigrant groups will be absorbed into the dominant white group. Both arguments contend that racial inequality will remain a fact of life, either through a blurring of boundaries and privilege or by expanding the relative numbers and power of the dominant racial group. How the U.S. racial order adapts to social and demographic changes in the coming decades will be the key factor in shaping the nature of race relations and racism in the future.
- Benedict, Ruth.  1947. Race: Science and Politics. Rev. ed. New York: Viking.
- Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2001. White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner.
- Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Carmichael, Stokely and Charles Hamilton. 1967. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Vintage Books.
- Doane, Ashley W. 2006. “What Is Racism? Racial Discourse and the Politics of Race.” Critical Sociology 32:255-74.
- Doane, Ashley W. 2007. “The Changing Politics of Color-Blind Racism.” Research in Race and Ethnic Relations 14:181-97.
- Feagin, Joe R. and Karyn D. McKinney. 2003. The Many Costs of Racism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Gossett, Thomas F. 1997. Race: The History of an Idea in America. New ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Montagu, Ashley. 1997. Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. 6th ed. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira.
- Omi, Michael and Howard M. Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States. 2nd ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Wilson, William J. 1978. The Declining Significance of Race. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Yancey, George. 2003. Who Is White? Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner.
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