Etymology, definition and usage
An early use of the word "racism" by Richard Henry Pratt
in 1902: "Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism.
In the 19th century, many scientists subscribed to the belief that the human population can be divided into races. The term racism is a noun describing the state of being racist, i.e., subscribing to the belief that the human population can or should be classified into races with differential abilities and dispositions, which in turn may motivate a political ideology in which rights and privileges are differentially distributed based on racial categories. The origin of the root word "race" is not clear. Linguists generally agree that it came to the English language from Middle French, but there is no such agreement on how it generally came into Latin-based languages. A recent proposal is that it derives from the Arabic ra's, which means "head, beginning, origin" or the Hebrew rosh, which has a similar meaning. Early race theorists generally held the view that some races were inferior to others and they consequently believed that the differential treatment of races was fully justified. These early theories guided pseudo-scientific research assumptions; the collective endeavors to adequately define and form hypotheses about racial differences are generally termed scientific racism, though this term is a misnomer, due to the lack of any actual science backing the claims.
Today, most biologists, anthropologists, and sociologists reject a taxonomy of races in favor of more specific and/or empirically verifiable criteria, such as geography, ethnicity, or a history of endogamy. To date, there is little evidence in human genome research which indicates that race can be defined in such a way as to be useful in determining a genetic classification of humans.
An entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (2008) simply defines racialism as "[a]n earlier term than racism, but now largely superseded by it", and cites it in a 1902 quote. The revised Oxford English Dictionary cites the shortened term "racism" in a quote from the following year, 1903. It was first defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition, 1989) as "[t]he theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race"; the same dictionary termed racism a synonym of racialism: "belief in the superiority of a particular race". By the end of World War II, racism had acquired the same supremacist connotations formerly associated with racialism: racism now implied racial discrimination, racial supremacism, and a harmful intent. (The term "race hatred" had also been used by sociologist Frederick Hertz in the late 1920s.)
As its history indicates, the popular use of the word racism is relatively recent. The word came into widespread usage in the Western world in the 1930s, when it was used to describe the social and political ideology of Nazism, which saw "race" as a naturally given political unit. It is commonly agreed that racism existed before the coinage of the word, but there is not a wide agreement on a single definition of what racism is and what it is not. Today, some scholars of racism prefer to use the concept in the plural racisms, in order to emphasize its many different forms that do not easily fall under a single definition. They also argue that different forms of racism have characterized different historical periods and geographical areas. Garner (2009: p. 11) summarizes different existing definitions of racism and identifies three common elements contained in those definitions of racism. First, a historical, hierarchical power relationship between groups; second, a set of ideas (an ideology) about racial differences; and, third, discriminatory actions (practices).
Though many countries around the globe have passed laws related to race and discrimination, the first significant international human rights instrument developed by the United Nations (UN) was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The UDHR recognizes that if people are to be treated with dignity, they require economic rights, social rights including education, and the rights to cultural and political participation and civil liberty. It further states that everyone is entitled to these rights "without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status".
The UN does not define "racism"; however, it does define "racial discrimination". According to the 1965 UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,
The term "racial discrimination" shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin that 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.
In their 1978 United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice (Article 1), the UN states, "All human beings belong to a single species and are descended from a common stock. They are born equal in dignity and rights and all form an integral part of humanity."
The UN definition of racial discrimination does not make any distinction between discrimination based on ethnicity and race, in part because the distinction between the two has been a matter of debate among academics, including anthropologists. Similarly, in British law, the phrase racial group means "any group of people who are defined by reference to their race, colour, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origin".
In Norway, the word "race" has been removed from national laws concerning discrimination because the use of the phrase is considered problematic and unethical. The Norwegian Anti-Discrimination Act bans discrimination based on ethnicity, national origin, descent, and skin color.
Social and behavioral sciences
Sociologists, in general, recognize "race" as a social construct. This means that, although the concepts of race and racism are based on observable biological characteristics, any conclusions drawn about race on the basis of those observations are heavily influenced by cultural ideologies. Racism, as an ideology, exists in a society at both the individual and institutional level.
While much of the research and work on racism during the last half-century or so has concentrated on "white racism" in the Western world, historical accounts of race-based social practices can be found across the globe. Thus, racism can be broadly defined to encompass individual and group prejudices and acts of discrimination that result in material and cultural advantages conferred on a majority or a dominant social group. So-called "white racism" focuses on societies in which white populations are the majority or the dominant social group. In studies of these majority white societies, the aggregate of material and cultural advantages is usually termed "white privilege".
Race and race relations are prominent areas of study in sociology and economics. Much of the sociological literature focuses on white racism. Some of the earliest sociological works on racism were penned by sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard University. Du Bois wrote, "[t]he problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." Wellman (1993) defines racism as "culturally sanctioned beliefs, which, regardless of intentions involved, defend the advantages whites have because of the subordinated position of racial minorities". In both sociology and economics, the outcomes of racist actions are often measured by the inequality in income, wealth, net worth, and access to other cultural resources (such as education), between racial groups.
In sociology and social psychology, racial identity and the acquisition of that identity, is often used as a variable in racism studies. Racial ideologies and racial identity affect individuals' perception of race and discrimination. Cazenave and Maddern (1999) define racism as "a highly organized system of 'race'-based group privilege that operates at every level of society and is held together by a sophisticated ideology of color/'race' supremacy. Racial centrality (the extent to which a culture recognizes individuals' racial identity) appears to affect the degree of discrimination African American young adults perceive whereas racial ideology may buffer the detrimental emotional effects of that discrimination." Sellers and Shelton (2003) found that a relationship between racial discrimination and emotional distress was moderated by racial ideology and social beliefs.
Some sociologists also argue that, particularly in the West, where racism is often negatively sanctioned in society, racism has changed from being a blatant to a more covert expression of racial prejudice. The "newer" (more hidden and less easily detectable) forms of racism – which can be considered embedded in social processes and structures – are more difficult to explore as well as challenge. It has been suggested that, while in many countries overt or explicit racism has become increasingly taboo, even among those who display egalitarian explicit attitudes, an implicit or aversive racism is still maintained subconsciously.
This process has been studied extensively in social psychology as implicit associations and implicit attitudes, a component of implicit cognition. Implicit attitudes are evaluations that occur without conscious awareness towards an attitude object or the self. These evaluations are generally either favorable or unfavorable. They come about from various influences in the individual experience. Implicit attitudes are not consciously identified (or they are inaccurately identified) traces of past experience that mediate favorable or unfavorable feelings, thoughts, or actions towards social objects. These feelings, thoughts, or actions have an influence on behavior of which the individual may not be aware.
Therefore, subconscious racism can influence our visual processing and how our minds work when we are subliminally exposed to faces of different colors. In thinking about crime, for example, social psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt (2004) of Stanford University holds that, "blackness is so associated with crime you're ready to pick out these crime objects." Such exposures influence our minds and they can cause subconscious racism in our behavior towards other people or even towards objects. Thus, racist thoughts and actions can arise from stereotypes and fears of which we are not aware.
Language, linguistics, and discourse are active areas of study in the humanities, along with literature and the arts. Discourse analysis seeks to reveal the meaning of race and the actions of racists through careful study of the ways in which these factors of human society are described and discussed in various written and oral works. For example, Van Dijk (1992) examines the different ways in which descriptions of racism and racist actions are depicted by the perpetrators of such actions as well as by their victims. He notes that when descriptions of actions have negative implications for the majority, and especially for white elites, they are often seen as controversial and such controversial interpretations are typically marked with quotation marks or they are greeted with expressions of distance or doubt. The previously cited book, The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois, represents early African-American literature that describes the author's experiences with racism when he was traveling in the South as an African American.
Much American fictional literature has focused on issues of racism and the black "racial experience" in the US, including works written by whites, such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Imitation of Life, or even the non-fiction work Black Like Me. These books, and others like them, feed into what has been called the "white savior narrative in film", in which the heroes and heroines are white even though the story is about things that happen to black characters. Textual analysis of such writings can contrast sharply with black authors' descriptions of African Americans and their experiences in US society. African American writers have sometimes been portrayed in African-American studies as retreating from racial issues when they write about "whiteness", while others identify this as an African American literary tradition called "the literature of white estrangement", part of a multi-pronged effort to challenge and dismantle white supremacy in the US.
According to dictionaries, the word is commonly used to describe prejudice and discrimination based on race.
Racism can also be said to describe a condition in society in which a dominant racial group benefits from the oppression of others, whether that group wants such benefits or not. Foucauldian scholar Ladelle McWhorter, in her 2009 book, Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy, posits modern racism similarly, focusing on the notion of a dominant group, usually whites, vying for racial purity and progress, rather than an overt or obvious ideology focused on the oppression of nonwhites.
In popular usage, as in some academic usage, little distinction is made between "racism" and "ethnocentrism". Often, the two are listed together as "racial and ethnic" in describing some action or outcome that is associated with prejudice within a majority or dominant group in society. Furthermore, the meaning of the term racism is often conflated with the terms prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination. Racism is a complex concept that can involve each of those; but it cannot be equated with, nor is it synonymous, with these other terms.
The term is often used in relation to what is seen as prejudice within a minority or subjugated group, as in the concept of reverse racism. "Reverse racism" is a concept often used to describe acts of discrimination or hostility against members of a dominant racial or ethnic group while favoring members of minority groups. This concept has been used especially in the United States in debates over color-conscious policies (such as affirmative action) intended to remedy racial inequalities. Those who campaign for the interests of ethnic minorities commonly reject the concept of reverse racism. Scholars, also commonly define racism not only in terms of individual prejudice, but also in terms of a power structure that protects the interests of the dominant culture and actively discriminates against ethnic minorities. From this perspective, while members of ethnic minorities may be prejudiced against members of the dominant culture, they lack the political and economic power to actively oppress them, and they are therefore not practicing "racism".