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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. There is a growing, but controversial, tendency to state that racism is a system of oppression that combines racist beliefs – whether they be explicit, tacit or unconscious – with the power to have a negative impact on those discriminated against on a societal level.


Since the last quarter of the 20th century, there are few in developed nations who describe themselves as racist, so that identification of a group or person as racist is nearly always controversial. Racism is recognised as an attack on basic human dignity and on the very notion of human rights. A number of international treaties aim to end racism. The United Nations uses a definition of racist discrimination, laid out in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and adopted in 1965:

"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 an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life." [1]

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

The term is often used incorrectly by supporters of cultural relativism and political correctness to stigmatise their adversaries.

Racism is a controversial issue. Whether there is any validity to the concept of race is an issue that is discussed in the article Race. The issue of how and if past practices might be remedied is discussed in Affirmative action, reverse discrimination, and, briefly, in the reparations section of the article on slavery.

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 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 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 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, conquest, and colonization 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). Some people like Juan Gines de Sepulveda even argued that the Native Americans were natural slaves.

Another well-referenced source of racism is a mis-interpretation of Charles Darwin's theories of evolution. Some take Darwin's theories to imply that some races are more civilized, and that there must be a biological basis for the difference. People in this category often appeal to biological theories of moral and intellectual traits to justify racial oppression. This viewpoint had long been widespread in Europe and America at the time Darwin first developed his theories, and his theories played an important role in changing attitudes.

There is a great deal of controversy about race and intelligence, in part because the concepts of both race and IQ are themselves controversial and difficult to define.


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.

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, Amerindian 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.

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 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. During the 1930s and 1940s, attempts were made to prevent Jews from immigrating to the Middle East. Following the creation of Israel, land-ownership in many Israeli towns was limited to Jews, and many Muslim countries expelled Jewish Arabs and continue to refuse entry to Jews.

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. 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.

History of racism in the modern world

In 19th century Europe and America, some scientists developed various theories about biological differences among races, and these theories were in turn used to legitimize racist beliefs and practices. This work has since been rejected by the scientific community as flawed and as pseudoscience, but the fundamental problem was the assumption that studying superficial differences between humans would reveal categories with profound significance.

Today there are some scientists who claim 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. These scientists say that 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. Other scientists counter that "sex" and "species" are likewise seen by some as socially constructed. After all, humans and chimpanzees (or males and females) are far more genetically alike than different. Therefore categories need not be absolute in order to have scientific utility. George W. Gill, in Nova Online, notes that "Slightly over half of all biological/physical anthropologists today believe in the traditional view that human races are biologically valid and real."


Canada has a very mixed record when it comes to racism. While the country often prides itself on being more progressive and tolerant of diversity than the United States, Canada also has its own history of racism.

There was a notable history of slavery in Canada in the 1700s. More than half of all Canadian slaves were aboriginal. In 1793, Upper Canada governor John Graves Simcoe passed a bill making it illegal to bring a person into the colony for the purposes of enslavement, and slavery was fully outlawed in 1834.

In the middle to late 18th century, Canada was the ultimate destination for many escaped African American slaves on the Underground Railroad. Many of the former slaves settled in Western Ontario, in communities such as Windsor, Chatham and Buxton, and in Nova Scotia, notably in the town of Africville. Black settlers such as Mary Ann Shadd and Josiah Henson made notable contributions to Canadian history. However, although Black Canadians could not be enslaved, they did still often find that they encountered substantial racism.

Starting in 1858, Chinese "coolees" were brought to Canada to work in the mines and on the Canadian Pacific Railroad. However, they were denied by law the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote, and in the 1880s, "head taxes" were implemented to curtail immigration from China. In 1907, a riot in Vancouver targeted Chinese and Japanese-owned businesses. In 1923, the federal government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, commonly known as the Exclusion Act, prohibiting further Chinese immigration except under "special circumstances". The Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947, the same year in which Chinese Canadians were finally given the right to vote.

However, restrictions still existed on immigration from Asia. In 1967, these restrictions were repealed and Asian immigrants were given the same rights as any other group. In 1999, Adrienne Clarkson, the child of Chinese immigrants who moved to Canada in 1942 under the "special circumstances" clause, became Governor General of Canada.

Japanese Canadians were also subject to anti-Asian racism, particularly during World War II when many Canadians of Japanese heritage -- even those who were born in Canada -- were forcibly moved to internment camps. The government of Canada officially made restitution for the treatment of Japanese Canadians in 1988.

However, racism in Canada has not only been connected to immigration. French Canadians, including Acadians, Québécois and Franco-ontarians, and aboriginals have also been subject to discriminatory treatment in Canada.

Notable racist organizations in Canadian history have included the Parti national social chrétien, led by Adrien Arcand, and the Heritage Front, led by Ernst Zundel.

United States of America

In colonial America, before colonial slavery became completely based on racial lines, thousands of African slaves served whites, alongside other whites serving a term of indentured servitude. In some cases for African slaves, a term of service meant freedom and a land grant afterward, but these were rarely was awarded, and few black Africans became landowners this way. 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 late 19th and early 20th century many Germans, Austrians came to accept a form of racism towards Jewish people, racial anti-Semitism. Some people in these countries believed 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 greedy, selfish, and "parasitical". They were often referred to as viruses or parasites. Over time these ideas lead 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

See Apartheid.


See White Australia Policy and Terra Nullius.

United Kingdom

There were race riots across the United Kingdom in 1919: South Shields, Glasgow, London's East End, Liverpool, Cardiff, Barry, and Newport. There were further riots by immigrant and minority populations in East London during the 1930s, Notting Hill in the 1950s, and Brixton, Toxteth and Blackbird Leys, Oxford in the 1980s. More recently, there have been riots in Bradford and Oldham. These riots have followed cases of perceived racism - either the public displays of racist sentiment (including crimes against members of ethnic minorities which were subsequently ignored by the authorities), or, as in the Brixton and Toxteth riots, racial profiling and alleged harassment by the police force.

Racism in one form or another was widespread in Britain before the twentieth century, and during the 1900s particularly towards Jewish groups and immigrants from Eastern Europe. Since World War I, public expressions of white supremacism have been limited to far-right political parties such as the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s and the British National Front in the 1970s, whilst most mainstream politicians have publicly condemned all forms of racism. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that racism remains widespread, and some politicians and public figures have been accused of excusing or pandering to racist attitudes in the media, particularly with regard to immigration. There have been growing concerns in recent years about institutional racism in public and private bodies, and the tacit support this gives to crimes resulting from racism, such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

The Race Relations Act 1965 outlawed public discrimination, and established the Race Relations Board. Further Acts in 1968 and 1976 outlawed discrimination in employment, housing and social services, and replaced the Race Relations Board with Commission for Racial Equality. The Human Rights Act 1999 made organizations in Britain, including public authorities, subject to the European Convention on Human Rights. The Race Relations Act 2000 extends existing legislation for the public sector to the police force, and requires public authorities to promote equality.

There have been tensions over immigration since at least the early 1900s. These were originally engendered by racism towards Jews and immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. Britain first began restricting immigration in 1905. Britain has had very strong limits on immigration since the early 1960s. Legislation was particularly targeted at members of the British Commonwealth, who had previously been able to migrate to the UK under the British Nationality Act 1948. Virtually all legal immigration, except for those claiming refugee status, ended with the Immigration Act 1971; however, free movement for citizens of the European Union was later established by the Immigration Act 1988. Legislation in 1993, 1996 and 1999 gradually decreased the rights and benefits given to those claiming refugee statues ("asylum seekers"). A further government Act in 2002 gave Britain the most restrictive immigration laws of any country in the European Union.

The reality is that a huge amount of racism has been undocumented within the UK. Many British cities have populations with a clear racial divide. While things have improved immensely over the last 10 years racial segregation is still an unspoken problem.

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 now defunct system that once existed in South Africa, in which Whites and Blacks were segregated; 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.
  • Caste system - (not always considered racist) A system of social hierarchy among various social groups in India - each assigned a specific occupation and social role.(see untouchable.)
  • Bumiputra - (possibly a form of economic affirmative action?) A system whereby Malays are accorded economic privileges not available to those of other races.
  • 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, Persian, Urdu and Chechen people in general. Muslims may be stereotyped as terrorists, paedophiles, fat and uneducated.
  • Manifest Destiny - a historical form of the belief that asserted that white Americans had the right and duty to colonize the west and "civilize" the Native American inhabitants.
  • Model Minority - stereotype that Asian Americans are intelligent and hardworking and should serve as a "model" for other minorities in the United States
  • Nazism (National Socialism) - a historical form of political organization coupled with extreme racism, that directed its energies against the Jews, Roma (the so-called Gypsies), Poles, Russians and other 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
  • Redlining - the practice of denying oppressed communities services (such as food delivery or taxi service), or access to home or business loans allowing residents to build equity and have a financial stake in their own communities, or refusal to locate businesses or other services in oppressed communities (such as supermarkets, banks, or bus and subway routes).
  • Reverse discrimination or reverse racism - the belief that measures designed to correct alleged racism, such as Affirmative action, have in fact simply created new racist policies against the dominant groups. This is a highly controversial idea.
  • White flight - the practice of white residents abandoning a neighborhood or area due to the arrival of black or other residents, often decimating the tax base and reducing public services. The practice is also known as the tipping point.
  • White supremacy - the belief that Caucasians are, as a race, superior or worthy of supremacy, even called by some the "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 was labeled racism by UN Resolution 3379, although the UN later rescinded this resolution. The Anti-Defamation League, most Jews, and most American Fundamentalist Christians deny that Zionism constitutes racism. [2] See Zionism and racism for details.

Related concepts

  • 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.) 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. (e.g. Mary cannot get a job, despite her qualifications, because she is of the dominant race Y.) Many do not consider this racism, but simply a form of discrimination.
  • 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. *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.)
  • 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.
  • 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.

Some examples of racist organizations

Related terminology

The term racialism and racialist is sometimes used by those who feel it is a different concept where negativity or hatred is not prescribed. People who call themselves "racialists" tend to be separatists (or white nationalists) and sometimes see a difference between themselves and white supremacists.

Many people who study racism, such as Betty A. Dobratz and Stephanie Shanks-Meile, contend that terms such as white separatism and white nationalism are euphemisms that have been adopted by neo-Nazi and racist groups in order to make their views seem less extreme.

White separatists reject such claims. For instance, Kevin Alfred Strom has defined white separatism this way:

"A separatist may believe that his race is superior to other races in some or all characteristics, but this is not his essential belief. The separatist is defined by his wish for freedom and independence for his people. He wishes them to have their own society, to be led by their own kind, to have a government which looks out for their interests alone. The separatist does not wish to live in a multiracial society at all, so he naturally has no desire to rule over other races—since such rule necessitates the multiracial society the separatist wants to avoid at all costs." [3]

See also

affirmative action, afrocentrism, anti-racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid, ascribed characteristics, The Bell Curve, black power, black supremacy, chauvinism, civil rights movement, collectivism, Criminal Blackman Myth, discrimination, dominant minority, environmental racism, essentialism, ethnic stereotype, ethnic cleansing, ethnocentrism, eugenics, eurocentrism, genocide, hate crime, homophobia, islamophobia, Jim Crow laws, Ku Klux Klan, lynching, master race, miscegenation, Nazism, Neo-Nazism, Nigger, race, race riot, racialism, racial profiling, racial segregation, Racism in Topeka, Kansas, rankism, sexism, skinhead, Social Darwinism, social stereotype, Tulsa Race Riot, White Australia policy, white nationalism, white power, white pride, white separatism, white supremacy, white trash, wog, xenophobia

list of ethnic slurs

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