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The Use of the Term Racism

Words are the primary weapons on the battlefield of ideas. This notion, central to Marxist conflict theory, is illustrated by the various ways of using the concept racism.

Traditionally the term has been used by sociologists as it is defined in this chapter ¾ to denote a belief (or action based on belief) that one racial category is innately superior or inferior to another. Generally such claims have been bolstered by scientific, or more properly pseudo-scientific, claims based on the supposed biological differences between the races. For example, the arguments of Southern slaveholders that black people were constitutionally unable to accept the responsibilities inherent upon free men and women are easily classified as racist.

Since the civil rights and black liberation movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, however, usage of this term has been changing in at least two very different ways. Minority advocates, following the lead of 1960s militant leader H. Rap Brown, (who declared that “racism is as American as apple pie”), came to define as racist any pattern of thought or action that has negative consequences for a minority category, whether or not this pattern involves inferiority and whether or not it is inspired by discriminatory intent. Thus, for example, the minimum height requirement for New York City firefighters, introduced long before the large-scale immigration of Puerto Ricans into that city, was later denounced as racist (and eventually changed), because it had the practical consequence of disproportionately excluding Puerto Rican men, who tend to be shorter than Anglos, from being hired as firefighters. The intent of this broader use of the term racism is to lend moral importance to any pattern or policy that in any way, deliberately or unintentionally, supports, condones, or perpetuates the disadvantaged position of people in some minority category.

Advocates of this position sometimes make an additional claim—that racism is an expression of power. By defining racism in this way, is becomes impossible for members of a minority to act in a racist fashion. In other words, the behavior of people in minority categories, who are by definition relatively powerless, cannot seriously harm people in the dominant categories of the population. By contrast, attitudes of the “dominant” people can be defined as racist because they can have devastating implications for the life chances of minorities. By denying the possibility of minority racism, this discourse focuses full attention on the behavior of the dominant categories, which is seen as more or less entirely responsible for the minority’s dilemma.

Yet another construction of the concept of “racism” comes from cultural conservatives who tend to oppose activism in support of minority categories. According to this discourse, any action that takes account of race is “racist,” whether this occurs on the part of people in the dominant community (college admissions officers) or people in a minority population. This definition of racism underlies conservative opposition to the policy of affirmative action. From this point of view, a non-racist perspective must be “color blind.”

Opponents of this position, while perhaps agreeing with the ultimate goal of a colorblind society, respond that, given the present circumstances, a truly nonracist society, defined as the conservatives would define it, would be a society that in practice continued to discriminate against minorities. This is because society would not give minority people the assistance they need to fully overcome the consequences of centuries of exploitation and discrimination.

Discussion Questions:

1. Review various ways of defining “racism.” Which of these approaches discussed here comes closest to your own understanding of the term?

2. When Dr. King states that he dreamed of a society in which people would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, how did he define racism?

3. Are members of minority groups just as likely to be racist as those of the dominant group? In your response, make sure you clarify the difference between racism and racial prejudice.