A New Definition of Racism

In Anna Deveare Smith’s multi-character play, Fires in the Mirror, which explores the racial tensions between Jews and blacks in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, Smith impersonates a linguist she has interviewed. The linguist states that when it comes to the issues of race, we have “lousy language.” By this he means that our language does not sufficiently describe or convey the complexities of the ways race affects our individual lives and the society we live in. Our language concerning race is crude, undeveloped, inadequate.

One of the ways in which our language fails when it comes to race is in our definition of racism. Here is a definition from Dictionary.com:

  1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
  1. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
  1. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

From Merriam-Webster:

1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

2: racial prejudice or discrimination

Both first definitions start with the idea of belief in racial superiority of one race over another race. That is, there is an emphasis on conscious belief.

For a large number of contemporary Americans, the historical context for the definition of racism is the battle of the Civil Rights movement to dismantle the practices of the Jim Crow South: Alabama Governor George Wallace declaring “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever;” Bull Connor unleashing dogs and police brutality upon the Freedom Riders; Ku Klux Klan rallies where crowds of white hooded figures surround a burning cross. It’s obvious that all of these figures believed in the superiority of the white race over the black race, consciously and actively discriminated against blacks, acted with prejudice and pursued policies of discrimination with fervency and often great hatred. In many ways our society’s image of a racist and racism is still frozen within that historical period of change in the Deep South.

When people argue that we are in a post-racial society or that society is relatively free now of racism, in their minds they are stating an obvious truth: Legal segregation of schools and other public institutions has been dismantled. Large scale Ku Klux Klan rallies no longer occur. The Voting Rights Act was passed (though of course recently dismantled by the Supreme Court). In short, the post-racial proponents are saying the Jim Crow South no longer exists, which is obviously true. At the same time, whether consciously or unconsciously, such people generally tend to limit their image of racism and racists to Mississippi or Alabama in 1930 or 1940 or 1955. That is, there’s a profound desire to keep the definitions attached to that era. Such people tend to feel far more uncomfortable with extending the definition of racists and racism back to the Founding Fathers who owned slaves. At the same time, by constricting their images of examples of racism to the Jim Crow South, these same people avoid contemplating whether racists or racism exists in America in 2015.

Beyond the particular historical period image attached to racists and racism, our definitions of these terms still rely on a foundation based on conscious belief. Racism is based upon a conscious belief by an individual in the inherent superiority of one race over another.

Such a definition, I would argue, is far too simplistic and limited. It does not explain the way racism works in America today.


Over the last twenty to twenty five years, writers and scholars in a number of fields have presented evidence of racial inequities in all areas of society—economics, employment, housing, the justice system, education, cultural representation, etc. Books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow have provided evidence that racial disparities continue to exist and are, in some ways, equal to or even worse than in the Jim Crow South. Statistics and other evidence of these disparities are readily available in books, magazines, newspapers and on the web.

In my talks on race, when I provide PowerPoint examples of these disparities in various sectors, the accumulation of these racial inequities stuns certain members of the audience. The question arises: How can such inequities exist if racists and racism are things of the past?

Part of this seeming contradiction is, I answer, semantics. Our previous definition of racists and racism focused on a conscious belief in racial hierarchy or supremacy, on a conscious animus, on conscious avowals of racial prejudice or acts of racial discrimination or hate. But no one in 2015 America openly and publicly espouses such beliefs. The definition focuses on a type of racist and racism that no longer exists with the prevalence it did in the past.

Using the old definitions of racist and racism, those who argue that racism is a thing of the past use the following logic:

1) Racism occurs when someone discriminates or acts with prejudice and antagonism against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

2) Therefore, racial bias can only be proved if someone openly admits they are a racist and have acted in a racially biased way.

3) Since such admissions do not occur, racism does not exist.

What many people do not realize is that, as Michelle Alexander points out, in the Whren case, the Supreme Court used this same logic. Lawyers for Whren presented the Court with statistics showing racial disparities in the application of the death penalty by the state of Georgia. The Court ruled that such disparities did not sufficiently prove the existence of discrimination. Only an open admission of racial discrimination would be adequate to prove such discrimination was being practiced. In other words, only if the judges or prosecuting attorneys for the state of Georgia publicly stated or were recorded in private saying that they actively discriminated against black defendants in the application of the death penalty could those defendants prove that they had been racially discriminated against–a nearly impossible standard.*


To say that people today do not publicly declare their racial prejudice or publicly admit to acts of discrimination does not mean that no one in America holds racist beliefs or practices conscious discrimination. In most surveys, roughly one quarter of whites espouse beliefs that most would call racist; in various surveys, around one quarter say things like they would object to having a black family move next door or a black person marrying someone in their family. That means there are more than sixty million whites who hold such beliefs. That is hardly a small number. Many of this sixty million might express these beliefs—that is, conscious prejudice–in an anonymous survey but would not do so openly and in public. Then too, given the taboo against openly expressing racist beliefs, some whites might very well not admit to holding racists beliefs in a survey even though they actually do and might express such beliefs with those they believe are like-minded. The roughly one quarter or sixty million might very well be larger.

At the same time, social scientists and social psychologists have demonstrated that people can act with unconscious, or what is called implicit, racial bias. In one test, designed by Harvard psychologists, people were asked to associate positive adjectives with white faces and black faces. The majority of whites and also a significant portion of blacks were slower to attach positive adjectives with the black faces.* In another test, people were shown images of a white person and a black person; one of the people had a gun on their person. Whites were quicker at identifying when the black person had a gun; they also unequally attributed the black person as having a gun even when the black person held no gun on their person.* Similar studies have measured people’s reactions to resumes or e-mails with white sounding names as opposed to black and ethnic names. The same resume was more likely to win a higher approval or call back if the person’s name sounded white rather than black or ethnic.* Professors were more likely to answer the same e-mail requesting an appointment from a student with a white sounding name than a black or ethnic name (also males were responded to more frequently than females).*

Now given the liberal inclination of most colleges, no one would argue that all these college professors profess openly racist beliefs. And indeed, all these studies made this point: Their subjects could very well consciously profess to believe in racial equality and still act with an unconscious or implicit racial bias.

Picture a million encounters where an unconscious or implicit racial bias influences how an employer reads a resume or the police officer sees someone that officer deems suspicious even while that employer or police officer would never express a conscious racist belief or bias—that is a significant way racism works now in this country.


This brings us to the third way racism works in this country–systemically or structurally. The system of racism in this country involves both the accumulated actions of individuals and the practices and structures of the society. Thus, a clearer and more precise accounting of racism in this country would involve the following components:

  1. Conscious or explicit individual racial bias.
  1. Unconscious or implicit individual racial bias.
  1. Structural components

The structural components—which go beyond the acts of any one individual–can be broken down like this:

  1. Accumulated effect of acts of conscious/explicit and unconscious/implicit bias –e.g., Shootings of people of color by police versus shootings of whites. Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession though whites use marijuana at the same rate blacks do. Limb amputations are 4.7 times as likely among black patients than white patients


  1. Allocation of resources – e.g., The imbalance between the resources going to white suburban schools and urban schools with a majority of students of color would be an example of this. The comparison between the amount of research dollars allocated to sickle cell anemia, a disease affecting mostly blacks as opposed to cystic fibrosis, a similar disease affecting whites.


  1. Policies/practices/rules which enable racism and racial inequities to be practiced or their effects increased—e.g., Stop and frisk policies. The lack of a special prosecutor to prosecute charges against the police. The way the Supreme Court ruled in the Wren case: Absent any explicit avowal of discrimination racial disparities in the application of the death penalty are not sufficient to prove bias. Voter I.D. laws.


  1. Beliefs/Concepts/Systems of thought which allow racial inequities to be created and maintained, which denigrate and demean people of color or promote white supremacy—e.g., The banning of ethnic studies in the Arizona school system. The dismantling of AP history in Oklahoma because the exam “overemphasizes” unsettling aspects of American history such as slavery, the genocide practiced upon Native Americans. Subjective standards in fields such as the arts or in hiring practices. Racial stereotypes. The belief that racism is over. The belief that one should and does not see race.

My breakdown here obviously simplifies a complex web of personal actions and societal practices which create and enable the racism and racial inequities that exist in our society. But I believe it provides a better and more complete picture of how racism works in 2015 America, as opposed to the old definitions which describe the racism of the Jim Crow South. Of course, the Jim Crow South could be analyzed also within this framework, but because the racism of the Jim Crow South was much more overt and publicly avowed, its workings were not hidden in the ways racism in 2015 American are sometimes—sometimes—hidden.

Another advantage of this breakdown: To dismantle racism today, we need different approaches depending upon the component of racism we are trying to attack. The strategy one might use to try to change a person who has a conscious or explicit racial bias would most likely be different than addressing the ways a person with unconscious or implicit racial bias needs to change. With the third component above, we are working more with laws and government policies, and so the battle here is on the political front. Further breakdown within categories may also be useful. It would probably be slightly easier to address the affects of implicit racial bias in the medical system than in the justice system. Certainly addressing the former involves fewer ideological or political battles such as one waged between recently between New York’s police union and Mayer de Blasio.

Similarly, by understanding and seeing the differences in these components, we can not only fine tune our strategies and approaches, we can also be more realistic in our expectations. In trying to transform the New York City police department, we should understand that changing the hearts and minds of individual police officers—some with conscious racial bias and some with unconscious racial bias—will be very difficult and will take some time. But ending the stop and frisk policy, as de Blasio recently demonstrated, was relatively easy to accomplish. More importantly, it gave the police considerably fewer opportunities to act with either conscious or unconscious racial bias. In Ferguson, the fines levied by the police and the justice system made up a considerable portion of the city budget and there was a constant call to increase that revenue. Devising other ways of gathering municipal revenue and reducing the expectations of revenue from the police and the justice system would most likely reduce racially biased interactions on the part of the police, even if the hearts and minds of the police remain unchanged.

Seeing these four components together makes it easier to connect them and to speak of the ways they work together. Obviously, there are certain beliefs which foster and enable and reinforce both explicit and implicit bias. At the same time, the work to dismantle these beliefs and belief systems is, on one level, impersonal; we are in the realm of arguing about ideas. And yet, since individuals hold these beliefs and some of these individuals tend to equate these beliefs with who they are and their place in the world, we must understand that we are working both on the level of intellectual debate and on the level of getting past people’s psychological defense mechanisms. This doesn’t mean that editorials or academic arguments aren’t useful. But when we are dealing with specific individuals or in group discussions, we may need to approach this problem in a way that works in both realms—the realm of ideas and the realm of personal psychology.


Overall, I think it’s far more useful to define racism in a way which has less emphasis on conscious personal belief and on individual thought or action. Our definition and our approach should always start with a systemic context. Thus, here would be a new definition of racism:

  1. Racism is a system through which the power and resources of a society are distributed unequally and undemocratically by race. This system functions in all areas of society—politics, economics, the judicial system, the education system, culture, social relations, religion, etc.
  1. Actions and beliefs which support the status quo workings of this system are racist.
  1. Racism can be supported both by individuals with conscious or explicit racial bias or by individuals with unconscious or implicit racial bias. Conscious and openly expressed views of racial supremacy need not be present for a person to act in a racially biased manner and thus, contribute to racial inequities.

Unlike the old standard definitions of racism, which are based on and associated more with the Jim Crow South, this revised definition more adequately expresses the ways racism works in contemporary America.

A corollary to this revised definition is a revised set of criteria for assessing the presence of racism. Given the fact that few Americans now openly or publicly express beliefs in racial supremacy, the absence of such statements should no longer be sufficient proof that racism is not present in an institution or a specific activity or area of society. Instead, far greater weight should be given to statistics that indicate discernable racial inequities or disparities. We should start with the statistical evidence of inequality and then begin to trace and discern the various ways such inequality is achieved—through individuals with explicit or implicit bias, through allocations of resources, through rules and practices, through specific beliefs or ideas. Declarations of good intentions, whether in the past or projecting toward the future, are not enough, and indeed may simply be a way of camouflaging or covering over the problem. To address and correct racial inequities, concrete actions towards addressing all the four components of racism must be proposed and enacted.


William Gibson, the novelist who is credited with founding cyberpunk, has said, “The future is already here–it’s just not very evenly distributed.” In 2015 America, in the battle towards racial equity, our understanding of the problems we face and how to analyze and address them are, in many ways, much more sophisticated than they were a quarter century ago. Whether in social psychology, political science, economics, law, history, or culture, our abilities and tools are more precise, more complex. Then too, in part because of computer advances, the statistics concerning racial inequities cover a broad range of areas and are more readily available. Knowledge about how we talk about and understand racism is more readily available. Word just gets out faster. Terms like microagression and implicit bias are becoming common usage. And, among other factors, the changing demographics of the country make it clear that the issues of race are not going away; they are instead pressing upon us with a renewed urgency as our nation becomes more increasingly diverse and as we approach the time—around 2040—when we will no longer have a white majority.

I have no doubt we’ll need a new and more complex model of addressing and understanding racism than the one I’ve provided in this essay. But I hope my breakdown is a start. At the very least, it demonstrates that our old definitions of racism are too simple and are inadequate. We need to think beyond the level of individuals—whether in terms of what they believe or how they act. We need to be better at seeing how race works beneath a societal surface where no one will admit to holding racist beliefs or acting with racial bias. We need to think systemically. Only if we adequately describe the problem will we ever have a chance of solving it.

* What may not be clear here is that if the Court required that each defendant openly acknowledge their crime—that is, admit that they consciously intended to commit the crime–almost no defendants would ever be convicted.

* https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

* http://www.unc.edu/~bkpayne/publications/Payne 06.pdf

* http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/KellyRoedderRacialCognitionEthicsFinal2008.pdf

* http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2063742

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