The Concept of race and racism

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Racism/Race Discrimination

Racism is an organized system that categorizes, ranks, and differentially allocates societal resources to human population groups (Williams & Rucker, 2000). According to James Jones (1997), racism builds on the negative attitudes arising from prejudice and rests on three broad assumptions: (a) that group characteristics are based on presumed biology; (b) the superiority of one group over others; and (c) the rationalization of institutional and cultural practices that formalize hierarchical domination of one racial group over another.

Racism is thus a complex construct. It is not synonymous with related terms such as prejudice, discrimination, bigotry, or bias that do not necessarily incorporate hierarchical domination in the form of social stratification or power. For example, prejudice is “a positive or negative attitude, judgment, or feeling about a person that is generalized from attitudes or beliefs held about the group to which the person belongs” (Jones 1997, p. 10). Discrimination involves behavior aimed at denying members of particular groups equal access to societal rewards and, as such, goes beyond merely thinking unfavorably about particular groups.

Racism should not be confused with other forms of oppression such as sexism, heterosexism, or homophobia. Whereas these forms of oppression share a similar root in that one group is viewed as superior to another, racism is distinct because it is founded on cultural conceptions of race. There are important implications of racism for the life course, including negative psychological effects, soci-oeconomic disadvantage, and racial health disparities.


Understanding racism requires an examination of the concept of race and its function in U.S. history and culture. While many have sought a genetic foundation for categorizing population groups, there is no scientific consensus that racialized groups are genetically distinct. Population groups are transformed into races for political purposes on the basis of arbitrary but distinctive pheno-typic (i.e., physical appearance) and cultural criteria. The belief that groups of people identified on the basis of these criteria are also inherently different and genetically distinct is the unfortunate remnant of an outdated pseudo-scientific idea (Smedley & Smedley, 2005). The ideology of racism is built upon this pseudo-scientific racialization of targeted population groups.

Racism in the United States began during the colonial period, although the exact nature of the historical development of racism has been heavily debated. From one perspective, the ideology of racism is said to be a deliberate invention of early colonists to justify the enslavement of Blacks for economic purposes (Handlin & Handlin, 1947). Others argue that racism developed from preconceived prejudices against African Americans, rooted in early 19th century European biological determinism that classified humans into four hierarchical, mutually exclusive groups—mongoloid, caucasoid, negroid, and australoid— with Blacks at the bottom of the ranking. This categorization was not neutral but characterized physical differences as innate and immutable characteristics. These notions were used to justify slavery and the pseudoscience underlying this classification evolved simultaneously with the development of slavery and legal segregation (Jordan,Page 358 | Top of Article1974). Regardless of chronology, racism grew as a system of beliefs and practices that propagated ideas about the inferiority of persons not classified as White. While any ethnic group can be the target of racism, in the United States racism is particularly relevant to non-White ethnic minority groups. The lasting effects of the country’s racist policies are observable in persistent racial inequities in criminal justice, education, employment, health, health care, housing, income, and other areas. While the emphasis in this entry is the United States, racism occurs in every country throughout the world.

Hurricane Katrina. Tangeyon Wall stands by a broken window in her home, which was flooded by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Wall is angry that utility services are returning to her neighborhood of predominantly Black residents much slower than they are to other areas of the city

Hurricane Katrina. Tangeyon Wall stands by a broken window in her home, which was flooded by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Wall is angry that utility services are returning to her neighborhood of predominantly Black residents much slower than they are to other areas of the city.AP IMAGES.


Racism is a process that operates on multiple levels of experience, from the psychological to the social. Racism can be internalized when persons accept the ideology of their racial inferiority; personally-mediated as when persons are dehumanized or treated differentially by others because of their race; or institutionalized due to restricted access to material resources and opportunities for empowerment throughout society Qones, 2000). The various levels at which racism is experienced affect personal stress and life chances, which in turn affect the well-being of individuals, families, and communities.

Institutional racism is a systematic set of procedures, practices, and policies that penalize, disadvantage, and exploit individuals on the basis of race. In addition, institutional racism is the extension of individual beliefs by using and manipulating institutions to restrict the choices, rights, mobility, and access of certain individuals. Such effects are distributed throughout society through institutional structures, ideological beliefs, and the everyday actions of people Qones, 1997). Three examples of institutional racism in the United States are chattel slavery, the Plessy v. Fergusondecision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which legalized racially separate facilities, and racial residential segregation. These actions were not only associated with an ideology of racism, but they led to policies and practices that unequally distributed resources and opportunities so that people experienced unequal physical environments, educational systems, and economic opportunities.

Structural racism refers to how social structures, historical legacies, individuals, organizations, and institutions interact to disadvantage some racial groups and advantage others. Structural analysis and critical race theory suggest that racism is not an aberrant belief or behavior, but is consistent with U.S. cultural values that tangibly advantage some population groups (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). A structural analysis of racism highlights the important interplay between educational, criminal justice, housing, health, and economic institutions. It is this interinstitutional interaction that distinguishes structural racism from other forms of racism or discrimination.


The main challenge of conducting research on racism and racial discrimination lies in the area of measurement. Currently there is little consistency or agreement on how racism or racial discrimination should be measured, much less is there available data on the psychometric properties of current measures. One construct used in research on racism and racial discrimination is perceived discrimination. The construct is based on the process of perception and emphasizes the attributions made by those trying to understand the underlying cause of interpersonal interactions. Perceived discrimination de-emphasizes the intention and ideology of the actor and places the subjective interpretation of the observer at the center. In this respect, perceived discrimination is conceptually related to Ellis Cose’s (1993) list of race-based daily hassles that take up time and mental energy. Much of this research is based on descriptive survey self-reports. Less empirical information is available on the cognitive processes by which people understand and decide whether or not a particular act is indeed discriminatory. This is an area in need of additional research.

Another approach is to measure experiences of discriminatory behavior. Rebecca Blank and colleagues (2004) provide four types of individual and organizational discriminatory behaviors that can guide measurement and analysis. Intentional discrimination is consistent with traditionalPage 359 | Top of Articlenotions of discrimination whereby people deliberately treat persons of different racial or ethnic groups differently. Subtle or automatic discrimination occurs when people unconsciously categorize people based on their race or ethnicity. Similarly, statistical discrimination (or profiling) occurs when an individual uses overall beliefs or generalizations about a group to make decisions about an individual in that group. Finally, in addition to the types of discrimination that can be perpetrated by individuals, organizations can reflect the same biases as people who operate within them. This type of discriminatory behavior can be referred to as organizational discrimination.

Racism and discrimination have led to residential segregation, exclusionary housing patterns, differential hiring and promotion practices, and other such organizational and institutional practices. Practices and laws that appear to be neutral may, in fact, lead to differential outcomes, regardless of intended impact, and therefore may be considered discriminatory. This also means that the definition of racism is unlikely to be universally agreed upon, because different groups will disagree on the inferences made about the causes of observed racial inequalities in income, employment, education, and health. The idea that the consequences of racism need not be intentional suggests that racism is the product of the perception of different observers. Often, terms describing such an idea are used as reactions to institutional and structural conceptualizations of racism that do not require intentionality but illustrate disparate outcomes.


Numerous personal accounts as well as social scientific research demonstrate the pervasive negative effects of racism on outcomes spanning the entire life course (Collins, David, Handler, Wall, & Andes, 2004). Moreover, while most studies examine racism as though it occurs at a specific point in time, researchers are beginning to argue that racism is a dynamic process (Blank et al., 2004). The consequences of racism range from negative psychological effects, to socioeconomic disadvantages, to health disparities. For example, exposure to racism and racial discrimination has been associated with elevated blood pressure and unhealthy coping behaviors such as smoking or overeating (Krieger & Sidney, 1996), and socioeconomic disadvantage and poor health outcomes during gestation and childhood have been shown to predict chronic diseases in later life (Barker, 1998).

Racism also exerts its toll through suppressed anger and rage and the cognitive burden of dealing with racism on a frequent basis (Feagin & McKinney, 2003). The chronic wear and tear of racism-related stress can alter the body’s ability to adapt in a healthy manner over time, thus producing adverse mental, behavioral, and physical health consequences (McEwen, 1998). The impact of racism over the life course is not always linear or continuous. There might be some critical periods, such as early childhood or in old age, where the harmful effects of racism are most intense, or disadvantage at different life stages can have a cumulative dose-response effect (Graham, 2002). Moreover, human agency can moderate the effect of racism exposures at any point during the life course.


Many provocative issues and questions are the subject of current debates regarding racism. Although there remains disagreement about what race and racism are, what is clear is that these constructs have not been treated with the same care and precision as other key social and scientific variables (LaVeist, 1996). It is common to read studies that carefully define and operationalize each variable in the analysis except race and that conflate racism with discrimination, prejudice, bias, and other related terms.

Many definitions of racism imply that a person or an act is either racist or it is not, but do not distinguish between racism and related terms such as discrimination and prejudice. Some scholars argue that this duality is a simplistic way to think of racism, which has sparked a variety of new conceptualizations of racism, including color-blind racism, silent racism, and liberal racism (Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Sleeper, 1997; Trepagnier, 2006). Each of these terms suggests that the oppositional categories of racist or not racist are outdated and should be replaced with a continuum that portrays 21st century racial reality in the United States. However, defining racism as a continuum suggests that just about any statement or behavior can be designated as racist. In addition, reducing racism to a question of individual-level behavior, beliefs, and attitudes clouds the distinction between racism, bias, prejudice, and discrimination.

Prejudice, bias, and discrimination are commonly used to describe the attitudes and behaviors of individuals that are hypothesized to lead to negative interpersonal interactions. Such behaviors are also used to infer the presence of systemic organizational and interrelated social, economic, and political contexts that affect differentially people by race in the absence of identifying individuals who may be biased, ethnocentric, or prejudiced. Hypothesizing racism as the fundamental cause of persistent racial differences in outcomes also can be useful for explaining the differential impact of policies and practices. Inferring the existence of racism neither requires nor precludes individuals who are biased or prejudiced against people of other races.

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Sloppiness in use and measurement of the concept of racism raises concerns about how the term can potentially lead to erroneous or misleading conclusions and problems. For example, terminology such as “playing the race card” refers to efforts to infuse social stratification, institutional racism, and structural racism into the discussion of disparate outcomes. The notion that racism is nothing more than an excuse to rationalize personal incompetence or that ethnic minorities cause their own problems is often a result of efforts to discount how cultural and historical institutions advantage some and disadvantage others. Racism is not a proxy for discrimination and prejudice, but a framework for understanding how social stratification advantages some and disadvantages others. The subjective nature of the process employed to identify racism guarantees continuous debate and disagreement about what acts constitute racism and subsequendy who is or is not racist. This view accentuates racism as a. process of understanding how someone is accused of being racist as well as whether that person (or persons) accepts this conceptualization of their behaviors or statements.

The fact that a broad array of behaviors and statements can be, and often are, viewed as racist contributes to a certain degree of cynicism when objectionable discriminatory behavior and bigoted remarks are protested. Some go as far as to argue that racism is no longer a significant problem for people of color (D’Souza, 1995). Like so many contentious political disagreements, what is or is not racist is difficult to prove, except in the legal realm, because labeling something as racist often presumes or requires intention. The objectionable nature of statements, behaviors, or differences in outcomes will continue to be interpreted by many within a framework that views racism as the underlying cause. Certainly not all objectionable statements are worthy of being designated as racist, but it is important for people to understand the complexity of racism that transcends basic notions of prejudice, bias, or discrimination. Racism is an ideology that ranks population groups according to a hierarchy of inferiority and superiority and leads to devastating effects on people of color.

Research on racism has had important policy and practice implications. Racism has provided an important perspective for understanding persistent racial differences in such important outcomes as socioeconomic standing, housing patterns, and health. Examining the health of African Americans through the lens of racism highlights how housing policy can lead to racial residential segregation and the unequal distribution of educational and financial resources that affect opportunities for leading long and healthy lives.

SEE ALSO Volume 2: Gender in the Work Place ; Policy, Employment ; Stress in Adulthood ;Volume 3: Ageism/Age Discrimination .


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Williams, D. R., & Rucker, T. D. (2000). Understanding and addressing racial disparities in health care. Health Care Financing Review, 21(4), 75-90.

Harold W. Neighbors

Derek M. Griffith

Denise C. Carty

Source Citation (MLA 8th Edition) Neighbors, Harold W., et al. “Racism/Race Discrimination.” Encyclopedia of the Life Course and Human Development, edited by Deborah Carr, vol. 2: Adulthood, Macmillan Reference USA, 2009, pp. 357-361. Gale Virtual Reference Library,…. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.

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