Racism: What It Is and What It Is Not (Part I)

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing symposium on white fragility and its related concepts. To view all of the essays in this series, click here.


A writer for a popular online entertainment publication once remarked that a James Bond movie is often only as good as its villain. This applies to the “Black Lives Matter,” “anti-racism,” “social justice,” “white privilege,” “white-fragility,” and “woke” movements currently in vogue within academia—all of which are linked by their central, dastardly villain: racism.

Whenever the suffix “ism” is added to the end of a root word, it modifies its meaning. As such, “ism” modifies root words by changing them into an ideology, a system of thinking, a school of thought, or a doctrine (e.g., multiculturalism, capitalism, conservatism, communism, socialism, Marxism, and Catholicism—to name a few).

Efforts to identify what “racism” means must first specify what is meant by the root word “race.” Race is a noun referring to an interbreeding subgroup within humankind that shares distinctive physical, behavioral, and genetic traits or characteristics that distinguish them from other interbreeding subgroups. Observable differences between racial groups occur due to climate, geography, topography, or other natural barriers that isolate and insulate subgroups worldwide, restricting gene flow across groups over centuries.

There are wide differences, however, in the degree to which these barriers are permeable over time. Subpopulation migrations, the development of newer and better intra- and inter-continental transportation systems, and intergroup conquests all work interactively to mix subpopulation groups, such that human biological variation in physical trait clusters (e.g., hair texture, skin color, eye color and shape, facial features, bone structure, and body type) can range from relatively homogeneous physical traits (as would be found in Japan) to smooth gradations in observable characteristics (as would be seen in Brazil).

Scientists within the fields of biology, anthropology, and genetics have not achieved consensus on just how many different races currently exist (see Frisby, 2018, Table 13.1, pp. 283). The number of racial categories ranges from a low of three broad groupings (i.e., Negroid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid) to a high of as many as nine groupings that are more nuanced with respect to geographic variables. Differences in the number of racial categories is related to the differing schema used to define racial groupings worldwide, where some subgroups are nested within more overarching categories.

Terms like “ethnicity” and “culture” are not synonymous with race, and the term “race” has often been misused historically in referring to ethnic groups (as in references to the “Jewish race,” the “Irish race,” the “German race,” or the “Mexican race.”). In reality, there can be many different ethnicities represented within a broad racial group, as well as many different racial groups represented within any one ethnic/cultural or country group.

At this juncture, we can expect howls of protest from those who insist that “there is no such thing as race,” that “race is a social construction,” or that “there is only one race, the human race.” In making these arguments, race deniers point to the staggering degree of genetic admixture among human subgroups over time that occurs as a result of interethnic/interracial marriages and sexual unions. These critics argue that a belief in the biological reality of racial subgroupings leads inevitably toward the slippery slope of racism. Indeed, the insistence that “race is nothing more than a social construction” is seen by race deniers as a necessary condition for fighting (and eventually eradicating) racism.

Whether one is a race acknowledger or a race denier (see Frisby, 2018, pp. 283- 285), the cold reality is that the concept of race is potent in contemporary American life (and is also an entrenched component of personal identity for many). Even race deniers cannot help but acknowledge the reality of race—socially constructed or not—when making arguments against racism. On college campuses, urban communities, and public schools in contemporary society, names such as the Institute for Race and Justice, the Racial Equity Institute, the Institute for Racial Reconciliation, the Race Institute for Educators, the Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, the Institute of Race Relations, and the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture are ubiquitous. The name of the largest Latino advocacy organization in the United States (UnidosUS) was formerly the National Council of La Raza (the last two words meaning “the race”). Additionally, race continues to be a viable category used in the United States Census.

The concept of race in and of itself has no inherent moral connotations (either pro or con). When the suffix “ism” is applied to the root word “race,” however, the term refers to a system of thinking, beliefs, or doctrines that ignores and/or distorts (by minimizing or exaggerating) the nuances and subtleties involved in scientific principles that govern the race construct—as discovered by the genetic, biological, and anthropological sciences.

“Racism,” then, narrowly refers to three interrelated and distorted beliefs: (1) Race is believed to be a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities, (2) All members of a racial group are characterized as possessing characteristics or abilities that are specific to that race, and (3) Racial differences are believed to produce an inherent superiority or inferiority in worth of a particular racial group relative to others (seeD’Sousa, 1995, Chapter 2).

Some years ago, I was having lunch with a kind-hearted, church-going white friend in his seventies, who related a story about a difficult exchange he had with a salesclerk. He stated that the situation got so frustrating that [my friend] could “feel his Irish starting to come out”. Given the above discussion, does this statement characterize “racism”?

The answer to this question is considerably more complex than it may seem. Most persons react to the concept of racism in a visceral (as opposed to a purely intellectual) manner. This is because the narrow definition for racism previously discussed is limited primarily to private cognitive distortions, particularly as these relate to how the human brain processes impressions, perceptions, generalizations, cognitive attributions, and mental biases. The psychological study of these mental processes has a long and rich research history, particularly as this history relates to the study of stereotypes in social psychology.

In contrast, the contemporary usage and “man-on-the-street” understanding of “racism” incorporates emotional (i.e., how one feels), behavioral (i.e., what one does), and social policy (i.e., laws that are made) components. To some individuals who came of age during a certain period in our nation’s history, for example, the word “racism” evokes images of vicious, hooded Klansmen terrorizing poor blacks, or “Whites Only” restroom and water fountain signs mandated under the Jim Crow laws of the late 1800s to the 1970s. To others, the word “racism” evokes images of the government-sanctioned extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany. To those who were not yet born when any of these events occurred, a “racist” refers to that person who—once out of earshot of others in polite society—freely articulates his/her disdain for certain racial/ethnic groups or the liberal use of offensive racial/ethnic slurs.

In Part II of this series, I will show how this relatively narrow definition for “racism” has been completely severed from its original moorings in contemporary discourse. That is to say, the concept of “racism” has ballooned to grotesque proportions by coming to mean literally anything that anyone may find useful for the purpose of accomplishing self-serving sociopolitical objectives. Part III concludes with a discussion of how trendy concepts such as “systemic racism,” “institutional racism,” “unconscious bias,”  “white privilege,” and “white fragility”—all of which derive their energy from utterly capricious definitions for  “racism”—are much more destructive than they are helpful.


Image: Arthur Edelman, Public Domain

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Craig Frisby

Craig Frisby is Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri College of Education.

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