Skip to main content
Select Source:

Racial Discrimination

Racial Discrimination

Racial discrimination is the practice of letting a person's race or skin color unfairly become a factor when deciding who receives a job, promotion, or other employment benefit. It most often affects minority individuals who feel they have been unfairly discriminated against in favor of a Caucasian (or white) individual, but there have been recent cases where whites have claimed that reverse discrimination has occurredthat is, a minority received unfairly favorable treatment at the expense of a white individual.

Court rulings handed down through the years have determined that a company's responsibility not to discriminate based on race begins even before an individual is hired. Companies can be held liable if pre-employment screening or testing is determined to be discriminatory, if applications ask unacceptable questions designed to screen for race, or if the overall selection process is deemed to be unfair. One of the main indicators that racial discrimination has occurred in the hiring process involves the qualifications of the job applicants. While a slight difference in qualifications between a minority and white candidate does not automatically indicate racial bias (if the lesser qualified white candidate is hired over the minority candidate), a substantial difference in qualifications has almost always been upheld by the courts as a sure sign of racial discrimination.


Since the social unrest of the 1960s, the federal government has been actively involved in preventing racial discrimination in the workplace. The most important law covering racial discrimination on the job is the Civil Rights Act of 1964specifically, Title VII of that act: it strictly prohibits all forms of discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in all aspects of employment. Written during a tumultuous period in American history when many people expected the federal government to right social wrongs, the law was a monumental piece of legislation that changed the American employment landscape.

The law stated that it was unlawful for an employer to "fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." The law covers hiring, dismissals, compensation, and all other aspects of employment, while also covering actual employment opportunities that are available. Examples of racial discrimination that would fall under the scope of the act include:

  1. An employee who alleges that his or her manager only promotes nonminority employees and keeps minorities in entry-level positions.
  2. An employee who alleges that a manager or other person in power tells jokes or makes statements that are demeaning, insulting, or offensive to members of a minority group.
  3. A manager who makes it clear that he or she believes in racial stereotypes by admitting that he or she refuses to promote a certain minority group because "all [members of that group] are lazy."

The law covers business with 15 or more employees, and applies to all private, federal, state, and local employers. In many states, businesses with fewer than 15 employees face the same rules thanks to local or state statutes. In addition to the hiring provisions, the law dictates that employers cannot in any way limit or segregate employees based on race in any way that would adversely affect their chances at promotions. It does allow for two narrow exceptions to the lawbusinesses may use a "bona fide" seniority or merit system and measure performance and earnings based on a quantity or quality measuring system, and employers may use ability tests to determine the most qualified candidates for a job as long as the test does not discriminate racially in any way.

In 1991, the 1964 law was significantly amended for the first time by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. The law was passed to override several Supreme Court decisions that had made it much more difficult for employees to prove that racial discrimination had occurred. One of the many changes of the 1991 law is that it closed a loophole in the 1964 act that also involved a Civil War-era statute known as 42 U.S.C. Section 1981. The Supreme Court had held that Section 1981 applied to hiring and sometimes to promotions but did not cover racial harassment that occurred in the workplace once a person was hired. The 1991 act said that all racial discrimination was covered by U.S. law, including post-hire harassment.

The other major enhancement under the 1991 act involved monetary damages. Before the law was passed, employees who sued an employer for discrimination and won could only recover lost wages or salary, lost benefits, attorney fees, other legal costs, and the costs associated with reinstatement. The 1991 law said that employees could also recover punitive monetary damages for pain and emotional suffering, mental anguish, future lost wages and benefits, and more. Those damages could only be collected if it was proven that the discrimination was intentional and there was clearly "malice" or "reckless indifference" exhibited, but this was a radical change from the previous legislation. To protect employers from overly large court settlements, the amount of punitive damages was capped at $300,000 for certain cases of discrimination, although no caps apply in cases of ethnic or racial discrimination.

Other changes in the 1991 law involve employment practices that have a "disparate impact" on racial groups (that is, affect them more than white groups), make it easier for a plaintiff to receive damages in cases where a discriminatory practice and a nondiscriminatory practice both played a part in a hiring or promotion decision, and allow employees to challenge seniority systems that are put into place if the systems are later determined to be discriminatory (in the past, workers could only sue at the time the system was first put into place). Together, all of these changes made it easier for workers to prove discrimination claims, which has increased the number of lawsuits nationwide.


To oversee the federal civil rights legislation, a separate administrative body was created as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, was created to enforce laws that prevent discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion, national origin, disability, or age when hiring, firing, or promoting employees. Four categories of peopleby race, color, sex, and/or creedwere given "protected status" under the law, which was to be upheld by the EEOC. The commission is an independent regulatory body that has the power to launch investigations, file lawsuits, and create programs to eliminate discrimination.

The EEOC has been a controversial organization throughout its 40-plus years of history. Liberal politicians believe that the agency was long overdue and that it is absolutely imperative that the agency be proactive in identifying and fighting discrimination in the courts, while conservatives believe that the organization is a perfect example of "big government" that intrudes far too deeply into citizens' lives. The agency's strong enforcement of affirmative action policies (which actively seek to promote minorities over equally qualified whites in order to address past discrimination) has been its most controversial action, as many Americans oppose affirmative action.

Even with political opposition, the EEOC continues to be effective in fighting racial discrimination. In FY 2005 alone, for instance, the EEOC obtained nearly $173 million in benefits for complainants through settlement and conciliation (excluding litigation awards). Litigation awards accounted for another $106 million in FY 2005.


Because racial discrimination can have adverse consequences for a companyincluding lower morale, a divided workplace, expensive lawsuits, and public embarrassmentsome companies take highly visible steps to curtail discrimination in the workplace. These include in-house workshops and training sessions on racial sensitivity and diversity in the workplace, training on employment laws, and adopting strict new rules against discrimination.

Many other companies only become active when prodded by events and circumstances. In November of 2000, the Coca-Cola Company agreed to settle a racial discrimination suit by paying a penalty of $192.5 million. Sara Lee Corporation was forced to make a large cash settlement to a former employee who says that he was the butt of racist jokes, disparaging remarks, and was even forced to view a noose hanging in his workplace. In addition to the cash settlement, the amount of which was confidential, Sara Lee also agreed to establish training programs to raise awareness of the company's anti-discrimination policies.

To make sure that it is on the cutting edge of preventing racial discrimination, IBM has established individual employee task forces for almost every group that is employed by the huge company, including men, women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, and disabled persons. The groups, which are established at many of the company's offices, meet regularly to discuss diversity and workplace concerns. This represents an extreme example of the steps companies are taking to prevent discrimination, but actions of this type are becoming more common.


Affirmative action is a controversial policy intended to counteract racial discrimination. West's Encyclopedia of American Law defines affirmative action as referring "to both mandatory and voluntary programs intended to affirm the civil rights of designated classes of individuals by taking positive actions to protect them." In other words, affirmative action actively promotes the interest of minorities over the white majority in order to correct past discrimination. For example, in a situation where a test is required before starting a particular job or to earn a promotion, minorities may be given preference over nonminorities for that job or promotion even though they score lower on the test than the nonminority worker. While this may seem wrong to some people, those who support affirmative action argue that past acts of discrimination have been so blatant that extraordinary steps are required to overcome those acts. At the start of the twenty-first century, however, affirmative action programs are under fire across the United States, with numerous court challenges occurring across the country.

One effect of affirmative action has been an increase in "reverse discrimination" lawsuits, in which nonminority workers allege that they have been discriminated against. In situations where companies have used affirmative action to help undo decades of blatant discrimination, white workers have become upset over being passed over for jobs and promotions. They claim that, if it is unfair to not hire a qualified worker just because he or she is a minority, then it should be equally unfair to not hire a qualified worker just because he or she is white. White employees have argued that, even though they have higher qualifications, experience, and skill, they are being passed over for jobs in favor of less-qualified candidates who are minorities.

In response to reverse discrimination lawsuits involving affirmative action programs, courts have recognized the need to overcome past racial bias, but have also sided with the white workers in many cases. For example, in an attempt to redress past problems, a public university ruled that women and minorities would no longer have to take a test to qualify for a special employment program. As a result, for nine years, every job opening in the program went to a woman or a minority, even though white males represented half of the applicant pool. When the university's program was challenged in a lawsuit brought by white males, the courts ruled that the test exemption ensured that "the sole purpose of the affirmative action plan was to circumvent a lawful preference program" and that the exemption violated Title VII because it caused white men to be excluded from the job in question. The school was forced to pay $113,000 to settle the case and correct the reverse discrimination.

Reverse discrimination does not always have to involve affirmative action, however. In a case decided in 2006, as reported by Shannon Duffy in The Legal Intelligencer, four white males prevailed in a law suit against the Philadelphia School District claiming that an African-American woman had discharged them because there were "too many white male managers in this department."


While advances have been made to improve race relations, there is statistical evidence to show that racial discrimination in the workplace is still commonplace. In 2000, the EEOC reported the results of a study of workplaces in North Carolina that showed that accusations of racial harassment on the job nearly quadrupled between 1996 and 2000, jumping from 16 reported incidents in 1996 to 62 in 2000 in just one region of the state. Mindy Weinstein, attorney at the EEOC office in Charlotte, North Carolina, was uncertain of what caused the increase, but she had some ideas. "There's a new generation of workers today who were not raised in the civil rights movement, who may not have been aware of the laws that came about because of that time," she said in the Raleigh News & Observer. "We think it's largely a reflection of what's going on in society as a whole."

Another potential cause of the increase is the fact that, thanks to earlier efforts to wipe out racial discrimination, there are more minorities than ever before in the workplace and also in high-level positions of power. Because minorities have been able to compete on a level playing field, they have been able to rise through the ranks more quickly, often taking jobs that were traditionally held by white workers. This can lead to resentment among the formerly dominant workers who are now lower on the employment ladder.

see also Affirmative Action


Blank, Rbecca M., Marilyn Dabady, and Constance F. Citro. Measuring Racial Discrimination. National Academies Press, 2004.

"The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission." National Archives and Records Administration website. Available from Retrieved on 15 May 2006.

Contini, Peter. "How to Protect Your Office from Discrimination Claims." Real Estate Weekly. 15 March 2006.

Duffy, Shannon P. "'Reverse Discrimination' Verdict Upheld." The Legal Intelligencer. 17 April 2006.

"Institutional Racism, Part II: Race, Skill, and Hiring in U.S. Cities." Nation's Cities Weekly. 19 June 2000.

Moss, Philip I., and Chris Tilly. Stories Employers Tell: Race, Skill and Hiring in America (Multi-City Study of Inequality). Russell Sage Foundation, 2001.

"Reports of Racism at Work Increasing." Raleigh News & Observer. 11 December 2000.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "EEOC Annual Reports." Available from Retrieved on 15 May 2006.

                               Hillstrom, Northern Lights

                                  updated by Magee, ECDI

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Racial Discrimination." Encyclopedia of Small Business. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Racial Discrimination." Encyclopedia of Small Business. . (December 18, 2017).

"Racial Discrimination." Encyclopedia of Small Business. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from

Discrimination, Racial

Discrimination, Racial



The word discrimination is derived from the word Latin discriminare translated as to distinguish between. Racial discrimination, as a commonly accepted construct, is conceptualized as distinguishing in an unequal or less favorable manner an individual or institution by another individual, institution, or other entity with power to influence outcomes based on the perceived race, nationality, ethnicity, or national origin of the victim. It can occur as an overt action or in a subtler, covert manner.


Overt racial discrimination occurs when there is an illegal and direct link between an individuals perceived race, nationality, ethnicity, or national origin, or an organizations perceived characteristics and composition, and a particular negative outcome or pervasive disadvantage. Notably, the conceptualization of overt racial discrimination emphasizes the inappropriate reliance on fallible perceptions of another persons race or ethnicity as an estimate of their more general characteristics, skills, abilities, or worth. Consistent with the historical use of the word race, contemporary racial discrimination occurs when external characteristics such as skin tone are used as a mechanism for negative appraisal or social or political classification (Goodman 2000). Appropriately or not, race is commonly used to distinguish groups of people according to their ancestry and a more or less distinctive combination of physical characteristics. Ethnicity, a term that includes biological, behavioral, and cultural characteristics, is commonly used to describe groups of people with a common history, ancestry, and belief system. Because terms of categorization such as race and ethnicity are used to quickly appraise and then give meaning to individuals in our environments, they are also principle agents for overt overestimates of knowledge about an individual, group, or organization, and may facilitate inappropriate judgments and social outcomes.

Indirect racial discrimination has existed throughout the history of mankind but has only recently come to the attention of social and medical researchers. The essence of indirect racial discrimination is that a structure or policy that was designed without specific attention to race or ethnicity results in disadvantage and or detriment to a particular group of people based on race or ethnicity. One example is a policy that for security purposes prohibits a particular type of uniform, dress, or head dressing that is the normal uniform, dress, or head dressing of a particular group of individuals of similar racial composition or ethnic heritage. Other examples include the forced participation of school-aged children in a particular celebratory custom or ritual that is incongruent with the religious beliefs or customs of a particular racial or ethnic group of people.

These examples highlight several important factors about overt and indirect racism. The first is that in the context of the multifactoral dimensions of humanity and the multiple characteristics that unite and distinguish individuals (e.g., age, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.), it is sometimes difficult to prove that a single characteristic such as race is the basis of a negative appraisal or outcome. Secondly, inherent in the construct of racial discrimination is the presence of a power differential such that benefits or gains are withheld from deserving or entitled individuals or entities. In the absence of a power differential or a negative consequence, racial discrimination cannot exist.

Based on the complex definitions of race and ethnicity, racial discrimination is sometimes difficult to identify. For example, the existence of racial discrimination is not dependent on the volition of the perpetrator; it can exist even when the (accidental) perpetrators intentions were honorable. Additionally, in some cases the negative impact on or consequences to a victim may be difficult to identify.

Racial discrimination can occur as a single event or as a more systemic and engrained intentional or unintentional policy. In cases where there is an established pattern of inequity based on race, ethnicity, or culture perpetrated by a definable individual, overt racial discrimination is usually easier to prove, but when it is a single occurrence at issue, or the perpetrator is a system or institution, discrimination may be difficult to document and prove.


Recent evidence presented in the American Journal of Public Health indicated that people who experience daily discrimination may be more susceptible to a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular and pulmonary disease and chronic pains (2006). This study was notable because it was the first to explore such issues in a sample of 2, 100 Asian Americans, a population traditionally thought to be insulated from negative discriminatory experiences. Similar evidence predicted poor mental health outcomes in black and Latino immigrants who were subject to racial discrimination (Gee et al. 2006). Gary Bennett and colleagues (2005) found that minorities who perceived greater amounts of racial or ethnic harassment were more likely to use tobacco daily, and ultimately may manifest greater risk of tobacco-related morbidity and mortality.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed to protect an individuals right to employment without negative consequence or discrimination as a function of his or her race, color, national origin, sex, or religion. Title VII applies only to employers with more than fifteen employees. Current laws and regulations prohibit racial discrimination that results in differences in recruiting, hiring, determination of salary and fringe benefits, training, work assignments, promotions, transfers, disciplinary actions, firings, and retaliation. Yet, the workplace remains one of the most fertile settings for claims of racial discrimination. Each year from 1997 to 2006, more than 26, 000 race-based discrimination charges were filed in the United States (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 2007).


Beyond individual level explanations, economic models have been posited for many years to explain inequity and racial discrimination. For example, Milton Friedman, a Nobel laureate and professor who was often referred to as the economists economist, was a strong advocate of personal liberty and freedom. Among his many lifetime achievements and controversial theories were ending mandatory licensing of doctors as well as ending social security as an unfair and unsustainable system exemplary of governmental intervention in a free market economy.

In a manner consistent with his previous writings, Friedman also indicated that market racial discrimination and market competition were antithetical. More specifically, that social and political freedom was maximized and racial equality was best achieved by minimizing the interventional and regulatory role of the government, and that free markets and their associated economic forces would facilitate a state of equilibrium and fairness to all who participated (Friedman and Rose 1962).

Certainly, not all social scientists and economists agreed with Friedman. From a sociological and spatial perspective, many argued that there was a positive relationship between the size of a racial minority and discrimination. More specifically, that market competition encouraged racial discrimination. As the relative size of a racial or ethnic minority group increases, motives for the majority racial population to discriminate against the minority population may also increase toward the reduction of market racial competition and reducing threats to the loss of jobs and other essential scarce resources (Blalock 1967).

The relationship between the size of the minority population and the magnitude of discrimination is imperfect, at best. For example, the more effective the discriminatory economic practices against minorities, the less threat there is to perceived or real resources and, consequentially, the less the need for discriminatory practices. In contrast, ineffective discriminatory practices promote the use of additional or more potent attempts to regulate racial competition and preserve resources of the majority. Adjustments to the marketplace mobility and economic growth of minority and majority populations is designed to preserve majority resources, particularly in the upper echelons of status, while maintaining incentives for the minority racial populations to remain engaged in such a limited and punitive system (Reich 1981).

The compelling logic of this socioeconomic model of discrimination is that the more prominent minorities are in a labor force equally accessible to majority and minority populations, the worse their ultimate economic position at the hands of the majority. Secondly, that a ceiling of economic achievement and mobility will be imposed and maintained by the majority population to preserve economic status and resources as a function of the degree to which minority racial populations are perceived as threatening. Lastly and particularly, for example, in the U.S. market, discriminatory practices against minorities will most likely persist due to the increasingly large number of minorities in the workplace and their perceived threat to the economic existence and stability of the majority unless there are regulatory and other governmental remedies.


There are several marketplace and non-marketplace forms of racial discrimination. For example, statistical discrimination is unfair or unequal treatment of a racial group because of stereotypes or generalized estimates of group behavior or assumptions about an individual within a group based on the average estimated behavior for that group (i.e., greater interest rates for home mortgages for African Americans due to perceptions of greater risk of loan default). Customer discrimination refers to the process by which the racial composition of customers of a direct-public-contact business influences the race of who is hired as an employee. Although customer discrimination occurs in businesses that serve white and black customers, this practice appears to result in some reduction in overall labor demand and wages for blacks (Holzer and Ihlanfeldt 1998).

Social discrimination is the process by which non-meritorious judgments are made and differential treatment is given based on estimates of lower social status or lower social class of an individual secondary to their race or ethnicity. Governmental discrimination, like any other form of racial discrimination, is committed by governmental personnel or in a government setting against an individual based on their race or ethnicity. This can be manifest as direct actions against an individual or as policies that negatively effect groups of individuals. The difficulty of defining and then distinguishing racial discrimination from other concepts such as preference or choice is highlighted by non-market forms of private discrimination. An individual, based on previous experiences, social norms, or preferences can decide to exclusively pursue or exclude members of a group for mate selection. When is preference for a race elevated to the level of racial discrimination? Is this form of private discrimination harmful? Who gains and, if anyone, who is disadvantaged by such actions? Answers to these types of questions are as varied as the individuals who attempt to answer them.


In the context of a growing list of psychological and physical morbidities associated with racial discrimination, and what appears to be consistent numbers of claims of discriminatory acts each year, there remains a robust interest in factors that influence equity of processes and outcomes. Some theories suggest that racial discrimination is pathological and is to be remedied with policies and regulations. Others suggest that marketplace factors should produce a form of equality and that there is no role for government in facilitating equality of process or outcomes. Independent of theoretical orientations for resolving racial discrimination, its economic, social, interpersonal, psychological, and physiological consequences are not in question nor is the degree to which it demoralizes its victims.

SEE ALSO African Americans; Civil Rights; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Colorism; Discrimination; Discrimination, Statistical; Discrimination, Taste for; Discrimination, Wage; Discrimination, Wage, by Age; Discrimination, Wage, by Gender; Discrimination, Wage, by Occupation; Discrimination, Wage, by Race; Disease; Ethnicity; Inequality, Racial; Latinos; Mental Health; Mental Illness; Prejudice; Race; Race-Blind Policies; Race-Conscious Policies; Racism; Stereotypes


Bennett, Gary G., Marcellus M. Merritt, Christopher L. Edwards, and John J. Sollers III. 2003. Perceived Racism and Affective Responses to Ambiguous Interpersonal Interactions among African American Men. American Behavioral Scientist 47 (7): 963976.

Blalock, H. M., Jr. 1967. Toward a Theory of Minority Group Relations. New York: Wiley.

Friedman, M., and D. Rose. 1962. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Holzer, H. J., and K. R. Ihlanfeldt. 1998. Customer Discrimination and Employment Outcomes for Minority Workers. Quarterly Journal of Economics 113 (3): 835867.

Krieger, Nancy, Pamela D. Waterman, Cathy Hartman, et al. 2006. Social Hazards on the Job: Workplace Abuse, Sexual Harassment, and Racial DiscriminationA Study of Black, Latino, and White Low-Income Women and Men Workers in the United States. International Journal of Health Services 36 (1): 5185.

Merritt, Marcellus M., Gary G. Bennett, Redford B. Williams, et al. 2006. Perceived Racism and Cardiovascular Reactivity and Recovery to Personally Relevant Stress. Health Psychology 25 (3): 364369.

Reich, M. 1981. Racial Inequality: A Political-Economic Analysis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ryan, Albert M., Gilbert C. Gee, and David F. Laflamme. 2006. The Association between Self-Reported Discrimination, Physical Health, and Blood Pressure: Findings from African Americans, Black Immigrants, and Latino Immigrants in New Hampshire. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved 17 (2 Suppl): 116132.

Terrell, Francis, Aletha R. Miller, Kenneth Foster, and C. Edward Watkins Jr. 2006. Racial Discrimination-Induced Anger and Alcohol Use among Black Adolescents. Adolescence 41 (163): 485492.

Tigges, L. M., and D. M. Tootle. 1993. Underemployment and Racial Competition in Local Labor Markets. Sociological Quarterly 34 (2): 279298.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 2007. Race-Based Charges FY 1997FY2006.

Wadsworth, Emma, Kamaldeep Dhillon, Christine Shaw, et al. 2007. Racial Discrimination, Ethnicity and Work Stress. Occupational Medicine 57 (1): 1824.

Christopher L. Edwards

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Discrimination, Racial." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Discrimination, Racial." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 18, 2017).

"Discrimination, Racial." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from







Racism is intertwined with discrimination in two dimensions. On the one hand, discrimination is a specific practice that can arise from racism. On the other hand, racism is a specific form of discrimination directed against a social group that is constructed with regard to physical attributes, for example the color of the skin or the hair type. To these physical attributes specific social features such as behaviors and values are ascribed, thus naturalizing social attributes. Privileges and disadvantages of groups are therefore grounded in nature and gain their legitimacy through this naturalization. The identity of a person is always dependent on the marking, the ascription, and the perception of others. Self and other are defined in a reciprocal relationship: Racism is a specific process of producing self and other (see Darity, Mason, and Stewart 2006). It is the praxis of a dominant group classifying and characterizing an inferior group. Thus some scholars argue that racism transforms political or economical interests into apparently natural facts. Because racism affects social relations, class and race should be examined together (see Hall 1980).

Racism is produced on different levels of societies. On the macro level, racism comes into being through institutional rules, guidelines, and processes of exclusion that are based on and justified by racist discourse. Examples are the Jim Crow laws in the United States, the Nazi regime in Germany, and the apartheid system in South Africa. On the micro level, individual racism comes into being through generalizations, stereotypes, and discrimination against the others everyday activities.

The phenomenon of racism existed long before social scientists defined the term. In the 1930s the term racism was first used by the German physician Magnus Hirschfeld (18681935) to describe the ideology upon which the Nazis based their identification of the Jews as members of an alien, subordinate, and dangerous race, providing an ideological foundation for the Holocaust (for a wider analysis see Horkheimer and Adorno 1947).


Ideological racism developed from the processes of construing the human races as apparently homogenous and then building a hierarchy of these races on the basis of ascribed features. These concepts were developed in Europe in the eighteenth century in the context of the Enlightenment and the increased trust in scientific knowledge. Laws of nature were presented as the foundation for differences between social groups, and scientists tried to classify human beings according to categorizations developed in the natural sciences.

Some argue that these classifications based on nature replaced former classifications based on religion, following a trend to secularization. In contrast, Robert Miles and Malcolm Brown argued in Racism (2003) that the clash between the idea of biologically constituted different races and the religious belief that all human species descend from Adam and Eve and are therefore homogenous was harmonized by the claim that in response to human sin God damned the sinners and their descendents by distinctive features, such as black skin.

The main impulse to formulate racism as a theory came from French aristocrats striving to get back the privileges they lost in the French Revolution. According to them, the French aristocrats were descendants of the Franconian conqueror, so any restriction of their privileges was a violation of their inherited rights; this idea was formulated as the legend of the Franconia by the French historian Henri de Boulainvilliers (16581722). Socially different estates in France became referred to as different races. In consequence, the privileges of the aristocracy became legitimized not only by the legal system, but also by what were presented as hereditary, physical traits. Charles Darwins theory of natural selection and evolution (1863) provided further justification for this theory of the naturally grounded inequality of human beings. The adaptation of Darwins theory of evolution to society is called social Darwinism (see Hawkins 1997, Dickens 2000). Following this theory, disadvantaged races have their social positions because of their inferior qualities, and those inferior qualities are translated to inevitably lower social status in the common struggle for existence. The idea of a racial hierarchy based on nature became important during the colonization period beginning at the end of the fifteenth century when in the process of oppressing and exploiting Africans, Asians, and Native Americans the supposed racial superiority of whites was established (for a discussion of whiteness, see Bonnett 2000 and Allen 1994).

Racial inequality is a matter of scholarly debate. Some academics argue, with the help of recent genetic research, that there are more genetic variations within races than between them. In this view, races do not naturally exist, but instead are powerful social constructions of racist people (see Miles and Brown 2003). Adherents to this theory argue that there are no clear natural borders between the races; racism itself constitutes these borders and tries to maintain them by ignoring any exceptions. Two crucial aspects of the impact of racism emerge: On the one hand, there is the practice of defining an apparently homogenous group of human beings as a race by negating differences between the individual members of the group; on the other hand, it is essential that the differences between the social groups that are constructed as races are emphasized.

Other scholars argue that the reason for racism is not that there are different races. According to them, racism is caused by the ascription of specific attributes to the races, and they hold that by identifying races as an ideological effect the racial solidarity of the disadvantaged race is undermined.


Racism gets its full power by infiltrating peoples own specific perceptions. In the minds of both victims and perpetrators, racism is produced and reproduced with prejudices and stereotypes from the other and the own. It has been widely demonstrated that from the perspective of whites, blacks are seen as violent and criminal. Studies in psychology illustrate that the same behavior pattern is interpreted differently depending on the race of the actor (see, for example, Eberhardt, Goff, Purdie, et al. 2004). From the point of view of whites, a positive action by a black person, like being smart and helpful, often is seen as an atypical event explained by special circumstances, whereas a negative action by a black, like committing a crime or an aggressive behavior, is seen as typical of the genuine personal characteristics of black people. For the actions of whites, the relation is reversed. Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson illustrated the harmful effects of stereotypes when they demonstrated that the mere presence of a question asking the race of those taking an academic test led to a distinct decrease in the scores of participating African American college students: The race question activated negative stereotypes and self-confirming mental representations of poor academic performance. In consequence, the test participants confirmed unwittingly the stereotype that African Americans are intellectually inferior. Different tests showed that the simple activation of race stereotypes had different effects on test performances, depending on the kind of stereotypes (Shih, Ambady, Richeson, et al. 2002).


Because racism depends on economic and political factors, it is important to point out that racism came into being in different forms depending on the historic epoch and geographical region in which it appeared.

Slavery Slavery came into existence in China, imperial Rome, and West Africa without relying on racist concepts. However, in the colonial period the ideology of racism was useful in circumventing any of the conquerors religious or moral considerations that would make all human beings equal before God and thus require that they be treated equally by man. Using racist arguments, white conquerors could justify slavery, the use of slaves as property, the destruction of their social and cultural identities (Patterson 1982), and their exploitation. This was possible because the conceived hierarchy of races presented the whites as superior to other races; from a racist perspective, human beings are not equal and therefore they can be treated unequally.

The main reasons for the growth of slavery were economic. Slaves were used as a cheap labor force and as a profitable trade good. In the United States the profits acquired through slavery were an important factor in the growth of the shipping industry and a source of surplus wealth for early industrialism. Slaves worked in households, in mines, and on sugar and cotton plantations in the southern states of North America, in Brazil, and in the Caribbean. Most of the 4 million slaves in 1860 were the property of a small upper class in the U.S. southern states, and for this elite, their own economic power was bound directly to their property of slaves. They justified slavery by identifying blacks as a weak race that had to be protected by the slave owners, who knew how to treat them according to their natural status.

Before the end of the slave trade in the mid-nineteenth century, between 11 and 15 million Africans were enslaved and transported to Europe and South, Central, and North America. Most of them were enslaved during the eighteenth century, and most came from the West African coast and from central Africa.

After the Civil War After the U.S. Civil War (18611865) slavery was legally banned in 1870 by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Because there was no land reform most African Americans were solidly concentrated in the southeastern states, nominally free but economically tied to the same cotton lands and the same employers as before the war. Former slaves were still stigmatized and pressed into economic poverty. From the perspective of racist whites in the northern and southern states, African Americans were an inferior race without the right to participate equally in political and social life. After the end of slavery in the United States racism took shape in the oppression of the African American population and in defining them as a subordinated race.

Discriminatory practices continued in the United States; the Jim Crow laws (18901912) banned African Americans from public places, curtailed their educational rights, and allowed widespread violence against people of color, including the lynching of more than 3,000 African Americans in the southern states between 1882 and 1936. Clandestine organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan murdered and harassed African Americans.

The Twenty-First Century The civil rights movement in the United States led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending institutionalized racism in the United States. However, racism is still alive; the durability of ideological racism and the idea of naturally based inequality between races still is present in the attribution of social traits to racial groups. In consequence, economic and educational opportunities are still unequal between the races. African Americans are still put into a position of inferiority in the hierarchy of races; an expression of this is segregation in urban ghettos (see Massey and Denton 1993 and Wilson 1987). Racist discourse still exists and reproduces itself in the stereotypes; it is part of everyday discrimination, and it leads to different chances for access and participation in the contemporary United States and elsewhere.

SEE ALSO Discrimination; Economics, Stratification; Hierarchy; IQ Controversy; Prejudice; Race; Stigma; Stratification; White Supremacy; Whiteness; Whites


Allen, Theodore. 1994. The Invention of White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control. London: Verso.

Bonnett, Alastair. 2000. White Identities: Historical and International Perspectives. Harlow, U.K.: Prentice Hall.

Darity, William A. Jr., Patrick L. Mason, and James Stewart. 2006. The Economics of Identity: The Origin and Persistence of Racial Identity Norms. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organizations 60 (3): 283305.

Dickens, Peter. 2000. Social Darwinism: Linking Evolutionary Thought to Social Theory. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Eberhardt, Jennifer L., Phillip Atiba Goff, Valerie J. Purdie, and Paul G. Davies. 2004. Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87 (6): 876893.

Fredrickson, George M. 2002. Racism: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hall, Stuart. 1980. Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance. In Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, 305345. Paris: UNESCO.

Hawkins, Mike. 1997. Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 18601945: Nature and Model and Nature as Threat. London: Cambridge University Press.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. [1947] 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Miles, Robert, and Malcolm Brown. 2003. Racism. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.

Patterson, Orlando. 1982. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shih, Margaret, Nalini Ambady, Jennifer A. Richeson, et al. 2002. Stereotype Performance Boosts: The Impact of Self-Relevance and the Manner of Stereotype Activation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83 (3): 638647.

Steele, Claude M., and Joshua Aronson. 1995. Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69: 797811.

Wilson, William J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lars Meier

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Racism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Racism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 18, 2017).

"Racism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from


racism According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term describes ‘the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race’. The word itself is rather recent, probably going back only to the 1930s. There are two attitudes towards the concept of racism: one says that ‘racism’ is usefully applied only where it is derived from a perception of race and the ensuing fixation on ‘typical’ racial traits. In this sense ‘racism’ describes the racialist attitudes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, deriving from the merger of physical anthropology und ethnography on the background of the idea of evolution. Another school has argued that racism consists in intentional practices and unintended processes or consequences of attitudes towards the ethnic ‘other’. According to this line of thought, it is not necessary to possess a concept of ‘race’ to entertain prejudices towards other peoples.

As the term was coined in reaction to the rise of German Fascism and its antisemitic theory of race, ‘racism’ carries in itself the condemnation of what it means — it is true indeed that self-professed racists are very rare. Basically, racism lives in practice, not in theory; sociologists such as Michael Banton, therefore, have denied that the phenomenon of racism might be accessible to theory. Some theoreticians of imperialism have argued that only whites could be racists. Marxist thinking has tended to consider it as a corollary of the development of capitalist society. The sociologist Robert Miles, by contrast, has pointed out that pre-capitalist societies, too, afford manifold opportunities to observe racism. Concentrating on racism under the conditions of colonialism and in societies with a large contingent of foreign immigrants, Miles has put forward the suggestion that it must be regarded as an ‘ideology’. To rescue the concept of ‘racism’ from indiscriminate conflation with exclusionary practices, on the one hand, and from being tied up too closely with the nineteenth-century understanding of ‘race’, on the other hand, he has suggested that racism refers ‘to a particular form of (evaluative) representation which is a specific instance of a wider (descriptive) process of racialisation’.

The psychological precondition of racism is anxiety. On a sociological level it may be said that mobile societies and those experiencing great social changes are especially prone to develop some or other sort of racism: contempt of the ‘other’ provides a reassuring feeling of identity. Philosophically speaking, racism is the result of a world view that does not leave any conceptual room for the strange, the unknown. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has surprised his audience with his discovery that the Indians of Southern America possessed the very rare ability to accept the ‘other’. According to Strauss, the cosmogony of these Indians included the idea that the world was complete thanks only to the existence of other beings different from themselves. When the conquistadores arrived they were initially taken for this complement to Indian identity.

Racism has many faces; its particular expressions are dependent on the socio-economic, religious, and cultural situation of any given society. This versatility notwithstanding, the moral overdetermination of skin colour is one of its most conspicuous, ever-recurring elements. The Christian world has excelled at consigning dark complexion to the realms of the mysterious and the bad. In pagan antiquity, however, this was quite different: the stereotypes associated with black Africans were rather of a positive nature: blackness signified qualities such as wisdom, or the love of freedom and justice.

One of the earliest examples of what, in modern parlance, amounts to state-organized racism in European history was the persecution of the Jews in fifteenth-century Spain. In 1492 King Ferdinand succeeded in defeating the Arabs at Granada. Eight hundred years of Muslim rule in Southern Spain came to an end. In the wake of the victory, the Jews were expelled. Though converts to Christianity were allowed to remain, the enforced Jewish exodus signalled that the times were over when political rulers could tolerate the existence of the ‘other’ on their territory. This had been possible in the Roman Empire as well as in Greek city-states. Post-medieval, centrally governed countries, by contrast, had lost the will and the philosophical preconditions for putting up with foreign ethnic groups. Since the fifteenth century instances of organized racism have accumulated. The holocaust happened in a cultural climate of which it has been said that it bore many resemblances to the atmosphere in Spain at the time of the expulsion of the Jews.

H. F. Augstein


Benedict, R. (1983). Race and racism. Routeledge and Kegan Paul, London.
Miles, R. (1989). Racism. Routledge, London.
Banton, M. (1970). The concept of racism. In Race and Racialism, (ed. S. Zubaida). Tavistock Publications, London.

See also anthropology; genocide; race.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"racism." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"racism." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . (December 18, 2017).

"racism." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from



The belief that members of one (or more) races are inferior to members of other races.

Racism is most commonly used to describe the belief that members of one's own race are superior physically, mentally, culturally, and morally to members of other races. Racist beliefs provide the foundation for extending special rights, privileges, and opportunities to the race that is believed to be superior, and to withholding rights, privileges, and opportunities from the races believed to be inferior. No scientific evidence supports racist claims, although racism exists in all countries and cultures. The definition of racism has evolved to describe prejudice against a group of people based on the belief that human groups are unequal genetically, and that members of some racial groups are thus inferior. Sociologists distinguish between individual racism, a term describing attitudes and beliefs of individuals, and institutional racism, which denotes governmental and organizational policies that restrict minority groups or demean them by the application of stereotypes. While such policies are being corrected to eliminate institutional racism, individual racism nonetheless persists.

Scientists have acknowledged individual differences among ethnic and racial groups, citing the importance of environment in shaping performance and measurable ability . When test results appear to indicate differences in ability and performance that follow racial lines, the effect of environment must be considered in interpreting the results. In addition, tests and other instruments for evaluating ability may be biased to favor knowledge and experiences of one racial or ethnic group over others. Thus, test scores must be analyzed with great caution with regard to patterns of performance and their relationship to race.

By studying genetic patterns in humans, scientists have demonstrated that genetic differences between races are not very significant. As humans migrate from continent to continent and ethnic groups intermingle, racial categories will have less meaning, but prejudice is not likely to disappear.

See also Ethnocentrism; Eugenics

Further Reading

Balibar, Etienne. "Racism and Anti-Racism." UNESCO Courier (March 1996): 14+.

Dawes, Kwame. "Clothed Against Naked Racism." World Press Review (April 1996): 32+.

Jacquard, Albert. "An Unscientific Notion." UNESCO Courier (March 1996): 22+.

Wieviorka, Michel. "The Seeds of Hate: Racism and Nationalism After World War II." UNESCO Courier (March 1996): 104+.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Racism." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Racism." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . (December 18, 2017).

"Racism." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from


rac·ism / ˈrāˌsizəm/ • n. the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. ∎  prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief: a program to combat racism. DERIVATIVES: rac·ist n. & adj.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"racism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"racism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 18, 2017).

"racism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from


racism Doctrine advocating the superiority of one human race. Racism has been the avowed policy of certain regimes that, as a result, sanctioned slavery and discriminatory practices, such as the anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and the apartheid system in South Africa. In 1967, UNESCO defined racism as “anti-social beliefs and acts which are based on a fallacy that discriminatory inter-group relations are justifiable on biological grounds”.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"racism." World Encyclopedia. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"racism." World Encyclopedia. . (December 18, 2017).

"racism." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from

Race and Racism


This entry includes four subentries:

Reception of Asians to the United States

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Race and Racism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Race and Racism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 18, 2017).

"Race and Racism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from


racismchasm, spasm •enthusiasm • orgasm • sarcasm •ectoplasm • cytoplasm • iconoclasm •cataplasm • pleonasm • phantasm •besom • dirigisme •abysm, arrivisme, chrism, chrisom, ism, prism, schism •Shiism, theism •Maoism, Taoism •egoism • truism • Babism • cubism •sadism • nudism • Sufism • ageism •holism • cataclysm • monism • papism •verism • aneurysm • purism • Nazism •sexism • racism • paroxysm • autism •macrocosm • microcosm • bosom

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"racism." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

"racism." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 18, 2017).

"racism." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from