Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Racism has two broad meanings. First and most commonly, racism refers to the belief that there exist biologically defined races, or categories of human beings in which membership is determined by the possession of certain biological characteristics within the human species, and that some of these races are superior to others. This position is also known as psychological racism, because it describes an individual's beliefs. Some argue that racism in this sense also implies a certain degree of antagonism toward those of different races. According to this view, a racist does not merely believe that some races are superior to others, but positively disdains or at the least disrespects in important ways those races she or he believes to be inferior.

Second, racism can also refer to institutional racism, which is the notion that even if no individuals hold racist beliefs, the practices of existing institutions can have different impacts on different races, negatively affecting some and positively affecting others. Institutional racism does not necessarily imply that psychological racism does not exist, but rather focuses simply upon the practices of institutions as opposed to the beliefs and practices of individuals alone. It should be noted that much debate exists over what precisely constitutes institutional racism—for example, is it sufficient for an institution's practices to have a disparate impact on different races for those practices to qualify as instances of institutional racism, or do additional conditions have to be satisfied before we identify a practice as an example of institutional racism?

Regardless of how one precisely conceives of institutional racism, both forms of racism have been highly prevalent in modern Western, and indeed human, history (meaning the period from about the year 1500 to the present), and the theory, practice, and study of racism have undergone significant changes within that timeframe as well.

racist theory and history

Although racist theories began much earlier, the term racism itself was not used until the 1930s, when the word was introduced to discuss certain beliefs gaining ground among the Nazis in Germany. Ruth Benedict described racism as "the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to congenital inferiority and another group is destined to congenital superiority" (Benedict 1943, p. 97). Nonetheless, this brief history of racist theory begins at a far earlier point.

The habit of human beings to classify each other into groups according to certain perceived characteristics dates well back into ancient history. Whether one is speaking of the ancient Greeks, the ancient Hebrews, the ancient Chinese, or anyone else, human beings have habitually used categories to distinguish themselves from one another (the Greeks called the non-Greeks barbarians, for instance, distinguishing them from Greeks), as well as to establish a hierarchy among those groups (the Greeks conceived of themselves as superior to barbarians). The theoretical establishment of a hierarchy according to explicitly racial characteristics, however, did not begin in the West until the fifteenth century—although the notion of race, in some contexts, existed prior to that.

Throughout the Middle Ages the primary distinction Europeans drew between themselves and others was a religious distinction, that of heathen and Christian. This distinction carried with it an explicit hierarchy, in which Christians were considered superior to the heathens. Europeans also felt themselves culturally superior to tribes of "savages" encountered in Africa and elsewhere. This sense of superiority did not derive from any identification of shortcomings inherent in other races, though. A heathen could convert, and an African or Asian raised in proper surroundings could learn. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430), for example, a fifth-century Christian bishop whose writings had enormous influence on the development of Christian doctrine, was a North African and did not permanently convert to Christianity until the age of thirty-one, although he had been exposed to the religion at an early age by his mother.

However, beginning in the fifteenth century in Spain, the situation began to change. Anti-Semitism, which had previously focused on Judaism as the weakness of the Jewish people, took on a distinctly racist overtone. Jews were now condemned not just for their religion, but also certain characteristics associated with their ethnicity. Since the inferiority of the Jewish group could not be eradicated by religious conversion, according to such a view, it became preferable to isolate, and sometimes banish or kill, members of this group.

Similarly, when the African slave trade first began, it was justified on the basis that Africans were heathens, and that their capture, if it resulted in their conversion, was to the greater good. Indeed, the spread of the Christian religion was the primary mechanism of justification for European colonialism. For a brief period of time, this justification seemed to suffice.

However, the inequitable treatment of captured slaves and native peoples, even after their conversion to Christianity, existed increasingly in tension with a growing belief in the fundamental equality of human beings during the Enlightenment (approximately from 1700 to 1789). If all human beings were equal, how could Europeans think well of themselves while enslaving and oppressing foreign populations? The former religious distinctions failed, since they would countenance enforced servitude only as a means toward educating those enslaved. European colonialism and imperialism , however, obviously intended to institute servitude and inequality for certain peoples on a permanent basis, irrespective of education or religion. New justifications were needed for this practice. Racism hastened to fill the gap.

Although racism was initially a crude and scattered body of beliefs that held, on the basis of often wildly exaggerated and false observations of Africans and Asians, that each race possessed different levels of greed, impulsivity, intellect, and so forth (Thomas Jefferson notoriously speculated on such racial differences in his Notes on the State of Virginia), the nineteenth century witnessed far more precise and systematic statements of it.

Perhaps the first such statement was written by a Frenchman named Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882) in 1855. Gobineau argued that race could be used to explain the course, and the fall, of whole civilizations. He pointed to the existence of three races: yellow, black, and white. According to Gobineau, each race was marked by different characteristics—the yellow race supposedly being materialistic, the white race intelligent and liberty-loving, and so forth—and the characteristics of these races explained how different civilizations had evolved throughout history. Furthermore, Gobineau wrote, the mixing of races would lead to their degeneration. Since a civilization could not forever maintain its racial purity, it would eventually collapse due

to offspring of increasingly mixed racial background. Although Gobineau himself condemned slavery, his views became the justification for apartheid in South Africa and formed the basis of other racist movements in the twentieth century.

Systematic statements such as Gobineau's were made in other nations as well. While the authors of these theories often opposed slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude, their arguments allowed many, including Southerners in the United States intent on justifying a system of racial oppression and Britons intent on justifying imperialism, to claim that such systems were simply the natural order of things. Such individuals claimed that each race, possessing certain characteristics, was destined to assume a certain hierarchical place in the world—and that, of course, the white race was clearly destined to administer wise rule to the world (a view that was shared by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt).

The burgeoning authority of science also caused many supporters of racist theory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to seek to justify their theories on the basis of scientific studies. In fact, these studies tended to be highly unscientific and shoddily conducted, driven not by evidence but by the "scientist's" desire to reach a particular conclusion. Among the more prominent examples of pseudoscientific studies to establish the truth of racist theory are phrenology (the study of the shape and contours of the human skull and its relationship to such characteristics as intellect) surveys purporting to show that Caucasian skulls are on average larger than those of other races, and a complete misuse of the U.S. Army's extensive intelligence testing of recruits in the military buildup for World War I.

notes on the state of virginia

While Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) is best known as the author of the Declaration of Independence, his Notes on the State of Virginia influenced political thought as well.

Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson's only book, was written during the American war of independence, between 1781 and 1783. It began as a written response to questions submitted by the secretary to the French legation to the Continental Congress at Philadelphia.

The book contains basic facts about Virginia's climate, geography, flowers, trees, animals, and native minerals. In addition Jefferson expressed his thoughts on religion, society, science, politics, and slavery. While Jefferson noted that the practice of slavery contradicted the doctrine of rights on which the U.S. was founded, he continued to use slaves for the upkeep of his estate. Jefferson, who believed slavery was evil, justified this practice by his belief that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. Therefore, he wrote, whites and blacks could not coexist peacefully, making slavery unavoidable. He did express his hope that slavery would one day end, with blacks and whites living separately. Jefferson's Notes is considered an Enlightenment classic, but its arguments concerning slavery and race were influential in the development of later theories justifying both slavery and Jim Crow laws.

At the close of the twentieth century and into the early twenty-first century, some continue to argue that certain scientific studies support the notion of differences in various attributes, including intelligence, between the races. One such controversial study, The Bell Curve, published in 1994 and condemned by most scholars, argued that only genetic differences, which are correlated with race, can explain different average racial IQ scores. Most scientists and scholars, in fact, are highly skeptical even of the notion that there really are biological races, much less the notion that complex characteristics like intelligence are somehow correlated with these races.

It is noteworthy that the types of races described in these theories, and particularly those races to which inferior capabilities are ascribed, would often seem to depend on economic and political interests. Thus, for example, the large influx of poor immigrants from southern Europe into the United States in the early twentieth century, which made native-born Americans compete with them for jobs, resulted in views that southern Europeans actually constituted a separate and inferior race from various types of northern Europeans. Similarly, some of the British, while struggling to maintain political power over the Irish, argued that the Irish were not of the same race as the Britons, but of inferior Celtic stock. In East Asia, various Asian nations would use racist theories to explain either their conquest of neighboring countries or their suffering at the hands of a local invader.

Opponents of affirmative action in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries use studies such as The Bell Curve to argue that differences in average income, grades, and the like between different races are, in fact, caused by genetic differences, not social or political conditions—and that therefore affirmative action is not needed. The constant theme in the history of racist theories is their use in justifying the oppression of a particular group of people for the sake of political and economic gain.

the enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century intellectual movement that occurred mainly in Europe. It was an attempt to promote systematic reason and scientific inquiry as the means of reordering society and was in part a response to the destructive religious wars of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

The Enlightenment was characterized by skepticism toward the social and political structures of the time, including long-standing beliefs about the authority of church and state, and new concepts of toleration and individual rights. Critical thinkers began to question, for example, the moral, religious, and economic justifications for slavery. Philosophers and political thinkers began questioning feudal arrangements that still governed landowning–landworking class relations; the absence of political representation for the budding bourgeois capital-owning classes; and related social questions. Scientific inquiry was applied to subjects previously governed by faith, tradition, or ancient authority.

The Enlightenment led to the American and French revolutions with their declarations of rights and introduction of mass politics. Virtually all modern political and social doctrines, from liberalism to social democracy to communism and all their variants—as well as the responses to them that we characterize as "reaction"—have their origins in the European Enlightenment.

human rights

Racism denies the fundamental equality in human rights described in documents ranging from the American Declaration of Independence to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Scholars often refer to the tradition holding that each human being possesses certain rights and is entitled to equal respect as liberalism (this definition should not be confused with another meaning of the word, which seeks to describe an American political movement). As liberalism became dominant, first in Western nations and then globally, proponents of racism found themselves under growing pressure to change their views and alter their practices. Thus, for example, recall that European imperialism came to be justified by the notion that the European race was inherently better at governance, and that therefore other races would benefit from European tutelage—which here means European domination.

In the twentieth century the growing acceptance and ideological power of liberalism made it quite difficult for European nations to justify continued domination of other peoples. Some scholars, in fact, argue that this change in beliefs (from racism to liberalism) was in part responsible for the massive international movement toward decolonization. Other examples of the influence of liberalism and human rights, and the sharp international rejection of racism, would include the numerous human rights resolutions and conventions passed by the United Nations, specifically condemning racist systems such as apartheid as well as racial discrimination in general.

theories about racism

Numerous explanations have been offered for the phenomenon of racist theories. That is, many scholars have advanced various ideas to explain why racist theories were created in the first place. There is broad agreement that political and economic incentives were the motivations behind racist theories, as elaborated above, although many believe that other factors were also involved. Other suggested factors range from a desire to explain obvious physical differences, for example, differences in skin pigmentation, between human beings to various forms of psychological insecurity.


The evolution of racism as a concept is complex in a historic and philosophical sense, and the term has been deployed for a variety of uses. The debate continues to rage over the precise meaning of the term, and the reader is encouraged to utilize the sources below to conduct an independent investigation.

See also: Apartheid.


Benedict, Ruth. Race: Science and Politics. New York: Viking Press, 1943.

Boxill, Bernard, ed. Race and Racism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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

Gobineau, Arthur Comte de. The Inequality of Human Races [1855], trans. Adrian Collins. New York: H. Fertig, 1967.

Goldberg, Daniel Theo, ed. Anatomy of Racism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Harris, Leonard. Racism. Amherst, MA: Humanity Books, 1999.

Herrnstein, Richard J. and Charles Murray. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Lang, Berel, ed. Race and Racism in Theory and Practice. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

Solomos, John, and Les Black. Racism and Society. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Andrew Costello