What's the Difference Between Prejudice and Racism?

How Sociology Explains the Two and their Differences

Doors marked "whites only" and "colored" signal both prejudice and racism. Learn the difference between the two here.
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I once had a conversation with a white man who took issue with the n-word being considered unspeakable, sparked by this post on Racism Review. Let's call him Jack. Jack's problem with the strong reaction many black people have to this word, especially when directed at them as an insult by white people, is rooted in his belief that the n-word is an insult like any other. He suggested that using it is no different than calling someone a “dumb blond,” and that people need to “move on” from believing that race and racism are issues that deserve attention in today’s world.

Jack is not alone in these views. Nearly 40 percent of white Americans believe that the U.S. has made the changes necessary to give Black people equal rights with whites. Yet, just eight percent of Black Americans believe that this is the case. This suggests that it's important to discuss the difference between prejudice and racism since some do not recognize that the two are distinct and that racism still very much exists.

Understanding Prejudice

From a sociological standpoint, the dumb blond stereotype, and the jokes that celebrate and reproduce it can be considered a form of prejudice. The Oxford English dictionary defines prejudice as a “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience,” and this resonates with how sociologists understand the term. Quite simply, it is a pre-judgement that one makes of another that is not rooted in their own experience. Some prejudices are positive while others are negative.

Some are racial in nature, and have racist outcomes, but not all forms of prejudice do, and this is why it's important to understand the difference between prejudice and racism.

Jack explained that as a blond person of German descent, he had experienced pain in his life due to this form of prejudice aimed at blond people.

But are the negative consequences of prejudice the same for Jack as those who are called the n-word or other racial slurs? Not quite, and sociology can help us understand why.

While calling someone a dumb blond might result in feelings of frustration, irritation, discomfort, or even anger for the person targeted by the insult, it's rare that there would be further negative implications. There is no research to suggest that hair color affects one’s access to rights and resources in society, like college admission, ability to buy a home in a particular neighborhood, access to employment, or likelihood that one will be stopped by the police. This form of prejudice, most often manifested in bad jokes, may have some negative impact on the butt of joke, but it is unlikely to have the same kinds of negative impacts that racism does.

Understanding Racism

By contrast, the n-word, a term popularized by white Americans during the era of African enslavement, encapsulates a wide swath of disturbing racial prejudices, like the idea that black people are savage, dangerous brutes prone to criminality; that they lack morals and are compulsively hyper-sexual; and that they are stupid and lazy. The wide-sweeping and deeply detrimental implications of this term, and the prejudices it reflects and reproduces makes it vastly different from suggesting that blonds are dumb.

The n-word was used historically and is still used today to cast black people as second class citizens who do not deserve, or who have not earned, the same rights and privileges enjoyed by others in American society. This makes it racist, and not simply prejudiced, as defined by sociologists.

Race scholars Howard Winant and Michael Omi define racism as a way of representing or describing race that “creates or reproduces structures of domination based on essentialist categories of race.” In other words, racism results in an unequal distribution of power on the basis of race. Because of this, using the n-word does not simply signal prejudice. Rather, it reflects and reproduces an unjust hierarchy of racial categories that negatively impacts the life chances of people of color.

Use of the n-word and the still widespread beliefs—though perhaps subconscious or semi-conscious—that black people are dangerous, sexual predators or "loose," and pathologically lazy and deceitful, both fuel and justify structural inequalities of race that plague society.

The racial prejudices encapsulated in the n-word are manifested in the disproportionate policing, arrest, and incarceration of black men and boys (and increasingly black women); in racial discrimination in hiring practices; in the lack of media and police attention devoted to crimes against black people as compared with those committed against white women and girls; and, in the lack of economic investment in predominantly black neighborhoods and cities, among many other problems that result from systemic racism.

While many forms of prejudice are troubling, not all forms of prejudice are equally consequential. Those that beget structural inequalities, like prejudices based ​on gender, sexuality, race, nationality, and religion, for example, are very different in nature from others.