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.
Klaus Balzano / Getty Images

Nearly 40 percent of white Americans believe that the U.S. has made the changes necessary to give black people equal rights with whites, according to a Pew Research Center study. However, 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.

Key Takeaways: The Difference Between Prejudice and Racism

  • Prejudice refers to a preconceived idea about a particular group, while racism involves an unequal distribution of power on the basis of race.
  • Sociologists have found that racism has led to a wide range of detrimental outcomes for people of color, including unequal access to jobs and housing, as well as an increased risk of being a victim of police brutality.
  • According to the sociological perspective, members of privileged groups can experience prejudice, but their experience will be different than the experience of someone who experiences systemic racism.

Understanding 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-judgment that one makes of another that is not rooted in their own experience. For example, from a sociological standpoint, the dumb blonde stereotype, and the jokes that reproduce it, can be considered a form of prejudice.

While we typically think of prejudice as a negative view towards another group, prejudices can be negative or positive (i.e. when people hold positive stereotypes about members of other groups). Some prejudices 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.

An Example

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 blonde 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 the joke, but it is unlikely to have the same kinds of negative impacts that racism does.

A two column list defining racism vs prejudice

Understanding Racism

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.

Using a racial slur such as the n-word, a term popularized by white Americans during the era of African enslavement, encapsulates a wide swath of disturbing racial prejudices. The wide-sweeping and deeply detrimental implications of this term, and the prejudices it reflects and reproduces makes it vastly different from suggesting that blondes are dumb. The n-word was used historically, and is still used today, to perpetuate systemic inequalities based on race. This makes the use of this term racist, and not simply prejudiced, as defined by sociologists.

The Consequences of Systemic Racism

Racist behaviors and beliefs—even when they are subconscious or semi-conscious—fuel 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.