What Is Racism: A Definition and Examples

Get the Facts on Internalized, Horizontal, and Reverse Racism

Little Black Sambo
Racist caricatures such as Little Black Sambo were once widespread. Zen Skillicorn/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

What is racism, really? Today, the word is thrown around all the time by people of color and whites alike. Use of the term “racism” has become so popular that it’s spun off related terms such as “reverse racism,” “horizontal racism” and “internalized racism.”

Defining Racism

Let’s start by examining the most basic definition of racism—the dictionary meaning. According to the American Heritage College Dictionary, racism has two meanings. Firstly, racism is, “The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.” Secondly, racism is, “Discrimination or prejudice based on race.”

Examples of the first definition abound. When slavery was practiced in the United States, blacks were not only considered inferior to whites but regarded as property instead of human beings. During the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, it was agreed that slaves were to be considered three-fifths people for purposes of taxation and representation. Generally during slavery, blacks were deemed intellectually inferior to whites. This notion persists in modern-day America.

In 1994, a book called The Bell Curve posited that genetics were to blame for why African Americans traditionally score lower on intelligence tests than whites. The book was attacked by everyone from New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who argued that social factors were responsible for the differential, to Stephen Jay Gould, who argued that the authors made conclusions unsupported by scientific research. In 2007, Nobel Prize-winning geneticist James Watson ignited similar controversy when he suggested that blacks were less intelligent than whites.

Discrimination Today

Sadly, racism in the form of discrimination persists in society also. A case in point is that blacks have traditionally suffered from higher rates of unemployment than whites. Black unemployment is often nearly twice as high as the white unemployment rate. Do blacks simply not take the initiative that whites do to find work? Studies indicate that, in actuality, discrimination contributes to the black-white unemployment gap.

In 2003, researchers at the University of Chicago and MIT released a study involving 5,000 fake resumes that found that 10 percent of resumes featuring “Caucasian-sounding” names were called back compared to just 6.7 percent of resumes featuring “black-sounding” names. Moreover, resumes featuring names such as Tamika and Aisha were called back just 5 and 2 percent of the time. The skill level of the faux black candidates made no impact on callback rates.

Can Minorities Be Racist?

Because racial minorities in the U. S. have spent their lifetimes in a society that has traditionally valued whites over them, they are also likely to believe in the superiority of whites. It’s also worth noting that in response to living in a racially stratified society, people of color sometimes complain about whites. Typically, such complaints serve as coping mechanisms to withstand racism rather than as anti-white bias. Even when minorities are actually prejudiced against whites, they lack the institutional power to adversely affect whites’ lives.

Internalized Racism and Horizontal Racism

Internalized racism is when a minority believes that whites are superior. A highly publicized example of this is a 1954 study involving black girls and dolls. When given the choice between a black doll and a white doll, the black girls disproportionately chose the latter. In 2005, a teen filmmaker conducted a similar study and found that 64 percent of the girls preferred the white dolls. The girls attributed physical traits associated with whites, such as straighter hair, with being more desirable than traits associated with blacks.

As for horizontal racism - this occurs when members of minority groups adopt racist attitudes towards other minority groups. An example of this would be if a Japanese American prejudged a Mexican American based on the racist stereotypes of Latinos found in mainstream culture.

Racism Myth: Segregation Was a Southern Issue

Contrary to popular belief, integration wasn’t universally accepted in the North. While Martin Luther King Jr. managed to march through a number of Southern towns during the civil rights movement, a city he chose not to march through for fear of violence was Cicero, Ill. When activists marched through the Chicago suburb without King to address housing segregation and related problems, they were met by angry white mobs and bricks. And when a judge ordered Boston city schools to integrate by busing black and white schoolchildren into each other’s neighborhoods, white mobs pelted the buses with rocks.

Reverse Racism

“Reverse racism” refers to anti-white discrimination. It’s often used in conjunction with practices designed to help minorities, such as affirmative action. The Supreme Court continues to receive cases that require it to determine when affirmative action programs have created anti-white bias.

Social programs have not only generated cries of “reverse racism” but people of color in positions of power have also. A number of prominent minorities, including the biracial President Obama, have been accused of being anti-white. The validity of such claims is clearly debatable. They indicate, though, that as minorities become more prominent in society, more whites will argue that minorities are biased. Because people of color will surely gain more power over time, get used to hearing about “reverse racism.”