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? The word is thrown around all the time today 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. This resource first defines racism as, “The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others” and secondly as, “Discrimination or prejudice based on race.”

Examples of the first definition abound throughout history. 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 speaking during slavery, blacks were deemed intellectually inferior to whites.

This notion persists in pockets of modern-day America.

In 1994, a book called The Bell Curve posited that genetics were to blame for African Americans' traditionally lower scoring than whites on intelligence tests. 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 persists in modern society as well, most often taking the form of discrimination. Case in point: Black unemployment has traditionally soared above white unemployment for decades. On the surface, this begs the question, "Do blacks simply not take the initiative that whites do to find work?" Digging deeper, we discover studies indicating 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, finding 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 born in the U.S. have spent lifetimes in a society which traditionally values whites lives over theirs, they are as likely to believe in the superiority of whites, themselves.

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 actual anti-white bias. Even when minorities express or practice prejudice against whites, they lack the institutional power to adversely affect whites’ lives.

Internalized Racism and Horizontal Racism

Internalized racism exhibits as a minority believing, perhaps even unconsciously, that whites are superior.

A highly publicized example of this is a 1940 study devised by Dr. Kenneth and Mamie to pinpoint the negative psychological effects of segregation on young black children. Given the choice between dolls completely identical in every way except for their color, the black children disproportionately chose the latter, often even going so far as to refer to the dark-skinned dolls with derision and epithets.

In 2005, teen filmmaker Kiri Davis conducted a similar study, finding that 64 percent of black girls interviewed preferred white dolls. The girls attributed physical traits associated with whites, such as straighter hair, with being more desirable than traits associated with blacks.

Horizontal racism occurs when members of minority groups adopt racist attitudes toward 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.

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.

Social programs are not the only targets generating cries of “reverse racism”. A number of prominent minorities, including the biracial President Obama, have been accused of being anti-white. Though the validity of such claims is clearly debatable, the Supreme Court continues to receive appeals seeking determinations on cases submitting the creation of white bias by affirmative action programs.

These trends indicate that as minorities continue to attain higher seats in industry, politics, and society, certain subsets of whites will cry reverse minority bias ever more urgently.

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 relatively safely through a number of Southern towns during the civil rights movement, one city he chose not to march through for fear of violence was Cicero, Ill.

When, in 1966, activists marched without King through the Chicago suburb to address housing segregation and related problems, they were met by angry white mobs and bricks.

Similarly, when Judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered Boston city schools to integrate by busing black and white schoolchildren into each other’s neighborhoods to force compliance with the Racial Imbalance Act of 1965, bloody riots ensued.