Racism Definition

RacismRacism is the systematic implementation of a doctrine of racial supremacy that maintains the superiority of one race over another.

Background, Components, and Modern Usage of Racism

Racial supremacy is the hallmark of racism, but it is also often characterized by a belief that racial groups are genetically isolated, biologically based entities that exist in nature. Racists believe that the biology of their group has afforded them greater intellect and moral fiber than the biology of other groups, and, therefore, they must control the behaviors of members of lesser groups to maintain the purity (and supremacy) of their own group.

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Racism builds upon prejudice and discrimination, phenomena that have been studied in social psychology for more than 100 years. Prejudice is the affect or emotion, usually negative, an individual feels toward members of a particular racial group. For instance, the negative attitudes regarding Arab Americans that surfaced in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks can be thought of as prejudice.

Discrimination is treating people differently from one another based on their racial group membership, often resulting in the relative advantage of one group. For example, if an individual owns a store and decides that he or she will only sell goods to members of one racial group, then he or she is discriminating against all the other racial groups. Violent hate crimes, such as lynching, are the most extreme form of discrimination. Racism, prejudice, and discrimination can each take three forms: interpersonal, institutional, and cultural. consider, for instance, discrimination. individual discrimination is the unfair treatment of one individual by another, such as attempting to keep a member of a different race from joining your fraternity. institutional discrimination is the unfair treatment of members of an entire race that is sanctioned by societal institutions, norms, or governing bodies. The Jim Crow laws of the U.S. South that man-dated separate public facilities for Whites and Blacks, such as drinking fountains and bathrooms, constituted institutional discrimination. cultural discrimination entails the promotion and normalization of the practices, values, and products of one race, coupled with the marginalization of those of other races. The use of a White norm for “skin colored” pantyhose and bandages is a form of cultural discrimination.

Many scholars argue that prejudice and discrimination transform into racism when the members of the discriminating group have societal power over the members of the discriminated group. Such societal power allows the dominant group to define racial category boundaries; promote and communicate stereotypes about the other racial groups in schools, churches, and the media; and control the minority groups’ access to educational, economic, and other societal resources. In other words, racism presupposes the power to affect individuals’ lives on a large scale.


  1. Allport, G. (1979). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Perseus Books. (Original work published in 1954)
  2. Dovidio, J. F., & Gaertner, S. L. (Eds.). (1986). Prejudice, discrimination, and racism. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.