Racism refers to a form of persecution based on beliefs, practices, and institutions that negatively discriminate against people based solely on their perceived or ascribed race. When combined with the power to have a negative impact on those discriminated against in this way, racial persecution has been the source of extreme hardship for particular minorities, considered as aliens within particular societies.
Sometimes the term is used to describe the belief that race is the primary determinant of human capacities, or a more general attitude that individuals should be treated differently according to their race. Since the last quarter of the 20th century, there are few in developed nations who describe themselves as racist, so that identification of a group or person as racist is nearly always controversial. The United Nations uses a definition of racist discrimination, laid out in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and adopted in 1965:
"any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life." ()
Assuming that every individual's character can be adequately determined by racial or ethnicstereotypes is prejudice, and giving or withholding privileges based on such stereotypes is discrimination. The term racism is sometimes used to mean a strong and persistent bias towards these activities.
Racism is a controversial issue. Whether there is any validity to the concept of race is an issue that is discussed in the article Race. The issue of how and if past practices might be remedied is discussed in Affirmative action, and, briefly, in the reparations section of the article on slavery.
One view of the origins of racism emphasizes stereotypes, which psychologists generally believe are formed by cultural factors. People generally respond to others differently based on what they know, which may include superficial characteristics often associated with race. A "white" person walking after dark in a primarily "black" neighbourhood in an American city might be anxious for a combination of reasons. A police officer who spends most of his day in that same city interacting negatively with people of a certain ethnic background, might be expected to react negatively to a member of that same ethnic group whom he meets off-duty. In both cases, theories of conditioning may apply.
A famous experiment in cognitive psychology showed that the majority of Americans would remember a lower-status "black" man as having a knife in his hand, after viewing a picture which in fact showed a "white" man in a suit with a knife facing this lower status man.
Debates over the origins of racism often suffer from a lack of clarity over the term. Many conflate recent forms of racism with earlier forms of ethnic and national conflict. In most cases ethno-national conflict seems to owe to conflict over land and strategic resources. In some cases ethnicity and nationalism were harnessed to wars between great religious empires (for example, the Muslim Turks and the Catholic Austro-Hungarians). As Benedict Anderson has suggested in Imagined Communities, ethnic identity and ethno-nationalism became a source of conflict within such empires with the rise of print-capitalism.
In its modern form, racism evolved in tandem with European exploration, conquest, and colonization of much of the rest of the world, and especially after Christopher Columbus reached the Americas. As new peoples were encountered, fought, and ultimately subdued, theories about "race" began to develop, and these helped many to justify the differences in position and treatment of people whom they categorized as belonging to different races (see Eric Wolf's Europe and the People Without History).
Another well-references source of racism is a mis-interpretation of Charles Darwin's theories of evolution. Some take Darwin's theories to imply that some races are more civilized, and that there must be a biological basis for the difference. People in this category often appeal to biological theories of moral and intellectual traits to justify racial oppression. This viewpoint had long been widespread in Europe and America at the time Darwin first developed his theories, and his theories played an important role in changing attitudes.
Researchers at the University of Chicago (Marianne Bertrand) and MIT (Sendhil Mullainathan) found in a 2003 study that there was widespread discrimination in the workplace against job applicants whose names were merely perceived as "sounding black." These applicants were 50% less likely than candidates perceived as having "white-sounding names" to receive callbacks for interviews, no matter their level of previous experience. The researchers view these results as strong evidence of unconscious biases rooted in the country's long history of discrimination.
Racism is usually directed against a minority population, but may also be directed against a majority population. Examples of the former include the enslavement of black Africans and repression of their descendants in the United States. The existence of the latter is often controversial, but agreed upon examples include racial apartheid in South Africa, wherein whites (a minority) discriminated against blacks (a majority); this form of racism also occurred during the former colonial rule of such countries as Vietnam (by France) and India (by the United Kingdom).
Reverse racism is a controversial concept; it refers to a form of discrimination against a dominant group. In the United States, many people, mostly conservatives, criticize policies such as affirmative action as an example of reverse racism. They say that these policies are race-based discrimination. Supporters of affirmative action argue that affirmative action policies counteract a systemic and cultural racism by providing a balancing force, and that affirmative action does not qualify as racist because the policies are enacted by politicians (who are mostly part of the white majority in the United States) and directed towards their own race.
Some Americans believe that reverse racism exists in the United States, but that it is cultural racism, and not primarily systemic. For example, some African-Americans discriminate against white people -- this too can be called reverse racism. But some would argue that this is not racism (which they would see as primarily systemic) but actually personal prejudice because African-Americans lack the cultural, political and economic resources to systemically disenfranchise European Americans.
In addition, some white people believe that political correctness has led to a denigration of the white race, through perceived special attention paid to minority races. For example, they consider the existence of Black History Month (February) but not a White History Month, Hispanic History Month or Asian History Month to be de facto racism directed at the majority and non-black minorities. Yet again, others argue that the lack of a White History Month is due to the fact that much of the school year is devoted to teaching history from the viewpoints of white conquerors and slave owners.
Racism is and has been official government policy in many countries. In the 1970s, Uganda expelled tens of thousands of ethnic Indians. Until 2003, Malaysia enforced discriminatory laws limiting access to university education for Chinese students who are citizens by birth of Malaysia, and many other laws explicitly favoring bumiputras (Malays) remain in force. Russia launched anti-Semitic pogroms against Jews in 1905 and after. During the 1930s and 1940s, attempts were made to prevent Jews from immigrating to the Middle East. Following the creation of Israel, land-ownership in many Israeli towns was limited to Jews, and many Muslim countries expelled Jewish Arabs and continue to refuse entry to Jews.
In the United States, racial profiling of minorities by law enforcement officials is a controversial subject. Some people consider this to be a form of racism. Some claim that profiling young Arab male fliers at airports will only lead to increased recruitment of older, non-Arab, and female terrorists. (Some terrorism experts disagree with this claim.) Many critics of racial profiling claim that it is an unconstitutional practice because it amounts to questioning individuals on the basis of what crimes they might commit or could possibly commit, instead of what crimes they have actually committed. See the article on racial profiling for more information on this dispute.
In 19th century Europe and America, some scientists developed various theories about biological differences among races, and these theories were in turn used to legitimize racist beliefs and practices. This work has since been rejected by the scientific community as flawed and as pseudoscience, but the fundamental problem was the assumption that studying superficial differences between humans would reveal categories with profound significance.
Today there are some scientists who claim that "race", in the general sense in which the term is used, is a social construct: the way in which individuals are classified into racial groups varies from person to person, and from place to place, and from time to time. These scientists say that superficial characteristics which are associated with racial groupings are poor predictors of genetic variability. There can be more genetic variation within a racial grouping than between two racial groupings. Other scientists counter that "sex" and "species" are likewise seen by some as socially constructed. After all, humans and chimpanzees (or males and females) are far more genetically alike than different. Therefore categories need not be absolute in order to have scientific utility. George W. Gill, in Nova Online, notes that "Slightly over half of all biological/physical anthropologists today believe in the traditional view that human races are biologically valid and real."
The central cause of concern to landowners was the unity of Bacon's populist movement. It raised the question to the landownders of how to divide the population politically in ways that would keep the poorer colonists divided enough to rule. To the Governor, the most threatening, and unexpected, aspect of Bacon's rebellion was its multi-racial aspect. So from that time on, the wealthy landowners determined that only Africans would be used as slaves - and white colonists were promised whatever benefits would have gone to Africans had they continued to be indentured servants. This change began the infamously long period of the American slave society, in which slaves were primarily used for agricultural labor, notably in the production of cotton and tobacco. The social rift along color lines soon became engrained in every aspect of colonial American culture.
In the late 19th and early 20th century many Germans, Austrians came to accept a form of racism towards Jewish people, racial anti-Semitism. Some people in these countries believed erroneously that the Jewish people were a distinct race, and further, that this race was inherently morally inferior to the putative "Aryan races". (Scientists today reject the existence of any Aryan race as fictitious, and as a recent ideological construct.) Jews were commonly referred to as inherently greedy, selfish, and "parasitical". They were often referred to as viruses or parasites. Over time these ideas lead people in these nations to accept the Nazi teachings that the Jewish "parasites" must be exterminated in a literal sense; this led to the Holocaust.
Racism in one form or another was widespread in Britain before the twentieth century, and during the 1900s particularly towards Jewish groups and immigrants from Eastern Europe. Since World War One, public expressions of white supremacism have been limited to far-right political parties such as the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s and the National Front in the 1970s, whilst most mainstream politicians have publicly condemned all forms of racism. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that racism remains widespread, and some politicians and public figures have been accused of excusing or pandering to racist attitudes in the media, particularly with regard to immigration. There have been growing concerns in recent years about institutional racism in public and private bodies, and the tacit support this gives to crimes resulting from racism, such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
The Race Relations Act 1965 outlawed public discrimination, and established the Race Relations Board. Further Acts in 1968 and 1976 outlawed discrimination in employment, housing and social services, and replaced the Race Relations Board with Commission for Racial Equality. The Human Rights Act 1999 made organizations in Britain, including public authorities, subject to the European Convention on Human Rights. The Race Relations Act 2000 extends existing legislation for the public sector to the police force, and requires public authorities to promote equality.
There have been tensions over immigration since at least the early 1900s. These were originally engendered by racism towards Jews and immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. Britain first began restricting immigration in 1905. Britain has had very strong limits on immigration since the early 1960s. Legislation was particularly targeted at members of the British Commonwealth, who had previously been able to migrate to the UK under the British Nationality Act 1948. Virtually all legal immigration, except for those claiming refugee status, ended with the Immigration Act 1971; however, free movement for citizens of the European Union was later established by the Immigration Act 1988. Legislation in 1993, 1996 and 1999 gradually decreased the rights and benefits given to those claiming refugee statues ("asylum seekers"). A further government Act in 2002 gave Britain the most restrictive immigration laws of any country in the European Union.
Although Israeli law treats all citizens equally, it does discriminate between Jewish and non-Jewish non-citizens.
The Israeli constitution grants Jews the right to immigrate, while denying the right to return to the former inhabitants of its area, the Palestinian refugees. Similarly, Arab nations allow Arabs of a given nationality to immigrate, while denying compensation to Jewish refugees.
One fringe Jewish extremist group, Kach, does preach racism towards Arabs. Many Arabs accuse Israelis of harboring racist beliefs towards them.