Racism refers to prejudices held against a person or group of people because of their race. Though often conflated, race and ethnicity are distinct concepts, each of which functions as a symbolic designation of a person's ancestry and cultural background. Originally conceived as a biological category, race once implied physiological distinctions among people, while ethnicity indicated membership in a cultural group. Because no scientific evidence exists to support fundamental genetic differences among races, scientists consider race a socially constructed category. While cultural signifiers such as language, fashion, and cuisine serve important functions in determining both someone's race and ethnicity, physical features, particularly skin color, play a central role in most understandings of race. The idea that race is a legitimate biological category is part of the ideology of scientific racism, which proposes that immutable differences exist between races and implies the superiority of one race over another.
Aspects of racism share characteristics with other prejudiced beliefs, and such belief systems often overlap. People who hold jingoist or nativist beliefs, for example, believe that their country of origin is superior to other countries and that foreigners are inferior. Nationalism, which refers to patriotic pride in one's country, may also be used to describe those who feel a sense of superiority over citizens from other nations. Nationalism does not necessitate a racial component but is often racialized, as seen in such ideologies as white nationalism and black nationalism. A related term, xenophobia, refers to an irrational fear or dislike of foreigners and foreign cultures. Ethnocentrists favorably compare their ethnic group to the groups of others, implying a structural or spiritual advantage.
In addition to manifesting itself in daily interactions and interpersonal relationships, racism can also permeate social institutions, such as education and criminal justice, in a phenomenon known as systemic racism. In either case, the impact may be nuanced or overt. While the consequences of everyday racism affect individuals, systemic racism functions in a way that can affect multiple generations. The extreme consequences of racism can result in human tragedy, including the loss of life. Violence and property damage done with a racist intent by an individual or group is considered a hate crime. The most extreme form of racial violence is genocide, which refers to the deliberate killing of an entire race, ethnicity, or religious community.
In the United States, many different groups have historically experienced discrimination because of their race or ethnicity. A May 2018 survey conducted for NBC News found that 64 percent of Americans believe racism continues to be a major problem. Some conservatives credited the election of Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States, in 2008 for straining race relations. Alternatively, Obama's successor, President Donald Trump, has gained a reputation for encouraging racial animosity. According to a February 2018 survey by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 57 percent of US adults, including 75 percent of Hispanic respondents, 84 percent of African American respondents, and 47 percent of white respondents, believe the president is racist.
People from all racial and ethnic backgrounds can experience and express racism. Historical forces, however, have created conditions in which white people are able to access power and wealth more easily than other races, creating social inequities along racial lines. Some critics argue that this position of privilege means that white people cannot experience the ill effects of racism. In a 2017 survey conducted by National Public Radio, however, 55 percent of white respondents stated that white people face discrimination in the United States. Some white people have perceived attempts to redress racial inequities, such as affirmative action policies in hiring and college admissions, as discrimination against their race.
Racism can be expressed explicitly through racial slurs or racialized violence but is often expressed in more subtle ways. People can be unaware of the extent to which stereotypes, or overgeneralizations about groups of people, permeate their thinking. Negative stereotypes include the assumption that criminality, laziness, or a lack of sophistication is widespread among members of certain racial groups. These stereotypes depict an entire racial group as inferior or less tolerable than others. Positive stereotypes, however, are also examples of racism because they perpetuate ways of thinking that do not reflect reality, such as the belief that people of a specific race are preternaturally skilled in a certain area like mathematics or athletics. Asian Americans are often the recipients of the model minority stereotype, which casts people within that group as intelligent, hardworking, wealthy, and more capable of assimilation into larger US society than other racial groups. Though such depictions may seem flattering, critics of the model minority stereotype note that it imposes unrealistic expectations on people about how to live and how easily material success should be obtained. Critics also note that the model minority stereotype overgeneralizes the experiences of Asian Americans, citing achievement gaps between various Asian American ethnic groups.
When people unknowingly allow stereotypical thinking to influence their behavior, they act upon implicit biases. A person's implicit bias may lead him or her to unconsciously provide members of a specific racial group with preferential treatment while discriminating against members of another. Psychologists contend that everyone has implicit biases, a sentiment popularized in the song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from the Broadway musical Avenue Q. In the twenty-first century, numerous colleges, corporations, and government agencies have instituted implicit bias training to help address organizational disparities and improve public relations.
Stereotypical thinking also enables well-intentioned people to alienate others through words and behaviors known as microaggressions. Microaggressions can be intended as compliments, such as telling an individual that he or she is more talented or articulate than other members of his or her race. Sometimes curiosity about another person's race can qualify as a microaggression, such as touching someone's hair or asking overly personal questions about a person's culture. Microaggressions may appear harmless and, in many cases, the aggressors are unaware of their offense. However, these slights perpetuate stereotypes and can contribute to anxiety, depression, and other negative health outcomes among individuals who experience them long-term.
Some more overt microaggressions, such as a white person instinctively checking his wallet or clutching her purse when passing a Latino man on the street or a store owner trailing a black customer as she shops, share characteristics with racial profiling, which refers to the belief that a person is more likely to engage in criminal behavior because of his or her race. Racial profiling can produce substantial consequences, particularly if law enforcement becomes involved. People's implicit biases may motivate them to notify law enforcement when the situation does not necessitate police involvement. The victim of racial profiling then becomes subject to the biases of both the civilian and the police officer, increasing the likelihood of a negative outcome. In 2018 several social media users shared experiences and video evidence of racial profiling, drawing attention to the suspicions that African Americans can encounter for engaging in legal activities, such as knocking on doors while campaigning for political office or waiting for a business associate at a coffee shop. The representation and portrayal of different races in the media has triggered discussions about the ways in which racial biases are promoted and perpetuated. News media organizations, for example, have been criticized for disproportionately reporting crimes in which the victim was white and the suspect was black. In addition, activist groups have faulted the film and television industries for limiting the roles available to minority actors and for only providing roles that promote racial stereotypes.
While some people have used social media to share their experiences with racism or as a way to organize with anti-racism activists, others have used the Internet to promote racist beliefs and harass people because of their race. The anonymity of the Internet allows people to post racist content without identifying themselves. Many users, however, do not attempt to hide their identity when sharing such material. A 2015 survey by Pew Research found that 25 percent of African Americans and 10 percent of Hispanics reported experiencing online harassment because of their race or ethnicity. Online harassment, which sometimes includes coordinated campaigns by groups of people, has driven some people away from engaging with others online. In 2018 Vietnamese American actress Kelly Marie Tran, the first woman of color to have a lead role in a Star Wars film, announced she would no longer use her social media accounts because of the racist comments she had received.
Users who post material deemed racist may face offline consequences. Many people, including high-profile cases involving politicians and other celebrities, have found their careers in jeopardy after thoughtlessly posting or sharing racist content. Employers have turned job candidates away after discovering online racist activity. In 2018 the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) cancelled the television program Roseanne after the show's star Roseanne Barr compared former White House official Valerie Jarrett, who is African American, to a character from the film Planet of the Apes. Many social media sites have rules against online harassment and hate speech, resulting in many overt racists being banned from the most popular social media platforms. In response, technology entrepreneur Andrew Torba launched Gab, a social media network that promotes free speech, in 2016. The site has gained a reputation as an online meeting place for white nationalists and far-right conservatives.
Studying the relationship between online racism and actual racialized violence, researchers from the University of Minnesota and New York University revealed in a 2015 study that hate crimes committed by individuals or "lone wolf" actors increased in areas with greater broadband availability. Their study suggested that these individuals became more interested in racism because access to the Internet increased their exposure to viewpoints that emboldened their racist sentiments. Following the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, where Dylann Roof, a white man, shot and killed nine African Americans, authorities discovered a website called the Last Rhodesian where Roof had published the racist motives behind the attack, citing information he had accessed through Wikipedia and Google.
While racism has become more covert in American society since the civil rights movement, explicit expressions of racial bias have continued to surface. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) found that 57.5 percent of the single-bias 6,063 hate crime incidents committed in 2016 were motivated by race. The FBI concluded that more than half of the 4,426 victims of these racially motivated incidents were African American (50.2 percent), followed by whites (20.5 percent) and Latinos (10.9 percent). The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports that as of 2018, over six hundred racially motivated hate groups, including seventy-two active chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, operate in the United States.
Systemic racism, also referred to as institutionalized racism, refers to social policies and practices that create barriers for people of color and contribute to inequalities between racial groups. For much of US history, laws have been in place that limited opportunities for people of color and people from certain ethnicities to enjoy the full rights of US citizens. Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation policies in public places and racial discrimination in employment, segregation and discrimination persist. Segregation and discrimination imposed by law is referred to as de jure, or of the law, while segregation and discrimination that is not supported by legislation is referred to as de facto, or as a matter of fact. While some scholars consider segregation and discrimination prior to 1964 as de jure and manifestations after 1964 to be de facto, others contend that racial inequities in the twenty-first century result from public policies, including both those that enable racial discrimination and those that have failed to address social and economic inequality. Alternatively, some conservatives, including several prominent politicians, have challenged whether systemic racism exists or, if it does, whether its impact has been overestimated by activists and the media.
Scholars contend that gaps in wealth, achievement, and health outcomes between racial groups are evidence of systemic racism. As a measure of financial health, a family's net worth can indicate the challenges and opportunities that members of that family will face in striving for social mobility. According to the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial study sponsored by the US Department of Treasury and the Federal Reserve, the average wealth of a black family in 2016 was $139,523 and the average wealth of a Hispanic family was slightly higher at $191,727 while the average wealth of a white family exceeded $900,000. Historians note that this disparity in wealth is linked to policies and practices that prevented nonwhites from owning property, obtaining loans, pursuing higher education, securing desirable employment, and joining social networks in which they could build relationships with people in power.
Affirmative action policies have sought to address racial and sex discrimination in employment and college admissions since the 1960s. Affirmative action policies aim to prevent discrimination in hiring and to help racial minorities and women achieve parity in employment by encouraging federal contractors to hire candidates from groups that have historically experienced discrimination. Such policies have also been applied to college admissions. Though the US Supreme Court upheld affirmative action policies in DeFunis v. Odegaard (1974), subsequent rulings in federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have complicated the circumstances in which affirmative action may be considered constitutional.
Many proponents of affirmative action believe that the consideration of race and sex in hiring and university admissions serves to counterbalance decades of institutionalized discrimination. Supporters also assert that because prejudices against minorities are still present in society, a legal basis needs to be provided to address these injustices. Those who oppose affirmative action policies often acknowledge that discrimination still exists but argue that such programs are not effective. Some opponents also claim that preferential hiring and admissions guidelines constitute a separate form of discrimination because they prevent members of non-minority groups from accessing the same opportunities. Opponents have argued that affirmative action policies in college admissions tend to disadvantage Asian American and white students. Under the Trump presidential administration, the US Department of Justice has launched investigations into the affirmative action policies of colleges, including Harvard University, and the US Department of Education has rescinded guidelines issued by the previous administration that urged institutions to pursue diversity in admissions.
Scholars have also focused on racial disparities in criminal justice as evidence of systemic racism, as people of color are more likely to be incarcerated and often receive more severe consequences than white people accused of the same crime. The American Civil Liberties Union reported in 2018 that one-third of black and one-sixth of Latino boys would likely be incarcerated at some point during their lives while only one-seventeenth of white boys could expect such outcomes. Such inequity suggests law enforcement and court officials may have been influenced by implicit biases when interacting with people of color.
Certain policies have also faced scrutiny for producing dissimilar outcomes. Activists have criticized US drug policy for disproportionately targeting racial minorities. For example, drug laws have imposed harsher sentences for crack, a smokable form of cocaine traditionally more popular in minority communities, than powdered cocaine, the form most commonly used in white communities. In response to the opioid crisis in the 2010s, a drug epidemic that significantly affected white communities, federal, state, and local governments launched initiatives to address the problem as a public health issue. Several critics of the US "War on Drugs," which has typically focused on incarceration of those suffering from drug addiction, noted that the government treated minority communities affected by heroin, remarkably similar in composition and effect to pharmaceutical opioids, more like criminals and addicts than victims of a health crisis.