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A Sociological Definition



Chief Zee with fans at FedEx Field. Washington R******* vs. New York Jets on December, 4, 2011.


Racism refers to a host of practices, beliefs, social relations and phenomena that work to reproduce a racial hierarchy and social structure that yields superiority and privilege for some, and discrimination and oppression for others. Racism takes representational, ideological, discursive, interactional, institutional, structural, and systemic forms. Despite its form, at its core, racism is constituted by essentialist racial categories that turn human subjects into stereotyped objects, and then uses those stereotypes to justify and reproduce a racial hierarchy and racially structured society that limits access to resources, rights, and privileges on the basis of race.

Extended Definition

It is important to recognize that racism manifests in a variety of forms and styles in today’s world. Forms of racism include the following:

  • Representational: depictions of essentialized racial stereotypes are common in popular culture and media, like the tendency to cast people of color as criminals and as victims of crime, or as background characters rather than leads, in film and television; also common are racial caricatures that are racist in their representations, like “mascots” for the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, and the Washington R******* (name redacted because it is a racial slur).
  • Ideological: racism is manifest in world views, beliefs and common sense ways of thinking that are premised on essentialist notions of racial categories, and the idea that white or light skinned people are superior, in a variety of ways, to dark skinned people. Historically, ideological racism supported and justified the building of European colonial empires and U.S. imperialism through unjust acquisition of land, people, and resources around the world. Today, some common ideological forms of racism include the belief that black women are sexually promiscuous, that Latina women are “fiery” or “hot tempered,” and that black men and boys are criminally oriented.
  • Discursive: racism is often expressed linguistically, in the discourse we use to talk about the world and people in it, and manifests in racial slurs and hate speech, and in code words that have racialized meanings embedded in them, like “ghetto,” “thug,” or “gansta.”
  • Interactional: racism takes an interactional form such as a white woman crossing a street to avoid walking past a black or Latino man, a person of color being verbally or physically assaulted because of their race, or when, someone assumes a person of color working at an establishment to be a low-level employee, though they might be a manager, executive, or owner.
  • Institutional: racism can take institutional form in the way policies and laws are crafted and put into practice, such as the decades-long set of policing and legal policies known as “The War on Drugs,” which has disproportionately targeted neighborhoods and communities that are composed predominantly of people of color, New York City’s Stop-N-Frisk policy that overwhelmingly targets black and Latino males, and educational tracking policies that funnel children of color into remedial classes and trades programs.
  • Structural: racism takes structural form in the ongoing, historical, and longterm reproduction of the racialized structure of our society through a combination of all of the above forms. Structural racism manifests in widespread racial segregation and stratification, recurrent displacement of people of color from neighborhoods that go through processes of gentrification, and the overwhelming burden of environmental pollution born by people of color given its proximity to their communities.
  • Systemic: racism within the U.S. can be described as systemic because the country was founded on racist beliefs with racist policies and practices, and because that legacy lives today in the racism that courses throughout the entirety of our social system.

In addition, sociologists observe a variety of styles, or types, within these different forms of racism. Some may be overtly racist, like the use of racial slurs or hate speech, or policies that intentionally discriminate against people on the basis of race. Others may be covert, kept to oneself, hidden from public view, or obscured by colorblind policies that purport to be race-neutral, when in fact they manifest in racist ways. While something may not appear obviously racist at first glance, it may in fact prove to be racist when one examines the implications of it through a sociological lens. If it relies on essentialized notions of race, and reproduces a racially structured society, then it is racist.

Due to the sensitive nature of race as a topic of conversation in U.S. society, some have come to think that simply noticing race, or identifying or describing someone using race, is racist. Given the above definition, sociologists would not agree that this is the case. In fact, many sociologists, racial theorists and anti-racist activists emphasize the importance of recognizing and accounting for race and racism as necessary in the pursuit of social, economic, and political justice.

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