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Racism is the incitation of discrimination, hatred or violence towards a person or a group of persons because of their origin or their belonging, or not belonging, to a specific ethnic group or race. Such discrimination, hatred and violence are directed against minority groups. More broadly, racism can be defined as a set of theories and beliefs that establishes a hierarchy of races and ethnicities, based on misconceptions and stereotypes. Racism is a form of discrimination founded on the origin, or on the ethnic/racial background of the victim. Racism can be held in several forms; including, structural (systemic/institutional), interpersonal, or individual. According to Vermont’s Act 33: An act relating to addressing disparities and promoting equity in the health care system, systemic (or structural) racism is defined as “the laws, policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other societal norms that often work together to deny equal opportunity…”. Similarly, the National Archive’s Archivist’s Taskforce on Racism Report states that institutional racism occurs within an organization and includes discriminatory treatment, unfair policies, and biased practices based on race that result in inequitable outcomes for white people over people of color and extends beyond prejudice”

Interpersonal racism often involves slurs or hateful actions between individuals and individual racism  is an embodiment of the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individuals that “support or perpetuate racism in conscious and unconscious ways.”

Racism uses prejudices to belittle people based on their physical appearance and it attributes character traits, values, aptitudes or physical or intellectual defects to them, that refer to clichés or stereotypes. Racism aims to incite hatred, encourage verbal or physical violence against minority groups and undermine personal dignity and honor. Hence, the term racism refers to any type of racial discrimination that occurs when an individual is victim of disparate treatment because of their actual or perceived race. 

The term "racism" is a modern concept: the word "racism" appears in the eighteenth Century in the European age of imperialism and the doctrine of discovery, more specifically in France and in the United-Kingdom. The term is then used more commonly to describe the Atlantic slave trade, the Nazi regime actions in Germany, the apartheid in South Africa, racial segregation in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Racism has played a capital role in hate crimes and genocides throughout history, such as the holocaust, the Armenian genocide, or in times of colonization, such as the colonization of the Americas, of Africa and Asia. Indigenous people were direct victims of racism. Racism has also tinted many political systems, such as apartheid, but also is the root to racist ideologies such as nativism, xenophobia, segregation and supremacy.

Racism can be expressed through different aspects:

  • Behaviors: speech, attacks, threats, insults.
  • Crimes against Humanity: slavery, genocide, wars.
  • Ideologies: nativism, xenophobia, colonialism, white supremacy, otherness.
  • Policies: segregation, redlining, apartheid, State persecution, laws against mixed marriage, etc.

Racism built itself on scientific unfounded theories and disillusions that all turned out to be false, and was used to rationalize the politics of oppression. Indeed, racism was originally based on biology. Presupposing the existence of human groups called "races", it stipulates that the members of each "race" have a common genetic heritage that determines their intellectual and physical aptitudes and moral qualities. In the early 20th century, the biologists and scientific community used geneticists to warned that intermarriage between "widely separated" races could result in what they called genetic "disharmonies." This theory was common and quite popular, but quickly lost its credibility. Racism passed from a biological racism to a cultural racism, which has not yet been uprooted. 

Finally, ideological racism has developed since the 19th century, with apartheid in South Africa or the German Reich’s Nazism. “Race” is no longer used to justify inequality, replaced by “Ethnicity”, which refers to the division of human groups based on qualities assumed to be essential to a group. According to the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, there is no distinction between the terms "racial" and "ethnic" discrimination. The UN Convention concludes that any superiority based on race is “scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous”.

Illustrations of Institutionalized Racism in the United States

Racism in the Criminal Justice system:

In its article titled “Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice”, the American Bar Association highlights that although Black people make up 13.4% of the population, statistics show that: 

  • 22% of fatal police shootings target Black people;
  • 47% of wrongful convictions are inflicted upon Black people;
  • 35% of individuals executed by the death penalty are Black people. 

The American Civil Liberties Union states that Black men receive sentences that are on average 20% longer than White men. 

Hate Crimes:

Hate crimes are a very violent manifestation of racism. The Covid-19 pandemic has further demonstrated that anti-Asian racism was very present in the U.S. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported:

  • A 331% increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans 
  • Over 9,000 documented reports of hate crimes against Asian-American since the pandemic. 

The most common type of manifestation of anti-Asian hate is verbal harassment, insults and physical assault. On March 16th, 2021, the Atlanta shooting where six women were killed for racial motives further demonstrates that Anti-Asian is extremely violent.

Racial Discrimination in Healthcare:

As an example of healthcare discrimination, the data relating to maternal mortality amongst Black and Native American mothers is a good example. Maternal mortality is higher for Black and Native women than it is for their white counterparts, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that:

  • 700 women in the U.S. die from pregnancy-related complications;
  • Over 50,000 experience life endangering complications related to childbirth;
  • African-American women are 3.2 times more likely to die during labor than white women;
  • Per 100 000 births, 40.8 African-American women die, and in comparison per 100 000 births, 12.7 white women die;
  • Native women are 2.5 times more likely to die during labor than white women;
  • Over 60% of pregnancy-related deaths are found to be preventable.
Racial Discrimination in Housing (Redlining):

Redlining can be defined as a discriminatory practice that consists in the systematic denial of services such as mortgages, insurance loans, and other financial services to residents of certain areas, based on their race or ethnicity.

As an illustration of redlining, reporter Bill Dedman published a series of articles in the 1980s demonstrating that Atlanta banks would accept lending in lower-income white neighborhoods but would refuse to lend in middle-income or upper-income Black neighborhoods.

For additional educational resources on racism visit the National Museum of African American History and the Zinn Education Project

[Last updated in May of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team