The events of the past week have intensified the ongoing and much-needed discussions about racial prejudice and racism in American society. From my vantage point as a social scientist who studies public attitudes and behavior, I’ve frequently noticed that these important conversations are stymied by differing ideas of what “racism” means and in which contexts. Here I briefly define and discuss some of the most common definitions and conceptualizations of racism used by academic social scientists. Of course these are not the only ways to think about and define racism, but they’re the ones most commonly used by political scientists and sociologists who study individual-level public attitudes.
First, “old-fashioned” or “Jim Crow” racism is the belief that blacks are simply inferior to whites due to an in-born deficiency or difference. Social scientists measure this type of racism with questions like: “Do you think there should be laws against marriages between blacks and whites?” or “On average, blacks have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are because most blacks have less in-born ability to learn?” Whereas this type of racism was common in the United States through the mid-20th century, it has steadily decreased to where now less than 10% of the American population indicates agreement with statements like these (see links).
On one hand, we can look at these patterns and be glad that “old-fashioned” racism is relatively rare compared to half a century ago. On the other hand, that somewhere between 5% and 10% of Americans (tens of millions of people) continue to say “yes” to questions like this helps explain why we still see thousands of hate crimes every year in the United States.
Second, “modern,” or “symbolic” racism is a type of resentment toward blacks (or other racial groups) on the part of whites. In this sense, “resentment” means “anger over a perceived disadvantage due to someone else’s advantage.” Racial resentment, then, means being bothered by a perceived unfair advantage or consideration given to blacks to compensate for past or present discrimination.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, based on dozens of interviews with white folks in Louisiana, thought it best described in terms of a “deep story”:
Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they’d worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls]. Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly.
This type of racism is generally measured in public opinion surveys by agreement with survey questions like these: “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.” or “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”
Why is this defined as a form of racism instead of a principled belief in the importance of hard work and fairness? It is because it manifests in a stereotype being applied systematically to an entire group.
According to the 2018 American National Elections Study survey of over 50,000 Americans, somewhere between 50%-60% of white Americans possess at least a moderate degree of symbolic racism (i.e. either “somewhat” or “mostly” agreeing with statements such as those above). This includes sizeable proportions of just about every demographic and political group.
Third, “implicit racism” or “implicit bias” is a type of racial bias that manifests itself unintentionally, unconsciously, and uncontrollably. Others have described it as negative “thoughts about people you didn’t know you had.” Implicit racism is often formed at a young age based on the messages, attitudes, and stereotypes we pick up from the world we live in which usually tend to line up with existing social hierarchies.
Social scientists measure implicit bias using an “implicit association test” or (IAT) (which you can try out for yourself here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html) and research has revealed that somewhere between 50% and 70% of Americans have a moderate or strong degree of implicit racial bias (depending on the study). A 2015 Pew study found that about 50% of white Americans have an implicit bias for whites over blacks (but interestingly, so do about 30% of blacks). Conversely, only about a quarter of both whites and blacks have no strong implicit bias toward one group over the other.
It is easy to be defensive when someone suggests that we might have an “implicit bias” against this group or that, but we should remember that by its very definition, this is a type of bias that we are not consciously aware of. Every human on the planet has implicit biases toward some groups and against others: it’s how our brains are hard-wired. That said, these implicit biases exert a significant effect on our social attitudes and behaviors, most often without us even realizing it. To the extent we can become aware of it, then, we can consciously do our best to acknowledge and reduce it when we’re making decisions or forming opinions.
This type of racism isn’t an individual-level attitude, but rather a bias that is produced in societal and political systems. This type of racism “includes the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions, which result in the exclusion or promotion of designated groups. It differs from overt discrimination in that no individual intent is necessary. It manifests itself in two ways: institutional racism, or discrimination that derives from individuals carrying out the dictates of others who are prejudiced or of a prejudiced society, and structural racism, or inequalities rooted in the system-wide operation of a society that excludes substantial numbers of members of particular groups from significant participation in major social institutions” (source).
This type of racism manifests itself in societal patterns like:
- Blacks are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite roughly equal levels of use between the two groups (source).
- “Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds” (source).
- “The infant mortality rate for Black women’s babies was more than twice that of all races … and Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes compared with their white counterparts” (source).
This is called “structural” racism because when comparing people in the same economic and social position, blacks still consistently have poorer outcomes. It’s not “individual” racism because it’s not usually the result of one racist person saying or doing a racist thing, but rather a result of the collective biases that have been baked into our economic, health, educational, religious, and political structures over the course of many decades and centuries.
HOW THIS AFFECTS OUR CONVERSATIONS ABOUT RACISM
It is extremely important here to note that while these four types of racial bias are related, they can exist independent of one another and in different degrees in different people. Someone who sincerely abhors old-fashioned racism can still have high levels of implicit racial bias operating outside their conscious awareness. Someone with low levels of symbolic or implicit racism can still contribute (unintentionally or otherwise) to a racist structure or institution.
I’ll also note that “symbolic racism,” “implicit bias,” “structural racism,” etc. are academic “ivory tower” definitions of different types of racial bias. In talking about these different types of bias among individuals and society, it’s often helpful to be able to briefly clarify a concept in non-technical language before getting too far into a conversation.
In my experience, many (but certainly not all) debates over racial issues in contemporary society and politics are often one long exercise in people talking past one another due to a different default idea they have of what racism means when brought up in conversations.
Example: I’ve seen people labeling something as “racist” when referring to structural racism (“look at the racist health care system we have!” when they mean “wow look at the way that the health system consistently produces these disparities in outcomes for black women!”), but then their conversation partner assumes this is an accusation of old-fashioned racism (“are you implying that that doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals all have secret swastika tattoos?” instead of assuming one of the other forms of racism based on the conversational context). “No, of course not!” “But you said the health care system was racist!” “It is, even if individual doctors aren’t!” “What!?” And so it goes.
This is, in my experience, why many conversations fall apart: people have different ideas in their minds of what is meant when the word “racism” is used in important discussions and conversations. If there’s no agreement on definitions, it’s hard to make any meaningful progress. This is why it’s important to have an understanding of the different types of racial bias and racism and how they manifest in different situations, especially as we work toward our goal of a society where all forms of racial bias are eliminated.
Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals by Kinder and Sanders
Racialized Politics: The Debate about Racism in America by Sears, Sidanius, and Bobo (eds)
Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Banaji and Greenwald