by Dr.Wornie Reed, Ph.D.
Director, Race and Social Policy, Virginia Tech
How can we tell if a person is a racist since we cannot know what is in his heart? Unfortunately, that seems to be the ever-present wrong-headed idea about racism.
This orientation is based on the idea that racism is something that bigoted individuals do intentionally. While that is a situation that does occur, it is the less consequential of the ways that racism works.
There is individual racism, and there is institutional or systemic racism. The latter is much more critical because it is more impactful. But first, precisely what is racism?
The 1960s was a pivotal decade. First, it distinguished between “racism” and “prejudice,” terms used interchangeably. We learned that prejudice is an attitude or orientation, and racism is any adverse action against someone because of their race.
We also learned that while prejudice can lead to racism (prejudice racism), more importantly, and prominently, racism leads to prejudice (racism prejudice).
Quite simply, no one is born prejudiced. Therefore, this prejudice must come from somewhere, and that somewhere is racism. One “learns” to be prejudiced through some social context—the family, the social group, the community, or the society. Thus, the critical situation is racism in society.
The 1960s produced an important convergence of ideas. Academics and congresspersons agreed with civil rights leaders that (1) the real meaning of racism was “disparate impact,” and (2) “intent of the action” was irrelevant. And civil rights laws were based substantially on those principles.
Disparate impact occurs when policies and practices that may appear neutral result in disproportionate adverse effects on a protected group (minorities, women). The emphasis in assessing racism is the effect. Regardless of intent, the harm is the same.
Therefore, how do we spot a racist? Social science tells us that a person’s thinking and feeling are irrelevant here because racism is an act; a person who commits a racist act commits racism. Sociology tells us that a racist act is a racism regardless of intent. So, what is in one’s heart (their mind) does not matter; What matters are actions. Intent and attitude are irrelevant. If the act is racist, the person has committed racism. If the act has a disproportionately adverse effect on minorities, the act is racist, and the perpetrator has committed racism.
Does this mean the person is a racist? Yes. A racist is a person who commits a racist act. For example, if you see a person reading a book, you may call that person a reader. If you see a person drinking beer, you can safely say that person is a beer drinker, and so on. If a person commits racist acts, that person is a racist—even if unintentional and only temporarily or seldom.
The 1960s introduced us to institutional racism. I stated above that racism abides in society. Racism is built into society’s very structures and institutions, and it is expressed through these institutions—educational, economic, political, legal, medical, etc.
In the not so long ago past, racism was legal and therefore overt. Systemic racism perpetuates the effects of past overt racism through institutional procedures and policies that may appear to be race-neutral but are racist in effect. To deal with systemic racism—the significant issue–we must focus on these procedures and policies instead of the intentions of biased individuals.