Race and Racism

The term racism widely entered the social science vocabulary in the 1930s, as part of the Boasian reaction against the social Darwinism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ruth Benedict, a student of Franz Boas, was one of the prominent early users. By the 1950s and 1960s, a broad consensus developed as to what racism meant, namely, an attitude or theory that some human groups, socially defined by biological descent and physical appearance, were superior or inferior to other groups in physical, intellectual, cultural, or moral proper ties. It was clearly understood that “races” were socially defined, differently in different societies, but according to physical phenotypes, such as skin color, facial features, or hair texture.

Racism, so defined, was differentiated from ethnocentrism, also a belief or theory of inequality between human groups, but where that inequality was ascribed to some aspect of culture, such as moral values, religion, language, or ”level of civilization.” Ethnocentrism, i.e., a preference for one’s own cultural group, was held to be universal, but not so racism. The latter was generally ascribed to European expansion, imperialism, colonialism, and chattel slavery in the nineteenth century, and associated with Fascism and Nazism in the twentieth century.

During this earlier social science consensus, racism was also clearly kept analytically distinct from discrimination, segregation, and other features of systematic inequality between ascribed groups. Racism was defined as an attitude, a prejudice, a theory, in short, an ideational system held in individual human minds. Discrimination, segregation, ostracism, and so on, were treated as forms of behavior which included or excluded certain groups, and which were frequently, but not necessarily, associated with the racist beliefs of their practitioners. One could be an unprejudiced discriminator, or, conversely, a prejudiced non discriminator. Behavior was held to be a function not only of beliefs, but also of sanctions. Unprejudiced discriminators could be found in racial caste societies, like apartheid South Africa. Conversely, where discrimination is punished, prejudiced individuals often refrain from discriminatory behavior.

This state of conceptual clarity did not last long. It gradually disintegrated under repeated attacks, mostly from the left, starting in the 1970s, and continuously escalating until the present. In a first stage, the distinction between race and ethnicity was increasingly confounded. Since race was socially, not biologically, defined, and since ethnicity was often based on a theory of common descent, the distinction between the two was held to be spurious. Explicitly or implicitly, authors began to use the two terms interchangeably, to the detriment of analytical rigor. Often, race was defined away as ethnicity, but, conversely, ethnocentrism was frequently denounced as racism. The term “racism” was increasingly used as an invective of ever widening scope.

On a second front, the distinction between belief and behavior, between prejudice and discrimination, came under growing assault. The key moment here was the rapid acceptance of the concept of ”institutional racism,” hailed by many as a great analytic advance, when, in fact, the only advance was in an ideological agenda. Institutional racism referred to the structural inequalities  between  racial  and/or ethnic groups, in short, to the consequences of behavioral discrimination. These were said to be independent of individual attitudes, indeed, to have a self perpetuating institutional life of their own. Attitudes were asserted to be irrelevant to the existence of institutional racism.

In brief, the double distinction between race and ethnicity, and between attitudes and behavior, was now defunct, so that almost any statistical difference between any two ascribed groups could now be termed ”racism.” Intention did not matter. (By analogy, any structural difference between  men and  women was now labeled ”sexism.”) The stage was now set for the transformation of racism from a relatively precise analytical concept to an elastic term of opprobrium applied to almost anything one disapproved of.  Lucid analysis of complex multicultural and/or multiracial societies all too often yielded to ideologically inspired mush.

The ultimate extension of the concept of racism occurred during the last 10 or 15 years. Explicit refusal to take race into account, and profession of an ideology and practice of ”race blindness,” are now often held to be a novel and subtle form of racism. If you say race matters, you are, by definition, a racist. If, however, you say race does not matter, you are a racist as well, because race really does matter. Thus, for instance, opposition to race based ”affirmative action,” on the ground that it uses a racial criterion to produce racial discrimination, now qualifies as neoracism. Racism and anti racism are neatly equated. The latter is merely a cryptic form of the former.

What are we to make of all this sociologically constructed confusion? Underlying the evolution of the concept of racism is a deeply contradictory ”liberal” ideology. On the one hand, statistical differences between as criptive groups based on race or ethnicity are declared illegitimate, or, at least, suspect, and therefore subject to remedial action, including policies based on the very criteria which constitute the foundation of the differences. One seeks to abolish or reduce differences by reinforcing and entrenching the criteria of group membership that underlie these differences. On the other hand, liberal ideology in multicultural and/or multi racial societies extols and celebrates ”diversity.” On the face of it, it would seem that one cannot simultaneously eradicate differences between ascribed groups and extol them. At best, one can try to destigmatize existing differences and reduce their adverse consequences.

That said, social science theory and ideology – the two, by the way, are often hard to distinguish – must face two stubbornly persistent realities.

First, whenever two or more ethnic and/or racial groups have formed a common society (by conquest, slavery, or voluntary immigration), the result has, with few exceptions, been some degree of hierarchy and social differentiation between groups. Some groups are more powerful or affluent; groups tend to aggregate spatially; and an ethnic division of labor often sets in. Try to imagine a US society, for instance, where diamond cutters, taxi drivers, and basketball players would each have a proportional representation of Jews, Sikhs, and African Americans.

The elusive search for proportional group representation in every aspect of education, employment, residential distribution, and so on, often brings massive state intervention. The latter is not only doomed to failure in most cases, but frequently boomerangs. Such attempts have often consolidated group distinctions and exacerbated conflicts. This is not to say that ethnic or racial hierarchies are immutable. They can be rapidly overturned by revolution, for instance. But the proportional representation society is a utopia.

Second, one of the greatest human universals is that most people show a strong preference for others who are like themselves, and that the main fault lines of these preferences have largely followed the social boundaries of race and ethnicity. Indeed, these fault lines have been formed by these preferences. Whenever a phenomenon is universal in our species, it begs for an explanation that is not purely based on social constructionism.

Sociobiology has provided an answer for the universality of preference for one’s ”own kind,” and for resistance to sharing scarce resources with unrelated others. Evolution by natural selection has predisposed us (as well as countless other species) to favor others to the extent that we are biologically related. By doing so, we have maximized our ”inclusive fitness,” i.e., the representation of our genome in successive generations. We are predisposed to favor kin over non kin, and close kin over distant kin. Ethnic or racial groups are simply extensions of kinship. Ethnocentrism and racism are nepotism writ large.

Almost all cultures have normatively rein forced this genetic predisposition. They have regarded familism, nepotism, and ethnocentrism as normal, expected behavior, even if a few cultures have sought to control and limit them. Any culture that seeks to counteract nepotism faces an uphill battle. Perhaps the best social policy would be one that accepts the reality of nepotism, ethnocentrism, and racism, but seeks to contain them as preference for one’s own kind, and to prevent their extension into hatred of others. The latter does not follow from the former.

Any sociology that claims to be a science of human behavior cannot continue to ignore the biological bases of that behavior, and explain it purely in social constructionist terms. Of course, we constantly construct and reconstruct our social reality, but not in a biological vacuum. Genes and culture complexly interact to produce behavior and social structure.


  1. Benedict, R. (1943) Race, Science, and Politics. Vik­ing, New York.
  2. Horowitz, D. L. (1985) Ethnic Groups in Conflict. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  3. Mason, P. (1971) Patterns of Dominance. Oxford Uni­versity Press, Oxford.
  4. Rex, J. & Mason, D. (Eds.) (1986) Theories of Race and Ethnic Relations. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  5. Van den Berghe, P. L. (1967) Race and Racism.
  6. Wiley, New York. Van den Berghe, P. L. (1981) The Ethnic Phenomenon. Elsevier, New York.

Back to Sociology of Race