Defining Racism

By Astrid Popovici
People have gotten fired, lost their credibility, and had their college acceptances rescinded over accusations of racism.  Given the immense power the word “racism” has, it’s worth asking ourselves: what exactly does it mean?

In the past, racism was synonymous with classification (the legal term for discrimination) based on race.  Prohibiting a certain race from eating at your restaurant, or giving one race preferential treatment in hiring or college admissions, are examples of racial classification/discrimination.  According to this definition, racism means inequality of opportunity: when members of one race face discrimination, they are denied the same opportunity to succeed as members of another race.  You can think of equality of opportunity as every runner having the same starting line.  Who wins the race will depend on their running ability, but they all start off with the same opportunity.

More recently, many have begun to define racism as inequality of outcome.  According to this definition, it would be racist to for one race of people to be poorer than other races, to be overrepresented in certain professions (STEM, marathon running, violin-playing), or to otherwise have disparate outcomes from other races in some area of life.  You can think of equality of outcome as every runner having the same finishing time.  To achieve this, the faster runners must have their starting lines moved back.

Sometimes these definitions conflict with each other.  For example, in order to get closer to equal representation of  black and Hispanic students, colleges give them “boosts” of 230 and 180 points on the SAT, respectively (while Asian applicants are penalized 50 points), according to a Princeton study.  Thus, college admissions meet the opportunity definition of racism.  In contrast, the NBA, meritocratic and 80% black, meets the outcome definition but not the opportunity definition.

For others, “racist” is simply an amorphous term of insult, used to shut down discussion or signal allegiance to a group or ideology, and devoid of any objective meaning.  For these people, racism is a term used to exercise power, not to discuss principles.

To have honest and constructive discussions with others, we must first agree on the meaning of language.  Defining racism is a good place to start.