Understanding Racism Beyond Colour Prejudice

In 1903 W. B. E. DuBois, the great African American writer and sociologist, declared in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour-line, the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea." Fifty years later, however, he altered his views with the realization that the real problems were economic. "Today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and colour, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance and disease of the majority of their fellowmen."

Prejudice by itself does not constitute racism, however. Neither does power by itself. But when people use their position of power, be it political or institutional, to reinforce their prejudices and to enforce them so that as a result of their racial prejudices the life chances, rights and opportunities of others are limited, the result is racism. Thus, the simplest definition of racism then is: Racism is prejudice plus power. On the basis of this definition, while all people can be prejudiced, only those who have power are really racist. African Americans, Latinos, Asians and American Indians, the powerless in American society, can be and often are most prejudiced toward Whites on an individual basis, but they are not racists at the structural, institutional level. Within this understanding of racism, to be a racist you have to possess two things: 1) socioeconomic power to force others to do what you desire even if they don't want to, and 2), the justification of this power abuse by an ideology of biological supremacy. Keep in mind that what often is described as racism in society today, is really nothing more than prejudice and discrimination. While a Black or Latino person, through the use of a gun and/or intimidation, can force a White person to do as he, as an individual desires, this is an individual act of aggression, not a socially structured power arrangement. At present, however, only Whites have that kind of power, reinforced by a belief in an ideology of supremacy, both of which constitute the basis of racism in America today.

Racis 2

Prejudice by itself does not constitute racism, however. Neither does power by itself. But when people use their position of power, be it political or institutional, to reinforce their prejudices and to enforce them so that as a result of their racial prejudices the life chances, rights and opportunities of others are limited, the result is racism. Thus, the simplest definition of racism then is: Racism is prejudice plus power. On the basis of this definition, while all people can be prejudiced, only those who have power are really racist. African Americans, Latinos, Asians and American Indians‹the powerless in American society‹can be and often are most prejudiced toward Whites on an individual basis, but they are not racists at the structural, institutional level. Within this understanding of racism, to be a racist you have to possess two things: 1) socioeconomic power to force others to do what you desire even if they don't want to, and 2), the justification of this power abuse by an ideology of biological supremacy. Keep in mind that what often is described as racism in society today, is really nothing more than prejudice and discrimination. While a Black or Latino person, through the use of a gun and/or intimidation, can force a White person to do as he‹as an individual‹desires, this is an individual act of aggression, not a socially structured power arrangement. At present, however, only Whites have that kind of power, reinforced by a belief in an ideology of supremacy, both of which constitute the basis of racism in America today.

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Such institutional expressions of privilege are not readily perceived by Whites as "privilege" but as the "normal" day-in and day-out opportunities of life, to which everyone has access. However, when, as a result of demographic and political changes, Whites see their status and the landscape of social power changing, this heretofore unseen privilege now becomes most visible. "We are probably never as aware of phenomena and objects as when we are about to gain or lose them. Conversely, we never take them so much for granted as when we are assured in their possession." When threatened, this previously unseen privileged status becomes something to be protected at all costs. Blacks tend to do the same when they sense Latinos and Asians encroaching on their hard-fought gains and privileges. This kind of exclusive behaviour cuts across all race groups, not just Whites, and is correlated with a sense of a loss of power and privilege. Langdon Gilkey puts it this way. "When people give their ultimate devotion to their own welfare or to the welfare of their group, they are no longer free to be completely moral or rational when they find themselves under pressure. Whenever the security of the object of this commitment is threatened, they are driven by an intense anxiety to reinforce that security."

Racis 5

At the heart of prejudice lie two concepts: ignorance and fear. All of us tend to have prejudicial attitudes towards others. This type of prejudice or "pre-judgment" is based on ignorance. It is a normal human response to racial, social, sexual and other forms of differences, because all human beings tend to prejudge others on the basis of limited knowledge, especially if they are different from us. Thus we are all prejudiced, and virtually none are exempt. Most of what passes for prejudice in society is the result of ignorance of other groups and their way of life and social condition. Because of the way American society is presently structured, most Whites have almost no conceptual idea nor first-hand experience of life in the African American and Latino communities. This is because the prevailing norms of separation and segregation that prevent people of different racial/ethnic groups from interacting with each other in a meaningful and positive way perpetuate this ignorance of groups, which in turn gives rise to attitudes of prejudice. In light of such a common human condition, the advice of a former seminary professor of mine is most helpful and worthy of practice: "The mark of a mature mind is the ability to suspend judgment until all the evidence is in.

The other factor is fear, and this one goes much deeper than ignorance, for its strikes at the root of prejudice, the issue of privilege and power. What makes racial prejudice so sinister is not just the act of prejudging a person or a group. Prejudice is an inflexible, rational attitude that, often in a disguised manner, defends privilege, and even after evidence to the contrary will not change, so that the post-judgment is the same as the pre-judgment. In the definition of prejudice, the indictment is greater for post-judgment than for pre-judgment. If you don¹t have post-judgment in your definition of prejudice you don¹t know what you are talking about. This is because racial prejudice is the refusal to change one's attitude even after evidence to the contrary, so that one will continue to post-judge people the same way one pre-judged them. This is the due to the fear of losing the power of privilege. In prejudice people are basically defending privilege of position and thus stand to gain emotionally, culturally, socially and economically from an attitude of prejudice towards others. Whenever people sense that these privileges are threatened they become fearful of the other and react. The old adage applies here: "A person convinced against their will is of the same opinion still." Prejudice thus becomes the mental framework to protect from fear, thereby safeguarding a position of social advantage and privilege over others defined as different, and therefore, undeserving. People find great social and economical benefit from being prejudiced. And as long as these gains are forthcoming, people will continue to maintain their prejudice, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, for prejudice is more visceral than cerebral.

In its essence, racism is culturally sanctioned strategies that defend the advantages of power, privilege and prestige which "Whites have because of the subordinated position of racial minorities." This deliberate political, economical, religious and sociocultural structuring of privilege, does not take place in some moral vacuum. It has behind it the moral force of an ideology of supremacy, an ill-will that claims racial superiority and pride of position. By ideology I mean a system of ideas and beliefs about the universe, to which a people adhere in order to justify their attitudes and actions. This ideology can have a religious or a scientific basis, depending on which one shapes our worldview. Nevertheless the outcome is the same, where one group benefits and the other does not.

Throughout history there have been two ways of bringing about social change, one is normative, the other is transformative. The Normative Model of Change is based on the premise that change must start with the individual and that beliefs change behaviour. It follows a four-step process:

The Normative Model of Change
(Premises: Change must start with individuals; beliefs change behaviour)

  1. Knowledge--provide people with all the necessary information.
    2. Attitudes--knowledge will result in attitudinal changes.
    3. Individual Behaviour--attitudinal change results in individual behavioural change.
    4. Group Behaviour--individual change results in group change.

I call it "Normative" because it is the most prevalent model to effect change. This four-step process, the normal way people think change takes place, looks very logical, neat and workable, so that by giving people the necessary information gradual change will take place from the individual to the group. But there is one problem with it, it seldom works. The model breaks down at step 2. All the knowledge in the world does not necessarily change people's attitudes. That¹s the point of this whole discussion, as the old adage says: "A person convinced against their will is of the same opinion still." In addition, individual behavioural change does not necessarily translate into group behavioural change.

A second model is the Transformative Model of Change, which is based on the premise that change must start with institutions and that behaviour changes beliefs. As can be expected, this model involves fewer steps, a two-step process:

The Transformative Model of Change
(Premises: Change must start with institutions; behaviour changes beliefs)

  1. Change Behaviour.
    2. Change Beliefs.

The first step in this model is to focus on the required institutional behavioural changes. People will then bring their beliefs into line with their behaviour, which in turn affects their beliefs, and so on through the spiral. Of the two, this is the more effective process to bring about change, since people will not change unless forced to. Laurie Beth Jones reminds us that, "Leaders who think others will follow them for no reason, because it is their job description, or because they are afraid to do otherwise, fail to understand a key element of the human psyche. People will give up what they are used to only when they clearly understand and are shown something better. The trick is understanding and communicating the difference between good and better," for good is often the enemy of the best.

Excerpts from writings of Caleb Rosado
Department of Urban Studies
Eastern University
Philadelphia, PA

This article has 1 Comment

  1. This is really helpful and important information. I hope to see more people becoming aware of what these terms mean, so that it might be used as a non-confrontational gateway to long-term solutions. This is the kind of thing that should really be taught in schools from a young age onward.

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