Racism in the United States traces the attitudes, laws, practices and actions which discriminate against various groups in the United States based on their race or ethnicity; while most white Americans enjoy legally or socially sanctioned privileges and rights which have at various times been denied to members of other ethnic or minority groups. European Americans, particularly affluent white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, are said to have enjoyed advantages in matters of education, immigration, voting rights, citizenship, land acquisition, bankruptcy, and criminal procedure throughout United States history.
Racism against various ethnic or minority groups has existed in the United States since the colonial era. African Americans in particular have faced restrictions on their political, social, and economic freedoms throughout much of United States history. Native Americans have suffered genocide, forced removals, and massacres, and they continue to face discrimination. In addition, East, South, and Southeast Asians along with Pacific Islanders have also been discriminated against. Hispanics have continuously experienced racism in the United States despite the fact that many of them have European ancestry. Middle Eastern groups such as Jews, Arabs, and Iranians continuously face discrimination in the United States, and as a result, some people who belong to these groups do not identify as, and are not perceived to be, white.
Racism has manifested itself in a variety of ways, including genocide, slavery, segregation, Native American reservations, Native American boarding schools, immigration and naturalization laws, and internment camps. Formal racial discrimination was largely banned by the mid-20th century and over time, coming to be perceived as being socially and morally unacceptable. Racial politics remains a major phenomenon, and racism continues to be reflected in socioeconomic inequality. In recent years research has uncovered extensive evidence of racial discrimination in various sectors of modern U.S. society, including the criminal justice system, business, the economy, housing, health care, the media, and politics. In the view of the United Nations and the U.S. Human Rights Network, "discrimination in the United States permeates all aspects of life and extends to all communities of color."
Anti-Middle Eastern Sentiment
Anti-Middle Eastern racism has a long history in the United States, although it had generally been limited to Jews until recent decades. It is suggested by Leo Rosten that as soon as they left the boat, Jews were subject to racism from the port immigration authorities. The derogatory term kike was adopted when referring to Jews (because they often could not write so they may have signed their immigration papers with circles – or kikel in Yiddish). In early films, such as Cohen's Advertising Scheme (1904, silent), Jews were stereotyped as "scheming merchants," often with exaggerated West Asian racial features such as big, hooked noses, big lips, small eyes, black curly hair, and olive and/or brown-colored skin.
From the 1910s, Southern Jewish communities were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, who objected to Jewish immigration, and often used "The Jewish Banker" in their propaganda. In 1915, Leo Frank was lynched in Georgia after being convicted of rape and sentenced to death (his punishment was commuted to life imprisonment). The second Ku Klux Klan, which grew enormously in the early 1920s by promoting "100% Americanism", focused its hatred on Jews, as well as Catholics and African Americans.
In 1993, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee confronted The Walt Disney Company about anti-Arab racist content in its animated film Aladdin. At first, Disney denied any problems but eventually relented and changed two lines in the opening song. Members of the ADC were still unhappy with the portrayal of Arabic characters and the referral to the Middle East as "barbaric".
Since 9/11, anti-Middle Eastern racism has risen dramatically. A man in Houston, Texas, who was shot and wounded after an assailant accused him of "blowing up the country", and four immigrants shot and killed by a man named Larme Price, who confessed to killing them as revenge for the September 11 attacks. Price said he was motivated by a desire to kill people of Arab descent after the attacks. Although Price described his victims as Arabs, only one was from an Arab country. This appears to be a trend; because of stereotypes of Arabs, several non-Arab, non-Muslim groups were subjected to attacks in the wake of 9/11, including several Sikh men attacked for wearing their religiously-mandated turban. Price's mother, Leatha Price, said that her son's anger at Arabs was a matter of mental illness, not ethnic hatred.
A 2007 survey by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) concluded that 15% of Americans hold anti-Semitic views, which was in-line with the average of the previous ten years, but a decline from the 29% of the early sixties (The Marttila Communications Group). The survey concluded that education was a strong predictor, "with most educated Americans being remarkably free of prejudicial views" (Ibid). The belief that Jews have too much power was considered a common anti-Semitic view by the ADL. Other views indicating anti-Semitism, according to the survey, include the view that Jews are more loyal to Israel than America, and that they are responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth. The survey found that anti-Semitic Americans are likely to be intolerant generally, e.g. regarding immigration and free-speech. The 2007 survey also found that 29% of foreign-born Hispanics and 32% of African-Americans hold strong anti-Semitic beliefs, three times more than the 10% for whites. A 2009 study published in Boston Review found that nearly 25% of non-Jewish Americans blamed Jews for the financial crisis of 2007–2008, with a higher percentage among Democrats than Republicans; 32% of Democrats blamed Jews for the financial crisis, versus 18% for Republicans.
Asian Americans, including those of East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian descent, have experienced racism since the first major groups of Chinese immigrants arrived in America. The Naturalization Act of 1790 made Asians ineligible for citizenship. First-generation immigrants, children of immigrants, and Asians adopted by non-Asian families are still impacted by discrimination. During the Industrial Revolution in the United States, labor shortages in the mining and rail industries were prevalent. Chinese immigrant labor was often used to fill this gap, most notably with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, leading to large-scale Chinese immigration. These Chinese immigrants were seen as taking the jobs of whites for cheaper pay, and the phrase Yellow Peril, which predicted the demise of Western Civilization as a result of Chinese immigrants, gained popularity.
In 1871, one of the largest lynchings in American history was committed against Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles, California. It would go on to become known as the Chinese massacre of 1871. The 1879 Constitution of the California prohibited the employment of Chinese people by state and local governments, as well as by businesses that were incorporated in California. Also, the 1879 constitution delegated power to local governments in California to remove Chinese people from within their borders. The federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned immigration of Chinese labourers for ten years after thousands of Chinese immigrants had come to the American West. Several mob attacks against Chinese people took place, including the Rock Springs massacre of 1885 in Wyoming in which at least 28 Chinese miners were killed and 15 injured, and the Hells Canyon massacre of 1887 in Oregon where 34 Chinese miners were killed.
Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in the city of Wuhan, Hubei, China, in December 2019, has led to an increase in acts and displays of sinophobia as well as prejudice, xenophobia, discrimination, violence, and racism against people of East Asian, North Asian and Southeast Asian descent and appearance around the world. With the spread of the pandemic and formation of hotspots, such as those in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, discrimination against people from these hotspots has been reported.
According to a June 2020 Pew Research study, 58% of Asian Americans and 45% of African Americans believe that racist views toward them had increased since the pandemic. There were a few thousand incidences of xenophobia and racism against Asian Americans between 28 January and 24 February 2020, according to a tally compiled by Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. An online reporting forum called "Stop AAPI Hate" recorded "650 direct reports of discrimination against primarily Asian Americans" between 18 and 26 March 2020, this later increased to 1,497 reports by 15 April 2020, and most targets were of Chinese (40%) and Korean (16%) descents. According to a WHYY-FM report (21 April 2020), incidents of anti-Asian racism, including discrimination, racial slurs and violent attacks, especially towards Chinese Americans, were caused both by white Americans and African-Americans; most cases remain unreported to the authorities.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump frequently referred to COVID-19 as the "Chinese Virus" and the "China Virus" in an attempt to point to its origin, a term considered to be anti-Chinese and racist. He later argued this was "not racist at all" after lawmakers including Elizabeth Warren raised objections about the statement. Trump also stated on Twitter, on 23 March 2020, that the coronavirus was not Asian Americans’ fault and their community should be protected. Trump brushed off the alleged use of the derogatory term "Kung Flu" by a White House official to refer to COVID-19 when asked by a reporter during a media session on 18 March 2020. Eventually he pulled back on the "Chinese Virus" name due to Asian communities facing increased number of racist taunts and incidents as the illness spread across the U.S. however, at his Tulsa, Oklahoma rally on 20 June, Trump referred to the virus as "Kung Flu." On 14 March 2020, more than 200 civil rights groups in the United States demanded that the House of Representatives and Senate leadership publicly denounce the growing amount of anti-Asian racism related to the pandemic and take "tangible steps to counter the hysteria" around the coronavirus, offering the passage of a joint resolution denouncing the racism and xenophobia as one solution.
Types of Racism
A general definition of racism has been provided above. Yet, in reality, sociologists have identified multiple types of racism, which are defined and described below. The analysis of these different types of racism provides more depth and complexity which can help to better diagnose, critically analyze, and potentially remedy racism.
Color-blind racism is defined as the use of race-neutral principles to defend the racially unequal status quo. While a mainstream definition of color-blindness suggests that race or racial classification does not affect a person's life chances or opportunities, sociologists such as Bonilla-Silva argues that this more subtle form of racism ignores race and structural racism and is the dominant ideology in the U.S. Yet, as shown below structural racism permeates every aspect of our lives, and color blind racism ignores the structural inequalities that disproportionately affect people of color.
- Example: "We are all equal" and "race doesn't matter" are phrases uttered and may sound but, but in reality these phrases ignore structural problems such as the prison industrial complex, poverty, the wealth gap, and educational inequailties - all of which hamper the life chances of people of color which means we do not all have equal chances.
- How can we reach a point where our differences are acknowledged and even celebrated or where are unequal life experiences are understood as real?
Environmental racism: Structurally analogous to environmental sexism, environmental racism involves a conceptual association between people of color and nature that marks their dual subordination (Bullard, 1983). Environmental racism is seen in the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and the siting of polluting industries(Ibid). It is racial discrimination in the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in communities of color (Ibid). And, it is racial discrimination in the history of excluding people of color from the mainstream environmental groups, decision-making boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies (Ibid).
- Example: Government-sanctioned lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, disproportionately impacting the African-American population.
- What race-ethnic representation exists in your local, appointed and elected municipalities (government), including those that regulate water and air pollution? What environmental groups exist in your community to provide checks on these governing boards, particularly with regards to the communities populated by people of color?
Ideological racism: An ideology that considers a groups’ unchangeable physical characteristics to be linked in a direct, causal way to psychological or intellectual characteristics and that, on this basis, distinguishes between superior and inferior groups (Feagin & Feagin, 1998).
- Example: The justification of slavery as “saving” Africans from their homeland’s “primitive culture;” Manifest Destiny that purported Euro-Americans God-given rights to the lands in the eastern United States at the expense of Native Americans who were symbolized as “savages;” former President Trump’s statements on the campaign trail linking Mexicans to rapists and criminals.
- How can the stereotypes that shape ideological racism be challenged or changed - on an individual level, in our families, in the media, and in society at large?
Internalized racism: Members of the target group are emotionally, physically, and spiritually battered to the point that they begin to actually believe that their oppression is deserved, is their lot in life, is natural and right, and that it doesn’t even exist (Yamato, 2004).
- Example: A person of color who hates their skin color and wishes to marry out of their race-ethnic group so their children will be of lighter complexion. Another example: the root of the alcohol problem in Indigenous communities can be traced to the effects of colonization, internalizing the colonizer’s message (i.e. American Indians are inferior or "savage").
- In some communities and families, internalized racism has been in the works over centuries. What types of mental health supports exist in your communities or schools that may serve to address internalized racism?
Inter-group or inter-personal racism: This is the racism that occurs between individuals or groups; it is the holding of negative attitudes towards a different race or culture (Safe Places for the Advancement of Community and Equity). Interpersonal racism often follows a victim/perpetrator model (Ibid). Within poor communities, ignorance and suspicion of groups or individuals of a different race-ethnic background may result in tension between various race-ethnic groups.
- Example: In urban spaces such as Los Angeles, Long Beach, Chicago, New York City, poor Latinx, Asian, and African American gangs fight each other rather than the capitalist system that perpetuates class inequalities.
- Can you identify examples of multiracial coalitions in your community? One such multiracial collective is Californians for Justice, located in Oakland, San Jose, Fresno, and Long Beach, which is a statewide youth-powered organization fighting for racial justice, particularly in our public schools.
Intra-group racism: Racist attitudes and behaviors against people of your “same racial group.” Colorism is a type of intra-group racism which is the ranking or judgment of individuals based on skin tone (Schaefer, 2019).
- Example: A light-skinned person of color who evaluates a dark-skinned person of color as inferior; a wealthy person of any particular "race" who speaks pejoratively of less financially wealthy individuals in their "race."
- Have you ever experienced colorism in your family, community, or social media? How did you respond to this colorism, or how could have you responded to it?
Modern racism: White beliefs that serious anti-Black (or anti-Mexican, anti-Arab, anti-Asian, etc.) discrimination does not exist today and that African Americans (or other communities of color) are making illegitimate demands for social changes. (Feagin & Feagin, 1998). This type of racism may be understood as color-blind racism.
- Example: One white male (David C.) in the film, The Color of Fear, was sure he was not racist at all and sure that racism is a thing of the past and only a figment in the imagination of the minds of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, etc.
- In this film, through dialoguing with other men of color and white men, David C. barely begins to understand white privilege and the systems of power that oppress people of color. Another male featured in the film, Roberto, acknowledges that unmasking white privilege is painful, as he proclaims,"The cure of the pain is in the pain." How would you respond to someone who proclaims that racism is not real, but is rather an illusion or a figment of one's imagination?
Structural racism/Systemic racism: A shorthand term for the many systemic factors that work to produce and maintain racial inequities in America today. These are aspects of our history and culture that allow the privileges associated with “whiteness” and the disadvantages associated with “color” to remain deeply embedded within the political economy. Public policies, institutional practices and cultural representations contribute to structural racism by reproducing outcomes that are racially inequitable. (The Aspen Institute)
- Example: The criminal justice system contributes to systemic racism through over-policing of communities of color, disproportionate police brutality experienced by people of color, and disproportionate mass incarceration of Black men.
- The Summer 2020 protests called to dismantle systemic racism in this country, particularly in policing. What do you think needs to happen to rid this country of system racism that is evident in our laws, schooling, mass media, criminal justice system, political representation, employment patterns, etc.?
Subtle, covert racism: Hidden, camouflaged, pernicious racism.
- Example: Merriam-Webster's Dictionary definitions of racially-coded labels such as Black, minority, and savage all contain derogatory meanings.
- What do you think is more harmful to our society: overt (obvious) racism or subtle, covert racism? While laws may address overt racism such as hate crimes, addressing covert racism may be far more challenging. How might we raise children in a way to prevent subtle, covert racism?