This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 30, 2008 - Talk of "race," "racism," people being "racist," and the rise in hate groups makes me think we need to step back and make sure we're on the same page with what we mean when we use these terms.
One factor that makes the conversations on race most tangled is the failure, or perhaps unwillingness, to understand racism at multiple levels. We're too quick to label an action or person as racist and "condemn" it or "disown" the person rather than fully analyze the situation.
It is such an emotionally charged topic that it makes sense that people want to avoid dwelling on the complexities (especially, when we want so badly to believe that race doesn't matter anymore). However, analysis will arm us with the ability to have true dialogue. Otherwise, we talk around each other while assuming we are actually communicating directly.
We don't have to agree, necessarily, on definitions to have these conversations, but we do need to understand how each party defines terms. Let's start with race. Biologically, we know that more genetic variation exist within groups we call races, rather than across these groups. So, all that scientific "evidence" from early 20th century that claimed racial deficiencies on the basis of skull size, etc. has been found to be false, to be social opinion posing as objective research. That leaves us with the reality that race is a social construct we have created and reified through laws and social dynamics.
Building on that definition, racism is a system of advantage based on racial classifications that benefits one group over others. Another way to think of it is prejudice plus power. For example, I might have bias, or prejudice, toward red-headed individuals. But unless I (as a non-red-head) hold the power to dictate outcomes for red-heads, we don't have an ism.
Let's say that society had a classification system that separated individuals based on hair color, and non-red-heads continually held power and made sure (through laws and personal decisions) that red-heads did not have access to positions of power, education, and basic services. This would be a system of advantage based on hair color that systematically benefited non-red-heads over red-heads.
Closer to home, it can be argued that, while women can be hatemongers toward men, only men can be sexist. Men have had the power to systematically disadvantage women (i.e. withholding the right to own property, vote, etc.) but not vice versa. It's all based on who has the power in an institution and what they do with that power.
Racism occurs on three levels. There is institutional, cultural and individual racism. Institutional is the most insidious type; however, we'll start with individual racism since we are most familiar with it and most adept at pointing it out.
Individual racism includes telling racially derogatory jokes, choosing not to speak to/hire/support/etc. someone because of their racial group or engaging in hate crimes. Individual racism most easily comes to mind when racism is brought up - the KKK's cross burning is one of the most common examples I hear when introducing these distinctions.
Since Sen. Barack Obama has emerged as the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, white supremacy groups have touted an increase in interest and activity. While this is of concern and suggests that individual racism remains relevant, it's important not to lose sight of ways in which other acts, which aren't so extreme, also constitute individual racism.
Cultural racism involves the larger society (e.g., whose values are promoted or denigrated, who is omitted or distorted in the media?).
An easy way to grasp this concept is to consider religious values. The post office, schools, etc. are closed during Christmas and usually over Easter. As a Christian, this set-up is convenient for me. Society caters to the fact that I might want to travel to be with family, or be off of work to commemorate the holiday. However, the same cannot be said for Yom Kippur, Ramadan or Divali.
Some might say, "Well, we can't have all of those holidays off!" I'm not dictating how we should rectify this cultural racism; I'm simply trying to raise our awareness of it as one way in which we enact this thing called racism. Another example might be the way in which you see people of color in limited roles in primetime television (e.g. narrow portrayals of Indian Americans or Latinos).
Institutional racism occurs on another level where decisions made by the system (e.g., government, corporation) enact systematic advantage. Education is a prime example. Previously, regardless of whether an individual wanted to integrate or not, separate-but-equal education was supported by law.
Of course, these levels intersect. Individuals come together to pass the laws that govern the institutions. Housing, health care and the judicial system are other institutions in which you can see historical examples of institutional racism. These institutions produce outcomes that differ by an individual's race. Biological differences do not dictate these outcomes (see above). It's the way in which we as a society limit access that then creates discrepancies that, over time, look natural.
For example, after World War II, this country had a wonderful opportunity to integrate housing. However, the FHA chose to use redlining, and we continue to see the ramifications today - both in segregated housing and economic outcomes. For example, a house in the suburbs might be worth three times the same house in a formerly redlined district. When parents take the equity out of their home to send children to college, one set has access to a great deal more money than the other. This difference is not a matter of one set of parents being lazy and not taking care of their child. It is linked to institutional decisions that were made on the basis of race.
The difference in housing prices is just one example of how institutional laws trickle down to affect a host of issues. I share these examples to say that we need to understand the difference between these levels of racism. The rise in white supremacy groups is fueled by individual racism and the personal fear that Obama will win the presidency. The controversy over LeBron James' Vogue cover was not about the magazine being racist. It was an issue of cultural racism given the historical ways in which black men - in relation to white women in particular - have been portrayed. The issue of the achievement gap has a number of causes, but unequal resources (e.g., teachers with advanced degrees, books, computers, etc.) rank top on the list of ways our government (local, state and federal) has enacted institutional racism and disproportionately provided access to some but not others.
These distinctions can be expanded to help examine other types of isms in our society (e.g., classism, sexism, heterosexism). Unfortunately, they are linked. If you understand one ism well, you can understand another. Having a more complex understanding of these systems can help us not feel so overwhelmed, not knowing where to start, when something happens in our town, office or country related to race.
Knowledge really is power - to be able to analyze an incident for yourself rather than relying on someone else to label it for you. You can have a better handle on things while the media continue to get tangled up in messy definitions.
Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.