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By Maria Elena Indelicato

Racism is an idea with a relatively short genealogy. In contrast to the concept of race, the term racism was only introduced in the 20th century, mostly by European cultural anthropologists who opposed the differentiation of the European races into superior and inferior ones. The same anthropologists strongly opposed antisemitism and characterised it as an aberrant ideology that had to be distinguished from concurrent racial sciences. As Alana Lentin demonstrates, this definition of racism coexisted with the belief in the inherent inferiority of the non-white races, supported European colonial projects, and overdetermined post-WWII understanding of racism ‘as an aberration, as antithetical rather than constitutive of liberalism, democracy, and the European nation state’ (Lentin, 2020).

According to James K. McKee, in the USA, the concept of racism gained currency when sociologists and sociopsychologists working in the field of race relations began differentiating racial prejudice from racial discrimination, claiming that the latter could be tackled without the former being addressed. When the sociologist Robert Merton formalised this distinction in the 1940s, racial discrimination began to be criminalised and anti-discriminatory practices adopted in the country. Starting from then, the term racism has been interchangeably used with racial prejudice, racial discrimination and, more recently, unconscious biases. In McKee’s genealogy, racism has also been mixed with the socio-psychological concept of ethnocentrism, i.e., the ‘tendency to judge other groups by the standards of one’s own group, culture or society’ (Mckee, 1993). The conflation of racism with racial prejudice and discrimination on the one hand, and ethnocentrism on the other hand, appears to be tenable insofar social scientists observe individual manifestations outside history. However, when the history and philosophical underpinnings of the modern European state, as well as the structures through which it produces knowledge are considered, racism can be neither understood to be the same as racial prejudice and discrimination nor confused with ethnocentrism. This is the case in that, they are laws, institutions, and a wide variety of socially sanctioned conventions that as much enshrine as enact racially exclusionary beliefs and practices.

To counter this misunderstanding of racism critical race studies scholars such as David Theo Goldenberg and Patrick Wolfe have understood racism as the institutionalised legacy of imperialism and colonialism and related nation states’ mandate to ‘define who may be excluded and to confine the terms of social inclusion and cohesion’ (Goldenberg, 2001). Goldenberg has also defined racism as a culture, one which total sum of ‘ideas, attitudes and dispositions, norms and rules, linguistic, literary, and artistic expressions, architectural norms and media representations, practices and institutions’ iteratively enforces, naturalizes, and reproduces unequal social relations and the differential distribution of recognition, rights, and resources. These definitions best highlight the institutional nature of racism besides the entanglement between nationalism, nativism, and rightwing populism.

Related References

Goldenberg, David Theo. 2001. The Racial State. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
Lentin, Alana. 2008. “Europe and the Silence about Race.” European Journal of Social Theory 11 (4): 487–503.
2020. Why Race Still Matters. Polity.
Mckee, James B. 1993. Sociology and the Race Problem: The Failure of a Perspective. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Meghji, Ali. 2022. The Racialized Social System: Critical Race Theory as Social Theory. Polity.
Wolfe, Patrick. 2016. Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race. New York: Verso Books.

Cite this entry as:

Indelicato, Maria Elena. 2022. ‘Racism’. In Populisms and Emotions Glossary, edited by Cristiano Gianolla and Maíra Magalhães Lopes. Available atário