Racial Prejudice vs Structural Racism

David Stark / Zarkonnen
10 Aug 2015, 11:15 a.m.

This is one of those maybe-stating-the-obvious things, but I've noticed that people are using the word "racism" to mean two different things. Some use it in the narrow sense of "racial prejudice". A person is racist, or is a racist, because they believe that one race (usually theirs) is better or more worthy than another. Others use it in the wider sense of the edifice of racial inequality, the forest made of individual prejudice-trees, the dynamics that harm people because of what "race" society assigns to them.

Those are both valid concepts, and they're both bad things, but they're not the same things, and confusing them can lead to some real shouting matches. For example, is "reverse racism" a thing? Meant in the sense of racial prejudice by someone who's usually the victim of prejudice, yes, sure. You can still argue about how common it is, how much it matters, even whose fault it is, of course. On the other hand, "reverse racism" in the sense of reverse racial inequality is not a thing.

Now, if you've been reading this, you may have been shaking your head, and going "obviously the correct meaning is meaning #1/#2" and "this person is arguing in bad faith, everyone knows it means what I know it means". Let me just assure you right now that this is not the case. Until recently, I really thought sense #1 was the only meaning, and I got pretty annoyed at people who were making what to me seemed weird and obtuse arguments based on ideas like "a black person fundamentally can't be prejudiced against other races".

On the other hand, when I brought this up with some friends, their perception was that meaning #2 was the only and obvious one, and they had been getting annoyed at people making weird and obtuse arguments based on dismissing the structural effects of racism.

Other friends were convinced #1 was the real and obvious meaning.

Of course, that isn't to say that there aren't people who are well aware of both meanings, but are sticking to one meaning or the other in a tedious attempt to frame the discussion at the expense of clarity and understanding. A plague on both of your houses! Don't pretend that structural racism doesn't exist by intentionally misunderstanding people. And trying to shift a conversation to wider structural problems is a reasonable goal, but don't do it by flinging accusations at people who are using the word "racism" in the "wrong" way.

In my case, I'm going to make an effort to simply banish "racism" from my vocabulary, and using "racial prejudice" and "structural racism" for the two possible meanings instead. Follow my lead?