If you’ve ever wondered why some folks differentiate between the apparent synonyms ‘bigotry’ and ‘racism,’ here’s why I make that distinction: Anyone can be bigoted, but racism is built in to our social structure.
My guess is that most adults have some strain of bigotry in them, controlled or not, recognized or not. This isn’t to excuse ourselves. I believe that I have a responsibility to recognize my own bigotry and to try to overcome it. I hope that most people feel the same way.
Here’s how bigotry is defined:
- n. The attitude, state of mind, or behavior characteristic of a bigot; intolerance.
- n. The character or mode of thought of a bigot; obstinate and unreasonable attachment to a particular creed, opinion, practice, ritual, or party organization; excessive zeal or warmth in favor of a party, sect, or opinion; intolerance of the opinions of others.
Here’s how racism is defined in the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition:
- n. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.
- n. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.
- n. The belief that each race has distinct and intrinsic attributes.
- n. The belief that one race is superior to all others.
- n. Prejudice or discrimination based upon race.
Based just on the dictionary definitions, you could say that racism is a particular sort of bigotry.
However, when I talk about racism in America, I’m usually talking about institutional racism or systemic racism, where things like laws, social norms, corporate regulations, habit, convenience, and tradition lead to discrimination against Black people (see also: systemic misogyny).
Systemic racism is based so much in the foundations of American life as to be invisible to white folks here. I’m guessing that it’s a lot less invisible to Black folks.
This kind of racism can lead to situations where individuals with no ingrained racial bigotry can unknowingly support highly racist structures. These individuals would probably be outraged if anyone pointed it out to them. “I don’t hate Black people,” they might say or think. “How on earth can anyone call me racist?”
I used this example recently when discussing this topic with an acquaintance. Imagine a law firm where every lawyer is white. You look at the corporate bylaws, and see that there is nothing obviously racist there. You listen to the conversations among the lawyers, and none of them say obviously bigoted phrases. So; where is the racism?
Then you look at the hiring practices of the firm. They tend to select recent graduates of certain colleges. Those colleges in turn select students mainly from certain high schools, which all tend to be exclusive private schools in wealthy towns. The hiring managers also rely heavily on recommendations of current and past members of the firm.
The entire selection process may as well be a ‘white filter’ that leads almost inevitably to the situation you see in the firm; no diversity at all. The various levels of this filter (town, school, college, legacy hires) were very likely set up by bigoted people with very strong biases toward helping along only white students and white graduates and white job candidates, possibly so long in the past that no one now remembers them. But their influence is as strong as the concrete and granite foundations of the elite schools they founded.
If you’re ever confused by something about racism you see on social media, for instance seeing someone write that ‘Black people can not be racist,’ when you’ve personally known bigoted Blacks… It’s likely that the writer is using the word ‘racism’ the way I’m defining it in this post.