What We Talk About When We Talk About Racism, Post-Ferguson Reflections on the Need for Basic Distinctions

Discussions of race, more often than not in my experience, generate more heat than light. I learned this early on in my own education when I was doing the research for my book, Student Movements for Multiculturalism: Challenging the Curricular Color Line in Higher Education.

Anger, frustration, hurt, misunderstanding, and other emotions were abundant on both sides of the debates over racism in the Ivory Tower. It is not surprising to me, then, that these same feelings are even more abundant in the wake of the refusal of a grand jury in Missouri to indict (now former) Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown while in the line of duty.

racial-tensionRacism is difficult to talk about under any circumstance. But talking about it over the dead body of Michael Brown or Tamir Rice seems impossible, even if it is all the more necessary.

As a sociologist, I teach about race and racism in my introductory class every semester. My goal is to show students that racism does exist, and also to give them a conceptual language within which to understand it more dispassionately. Light over heat.

Following the eminent 20th century sociologist Robert K. Merton, the first point I make is the need to distinguish between two dimensions of racism: racial prejudice and racial discrimination.

Racial prejudice relates to rigid and unfavorable attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about members of a racial group. Discrimination refers to the unfair treatment of individuals based on some social characteristic such as race, sex, or ethnicity.

In an essay first published in 1949, Merton shows how making this basic distinction allows us to see the ways in which racism works in a more subtle way. Consider the four categories created by combining prejudice and discrimination:

Merton FrameworkWhen thinking about racism, we typically think about the person who holds racially prejudiced attitudes or beliefs and engages in racial discrimination on that basis. This can range from race supremacists who go out and kill people to real estate agents who don’t want “those kinds” of people in their neighborhoods. We can also appreciate the opposite individual, the non-prejudiced, non-discriminator – what Merton called the “all-weather liberal.”

These are the easy categories, though, because they recognize those times when prejudice and discrimination go together. If prejudice and discrimination went together all the time, however, it would be a distinction without a difference.

Distinguishing between prejudice and discrimination allows us to see situations in which the relationship between the two varies.

In the first place, we can see instances in which there is racial prejudice but no discrimination. Merton called these individuals “timid bigots,” because they were afraid to act on their prejudiced beliefs. I add the term “powerless” to this category, because whether or not one discriminates has a lot to do with whether they have the power to discriminate. To be able to treat people unequally requires that a person be in a position to do so, especially in ways that matter.

Considering the issue of power in relation to racial prejudice and discrimination helps us to put claims of “reverse racism” in context. To be sure racial minorities can harbor rigid and unfavorable attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about members of the racial majority, but because they have less power, they are often unable to act on those feelings in discriminatory ways. Which is not to say it never happens – that racial minorities never engage in old school racism – but it does suggest why it is less common than racial majorities doing the same. Reverse racism is difficult to accomplish in a racially unequal society.

This distinction also helps us to see instances in which there is racial discrimination but it is not based upon the racially prejudiced attitudes of individuals involved. This is typically known in sociology as “institutional racism” or “institutional discrimination” (as it also works against women, for example). Of late, people have picked up on an idea put forward by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva called “racism without racists.” This is racial discrimination that is not dependent upon racial prejudice.

Sociologists define institutional racism something like the following: Laws, customs, and practices that systematically reflect and produce racial discrimination (inequalities) in a society, whether or not the individuals maintaining these laws, customs, and practices are racially prejudiced (have racist intentions).

Some examples of this are: “last hired, first fired” employment practices, the way the Educational Testing Service constructs the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and preferential admissions for legacies to elite colleges and universities.

Institutional racism also helps us to see and understand the way that historical old school racism can persist over time – even as individual’s racial attitudes become more liberal – when it is woven into the everyday practices of institutions and individuals.

For example, whether or not the Sheriff of Forsyth County, North Carolina and his staff are racially prejudiced, the fact that they are by law required to issue pistol permits – a very old school racist policy in its origins – makes them the enactors of this form of institutional racism (racism without racists). I am not a sociologist of crime and the criminal justice system, but I bet there are many more such examples.

So, when I look at situations like Mike Brown or Tamir Rice or Eric Garner or even back to Trayvon Martin, I don’t ask myself whether racism was involved or not. I try to approach the situations with a more complex conceptual framework that allows me to see the difference between prejudice and discrimination as well as their complex relationships to one another.

From the start I have said that it is possible BOTH for racial discrimination to be a problem in law enforcement AND for Darren Wilson not to be a racist. This is based on my understanding of Merton’s distinctions.

These distinctions in themselves do not cure the problem of heightened emotions in discussions of racism in American society, but perhaps for some they will be more of a conversation starter than a conversation stopper when it comes to talking about race and racism.

Published by David Yamane

Sociologist at Wake Forest U, student of gun culture, tennis player, racket stringer (MRT), whisk(e)y drinker, bow-tie wearer, father, husband. Not necessarily in that order.

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