Dictionary definition: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
Antiracist definition: racial prejudice plus institutional power
The traditional definition identifies racism as prejudice based on race. These prejudices may indeed be enshrined in laws and institutions, but they do not need be legally codified or systematic to be considered ‘racism.’ On this view, ‘racism’ is a synonym for ‘racial prejudice’ or ‘racial discrimination.’ In contrast, antiracists define ‘racism’ as ‘racial prejudice plus institutional power.’ One major consequence of the antiracist definition is that people of color (e.g. black, Hispanics, Asians, etc…) cannot be racist because, as a group, that they lack institutional power. ‘Racism’ should then be distinguished from ‘prejudice’. It is argued that while people of color can be just as prejudiced as whites, they cannot -by definition- be racist.
“[David Wellman] defines racism as a ‘system of privilege based on race.’… Someone … is usually quick to point out that this is not the definition you will find in most dictionaries. I reply, ‘Who wrote the dictionary?’ I am not being facetious with this response. Whose interests are served by a ‘prejudice only’ definition of racism? … People of color can and do have racial prejudices. However, if one defines racism as a system of advantage based on race [then] people of color are not racist because they do not systematically benefit from racism.” Beverly Tatum, Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, p. 7, 10-11
“Black people can’t be racist. Prejudiced, yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racist since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.” – Dear White People (2014)
Areas of potential confusion:
The statement “blacks can’t be racist” is often controversial and perplexing. People who aren’t familiar with antiracist terminology often think that this statement means “Black people can’t be racially prejudiced.” However, assuming that the speaker is adopting an antiracist framework, they should be understood as saying “Black people do not benefit institutionally from racial prejudice.”
Recognizing a difference between “prejudice” and “prejudice plus power” is helpful because it highlights the amplifying effects that power can have on personal sin. A president and a janitor may both harbor sin in their hearts. But a president’s power makes the harmfulness of his sin far more severe. For example, when King David lusted after Bathsheba, he had the power to act on his desires and then to cover them up by having her husband killed (2 Sam. 11). The impact and consequences of his sin were far greater than they would have been if he had lacked power.
Additionally, antiracism is right to see the sins of those in power as more morally blameworthy than the sins of those who lack power. On a Christian view, whatever authority we have is to be used for the good of those under it (Matt. 20:25-27). When we use our power to sin, we are then doubly guilty: of the sin itself and of the misuse of our authority to further our own selfish desires. The Bible consistently views the sin of those in positions of authority as more serious than the sin of those who are not (Lev. 4:3, Prov. 16:2, Jas. 3:1, 1 Ti. 5:20).
First, by identifying whites and people of color as homogeneous groups which either have or lack institutional power, antiracism ignores the tremendous effects that context can have on power. For example, even if we believe that whites -as a group- are racially privileged in a way that people of color -as a group- are not, a particular person of color may indeed benefit tremendously from institutional power. For example, if an Asian CEO refuses to hire white employees because of his hatred of whites, he is exercising institutional power over them. The fact that he is a person of color does not guarantee that he cannot use institutional power to enact his personal prejudice. Conversely, if a poor, uneducated, homeless white man shouts a racial slur at a wealthy, educated, black college professor, it’s hard to see how the ‘institutional power of whites’ has any relevance to his action.
We might object here that even if there are rare cases where people of color have institutional power, the U.S. as a whole conveys systemic advantages only to whites. But once again, whether we possess a ‘systemic advantage’ depends on context. A white person living in North Korea or Iran is unlikely to experience any systemic advantage. Similarly, individuals do not experience discrimination in ‘the U.S. as a whole.’ They experience discrimination at the level of their particular jobs, schools, communities, and relationships. Within each of these settings, people of color can wield significant power and thus can deploy that power in racially discriminatory ways. The antiracist definition of ‘racism’ obscures these facts.
Second, the use of different terminology to characterize the racial prejudice of whites versus people of color is problematic, especially from a Christian perspective. Imagine if someone defined ‘adultery’ to refer a husband’s marital unfaithfulness towards his wife, but used the less pejorative term ‘cheating’ to refer to a wife’s marital unfaithfulness towards her husband. We’d recoil from this redefinition of terms, and rightly so. This asymmetric usage undermines a Christian conception of sin, which regards marital infidelity as equally sinful whether it is committed by a man or a woman. In the same way, because racism is a sin, its sinfulness does not depend on the racial characteristics of the person who commits it. While the racism of a white person towards a person of color might be more quantitatively harmful than the reverse, it is not qualitatively more sinful.
While I believe that some of observations made by antiracist educators are helpful, I do not think that their terminology with regard to ‘racism’ vs. ‘prejudice’ is something that Christians should embrace. If we want to call attention to the additional harm that prejudice can cause when wedded to institutional power, then we can do so without redefining the term ‘racism.’ Instead, we can simply refer to “prejudice plus power.” To adopt antiracist definitions of these words is to undermine the reality that it is not our racial identity or our position in society but our violation of God’s moral standard that makes racism sinful.