What is Racism?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term racism can be defined in a variety of ways relating to both individual actions and societal institutions. Some of the definitions provided by the dictionary include, “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race, and the behaviors and attitudes that foster this belief.” Other definitions focus more on systematic racism and define it as “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another” and “a political or social system founded on racism and designed to execute its principles.” As seen, the term racism does not simply fall under one definition or one circumstance, but rather it is an overarching term to describe the vast experiences of minority groups facing inequality solely due to their racial identity.
History of Racism in America
Racism has been present in society from the start of humankind, and it still is deeply rooted in our society today. In 1607, white British colonizers came over to America and quickly dominated and took over the land. From that moment, white individuals have had the privilege of believing that they are the “superior” race and using that mindset to tragically oppress others.
Before the British colonized the Americas, indigenous tribes lived peacefully on the land in harmony with their tribes and nature. Their sacred customs and beliefs were practiced and displayed. However, the white colonizers saw their strong cultural identity as a threat to their own power and success and responded with violence. Colonizers stole their lands and forced Indigenous people into smaller and smaller reservation areas that were insufficient for survival and hindered the continuance of their tribal practices. The colonizers forced indigenous individuals to convert to Christianity and forget their Native roots and traditions. As the Europeans continued to take over new land and gain power, they resorted to genocide to tragically kill an estimated 8 million indigenous people, mostly through the spread of European disease to which the indigenous people had no immunity.
This image depicts the cultural genocide of indigenous tribes. Colonizers forced the children into schools where they learned about Christianity and European values. They were stripped of their tribal clothing and were only allowed to speak English. The education system greatly idolizes the relation between the Natives and Colonizers as one of friendship, however the Europeans took advantage of their power to suppress the indigenous tribes.
(Image Source: Corbis/Getty Images)
Throughout America’s history, Asian Americans have faced racism, especially in terms of immigration. In the 19th century, the United States promoted a “white-only” immigration policy. Asian Americans were seen as dirty and uncivilized to the white Americans. Asian Americans faced the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese individuals. This was the first race-based piece of immigration legislation to exist in the Americas. During World War II, those of Japanese descent faced mass incarceration into internment camps under Franklin Roosevelt's executive order due to unsupported suspicions of espionage for the enemy following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Racism against Asian Americans was once again highlighted in 2020 with the Covid-19 outbreak. Many faced discrimination and prejudice for the virus having origins in China, despite not having any responsibility for the tragic illness.
Throughout the early 1940’s, 10 Japanese Internment Camps were opened. They were located in California, Arizona, Utah, Arkansas, Wyoming, and Colorado. Nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans, some being second or third generation, were gathered up and placed into these camps by the government as a means to prevent espionage during World War II. (Image Source: Library of Congress)
In the Supreme Court case, Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court determined that the practice of “separate but equal” was constitutional as segregation alone did not violate the constitution. However, later on, the case of Brown v Board of Education abolished this practice when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. (Image Source: Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos)
The history of racism towards Black individuals in America began in 1619 with the start of the slave trade, and nearly 7 million Africans were enslaved and sent to America. White colonizers took advantage of African Americans and used them as a source of free labor. They would work the slaves in horrible conditions and provide severe consequences if they stepped out of line. Slave owners also stripped the African slaves of their culture and heritage by prohibiting communication and the use of their native languages. They also kept them in captivity by prohibiting slaves from learning to read or write which made escaping nearly impossible. Following the American Revolution, Black Americans still faced great discrimination and segregation as the White Majority did not accept them as members of their society. Every resource from schools to water fountains was segregated, reinforcing the American idea that Whites were superior to Blacks. The term “separate but equal” was coined, however the resources that Black individuals received were nowhere near equal to those of Whites. For example, they received old and used school books and were provided with no funding. Fast forward to present-day America and we still see racism against the Black population in police brutality. Black individuals are nearly three times more likely to be killed by a police officer than white people. This is due to systematic prejudice within the police force as well as a society that still views Black individuals as being more inherently violent without any evidence.
Fighting against racism is a difficult uphill battle as it is deeply rooted in our society. However, as society moves forward, we have seen a general increase in tolerability and equality, especially with the younger generations fighting for social change. There are some very important steps white individuals can take to reshape how our society views other races.
Education is one of the greatest tools we can use. Learning about other races and cultures along with the history of their fight against racism can promote acceptance.
Another important step noted by many is recognizing and accepting one's white privilege and utilizing that privilege to promote the voices and ideas of oppressed populations.
The next important step is to find your own implicit biases. While we may not initially realize some of the prejudices we hold, by acknowledging them rather than denying them, we can actively work to reduce them.
Fighting against racism may be a new and uncomfortable topic that many are just now facing, but it is important to remember that some people have been directly facing the consequences of racism for centuries, and it will take not only personal but also great systemic changes in order to overcome racism in America.