Racism cannot be defined without first defining race. Among social scientists, ‘race’ is generally understood as a social construct. Although biologically meaningless when applied to humans – physical differences such as skin color have no natural association with group differences in ability or behavior – race nevertheless has tremendous significance in structuring social reality. Indeed, historical variation in the definition and use of the term provides a case in point. The term race was first used to describe peoples and societies in the way we now understand ethnicity or national identity. Later, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as Europeans encountered non-European civilizations, Enlightenment scientists and philosophers gave race a biological meaning. They applied the term to plants, animals, and humans as a taxonomic subclassification within a species. As such, race became understood as a biological, or natural, categorization system of the human species. As Western colonialism and slavery expanded, the concept was used to justify and prescribe exploitation, domination, and violence against peoples racialized as nonwhite. Today, race often maintains its ‘natural’ connotation in folk understandings; yet, the scientific consensus is that race does not exist as a biological category among humans – genetic variation is far greater within than between ‘racial’ groups, common phenotypic markers exist on a continuum, not as discrete categories, and the use and significance of these markers varies across time, place, and even within the same individual (Fiske, 2010).
There are at least two distinct phases in the sociology of racism, demarcated by the changing nature of race and racism as constructed by social actors and social forces after World War II. The first phase – from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century – typically considered racism as a set of overt individual-level attitudes; the second phase – from the mid-twentieth century to the present – considers racism as not simply explicit attitudes but also implicit biases and processes that are constructed, sustained, and enacted at both micro- and macro-levels. While the first phase focused on the direct relationship between racism and racial inequality, the second phase considers diffuse relationships between these concepts and the ways in which historical, unconscious, institutional, and systemic forms of racism interact with other social forces to perpetuate racial inequality. In the late nineteenth century, as sociology emerged as a social scientific discipline, few scholars studied racism. (One notable exception was W.E.B. Du Bois, who analyzed the political economic roots of racism and its perverse impacts on Western institutions and psyches.) Instead of studying racism as a social problem, many social scientists – truly products of their time – maintained racist attitudes and incorporated racist assumptions into their explanations of racial group differences in social outcomes. Racism pervaded society, including sociology, and was legitimated by dominant scientific discourses such as Social Darwinism, which misapplied the concept of natural selection to the social world to account for why some (racial, class, etc.) groups excel more than others
One major line of work in the contemporary sociology of racism examines whether the observed decline in racist attitudes on opinion surveys represents an actual decline in racism or merely a decline in the social acceptability of expressing such attitudes; perhaps some individuals consciously hold racist attitudes but withhold them when surveyed. Since the 1970s, social scientists have developed various techniques – from more subtle questions to new forms of discourse analysis – to alleviate respondents’ hesitancy to report socially undesirable attitudes and to draw out the deeper meanings behind ambiguous or contradictory responses. Using these techniques, sociologists have uncovered new forms of racism that are expressed not in avowed racist attitudes but rather in contextually specific moral and symbolic principles that stereotype subordinated racial groups as undeserving and thereby justify existing racial inequalities. For example, surveys repeatedly show that many whites support racial equality in principle but resist policies to implement it (e.g., affirmative action and reparations). Kinder and Sears (1981) attribute this principle–implementation gap to ‘symbolic racism’, which merges a genuine belief in the universalistic principles of Western liberal democracy with stereotypes and moral resentments (rooted in childhood socialization) toward ‘irresponsible’ blacks. Bobo et al.’s (1997) concept of ‘laissez-faire racism’ also highlights persistent antiblack (and antinative) stereotyping and a tendency to blame blacks (and other minorities) for their social problems despite increased support for racial equality in principle. Unlike symbolic racism, however, they argue that (white) opposition to racial equality policies is rooted in perceived racial group threat (Blumer, 1958), which is “triggered when the dominant group’s sense of entitlement to resources and privileges appears threatened by subordinate group gains or aspirations” (Denis, 2012: p. 456). Similarly, ‘colorblind racism’ refers to a set of frames, styles, and scripts that are used to explain and justify the racial status quo without sounding racist (Bonilla-Silva, 2010). (For additional variations on the new racism theme, see Quillian, 2006.) Despite this outpouring of research and theorizing, some critics (e.g., Sniderman and Carmines, 1997) argue that the problem is not ‘hidden’ racist sentiments or cultural stereotypes; rather, many whites reject policies such as affirmative action because of principled opposition to government intervention. Yet, regardless of whether racism or ‘political principle’ directly motivates opposition to policies intended to advance racial equality, such opposition effectively replicates racial inequality (see Section Institutional Racism). In short, although the observed decline in overt racist attitudes shows that racism is socially unacceptable in much of contemporary society, the extent to which individuals still hold racial stereotypes, prejudices, or ideologies – and the precise form(s) these take – remains contested.
Responses to Racism:-
While the contemporary sociology of racism focuses mostly on the processes, people, and organizations that perpetuate racism, increasing attention is being paid to those who experience racism. The literature on internalized racism (see Section Implicit Bias) illuminates how the targets of racism may accept dominant racist ideologies and engage in habitual interactions that perpetuate their own subordination. Yet, a growing literature also interrogates the multiple experiences, knowledges, and practices of subordinated racial groups. Increasingly, studies of ‘everyday racism’ (Essed, 1991) and responses to stigmatization (Lamont and Mizrachi, 2012) are providing insights into the effects of, responses to, and strategies for combating various forms of racism. In one groundbreaking study, Essed (1991) examined how black women in the Netherlands and California navigate everyday racism, showing how it covertly shapes their daily life routines but also illuminating their diverse and often subtle forms of resistance. She argues that these women’s narratives are important knowledge ipso facto because their unique social positions and experiences (raced, classed, gendered, etc.) offer unique perspectives on the inner workings of oppression and resistance (cf Collins, 1990); from a sociology of knowledge standpoint, subordinated groups’ knowledge serves as a corrective to the elite, Western knowledge systems of dominant social scientists (Feagin, 2010). Building on this work, Lamont and Mizrachi (2012) systematically compare the responses of stigmatized groups in Brazil, Israel, and the United States, arguing that the comparative study of responses illuminates how institutions, ideologies, and varying national contexts constrain and enable individual opportunities. Other scholars have assessed antiracist and multicultural policies and affirmative action and diversity programs at the state and organizational levels (e.g., Henry and Tator, 2010). Still others have examined the conditions under which racial minority groups and their allies mobilize in social movements for racial justice (e.g., McAdam, 1982). This (increasingly comparative and cross-national) work on responses to racism has blossomed alongside a robust sociology of immigration literature, which highlights the agency of immigrants in shaping their incorporation into host societies (Alba and Nee, 2003). Different immigrant groups employ varying strategies, seize unique opportunities in the form of ethnic niches, and encounter different obstacles. Contemporary assimilation is variegated and the incorporation of new, often racialized, groups has proven anything but straightforward. Moreover, competition and tension between native-born minority groups and recent immigrants has highlighted racial discrimination between subordinate groups (Bobo and Hutchings, 1996; Waters et al., 2014). Indeed, the relative ease with which some immigrants (despite being racialized) have integrated into the mainstream economically and socially only underscores the uniquely pernicious nature of antiblack and anti-indigenous racism in North America (Dixon, 2006). Numerous studies, for instance, have documented the stigmatization and racism faced by upwardly mobile middle-class blacks (e.g., Feagin and Sikes, 1995) and indigenous peoples (e.g., Denis, 2012), as well as the creative strategies they use to cope with and respond to racism. One criticism of these studies is that they appear to place the burden of overcoming racism on the shoulders of the targets of racism rather than on the actors and institutions that perpetuate it. Yet, until racism is eliminated, it is important to Racism, Sociology of 861 investigate how the targets interpret and respond to it in order to understand how racism affects them, ensure their voices are heard, and develop more effective strategies to combat racism itself.