Some say that racism is prejudice backed by power. So while a black person may be prejudiced against whites even to the point of hurting and killing them, he is not racist: he lacks the power of the courts, the police, the banks, the newspapers and so on to affect society as a whole. Going by this meaning of the word the only racist people in America are white.
I go by the common meaning of racism, the one in my dictionary:
- the belief that each race or ethnic group possesses specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities that distinguish it as inferior or superior to another such group.
- discrimination against or antagonism towards other races or ethnic groups based on such a belief.
It is a set of beliefs which sometimes leads to action, like discrimation or hostility. Racism is a way of looking at the world and acting in it. In America it is very hard not to be affected by that sort of thinking because it is everywhere, because it is what American society has been built on since the 1600s.
There are four things wrong with saying that racism requires power:
- If you say that only white people can be racist, that blacks cannot, very few whites are going to buy that. How many of them will sit still long enough with an open enough mind for you to explain it to them? It might be a useful way of thinking about it for scholars, but not for everyday people, not in practice.
- Whites are prejudiced not just because they want to keep their power and privilege in society. Most of them never think about that stuff because they take it for granted – they never had to live without it. The bigger reason is because being white is a part of their self-image, their sense of who they are. Giving up their whiteness would be like giving up their religion or their country.
- Power is everywhere and nowhere: everyday people in their everyday lives make decisions about who to marry, where to live, where to go to church, who to be friends with. Millions of such decisions are informed by race every day and help to divide the country.
- It overlooks internalzed racism – blacks being racist against themselves.
That said, understanding how power backs up racism is extremely important. Many whites like to compare white racism to black racism, as if they were on the same level. But because whites have almost all the power in American society that is like comparing a car to a bicycle.
But as important as power is in keeping racism alive and giving it force in the here and now, in the long run racism will live or die not because of what judges or policemen or bankers do, but because of what parents do when their sons and daughters want to marry outside their race.