Sociology 211

November 29, 2004


7.  Racism.  Isajiw, pp. 149-154.  Fleras and Kunz, chapter 2.


Racism is closely connected with prejudice and, if prejudice is a negative view of those of a particular race or ethnicity, then the two may be identical.  But there are two aspects to racism that distinguish it from prejudice.


a.  Ideology.  Racism is a systematic set of ideas and actions associated with “the idea of the superiority of one racial category or one ethnic group to other racial categories or ethnic groups” (Isajiw, p. 149).  That is, racism is not just a haphazard negative view that an individual has or expresses about a minority group – the latter might be considered prejudice, although this may be the basis for racism.  But racism is a more systematic set of interconnected ideas that form an overall ideology.  For example, members of a particular race may be regarded as inferior based on views that the group is less capable.  This may be based on the view that the group has an inferior culture or is destined by biology to be inferior. 


b.  Action.  In addition, racism involves some sort of activity or action, whereby those holding to a racist view or ideology are able to put this into practice.  This may involve discrimination in hiring against members of an identifiable minority group attacks on the group.


Two definitions or racism, both involving Fleras, are as follows:

consists of the power to put these beliefs into practice in a way that denies or excludes those who belong to a devalued category.  The components of racism are often summarized in the popular equation: racism = prejudice + discrimination + power.  (Fleras and Elliott, 1999, p. 440).

Racism is defined as that constellation of ideas and ideals that assert the superiority or assumes the normalcy of one group over another on the basis of biological or cultural characteristics, together with the power to put these racialized beliefs into practice in a way that has the intent or effect of denying or excluding those who are perceived as different or disadvantaged.  (Fleras and Kunz, p. 194).

Chapter 2 of Fleras and Kunz (pp. 32-41) expand further on this, analyzing different types of racism and setting out a conceptual scheme for examining racism in the media.


As with prejudice, racist ideas and approaches may be deeply embedded in the minds and thoughts of individuals, having an emotional aspect to them.  Given this emotional aspect and since it is a systematic set of ideas about the inferiority of a racial or ethnical groups, racism can be difficult to reduce or eliminate.  These ideas may be strongly embedded in the way some people view the world, so it is not merely a single idea to be changed, but one that could involve addressing many aspects of the identity and world-view of the racist individual.  The authoritarian personality of the critical school typifies this, but many other individuals, that might not be considered to have all aspects of the authoritarian personality, may have a similar set of views.    


Racism also includes almost all the forms of distance and prejudice discussed over the last two weeks – ethnocentrism , xenophobia, stereotypes, social distance, prejudice, and discrimination.  As with prejudice, the automatic and unconscious triggering of racial stereotypes is part of racism as well.  Racism also has a similar set of manifestations to that of discrimination – direct and indirect, individual and group, institutional, systemic, and various other veiled or usual forms.  Fleras and Kunz provide a useful way of sorting through these different aspects.


Kallen – racism is exact opposite of human rights.  p  24


Can less powerful be racist?  Kallen p. 25.


Institutional racism – Isajiw, p. 152.

·        Norms, regulations, customs. – segregation in U.S. South. 

·        Informal, implicit racial codes.  Not explicitly racist, but by qualifications.  But may select only those who communicate and behave like themselves, so can eliminate those of minority groups.  View of what good art and culture are. 

·        Prejudiced people become part of an institution.  Police forces.  Lowery’s work is useful here in that even though individuals consider themselves to not be prejudiced, and even if they come from a stereotyped group (African-American police officers), the unconscious or automatic racial stereotypes may be triggered, especially in high pressure settings where decisions must be made quickly.   As Isajiw points out, situations involving police and some visible minority groups have been high profile and appear to demonstrate an overt or latent racism on the part of some officers and others in authority.   An additional problem may be that prejudiced people are attracted to some of these positions and occupations where authority can be exercised.  The critical school might argue that these are the result of an authoritarian personality, who has these prejudiced views, is very judgmental, and attempts to exercise and enforce conduct consistent with his or her judgments.  See the two page story by Cecil Foster, pp. 158-159.


Fleras and Kunz, chapter 2


Racism often easy to determine by studying policies and practices from earlier periods in history, although it might not always have been apparent that these were discriminatory at the time.  On p. 29, they outline four features of a classic conception of racism as characterized by:

·        Formal boundaries – as in segregation/apartheid.

·        Denial of opportunities – outright discrimination and exclusion from jobs/education.

·        Discriminatory laws and regulations against identifiable minorities – exclusion of Jews from Canada, relocation of Japanese-Canadians and attempt to deport them.

·        Deliberate exclusion of minorities from full and equitable participation – some aboriginal people and those of other ancestries not allowed to vote in Canada until 1960, exclusion of Jews and others from institutions of higher education.


Contemporary racism is more often:

·        Subtle, covert rather than overt.  Most individuals have learned it is not appropriate to express racist views and it is not really possible to know if this means that people are not racist or whether it is just that they do not normally express such views.   It may be a combination of each, although there appears to be much less explicit racism today, given the emphasis on equality and human rights.  These latter principles appear widely accepted and regarded as appropriate by a broad public (SSAE98 responses), so that individaul racism may be largely unintentional, unconscious (as in automatic stereotypes), or not well thought out.  In a setting of inequality, conventional attitudes and behaviour may have an element of racism that is not well understood or considered (e.g. workings of job markets, requiring credentials for jobs and education).

·        Associated with institutions and their normal functioning.  This is the systemic or institutional discrimination that results from continuation of normal institutional practices.  This may not always be apparent to those within the institution.  Again consider insistence on Canadian credentials – this may have been required of entrants over a longer period of time, but most of the potential entrants had the Canadian qualifications.  Today, the insistence on the same types of credentials can limit the employment possibilities of some members of a visible minority.

·        Evolving and situational, rather than with clear boundaries.  Since the social structure of the country is always changing and new groups with different culture and backgrounds come to Canada, the situations that must be faced by Canadian-born and Canadian institutions are different.  Some of the issues members of the minorities face are problems in one situation but not in others.  The requirement for observation of holy days, Sabbath, or prayer space or time may need to be accommodated but unlikely affects the ability of members of the groups affected to perform any differently on the job or at school than do those of other cultures and backgrounds.

·        Associated with consequences, rather than with intention or essences.  Comments may be well intentioned but others take them as being patronizing or racist.  For example, “Where are you from?”  I might ask this of almost anyone I meet, regardless of their ethnicity, race, or sex.  For those in the academic setting in Saskatchewan, where most of us come from other parts of North America or Europe, such a question seems an easy way to have a conversation.  But with a member of a visible minority, this is sometimes misinterpreted as being a racist comment, implying that the individual does not belong here.  Some of the policies to prevent harassment and discrimination state that it is not so much the intent of the statement, but the effect it has on an individual.  This is a controversial aspect, especially if individuals are disciplined over statements or actions that they had no idea offended others.


Fleras and Kunz also point out that charges of racism can be “a smokescreen [that] may divert attention from the issues at hand; likewise, it may prompt people to cower in silence for fear of being branded a racist.”  (p. 29).  As a catch-all term, racism can become misused, where a single charge of racism is used to cover a wide variety of motives, views, and social practices.   In such cases, the charge may be counter-productive, making those who are accused of racism to be defensive and perhaps causing them to withdraw from attempting to solve the real problems that exist.  Where the causes of reduced opportunities and negative stereotypes are multiple, and where they are not easily changed, charges of racism may be less useful than an effort to determine the root of the problem and act to change it.  The problems associated with institutional practice often fall into this category, as do the automatic racial stereotypes.   Terms such as racism, globalization, and multiculturalism cover a wide variety of approaches and come become cliches that explain little – it is not always clear what people mean when they blame problems on these.  Fleras and Kunz note “racism means whatever people want it to mean” (p. 33, top). 


Fleras and Kunz provide a definition (slightly different from in the glossary) on the middle of p. 33.  They argue that racism is multidimenional, and is not easily reduced to a single cause or explanation.  This also means its reduction is likely to require multidimensional solutions, involving changing a variety of ideas, institutions, and practices.   The key features they identify are:

·        Superiority of one racial or ethnic group over another.

·        Institutionalized power to put these racialized beliefs into practice.

·        Deny or exclude minority women and men.


I.  Racism as biology.  This refers to the various ways that social characteristics and behaviour are assigned to people on the basis of their alleged race, i.e. on characteristics associated with race, such as skin colour or hair or facial type.  More recently, there appears to be a new scientific racism, using common genetic types or patterns as a means of identifying those who are considered to have a common racial heritage.  In all these cases, it is the biological aspects of the individual that are used to identify the group.  We discussed this earlier in the semester, so you might wish to review the arguments of this type.  I argued that to assign social characteristics on the basis of any of these inherited biological characteristics is questionable – social aspects emerge from socialization and social interaction, not merely from biological characteristics.


Fleras and Kunz argue that racism involved the dividing of people into races, involves the belief that social behaviour is based on biological race, and that some races are superior to others. 


Fleras and Kunz also argue that any program that evaluates or recognizes people by race or visible minority, such as employment equity, is racist.  They also identify the problem with this argument, that not taking race into account may continue racist practices and policies.  While a program such as employment equity could be considered to be racist, policies distinguishing how the negative effects of racism can be countered should be considered in a different light than policies aimed at exclusion.  While there may be an element of reverse discrimination in employment equity or affirmative action policies, they must also be evaluated in terms of overall effect – that is, the effect of not addressing systemic or institutional racism should be weighed against the effect of addressing it.   


Racialization (p. 34) can also be a problem.  A group that was not associated with a particular race may become associated with that race.  This can go either direction – the Irish and some Asian groups becoming white; people of colour being defined as black or brown.  That is, the boundaries of what some refer to as “race” are very fuzzy, making the assignment of social characteristics to a group at the whim of those who make such assignments.  Issues such as crime, poverty, and substance abuse may become racialized in that these practices are associated with those of a particular race or ethnic group.


II.  Racism as culture.  This is similar to ethnocentrism and stereotyping, where a particular group is said to have an inferior culture.  Those holding these views might argue that individuals should all be equal and have some basic rights, but argue that the cultural development of a group has negative features.  These features may make the group a threat or alternatively, they may be considered inferior because of the limited possibilities of their culture.  Negative statements about Muslims as fundamentalist, patriarchal, and terrorist is an example of this.  If used to deny rights and opportunities to Muslims, on the basis of these stereotypes, then this is racism.


One problem that emerges in this connection is that different cultures have different characteristics.  Some cultures may have different standards for success and for interacting with other people.  This can be a cause of the members of these groups not competing successfully with those of other cultures, which may be more attuned to the conventional standards of success.  Resolving these forms of different culture can become difficult in order to compete successfully with those of other cultures, who may be more attuned to the conventional standards of success.  Resolving these forms of different culture can become difficult in multiculturalism, where participation of all is to be encouraged and barriers to be eliminated.  There may need to be changes in the standards of success and members of different cultures may need to accommodate to standards different from their traditions.  This is presumably what integration mean – changes from both sides so participation can be greater and yet culture is not lost.  Aboriginal people attempting to integrate into Canadian society face this difficulty.


III.  Racism as power.  If racism is systemic and institutionalized, so that it is embedded in the structures and practices of society, then it acquires an institutionalized and structuralized power.  Fleras and Kunz summarize this as “only white power is institutionalized within the structures, values, and institutions of of sciety, and it is these institutionalized power relations that empower some groups to advance their interests at the expense of others.”  (p. 35).  In this connection, I will review an article on the ethnic background of university administrators next day.  Article by Reza Nakhaie in Canadian Ethnic Studies, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, 2004, pp. 92-110.


Typology of Racism.  Fleras and Kunz, pp. 36-41 and Table 2.1.  This typology considers racism as having two different ways of emerging.  In the columns are the possible sources – racist practices of an individual or racism resulting from institutional organizations or practices.  In the rows are possible ways that racism is expressed, with a continuum from deliberate racism to inadvertent racism.  Other combinations in between these four types are possible, and most racism that is observed in society is likely some combination of these types.  But the typology illustrates the different ways racism can emerge.


Fleras and Kunz typology of racism

Manner of expressing racism





Polite – implicit, codified, oblique, usual

Systematic – rules, procedures of organizations and dominant group


Subliminal – unconscious, automatic

Systemic – structures, goals, procedures with exclusionary consequences


I.  Polite racism are those comments and actions that an individual is aware of that are intended to downgrade members of minority groups or prevent them from full participation.  In Canadian society today, much of this is illegal in society at large or in institutions and organizations with codes of non-discrimination.  But negative judgments based on race or ethnicity could emerge among teachers (in their treatment of students and their grading), managers (by refusing to hire or promote), landlords (stating that there are no vacancies), or businesses (by not treating customers equally).  While explicit discrimination is not permitted in any of these situations, there are many ways that those with power, even minimal power, can exclude and deny opportunities.  What may make this difficult to assess is that each of those with power has some discretion over how to treat others – individuals who are rigid in dealing with everyone may appear to be racist, when in fact they are rigid and not accommodating toward many different individuals.


II.  Systematic racism occurs when there is deliberate exclusion of members of a group.  The example of quotas on the number of individuals of Jewish ancestry in Canadian universities is cited.  In the 1930s and 1940s, there were such limits.  One example is the limit on Jewish enrollment at McGill University – in 1939, there was a 12 per cent limit in medicine and arts, and a 15 per cent limit in law.  See Alan Hustak, Montreal Gazette,  October 23, 2003 (  While it is not common to observe this type of racism today, examples emerge periodically.


III.  Systemic racism.   This is the counterpart to systemic discrimination – where exclusions and denial of opportunities occur as a result of “institutional structures (rules, organization), functions (norms, goals), and processes (procedures) of social institutions.” (p. 38).  Within organizations and professions, one systemic form of discrimination against women is related to childbearing and child care.  Professionals are expected to be devoted to the organization or profession yet women tend to be more likely than men to take time off from the job to bear and raise children.  In the eyes of some peers and administrators, this leads to questions about the commitment of some women to the organization or professional career.  In the case of racial or ethnic groups and immigrants, the issue of credentials and experience can be a cause of systemic racism.  In the Nakhaie article, some of the evidence concerning who gets promoted to senior administrative positions at universities will be examined – some of this is systemic racism.


IV.  Subliminal racism.  This is the operation of stereotypes, ethnocentrism, and prejudice at a largely unconscious level, as in the research of Lowery.  One of the ways that such racism has emerged recently is that individuals who consider themselves liberal, accommodating, and democratic, may attack some minority groups for not having these values.  This appears to have been the case in the Dutch protest against the Muslims in the Netherlands, following the murder of Theo van Gogh, allegedly by a Muslim.



Kellen, Evelyn. 1982.  Ethnicity and Human Rights in Canada, Toronto, Gage Publishing Limited.

Nakhaie, M. Reza.  2004. “ Who Controls Canadian Universities?  Ethnoracial Origins of Canadian University Administrators and Faculty’s Perception of Mistreatment,” Canadian Ethnic Studies, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, 2004, pp. 92-110.



Last edited November 30, 2004