Why Understanding the Difference Between Racism and Prejudice Is Important


According to a 2016 Pew Research Center Study conducted before Trump became president, nearly 40 percent of white Americans believe that the U.S. has made necessary changes and strides to give the black community equal rights as whites. However, four in ten blacks are still doubtful that the U.S. will ever achieve racial equality. Many were and still are skeptical that the country will be able to make the necessary changes needed to reach racial equality and that’s because the black community understands the deep-rooted impacts of systemic racism. This should not be confused for prejudice, there are major differences between the two and the distinction is significant. 

“Prejudice is a form of discrimination based on ignorance but lacking systemic and structural power. Discrimination against someone based on social class, physical ability, or sexual orientation is still inhumane but it’s not systemic in that it’s not affecting this person’s livelihood or access to resources,” says Professor Miguelina Rodriguez, who teaches sociology and urban studies at CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College in NYC. “With racism, it’s more systemic because of the power structures in this country. This is a country run by heterosexual, cisgender, protestant, wealthy men and because of that white people tend to benefit more from the power structures in place than people of color.”

These systemic structures are intentionally set in place to keep communities of color from rising up. For instance, racism works to prevent a POC’s access to resources such as education, healthcare, or housing. It can also lead to an increased risk of being a victim of police brutality. And it’s damaging on a number of levels.

“Prejudice is best described as a preconceived notion or opinion that is NOT based on reason or actual experience. I think the best example of this would be most people’s prejudice against homelessness. It is based on a perception of how individuals end up in that situation without understanding the many factors that result in homelessness including poverty and mental illness,” says psychologist, Dr. Angelina Morales. “Racism can include prejudice but also discrimination and antagonizing. This is based solely on the other person’s race and is built on the belief that their own race is superior. An example of that would be a white person mistreating a person of color based solely on the fact that the other person is a person of color.”

The question of whether or not a person of color could be “racist” against another person of color comes up a lot — especially within the Latinx community where colorism and prejudice are still very prevalent. One could argue that a non-white Latinx person could be prejudice against another person of color but not necessarily racist.  

“I don’t think someone can be racist towards another person of their ethnicity, but they can certainly be prejudiced. I think that is evident in how some minorities who are lighter-skinned believe that a darker-skinned person is not as good as them,” says Dr. Morales. “However, just because two people of color are both minorities, that does not mean one cannot think their ethnicity is superior. I do feel that when people of color target one another racially or based on skin color, that is an ingrained aspect of their particular culture — but this also alludes to feelings of self-loathing which are projected onto other people of color.”

Rodriguez breaks it down by explaining that what makes it racism is whether or not the person can affect the other person’s access to systems and structures that give them power or privilege.

“Technically a person of color can’t be racist against another person of color. They can be prejudice, mean, petty, and shady, but not racist because of the power structure,” she says. “Even a wealthy person of color discriminating against another person of color is technically not considered racism because even that wealthy person of color is still not as empowered as a middle-class white person. In this country race trumps class.”

It’s the same reason why a person of color can not be racist towards a white person. “A person of color being prejudice towards a white person is not systemic. It’s not structural. This person of color is not infringing upon the white person’s livelihood because they are not preventing them from getting a job, from obtaining a home, or from accessing better education,” adds Rodriguez. “Versus the impact of a white person being racist against a person of color, that is systemic. That white person has a level of power that can inhibit [a person of color’s] ability to have access to  resources that are going to affect their livelihood and that of their family.”

Racism is so much more than prejudice or hate. It’s literally built into systems. In the particular case of the United States, racism is woven into the foundation of this country.

“If we look at the way Native Americans were treated. If we look at the way African slaves were treated. If we look at the way immigrants of color are treated. It’s very much rooted in hate and it’s very systemic because a very Eurocentric patriarchal model is used even in the way that our education is set up,” Rodriguez says. “White people are very much seen as saviors. If you think about how we are taught that Christoper Columbus discovered America, that’s systemic racism at its finest. Us being taught that Christoper Columbus discovered America and all these white men discovered everything and not teaching us the advances that indigenous groups had already been making in Central and South America, and in parts of Africa and Asia. It may not necessarily be hateful but it’s systemic in a way that makes people of color invisible.”

In other words, racism, even when it’s done subconsciously, contributes to the structural inequalities that not only plague our society but impact the actual livelihood of communities of color. It impacts everything from job prospects, to where we are are able to live and buy homes, or whether we have access to good quality healthcare. Prejudice is terrible and we should all be fighting against it, but it is not necessarily as consequential as racism. 

“Systemic racism works in a way that’s very visual. We have been conditioned to discriminate against people based on phenotype,” says Rodriguez. “As an Urban Studies Professor, I learn and teach that property values decrease significantly merely by the presence of dark-skinned black men. And they increase significantly by the presence of white men. For example, a lot of these white hipsters we see living in NYC are broke, however, their presence alone makes the property value increase in a neighborhood and it gives a lot of landlords and developers a lot more confidence in investing in that neighborhood. So they refurbish homes, they remodel buildings, they open up new coffee shops simply because of the presence of white bodies.”

What ultimately sets racism apart from prejudice is that racism — unlike prejudice — has impacted and still impacts laws and systems that deeply harm people of color even today. These systems are still set in place in a way that can greatly impact a POC’s ability to thrive in society. We might have made progress on this front but a lot of work still needs to be done.

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