Racism refers to the belief that certain groups, based on their race, ethnicity, or color, possess characteristics that are in some way inferior or superior to those of other groups or otherwise entitle them to special burdens or benefits. Racism is closely related to other concepts: bigotry, the hatred or loathing of certain groups on the basis of racism; prejudice or stereotyping, the assignment of qualities to individual members of a group based on racial generalizations; and discrimination, the differing treatment of groups or individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity, or color.
Racism is antithetical to individualism, in which people are judged on the basis of individual attributes without regard to race, ethnicity, or color. The philosopher Ayn Rand states,
Racism is the lowest most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social, or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of his ancestors.
Racism has manifested itself in myriad ways, such as Hitler’s plan to exterminate Jews and glorify the “Aryan race” in Nazi Germany, tribal genocide in Africa, oppression of the Indians in the Americas, the “ethnic cleansing” campaign in Bosnia, Jim Crow laws in the United States, and the massacres of Chinese and Korean people by the Japanese Empire, to name only a few from a depressingly long list of examples.
The United States was created on the principle of individual sovereignty. The Declaration of Independence professes the belief that “All men are created equal.” The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that what “ultimately distinguishes … our form of government from all of the totalitarian regimes that emerge in history” is that our system “says that each individual has certain basic rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state.” Because of its official attachment to individualism and its multiracial population, the struggle over racism took on special prominence in American life.
Of course, the same young nation that embraced individualism also gave official sanction to human slavery. Although slavery has existed for millennia and was not originally tied to race, over time, racism came to be employed as the most prominent rationale for slavery. After abolition of slavery in the United States, racism was used to justify the “separate but equal” laws that followed it. Racist ideology persists today and is a motivating factor in ethnic conflicts around the globe, from Rwanda (Hutus and Tutsis) to Malaysia (Malays and Chinese) to Guatemala (Indians and Ladinos) and elsewhere. Race has often proved itself a useful and convenient foundation for conflict by providing criteria for deciding who is on which side of a struggle for power or resources.
For many years, racism was explicitly sustained in American law. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that emancipated blacks could not sue in the courts because they were not members of the political community. Chief Justice Roger Taney concluded that at the time of the American founding, blacks were
considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and government might choose to give them.
Antislavery advocates rejected those premises. Senator Charles Sumner declared about the Negro: “he is a MAN—the equal of all his fellow men.” Former slave Frederick Douglass declared that the goal of the abolitionists was that “all distinctions, founded on complexion, ought to be repealed, repudiated, and forever abolished—and every right, privilege, and immunity, now enjoyed by the white man, ought to be as freely granted to the man of color.”
Following the American Civil War, Congress appeared to have embraced this view by enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which guaranteed to all persons, regardless of color, the “full and equal benefit of all laws [for] the security of persons and property.” That was followed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed to all the privileges and immunities of citizens and the equal protection of the laws. However, those promises were not fully honored in the United States. Jim Crow laws, constructed on the ideology of racism, discriminated in access to jobs, businesses, education, and public accommodations. Blacks also were denied full voting rights despite the legal guarantees afforded by the 15th Amendment.
In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana law under which a man was denied access to a first-class railroad car because one of his great-grandparents was African. The majority of the Court concluded that the law was “reasonable.” The sole dissenter, however, Justice John Harlan, declared that, “in the view of the Constitution, in the eye of our law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s demanded the abolition of state-sanctioned discrimination. In his argument against the “separate but equal” doctrine in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Thurgood Marshall declared, “That the Constitution is color blind is our dedicated belief.” Martin Luther King envisioned “a land where men no longer argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character.” Those aspirations were vindicated in the decision to that case, which abolished “separate but equal” laws. Several years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, forbidding discrimination in employment, education, housing, and public accommodations. Since that time, numerous Supreme Court decisions have struck down laws and practices that discriminated against blacks and other groups.
Libertarians believe that, in general, the market is the best way to eradicate racism. Refusing irrationally to deal with certain individuals is costly to the discriminator. For instance, consigning blacks to second-class public facilities places the discriminator at a competitive disadvantage. Only when discrimination is enshrined in law can discriminators indulge their irrational prejudices without economic penalty. For that reason, private companies and colleges were at the forefront of the fight against Jim Crow laws.
Today, reverse racism is ubiquitous in American law and policy in the form of minority preferences in education, employment, and public contracting. Some assert that racism, to the extent that groups are discriminated against, can occur only if its benefits accrue to those groups that possess power, and that, consequently, reverse discrimination in support of minorities cannot be tarnished as racist, either in intent or effect. However, anyone who views people in terms of race and seeks to assign benefits or burdens on that basis fits the more common definition of racist. Some advocates of racial classifications, such as law professor Lani Guinier, even question whether black dissenters from ideological orthodoxy can be considered “authentically” black. Many who claim to have been victimized by racism today embrace much of the rhetoric and ideology of racial difference once employed by white supremacists.
Racism is found in one form or another in virtually every society. As a form of collectivism, it is at war with the individualism that undergirds libertarianism. When institutionalized in law, it licenses coercion and violations of fundamental individual rights. Libertarians hold that racism is most dangerous when combined with government power and that it is rendered less virulent when deprived of coercive sanction. The extent to which racism continues to inflict harm on people will likely depend on the vitality of the individualist libertarian credo in the years to come.
Bolick, Clint. Changing Course: Civil Rights at the Crossroads. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988.
Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944.
Rand, Ayn. “Racism.” The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: New American Library, 1989.
Sniderman, Paul M., and Thomas Piazza. The Scar of Race. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993.
Steele, Shelby. The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
Thernstrom, Stephan, and Abigail Thernstrom. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Washington, James M., ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.
Originally published .