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10 Root Causes of Racism

According to Merriam-Webster, “racism” is the belief that a person’s race is a “fundamental determinant” of their traits and abilities. In the real world, this has led to persistent and insidious beliefs about superior and inferior races. Racism is also the “systemic oppression” of a racial group, giving other groups a social, economic, and political advantage. Both definitions matter in this article, which addresses ten root causes of racism (specifically against Black people) on a systemic and individual level.

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Cause #1: Greed and self-interest

Many experts believe racist beliefs were developed to justify self-interest and greed. For almost 400 years, European investors enslaved people through the Transatlantic slave trade to support the massive tobacco, sugar, and cotton industries in the Americas. Slavery was cheaper than indentured servitude, so slavery was a business decision, not a reflection of hatred or bigotry.

Chesapeake, which grew tobacco, provides a good example. For a while, land owners used indentured servants, most of whom were young men who signed a 4-7 year contract. Servants were exploited during their contract, but after their time was over, they were free. The first Africans, some of whom worked as indentured servants, likely arrived in 1619. However, by the 1660s, the number of indentured servants from Europe dwindled, so tobacco plantation owners began to rely on slavery to raise profits. What could justify the ownership of other humans? Defenders of slavery had a list of racist reasons, saying that slavery was part of God’s plan, it “civilized” Black people, and that some races were so inferior they were meant to be slaves. As Preston Tisdale wrote in an opinion piece for CTPost, “the demonization and dehumanization of African Americans needed to be powerful enough to obfuscate the horrors of slavery.” Racism has certainly proved powerful.

Cause #2: Scientific racism

While many say ignorance sparks racism, some of history’s most intelligent minds were behind racist ideas. Around the end of the 18th century, science replaced religion and superstition as the intellectual authority. In the way scientists started categorizing animals and plants, they also started categorizing humans. In 1776, German scientist Johann Fredrich Blumenbach classified humans into five groups, putting “Caucasian,” or “the white race” at the top. In the mid-1800s, Samuel George Morton posited that brain size was linked to intelligence. He concluded that white people had larger skulls and were therefore intellectually superior. While scientific texts were not widely available in this era, Morton’s ideas managed to spread in accessible publications, like cheap periodicals.

Scientific racism only grew stronger as the years went by. The Nazis relied heavily on classifications, eugenics, and other racist junk science when justifying their genocide. While no longer held in high regard, scientific racism continues to this day thanks to groups like the Pioneer Fund, which supports publications writing about race-based differences in intelligence.

Cause #3: Discriminatory policies

Policies that discriminate by race reinforce racist beliefs. It sends a message to society that certain people, simply because of their race, don’t deserve the same treatment or opportunities as everyone else. Governments use a variety of justifications, such as natural security or public health, that many won’t ever question. It rarely matters if those justifications are at all based in reality.

Housing laws are a prime example of this. In the United States, regulations kept Black people from owning houses in certain neighborhoods for decades, relegating them to lower-quality housing and preventing them from accumulating wealth. This process of providing housing to white, middle-class, and lower-middle-class families while excluding Black Americans and other Americans of color is known as “red-lining.” The Federal Housing Administration believed if Black Americans bought homes in or near suburbs, the property values would drop. The FHA had no facts to back up this belief. Red-lining had consequences that resonate to this day, including but not limited to a gap in generational wealth and racist beliefs about Black people.

Cause #4: Representation in media

How the media represents people of different races in books, TV, movies, and music has a big impact on how society views race. While the media reflects cultural views, it also shapes culture and implants racist beliefs into young people and those new to a country. As an example, on a 2020 panel about the media’s influence on views about racism, a UNLV graduate student studying social work and journalism discussed how new immigrants are often first introduced to Black people as either criminals or police abuse victims. This negative media representation can convince immigrants they should stay away from Black people if they want to be safe.

Racism in the media is not always malicious, but it has incredibly negative effects regardless of intent. As an example, Black people are over-represented in media stories about poverty and welfare. This affects Black people’s view of themselves as well as society’s perception of Black people.

Cause #5: A desire to “keep the peace”

Racism often persists because “keeping the peace” or maintaining law and order is more important than change. In his book Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi writes that racist ideas in America have long suppressed resistance to racial inequalities. When people believe racist things – like that Black people are naturally more violent and dangerous – they aren’t disturbed by police brutality or mass incarceration. They believe it’s justified.

Even people who (supposedly) disagree with racist ideas can become focused on “keeping the peace” when real change requires troubling the waters. In a 1963 statement, eight Alabama clergymen called protests against racial injustice “unwise and untimely.” They asked the Black community to withdraw support from the demonstrations and “unite locally in working peacefully.” Dr. King responded in the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which includes a piercing criticism of the “white moderate,” who King describes as “more devoted to order than to justice” and who prefers a “negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”

Cause #6: “Good” people who don’t challenge racism

Racist ideas flourish when “good” people refuse to talk about them. While many people don’t agree with racism, they fail to confront it head-on, which makes them ill-equipped to recognize all the forms of racism. This problem has a long history in the United States. White abolitionists may have fought to abolish slavery, but they did not go after the laws and beliefs that kept Black people from being full, equal citizens in America. Many even ended up contributing to racism as they still saw Black people as inferior, though not so inhuman as to deserve slavery. The North, which liked to see itself as progressive compared to the South, was home to numerous hate crimes.

Cause #7. Failing to recognize racism in oneself

In places like the United States, people aren’t good at recognizing racism in themselves. There are a few reasons, including the country’s failure to reckon with its racist legacy and the persistent myth that being “colorblind” is the best way to end racism. Many well-meaning people think if they just “love everyone” and ignore race, they can never be racist. They often fall into the trap that as long as they aren’t wearing a white hood or using racial slurs, they’re in the clear. However, believing in platitudes like “I don’t see race” or “All lives matter” ignores history and pretends that the US has overcome all its problems regarding race.

Cause #8: Community ties

For individuals, finding community with people who share the same beliefs about race can strengthen racist thinking. As an example, if someone grows up surrounded by racist family members or friends, they’ll likely share those beliefs. They’ll repeat racist jokes, believe the same stereotypes, and seek out others who agree with them. Even if they begin to doubt their old views or experience the negative effects of their racism, community ties and fear of isolation can keep people from changing their minds.

Stepping outside an echo chamber can help. In a study that examined data from 46 countries, researchers found that those who live in more diverse places have a stronger sense of commonality (they see themselves as more similar to each other than different) than those who live in less diverse places. There are also organizations like Life After Hate that help former extremists live happier, healthier lives.

Cause #9: Quick, unconscious judgments

People are quick to judge others based on their appearance, clothing, how they talk, and other physical traits. This isn’t something necessarily shameful as humans are wired to make fast judgments on our surroundings so we can stay safe. Our brains also use judgments as “shortcuts,” because it’s very difficult to gather a ton of information before making a decision. However, humans aren’t making judgments in a vacuum. Things like unconscious bias, our upbringings, the kind of media we consume, and more all factor into what we think of others.

Thanks to the persistence of racist beliefs in most societies, it’s easy to categorize entire groups of people as “lazy,” “violent,” “loud,” and so on. Sometimes, the generalizations aren’t necessarily negative, like how Asian people in the US are frequently stereotyped as “smart.” However, any generalizations based on race are harmful. When not challenged, these lightning-fast judgments have a significant impact on how people are treated and the kinds of opportunities they get.

Cause #10: Scapegoating

Society always looks for a scapegoat when things aren’t going well and when people experience personal struggles, they may blame others rather than themselves. Historically, racial (and often religious) minorities get blamed. As an example, when someone gets passed up for a job opportunity, they may say something like, “It’s because I’m white. The minorities always get the jobs.” Scapegoating can lead to violence. “The Great Replacement Theory” is a big example. This racist belief claims that non-European immigrants are “replacing” white people around the world. A handful of mass shootings – like the ones in Christchurch, New Zealand; El Paso, Texas; Buffalo, New York – were carried out by men who believed in the theory.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.