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What Is Racial Injustice – A Definition

Biologically speaking, race is not real. Racism is. That’s because while race lacks an inherent physical or biological meaning, it’s a social and political construct with real effects. Those effects often manifest as racial injustice. How is racial injustice defined? What does it look like?

Race and injustice

First, it’s important to know why race isn’t real and why outdated ideas about race persist. For years, people assumed that humans could be divided into groups based on physical traits like skin color, hair texture, and facial structure. Many scientists originated these claims, giving it a veneer of credibility, but even a cursory glance of this history reveals flawed data and analysis driven by bigoted and racist biases. In 2003, researchers completed the Human Genome Project and announced that humans share 99.9% of their DNA. Does that tiny percentage point to race? Most likely not. In fact, there’s more genetic diversity within populations than between different “races.”

If race isn’t real, how can racial injustice exist? Science shows the reality about race, but society remains structured around outdated and inaccurate beliefs about race. Many people still believe it’s an inherent trait dividing humans into distinct groups. Institutions like the government, healthcare systems, media, schools, the criminal justice system, and others treat race as if it was real. This societal embrace of race leads to negative and unequal outcomes, or in other words, racial injustice.

Racial injustice in practice

Rather than provide an itemized list of what racial injustice can look like, let’s describe three historical examples of racial injustice: the Holocaust in Nazi-ruled Germany, apartheid in South Africa, and the War on Drugs in the United States.

The Holocaust in Germany

The Nazis obsessed over race. Like many parts of the world, they believed that race was biological and based on inherent traits that determined behavior. They prized physical features like blue eyes and blonde hair, deciding that “pure” Germans were descendants from ancient Indo-Europeans. This group – called “Aryans” – needed to stay pure. That meant going after groups like disabled people, Black people, Roma, and Jews, all of whom the Nazis believed were weakening the country. Beginning in 1933, laws against Jews rolled out, stripping them of citizenship, banning marriage between Jews and Aryans, and sending Jews to concentration camps. The Nazis committed to the systematic elimination of ‘inferior races’ and conducted numerous and brutal experiments searching for evidence that supported their beliefs about race. By the end, around 11 million people had been killed, 6 million of them Jewish. The Holocaust is considered one of the most horrific examples of racial injustice, but disturbingly, antisemitism and Holocaust denial are on the rise.

Learn more: The Holocaust – An Introduction: Nazi Germany: Ideology, The Jews and the World (Online Course)

Apartheid in South Africa

The history of apartheid goes back to the 17th century. Over three hundred years, Europeans (mostly British and Dutch) searched South Africa for diamonds and gold. In 1910, the establishment of the Union of South Africa gave the white minority control over the country. 80-90% of the land was handed to white people and in 1913, the Land Act required Black people to live on reserves. In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party officially established apartheid through more than 300 laws. Apartheid divided South Africans into four racial groups, requiring everyone to carry ID cards listing their race. Interracial marriage was banned, the best education and jobs were limited to white people , and Black people couldn’t vote in the national election. Peaceful protests against apartheid were met with violence. During the Sharpeville massacre, police killed 69 people and wounded 180.

Apartheid finally ended in 1994 when Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress that represented Black South Africans, became the country’s first Black President. Racism and tensions still exist, but it’s no longer institutionalized on the scale of apartheid.

Learn more: Anti-Racism Courses

The War on Drugs in the United States

In the summer of 1971, President Richard Nixon declared that drugs were “public enemy number one.” When Ronald Reagan became president, he escalated the war Nixon started and focused on punishment. In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This differentiated between crack and powder cocaine in a big way: just five grams of crack resulted in a 5-year minimum sentence. Someone would need to have 500 grams of powder cocaine to get the same sentence. Drug policies led to a jump from 50,000 people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. Republicans and Democrats alike have supported the drug war as part of their “tough on crime” stances.

The War on Drugs led to racial injustice on a grand scale pretty much immediately. 80% of crack users were Black. While many communities face discriminatory enforcement, Black and Latino communities have suffered the most. Police are more likely to scout these communities and conduct searches. Black and Latino people are also more likely to receive decades-long sentences for small amounts of drugs. According to an ACLU report analyzing data from 2010-2018, Black people were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession compared to white people, even though groups used the drug at similar rates. Regardless of its intent – which many believe was always racist in its motivation – the War on Drugs represents one of the United States’ many stories of racial injustice.

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.