Disagreements about racism are pervasive in our society today. Our present situation would likely surprise — and perhaps profoundly sadden — many Americans who in the 1960s believed that the enactment of historic civil rights acts represented a transformative repudiation of a tragic tradition.

Or those in the 1970s and ’80s who supported affirmative action programs. A common position then was that, although the racial criteria deliberately used in such programs reflected a regrettable departure from the “color blind” ideal articulated by figures like Martin Luther King Jr., the departure was necessary as a short-term measure to overcome the lingering effects of past discrimination. Our current situation is undoubtedly disappointing as well to the millions of Americans of all backgrounds who saw the election of former President Barack Obama as a sign of racial progress and a public repudiation of past racism.

And yet here we are.

From the early 2000s to around 2013, according to Gallup polling, a majority of U.S. Black respondents (as high as 70% in the early 2000s) and a majority of white respondents (as high as 75% around 2007) reported that race relations between the two groups were either very good or somewhat good.

Today? A minority of Black Americans (36% ) and a minority of white respondents (46%) say the same. How did we arrive at such a strained state?

There is no simple answer to that question, obviously. But at least part of the explanation is that Americans don’t understand one another. Even language surrounding our discourse regarding racism may be contributing to misunderstandings and aggravating antagonisms. 

For example, I’ve come to believe that there are at least three different senses in which the term “racism” is being employed (or deployed) in contemporary political discourse. Each sense raises distinctive issues both of fact and of justice. Some of these are issues about which reasonable people of good will differ, or at least ought to be able to differ. I don’t take any position here with regard to those contestable issues. My limited claim is that distinguishing among these different senses of “racism” might help us understand each other better. Conversely, conflating terminology may contribute to the discord we are currently experiencing.

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Essential racism

We might define this form of racism as decisions, actions and practices based on an assumption that some races are inherently inferior to others, and hence are deserving of less favorable treatment. 

There are variations, of course. Another view holds that races, though not inherently superior or inferior to one another, are nonetheless in some important sense different, and that mixing of races should be discouraged. This was the premise of the so-called “separate but equal” regime that prevailed in American law for more than half a century, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution permitted racial segregation so long as the different races were treated equally. The “equal treatment” was, of course, almost always a blatant fiction. Today most of us would regard an “equal but inherently different” position as another form of “essential racism.” 

No doubt there are still these kinds of racists among us. But in even semi-respectable circles — in most schools or churches or anything above the gutter-level media — no one argues (at least publicly) for this position. On the contrary, this sort of racism is taken to be the paradigm case of inexcusable ignorance and wickedness. That is a consensus in which I am happy to join.

Correlational racism

Another possibility, which we might call “correlational racism,” says that a variety of historical and sociological factors, including the nation’s history of slavery followed by Jim Crow segregation and its aftermath, have brought about conditions in which, as a roughly reliable generalization, people of different races are likely to exhibit differences in their thinking and behavior. And these unessential but nonetheless real differences may sometimes lead to differential treatment based not on race, exactly, but on factors that at least temporarily sometimes correlate with race. 

Such, at least, is the view of “correlational racism.”

This category of racism might encompass the taxi driver who in a sketchy neighborhood doesn’t stop to pick up a potential customer, or the retail store manager who keeps a close eye on a shopper, on the assumption that “certain” shoppers are more likely to commit crimes. That assumption, they might argue, is supported by both personal experience and statistical evidence. And yet the taxi driver or the manager might insist that this likelihood does not reflect any essential, race-related feature; it is the understandable product, rather, of decades of discrimination and deprivation. Indeed, the taxi driver and the manager might be wholly sympathetic; they themselves might be members of a minority race.

The bottom line, though, is that they don’t want to be victimized by criminal behavior. And they think that, sadly, race correlates with that risk.

In a similar vein, perhaps, is an employer I know who, while sincerely denying any racist views or attitudes, says the following: “I hire a lot of employees. Some of them work out and some don’t. It’s not uncommon that I have to let someone go. That’s just a fact. It’s also just a fact that if the employee I have to let go happens to be a racial minority, I can’t act without a serious risk of being sued for discrimination. So, it is simply riskier for me to hire a minority employee. That’s the reality.” It might be that employers in studies reporting a tendency to prefer white over minority applicants might have a similar rationale.

Of course, the taxi driver, store manager or employer might merely be attempting to offer a respectable or rational excuse for what is at bottom old-fashioned “essential” racism, conscious or subconscious. Or they might be acting sincerely, but on the basis of misinformation — of demeaning and empirically ungrounded “stereotypes.” So “correlational racism” raises a whole host of difficult questions — questions both of fact and of justice. 

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Structural racism

When reminded of the nation’s ostensible advances in racial relations (Brown v. Board of Education, numerous subsequent judicial decisions in the same vein, the Civil Rights Act, etc.), contemporary critics who decry rampant racism in the country will sometimes explain that they are talking about a different kind or sense of racism — about something sometimes called “structural” or “systemic” racism.

Here is an example. Critics sometimes say that American universities are racist. They may support the charge by citing evidence showing that at many or most universities, African American students and faculty constitute a smaller demographic than their percentage of the general population. Defenders of an institution may believe that such an accusation is absurd, even dishonest. Nobody on the university’s admissions or the appointments committees harbors any race-based animus, they might say. And hasn’t the university for decades been admitting and sometimes offering financial aid to minority applicants? Hasn’t it been energetically trying to hire minority faculty?

At this point a critic might double down and insist that the university faculty and administrators are racist, subconsciously perhaps, even if they say and perhaps believe they are not. Sometimes people who talk about “systemic racism” seem to be saying something like this. But this accusation raises difficult questions of evidence and psychology. How can an outsider know what is in another person’s mind or heart (or subconscious) better than the person herself does? Isn’t it audacious to pretend to know that millions of fellow citizens who claim to introspect and sincerely believe they hold no racial animosity are nonetheless actually deceiving themselves or otherwise ignorant?

But, some others may take a different position, that in accusing a university of racism, they are not talking about “essential” racism or bigotry. Rather, they are saying that the disparities in the universities’ racial composition result from the fact that, due to historical and sociological factors (including in particular a long history of discrimination and deprivation), some minority groups have been systematically disadvantaged in ways that prevent them from competing equally for positions in a student body or on a faculty. The playing field is not level. So, the disparities are the product of racism; not necessarily racism of the most bigoted sense but maybe of structural or “systemic” racism.

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One thing that becomes apparent in such exchanges is that people are using the term “racism” in different ways. Indeed, once the senses are sorted out, it might be that there is less disagreement than meets the eye. Those who indignantly deny that the universities are pervasively racist in an attitudinal sense might readily admit that the disproportions seen in student and faculty composition reflect historical and sociological factors, including, surely, the nation’s history of slavery and segregation. They might admit that in this sense, such disproportions (along with much else in our society) are, in part, the product of past racism. But they still would like to distinguish between “essential” racism and the long-term effects of such racism. 

In short, the contending parties are using the term “racism” differently. But as to the actual facts there may be little actual disagreement. Certainly clarifying terminology isn’t going to dissolve all of the apparent disagreements, far from it. There will still be disagreements about historical interpretation, for example. Though slavery and segregation have undeniably been prominent features of the American experience, there are currently major differences of opinion about how central and formative these practices have been to the meaning of the American project. And there are large and sometimes fierce ethical disagreements about the proper responses to the effects of historical and contemporary racism. Disputes about reparations or affirmative action, for example, are ongoing.

But one reason for some of these disagreements being so fierce, I think, is the real, practical implications from multiple and inconsistent usages of language I have been discussing here. When the term “racism” gets used in various ways, few are precise about what kind of racism they are addressing or alleging. The various senses instead get conflated in ordinary discussions. Abraham may mean type 3 racism, whereas Beth may understand Abraham to be accusing her institution (and thus, by implication, her) of type 1 racism, or maybe type 2. Naturally Beth reacts defensively, even indignantly. Charles equivocates, perhaps carelessly, perhaps deliberately; he sometimes refers to type 1 racism or maybe type 2 and sometimes to type 3 without clearly distinguishing among them.

At best, this conflation and equivocation result in confusion, and perhaps unnecessary conflict.  

But often the consequences of conflation are more serious. That is because the core and most common meaning of “racism,” in many and perhaps most contexts anyway, is still that of type 1 — “essential” racism. Even when the term “racism” is used in one of its other senses, it will almost inevitably carry with it some of the connotations and associations associated with type 1.

And because type 1 racism is today properly viewed as a moral abomination by most people, those carry-on connotations and associations are not merely pejorative: They are damning. They work to demonize anyone who resists whatever the wielder of the term is advocating. And they thus work to close off, or more often foreclose, conversation. They can transform what might have been a needed and valuable discussion into an acrimonious exchange of accusations and apologies.

Sometimes this unfortunate and equivocating use of the term may be inadvertent, and innocent. Sometimes it might be deliberate. If you can gain a formidable rhetorical advantage by using the term “racism” in an equivocating way, the temptation will be difficult to resist. Either way, whether innocent or opportunistic, the consequences are confusion. Or worse.

This sort of misunderstanding is unfortunate — tragic, even — because issues associated with race are vitally important to our society, and complicated. In particular, questions about how to address the ongoing consequences of past injustices are both urgent and difficult. But once the term “racism” gets applied loosely to all of the practices and institutions that have been shaped and influenced by such injustices, serious reflection becomes next to impossible. Instead of discussion we have demonization.

Matters of race call for sober, careful reflection and discussion. And they are not likely to receive such treatment unless we can somehow overcome our tendency to equivocate about, or even exploit, the language of “racism.”

Steven Smith is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego and is the co-executive director of the institute for law & religion and institute for law & philosophy.