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History of Racism

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What is Racism?

"The term 'race,' used infrequently before the 1500s, was used to identify groups of people with a kinship or group connection. The modern-day use of the term 'race' is a human invention."
(The National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2020)


Racism is the prejudiced thoughts and discriminatory actions based on a difference in race/ethnicity; usually by white/European descent groups against persons of color. Racism is racial prejudice plus power. It is the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate, and exploit others. The use of power is based on a belief in superior origin, the identity of supposed racial characteristics. Racism confers certain privileges on and defends the dominant group, which in turn, sustains and perpetuates racism.

Types of Racism

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (2020) defines the following types of racism.

  • Individual racism​ refers to the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individuals that support or perpetuate racism in conscious and unconscious ways. The U.S. cultural narrative about racism typically focuses on individual racism and fails to recognize systemic racism.

    Examples include believing in the superiority of white people, not hiring a person of color because “something doesn’t feel right,” or telling a racist joke.
  • Interpersonal racism​ occurs between individuals. These are public expressions of racism, often involving slurs, biases, or hateful words or actions.
  • Institutional racism​ occurs in an organization. These are discriminatory treatments, unfair policies, or biased practices based on race that result in inequitable outcomes for whites over people of color and extend considerably beyond prejudice. These institutional policies often never mention any racial group, but the intent is to create advantages.

    Example: A school system where students of color are more frequently distributed into the most crowded classrooms and underfunded schools and out of the higher-resourced schools.
  • Structural/Systemic racism​ is the overarching system of racial bias across institutions and society. These systems give privileges to white people resulting in disadvantages to people of color.

    Example: Stereotypes of people of color as criminals in mainstream movies and media.

History of Racism in the U.S.

"The world got along without race for the overwhelming majority of its history. The U.S. has never been without it."
- David R. Roediger (The National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2020)


The U.S. has a long history of racism against nonwhites. However, the information below is that of the racism against African Americans. The history is long and can't fit on one page; therefore, certain aspects have been highlighted and resources to learn more are provided.

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Slavery & The Slave Trade

Between 1525 and 1866 over 12 million people were abducted from Africa to be slaves in the Americas (Solly, 2020).

President Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, which declared that on January 1, 1863, all slaves in the Confederacy would be free.

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Reconstruction (1865-1877)

Reconstruction was the era that saw an effort to reintegrate the former confederate states and 4 million former slaves, back into the Union. However, southern state legislatures passed "black codes" beginning in 1865 to control the former slaves and other African Americans (, 2020). Reconstruction was thus a failure because the "black codes" restricted the freedom of the former slaves, including compelling "them to work for white employers in a situation reminiscent of slavery" (PBS, 2020).

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White Supremacy

Reconstruction saw the Ku Klux Klan target African Americans and any whites who challenged white authority.

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Jim Crow

The Jim Crow Laws and Jim Crow era were enacted between 1876 and 1965.

The laws were named after a minstrel song that stereotyped African Americans.

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Notable Supreme Court Cases

  • The Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873) This link opens in a new window - this series of three cases, which were consolidated into one issue, offered the first opinion from the Supreme Court on the 14th Amendment. The court chose to interpret the rights protected by the 14th Amendment as very narrow and this precedent would be followed for many years to come.
  • Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883) This link opens in a new window - in this set of five cases that were consolidated into one issue, a majority of the court held the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional against the lone famous dissent of Justice Harlan. The majority argued that Congress lacked authority to regulate private affairs under the 14th Amendment and that the 13th Amendment "merely abolishe[d] slavery". Segregation in public accommodations would not be declared illegal after these cases until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896) This link opens in a new window - this is the case that gave us the phrase "separate but equal" and upheld state racial segregation laws for public facilities. Justice Harlan again offered the lone dissent. These laws would remain in play until 1954.

Great Migration

This time period brought about the Great Migration of Black people to northern and western cities like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

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Racism Today

Racism in the United States today is characterized by many factors including, but not limited to, the following:

  • School-to-prison pipeline
  • Mass incarceration
  • Education disparities
  • White supremacy groups
  • The shooting of unarmed black men
  • The employment-population ratio (unemployment and underemployment)
  • Wage gap & household income
  • Lack of representation 

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