rac·​ism ˈrā-ˌsi-zəm How to pronounce racism (audio)
 also  -ˌshi-
: a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
Ladino elites used racism to justify the displacement and enslavement of the indigenous population, and these beliefs, along with the resentment created by the continued exploitation of indigenous land and labor, culminated in the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996).Mariana Calvo
… how do we begin undoing the processes of internalized hatred and internalized racism?bell hooks
also : behavior or attitudes that reflect and foster this belief : racial discrimination or prejudice
The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable. The essence of American racism is disrespect. Imani Perry
From racist graffiti in schools to daily microaggressions and police profiling, rally testimonials highlighted that issues surrounding racism are still very much local issues. Ryan J. Degan
The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism. Michelle Alexander
: the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another
specifically : white supremacy sense 2
One of the many ruses racism achieves is the virtual erasure of historical contributions by people of color. Angela Y. Davis
… the report described institutional racism as a form of collective behaviour, a workplace culture supported by a structural status quo, and a consensus—often excused and ignored by authorities. Reni Eddo-Lodge
Discriminatory housing practices, redlining neighborhoods, underfunded education, lack of access to healthcare, racial profiling, police brutality and mass incarceration are just a few examples of cage wires that all together contribute to structural racism. Sylvia Luetmer
"People of color, low-income people, and Indigenous peoples have been made especially vulnerable through decades of environmental racism: policies that intentionally concentrate pollution and toxic hazards in our communities." Michele Roberts
see also systemic racism
: a political or social system founded on racism and designed to execute its principles
In 1913 the Natives Land Act reserved 90% of the country for whites, who then made up 21% of the population. Under the formalised racism of apartheid 3.5m blacks were forcibly moved to isolated reservations called "homelands."The Economist
The History and Dictionary Meanings of Racism and Racist: Usage Guide

Racism and racist appear to be words of recent origin, with no citations currently known that would suggest these words were in use prior to the early 20th century. But the fact that the words are fairly new does not prove that the concept of racism did not exist in the distant past. Things may have words to describe them before they exist (spaceship, for instance, has been in use since the 19th century, well before the rocket-fired vessels were invented), and things may exist for a considerable time before they are given names (T-shirt does not appear in print until the 20th century, although the article of clothing existed prior to 1900). Dictionaries are often treated as the final arbiter in arguments over a word's meaning, but they are not always well suited for settling disputes. The lexicographer's role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used, not how some may feel that they should be used, and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named or described by a word, much less the significance it may have for individuals. When discussing concepts like racism, therefore, it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.

Examples of racism in a Sentence

The recording career of the Henderson band was brief … due partly to the racism of booking agencies that didn't take on black acts until the mid-'30s, when Henderson's career was on the downswing. Greg Tate, Vibe, April 1995
Today, Hawaii has one of the most diverse populations anywhere. Each group has its own stories of prejudice and opportunities limited by racism. Jill Center, San Francisco Chronicle, 16 Mar. 1995
the racism that was the basis of apartheid Hitler's declaration of his belief in a “master race” was an indication of the inherent racism of the Nazi movement.
Recent Examples on the Web In his remarks, Biden praised Till-Mobley for her courage in ensuring the world would see racism's horrors in her son's maimed body. Marc Ramirez, USA TODAY, 25 July 2023 But as has often been the case in U.S. history, there are sharp disagreement over racism's persistence and what role the government should have in addressing those issues. Phillip M. Bailey, USA TODAY, 17 June 2023 Sometimes the evidence of racism’s history is right underfoot. USA Today, 17 Aug. 2020 Not speaking about or not gaining knowledge of racism's existence -- that stunts the progress of equality. S. Mitra Kalita, CNN, 9 July 2020 Emerging data shows that COVID-19 disproportionately affects minority communities, likely due to racism’s downstream effects on socioeconomic opportunities, health outcomes and insurance coverage. Isobel Rosenthal, Scientific American, 17 June 2020 Villarosa, a veteran journalist who has covered Black health and wellness for decades, begins her forceful exposure of racism’s toxic effect on the U.S.’s health system by recounting her own personal awakening. Julia Schimautz, The Atlantic, 13 Dec. 2022 Barrow asked for a definition of critical race theory, which is the study of racism’s effect on societal structures and is usually taught at the graduate level but has become shorthand to describe progressive ideas about race and gender. Tyler Kingkade, NBC News, 17 Nov. 2022 But increasingly, research shows differences based on race don't reflect biology, but instead structural racism's effect on health. Nada Hassanein, USA TODAY, 12 Oct. 2022

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'racism.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


race entry 1 + -ism, perhaps after French racisme.

Note: The word racism competed in the early twentieth century with the older word racialism, which is now much rarer.

First Known Use

1902, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of racism was in 1902

Dictionary Entries Near racism

Cite this Entry

“Racism.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racism. Accessed 24 Jun. 2024.

Kids Definition


rac·​ism ˈrā-ˌsiz-əm How to pronounce racism (audio)
: a belief that race is a basic factor that determines human traits and abilities and that differences between races result in a natural superiority of a particular race
: discrimination, prejudice, or hatred based on race
: the systemic oppression of a racial group that creates an advantage for another racial group
especially : white supremacy
: a political or social system founded on racism and designed to put its beliefs into effect
racist noun or adjective

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