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
institutional racism
One of the many ruses racism achieves is the virtual erasure of historical contributions by people of color. Angela Y. Davis
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
Our nation faces a fork in the road and a decision to either continue down the same path of systemic racism or to confront our past honestly. Bree Newsome
"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
: 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.

Example Sentences

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.

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 6 Dec. 2022.

Kids Definition



rac·​ism ˈrā-ˌsiz-əm How to pronounce racism (audio)
: belief that certain races of people are by birth and nature superior to others
: discrimination or hatred based on race
racist noun or adjective

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