Featured Society and public opinion Reports

Concepts of racism

Concepts of racism

This paper presents an analysis of the (traditional or common-sense) concept of racism as a prejudiced belief in an inferiority of people of a certain race thought to justify social discrimination, distinguishing it from subjective racial dislike, racial solidarity and rivalry, and perceived lack of politeness. It then describes how the Macpherson Report (1999) gave rise to a very different concept of racism and analyses the main aspects and implications of this new ‘miasma’ concept and shows what is wrong with it.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Accusations of racism seem to have become a lot more common over the last years, which is remarkable since at the same time there is reason to believe that Western societies have become a lot more open, mixed and tolerant (NatCen; Ford 2008, Goodhart 2017, 39-40; Sewell 2021).  Less racism, but a lot more concern about racism.  How is that to be explained?  One view is that we have simply become more sensitive and much better at spotting racism.  Forms of behaviour that in the past would have passed muster are only now correctly identified as what they really are, namely: racist, albeit admittedly to a lesser degree than the more patent forms of racism prevalent in earlier decades, especially in the USA, but also in the UK.  On the other hand, some of the utterances that these days we hear of being condemned as racist may strike us as surprisingly harmless or trivial, raising the suspicion that a word is being overused.  Time for some conceptual analysis.

Racism, personal dislike, racialism, and rudeness


The OED defines ‘racialism’ as: ‘Belief in the superiority of a particular race leading to prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races’.  The earliest documented occurrence is from 1907.  From the 1930s on the word ‘racism’, with the same meaning, became more common.  That definition does contain the right ingredients: belief in the superiority (or inferiority) of a particular race and prejudice, but it puts them in the wrong order.  A belief leading to prejudice may, in itself, still be correct.  But the strong opprobrium carried by the accusation of racism is hardly consistent with the possibility of its being a true belief.  Just as the true belief that men are on average taller and stronger than women cannot be sexist, a correct belief — or even a well-supported and rational belief (regardless of its actually being true) — that one race is in certain respects superior (or inferior) to others can hardly be the bad thing we take racism to be.  For example, it appears to be a fact that Japanese are less robust drinkers than Europeans, due to a deficiency in one of the enzymes involved in the breakdown of alcohol (aldehyde dehydrogenase).  Or again, according to a study at Harvard University, there is a physical explanation why Africans are on average better runners than Europeans (as suggested by the percentage of black athletes among world-record holders in the men’s 100-meter sprint): differences in the length of the limbs and the structure of the body mean the centre of gravity tends to be higher in the bodies of black people.  And more dramatic cases are at least conceivable.  We could imagine a tribe of Hyperboreans that anthropologist after careful study are compelled to describe as having a very low IQ and being extremely cruel and violent.  If those were the findings of meticulous and unbiased observations a rational person would have to accept them as true.

For ‘racism’ to be reprehensible it cannot be a rational belief.  So we better integrate the second ingredient of the OED definition: prejudice.  Racism is a belief in the inferiority of people of a certain race that is not rationally based on evidence, but on prejudice.

Moreover, in paradigm cases of racism we find another feature, namely that the perceived inferiority is morally relevant.  It is regarded as a reason to discriminate against those people: to treat them as inferior creatures.  By contrast, a prejudice that Indians are bad at tennis would not normally be taken as a reason to despise or disadvantage them — especially not if it is coupled with the prejudice that they are uncommonly good at chess —, which makes it less plausible to classify such a view as racism.

That, I submit, is our traditional concept of racism: it applies to a prejudiced belief in an inferiority of people of a certain race thought to justify social discrimination.


Clearly, not every kind of unfriendly attitude or behaviour towards people of another race is racism.  In particular, racism, as prejudiced belief in racial inferiority, must be distinguished from (a) subjective dislike, (b) racial solidarity and rivalry, and (c) perceived lack of politeness.

(a) If somebody expresses a dislike of Japanese you may well suspect that it springs from racism: perhaps this person loathes the Japanese because of an unreasonable belief that they are all cruel and nasty.  But then again, it is also possible that the person has worked and lived in Japan for three years, has a lot of respect for the intelligence and moral qualities of Japanese people — but somehow has found that he doesn’t get on with them, doesn’t share their tastes, doesn’t feel at ease in their polite and reserved presence.  Subjective dislikes are not always due to ignorance and prejudice.  Sometimes it is, on the contrary, familiarity that breeds aversion, both in the case of individuals and also with communities of people.[1]

Gentlemen may or may not prefer blondes.  You are entitled to your subjective aesthetic, social or sexual preferences — as long as you treat them as such and do not impose them on others or make specious claims of objective validity for them.

(b) Obviously, such a private preference or dislike must not manifest itself when one acts in an official capacity.  That would be reprehensible.  But note that it’s not the racial aspect that makes official bias reprehensible.  A police officer or welfare administrator is under strict obligation not to grant preferential treatment to anybody, but to treat everybody as equal before the law.  Racial preferencing would be a scandalous breach of that requirement, but so would be giving preferential treatment to blonde women, or to members of one’s own family — although the underlying feeling of special affection for one’s own family is not at all objectionable.

Suppose a policeman tends to disadvantage black people: is such objectionable racial discrimination a case of racism?  Probably — but not necessarily.  Racism implies a belief in the inferiority of a race.  It is true that such a belief can manifest itself in discriminating actions even where somebody is reluctant to own up to it.  However, rough treatment is not always an expression of a belief in someone’s inferiority.  For example, an official may tend to be less helpful to teenage boys than to adults for educational reasons: from a belief that they need to learn to fend for themselves.  Or it may just be a matter of antipathy: most of us are occasionally less helpful to people we don’t like without, for that matter, thinking that they are in any way inferior, less able than others.  Finally, there is the phenomenon of group solidarity and rivalry, which is perfectly compatible with respect or even admiration for one’s rivals.  Imagine a town that is split by the rivalry between the respective supporters of its two football clubs.  A police officer, privately supporting the club in the north, is found to be more helpful towards supporters of the northern team than the southerners, especially when it comes to clashes between the two communities.  Similarly, an official’s racial bias (though undoubtedly objectionable) need not always be an expression of racism.  Perhaps we could use the term ‘racialism’ for bias and discrimination on racial grounds that are not just a matter of private preference, but — unlike racism — are not based on prejudiced beliefs about racial inferiority.  Racialism (in this sense) is like nationalism, which does not require a belief in other nations’ inferiority.  For instance, Harvard University[2] has been accused of systematically discriminating against Asian applicants (Binkley 2019).  If so, it was probably not racist discrimination, based on a belief of Asian inferiority — on the contrary, the concern was that Asians tended to outperform other races — but racialist discrimination: an attempt to cheat in favour of one’s own, or some favoured, ‘team’.

(c) There are colloquial names for different ethnicities or nationalities that have pejorative connotations.  To call Chinese people ‘Chinks’ is regarded as rude.  Is it racist?  That depends.  It can be.  Such pejorative language may indeed be an indication of a racist attitude, but it need not be.  It may also be an expression of a harmless personal dislike (as explained above) expressed only among friends, and it may also be nothing more than rough banter or an attempt to be jocular.  Even a Francophile Englishmen may occasionally make fun of stereotypical peculiarities of the French, humorously using the pejorative term ‘Frogs’.  Such light-hearted use of pejorative terms and mocking invocation of national or racial stereotypes can of course be tactless or in poor taste, especially if the people in question have been at the receiving end of serious racist discrimination.  But lack of tact or taste in view of racism is not itself racism.

Finally, there is also the case that a disrespectful term is used inadvertently.  In 2015 Benedict Cumberbatch was vehemently attacked for having used the expression ‘coloured actors’ in an interview, instead of ‘actors of colour’.  What is remarkable about the outcry is that the word ‘coloured’ has never been used as a slur or pejorative term, such as the n-word.  (After all, had it been an insult to call someone ‘coloured’, then the change to ‘of colour’ should hardly be unobjectionable.)  For a long time ‘coloured’ was used by non-white people to refer to themselves, surviving to this day in the name of the civil rights organisation NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).  The reason that it fell out of favour was simply ‘its association with a bleak past’ (McWhorter 2016).  Anyway, Cumberbatch’s utterance was clearly not racist (in the interview he expressed emphatically anti-racist views), but a trivial and (given the similarity of the correct and the incorrect term) easily understandable breach of etiquette (for which afterwards he apologised profusely).


Racism is a prejudiced belief in the significant inferiority of another race, which is obviously different from racialism (i.e. public racial discrimination not based on such a belief), personal racial dislikes and lack of tact or politeness towards people of another race.  But can the latter three not be seen as milder variants of the same phenomenon?  After all, the term ‘racist’ is gradable and multidimensional: one can be more or less racist and one can be racist in different respects.  So why should a verbal faux pas not be regarded as a minor racist incident (Liao & Hansen 2021)?

A prejudiced belief in the inferiority of another race, a bias against another race, a personal dislike of people of another race, lack of politeness towards people of another race — can indeed be seen as different degrees on a scale of the same phenomenon.  But that scale is not one of racism.  Compare the triad of (a) grievous bodily harm, (b) verbal insult, (c) lack of politeness.  We can regard them as three degrees of unfriendly behaviour, but not as three degrees of grievous bodily harm.  Not returning someone’s greeting or calling someone an ‘idiot’ are not milder forms of bodily harm — they are not cases of bodily harm at all.  Similarly, we should certainly condemn racial discrimination even without racist beliefs, and we may well disapprove also of private expressions of racial dislike and of lack of politeness towards other races, but to categorise all those phenomena as ‘racist’ is either a confusion or wilful conceptual inflation.

What is wrong with such conceptual inflation?  What would be wrong if, for example, we extended the use of the word ‘ill’ to apply also to people that are not fit and athletic, or to anybody who smokes, or to people that live in a big city?

For one thing, such deviation from standard meaning creates ambiguity.  Where a word is sometimes used in one meaning, sometimes in another, misunderstanding is likely to occur.  Calling somebody ‘ill’, in my example, might mean that they are actually ill or it might mean merely that they are not particularly fit.  On a given occasion, you don’t know what a speaker means and may easily misunderstand them.

Secondly, if after a while the new extended meaning is established, ousting the old one, we may lose a concept: that is, we may no longer have a convenient way of expressing what used to be meant by the word in question.  If ‘ill’ (and ‘sick’ etc.) came to apply also to healthy people that don’t like sport etc. we would no longer have a brief word for those in need of medical care.

Thirdly, the extension of an evaluative term tends to lead to dubious moral responses and a warped moral outlook.  In the case of ‘racist’, serious moral opprobrium, associated with the traditional meaning of the word, is suddenly applied, quite incongruously, to mere trivialities, such as lack of politeness.

Macpherson’s new concept of ‘institutional racism’


On the 22nd April 1993 Stephen Lawrence, a black youth, was murdered in an unprovoked attack by a gang of white youths in Eltham, Greenwich.  The police inquiry led to the arrest of suspects, but no conviction was achieved due to lack of evidence.  A few years later, police procedures in the case were minutely investigated and forcefully criticised in the so-called Macpherson report, published in 1999.  The verdict was that the Metropolitan Police Service was guilty of ‘institutional racism’.

The Macpherson report changed the concept of racism, or to be more precise: it gave official approval to a new concept of racism that had been emerging in the 1990s.  It led to new legislation, notably the 2000 Race Relations Act, and became a major influence on official discourse and policies in the UK over the next decades.  The new concept of racism promoted by the Macpherson report has three surprising aspects.  It is:

(i) de-personalised;

(ii) applicable to those who fail to apply it;

(iii) non-objective.

I shall explain each aspect in turn.


The Macpherson inquiry accused the Metropolitan Police Service of ‘a serious of errors, failures, and lack of direction and control’ (46.23).  In particular, there was lack of First Aid training, ‘lack of direction and organisation’, an inclination to think ‘that everything was being done satisfactorily by somebody else’, ‘lack of proper documentation’, ‘lack of imagination’, ‘insensitivity and lack of sympathy’, confusion about regulations, ‘a tendency simply to allow things to drift’, lack of enterprise, ‘disconnect from responsibility’, careless planning, inadequate staffing, ‘lack of urgency’, ‘failure to deal logically and thoroughly’ with a line of inquiry, inadequate searching of suspects’ premises, being ‘too ready to accept that things were going satisfactorily during the course of the investigation’ (46.5-22).  What the inquiry did not find was any clear evidence of racism.  Not a single officer could be named to have expressed or shown in his conduct racist beliefs or attitudes.  Rather, the report suggests an indirect charge of racism:

At its most stark the case against the police was that racism infected the MPS and that the catalogue of errors could only be accounted for by something more than incompetence. If corruption and collusion did not play its part then, say the critics, the case must have been thrown or at least slowed down because officers approached the murder of a black man less energetically than if the victim had been white and the murderers black. An example of this approach was that posed by Mr Panton, the barrister acting for Greenwich Council, who argued that if the colour of the victim and the attackers was reversed the police would have acted differently (Macpherson 46.26).

Note the odd rhetorical path of this passage.  It is suggested that so much incompetence cannot just be — well, incompetence.  (Why not?)  A more uncharitable interpretation (‘At its most stark’) is that it was due to racism — so ‘say the critics’.  Yes, the suspicion is understandable, but where is the evidence?  A barrister, Mr Panton is cited asserting that the murder of a white person would have been investigated more effectively.  That is possible, but to make such a claim in an official report it would have to be supported by descriptions of police work in other cases; yet no such evidence is produced.  The panel seem to have found the suspicion self-evident.

What greatly helped Macpherson to level the charge of racism even without any clear evidence is a new, de-personalised concept of racism: ‘institutional racism’.   By that term they didn’t mean, as one might expect, institutionalised racial discrimination — that it is not just individuals disadvantaging people of another race, but institutions with their rules and policies (e.g. of racial segregation).  No, the report states emphatically that the policies of the MPS were not racist: ‘No such evidence is before us. Indeed the contrary is true’ (6.24).  Macpherson’s idea of institutional racism is far more elusive than that of a codified institutional practice.  Such ‘racism’ is ‘unwitting’, ‘unconscious’, and ‘unintentional’ (6.13).  People are not aware of it — ‘we are not talking about the individuals within the service’ (6.28); nor is it manifest in their actions, only in those actions’ ‘net effect’ (6.28), whatever that means.  For it is not ‘overt’ (46.28), it is ‘indirect’, ‘subtle’, ‘hidden’ (6.15), ‘concealed’, it has a ‘predominantly hidden character’ and an ‘inbuilt pervasiveness’.  It ‘permeates’ 6.27) and ‘infests the police’ (6.35).  It is ‘in fact pervasive throughout the culture and institutions of the whole of British society, and is in no way specific to the police service’ (6.31).  ‘It is a corrosive disease’ (6.34), ‘pernicious and persistent’ (6.46).

Those who remembered British society in the 1970s and 1980s experienced ‘a sudden and pronounced decline in racial prejudice from the end of the 1980s and onwards into the next decade’ (Hart 2014, 1), as shown by a study of 13 years of data from the British Social Attitudes survey (Ford 2008).  Every new generation became more relaxed about a racially mixed society, and the trend was and is continuing (Ford et al. 2011; Sewell 2021).  The Macpherson report, however, suggested a very different picture.  It was, as Adrian Hart, an anti-racism activist of the 1980s, puts it:

singularly influenced by the ghosts of racism past … a spectre of racism etched by recent history.  By emphasising the dangers posed by ‘unwitting’ thought processes, Macpherson supplied traction to the idea that the racism of the past has not gone away, but rather hidden itself ‘underground’.  From then on, an anti-racist radar has scanned for the signs of a phantom ‘fifth column’, a zombie-racism rising up from its sleep.  (Hart 2014, 5)

A new miasma concept of racism made it possible to persuade oneself that the racism of the 1980s had not in fact largely disappeared, but only changed its consistency.  It was believed to be still there — as a volatile, invisible deleterious principle, exerting its morbid influence.  The charge of racism as a miasma, invisibly permeating institutions, is a as vague as it is easy to apply.  No need for concrete evidence of people’s actual beliefs if the alleged phenomenon is conceptualised in such a hazy de-personalised way.

Apart from the (unsupported) claim that various kinds of incompetence occurring in the Lawrence murder inquiry must be due to ‘racism’, the report was particularly critical of Police Sergeant Ian Little’s ‘lack of sensitivity’ when dealing with the victim’s parents at the hospital.

He says that he spoke to both Mr & Mrs Lawrence and in his own words “basically I identified myself to them and explained the situation, namely we’ve got a youth in the resuscitation room who has died and the indications were that he was their son, but we need a confirmation”.  [12.43]

Mr Little, an unexperienced Police Sergeant having to take on the role of Acting Inspector on the nightshift when a murder happened, seems to have been somewhat curt and gauche when speaking to the victim’s parents (a task most people would have found difficult).  According to the Macpherson panel: ‘This was unwitting racism at work’ (12.60).  If you think of ‘institutional racism’ as an invisible miasma infesting an institution without people’s awareness it becomes natural to regard any sort of inaptness when dealing with black people as its ‘net effect’.  Nothing Mr Little said or did had any reference to race, but apparently that is what the panel found especially objectionable: that the Sergeant’s dealing with Mr & Mrs Lawrence did not sufficiently reflect the racist nature of the crime (see §6 below).

It is also remarkable that according to the Macpherson report ‘institutional racism’ was manifest ‘countrywide in the significant under-reporting of “racial incidents”’ (6.45).  How did they know that ‘racial incidents’ were under-reported, rather than having become fewer, in line with the decline of racial prejudices shown by social attitudes surveys?  It appears that the undiminished strength of racism in Britain was simply treated as an axiom (cf. Murray 2021).  And if it was no longer visible it must be hidden and we must try harder to uncover it.  Thus, lack of evidence of racism was regarded as evidence of ‘institutional racism’.

According to the new miasma concept of ‘institutional racism’, it was not only that racism was still thought to be there regardless of the evidence, the report stated explicitly that: ‘In its more subtle form it is as damaging as in its over form’ (6.4); which would mean — absurdly — that a state of society in which actual racist disadvantaging or insult had become relatively rare was just as bad as that of earlier decades when they were patent and frequent.  Occasionally it even sounds as if the invisible type of ‘racism’ was worse, more ‘pernicious’ than the ordinary ‘overt individual’ variety (6.46).  Here the panel seemed to get carried away by the force of their metaphor.  An invisible enemy feels scarier and more dangerous than one that is clearly visible.

In fine, the miasma concept of ‘institutional racism’ was invoked to justify severe reactions to trivialities because the phenomena observed were no longer judged for what they were, but as tips of an imagined iceberg.  They were declared to be symptoms of something ubiquitous, pernicious, and invisible — the latter making it both especially dangerous and something for which one could not be expected to provide any straightforward evidence.


As noted, incompetence, insensitivity, and even the infrequency of reported racist incidents were all perceived to be manifestations of the miasmic phenomenon of ‘institutional racism’.  Another surprising interpretation of ‘evidence’ by the Macpherson panel should be mentioned.  The report concludes that ‘the failure of many officers to recognise Stephen’s murder as a purely “racially motivated” crime’ was itself a manifestation of ‘racism’ (6.45).  This was directed in particular at Detective Sergeant Davidson who insisted on a more qualified view of the crime:

He accepted that there was a racist shout before the attack and that one essence of the attack was racist. But he added that “because these lads had attacked whites before, very very similarly with a similar knife I believe this was thugs. They were described as the Krays. They were thugs who were out to kill, not particularly a black person, but anybody and I believe that to this day that that was thugs, not racism, just pure bloody minded thuggery”.  [19.34]

He (and some other officers that agreed with him) did not deny that this was an unprovoked racist murder, but he had reason to believe that the attackers were notorious thugs not exclusively motivated by racism, pointing out ‘that other victims of these young men namely Stacey Benefield and Lee Pearson were white’ (19.36).

The panel’s response was remarkable.  They didn’t offer any argument or evidence to contradict the police offers’ qualified judgement, but expressed concern that it might displease the black community (19.37).  In fact, the panel’s overbearing insistence that the crime was ‘purely’ and ‘simply and solely “racially motivated”’ (6.21) was a mixture of prejudice and ‘emotional politics’.  But what was particularly interesting — and probably trend-setting — in the panel’s response is the conflation of factual disagreement and moral condemnation.  The question whether somebody’s action was motivated by racist beliefs is a question of fact, which leaves room for honest disagreement and error.  A possible misjudgement about somebody’s racist motives may be a sign of naivety, but it is not itself an expression of racism.  However, such a bizarre categorial conflation is exactly what the Macpherson report proposes.  The Police officers’ judgement that the crime was not purely racist was declared to be a manifestation ‘of their own unwitting collective racism’ (19.38).

That adds another peculiarity to the new concept of ‘racism’.  It has a distinctive inverse performative reflexivity: failure to apply it correctly (according to its proponents) is itself a reason to be charged with it.  To doubt if something is racist — is ‘racist’.

Of course there are cases where failure to condemn something as x can incur the same accusation: of being x oneself.   For example, if you don’t think that a certain person has bad taste in music I may conclude that your musical taste is equally bad.  That is because by condoning the other person’s value judgements you indirectly express them yourself.  However, the case of DS Davidson is quite different for he did not in any way condone the murderers’ racist attitudes, he merely judged that those attitudes were not the only motivating factor.  An analogy would be the case where you refuse to agree with my judgement that a mutual friend listening to X has thoroughly bad taste in music — not because you have a higher opinion of X, but because you think that our friend listens to various other, better types of music as well.

For an analogy to Macpherson’s view that factual disagreement could make you culpably ‘racist’ consider Article 58 of the Soviet penal code from 1934, dealing with ‘counter-revolutionary activity’.  Section 12 laid down a punishment of at least 6 months imprisonment for non-reporting of a counter-revolutionary activity.  Naturally, a witness’s disagreement as to whether an action that had raised official suspicion was in fact motivated by ‘counter-revolutionary’ aims would not be accepted by the tribunals.  In this case, too, factual disagreement about somebody’s motivation could be culpable.


Having based their critical diagnosis on the miasma concept of ‘institutional racism’, the Macpherson report proceeds to recommend the stipulation of a new definition of a ‘racist incident’:

That the definition should be:

“A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”.    [Recommendation 12]

In fact, this is not really a definition at all, but a recommended conceptual extension.  As a definition it would be hopelessly circular.  ‘An x is what anybody regards as an x’ — isn’t much use as an explanation of the term ‘x’, because for anybody to regard something as an x they must already have an idea of what an x is, independently of this alleged ‘definition’.  Rather, an existing concept x is being extended to apply not only to things that objectively are x (by existing criteria), but also to things that are thought to be x — rightly or wrongly.

In other words, Macpherson recommended to extend the concept of a racist incident in such a way that it also applies to what is wrongly thought to be a racist incident.  This was an extension in two ways, according to the two ways in which an application can be wrong: it can be (i) a factual or (ii) a semantic mistake.

(i) Imagine a quarrel that has nothing to do with race.  Just as the altercation becomes loud and unpleasant a third person walks past and overhearing one of the disputant’s, a white man’s angry and rude words to the other one who happens to be black, the witness jumps to the mistaken conclusion that this is a racially motivated quarrel.  However wrong the witness’s impression — by Macpherson’s recommendation the incident must now be classified as ‘racist’.

(ii) At the same time, Macpherson’s recommendation encourages and endorses conceptual blurring.  It should be noted that in explaining their recommendation the panel mention an earlier definition, used by the Association of Chief Police Officers, that already proposes a reduction of reality to appearance:

“A racial incident is any incident in which it appears to the reporting or investigating officer that the complaint involves an element of racial motivation, or any incident which includes an allegation of racial motivation made by any person.” [45.16]

But at least it is specified (at least in the first part of this definition) that the person to whom an incident appears racist must be a ‘reporting or investigating officer’, so presumably someone trained not to judge hastily, but first to assemble all the required information.  Moreover, it is at least maintained that a racist incident must be thought to involve a ‘racial motivation’.  It is telling that those two aspects of the ACPO definition are exactly what the Macpherson report took issue with.  A police officer’s professional judgement should not have any priority over anybody’s (possibly fanciful or prejudiced) allegation — that would be ‘unhelpful’; and ‘the emphasis upon motivation was potentially confusing’ (45.16).  So, considerations of a person’s motivation are far too complicated and confusing: we can’t have that in a police investigation.  Better stick to first impressions to the untutored or prejudiced eye!

If, in this way, mere impressions are declared authoritative you no longer need to reflect and check your impressions or consider carefully what the criteria are for calling someone or something ‘racist’.  Macpherson’s recommendation gives carte blanche to any careless misapplication of the term — and hence to an enormous conceptual inflation.  Callow and lazy minds will not bother with the distinctions explained above and simply go for the vague idea that ‘racism’ means some sort of negative attitude towards people of different origin.  Consequently, we have become used to seeing the term ‘racist’ applied even to trivial and inadvertent breaches of etiquette.  Yet the process of conceptual blurring goes even further.

First, even the vague concept of a negative attitude towards or treatment of another race would require that someone dislikes, disadvantages or slights people because of their race.  Yet following Macpherson’s recommended extension, the conjunction of negativity and race might well be coincidental.  Adolescent minds are trained to watch out for cases where black or Asian people appear to be at the receiving end of some negative treatment — and then to cry out ‘Racism!’ regardless of whether the negative treatment is actually due to racial discrimination.  Thus, the Guardian (of 24th March 2021) observes that exclusion rates for black Caribbean students in English schools are much higher than those of white pupils and concludes that ‘British schools are institutionally racist’.  The question as to why those students were excluded from school is not even raised (nor does the Guardian’s ‘analysis’ notice that exclusion rates of white British pupils are higher than those of black African pupils) (Chivers 2021). — Similarly, the observation that ethnic minorities are dying in greater numbers of Covid has been readily taken as evidence of ‘institutional racism’, although it is easy to see that such a correlation could be due to a variety of different causal factors (Murray 2021; Kahn 2020).

Secondly, you would imagine that the difference between race and religion was not too difficult to grasp.  After all, what makes racism so appalling is not least that it is directed at characteristics beyond people’s control, such as their skin colour, rather than their beliefs, moral outlook and behaviour.  Yet for many people nowadays that distinction appears to be too subtle.  For example, Labour MP Wes Streeting declares emphatically that ‘Islamophobia is a type of racism’ (Guardian 15th May 2019).  Use of the term ‘islamophobia’ is itself an instance of woefully biased rhetoric.  The term was if not introduced, at least prominently used by the Ayatollah Khomeini, then adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood, to disparage any criticism of Islam.  It wrongly suggests that every criticism of Islam is an expression of fear, and also carries the implication that fear of Islam is pathological — which in view of the number of terrorist attacks carried out by partisans of that religion over the last decades is a rather curious assessment.  Anyway, the idea that criticism of a religion is a type of racism is patently confused.


Interestingly, the conceptual blurring that the Macpherson report encouraged goes even further.  So far we have seen that the impressionistically applied miasma concept of ‘institutional racism’ allows for the following extensions:

  • ‘Racism’ without any belief in racial inferiority.
  • ‘Racism’ without any prejudice.
  • ‘Racism’ without any belief about racial characteristics whatsoever.
  • ‘Racism’ existing without any person being racist.

The remaining core idea seemed to be that what justified the employment of the term was that somebody of another race could somehow be seen as a victim.  As it is put in the Macpherson report, the definition of ‘racism’ should be ‘crisper’ and ‘should be more victim oriented’ (45.16).  In other words, no need to be fussy about the ‘guilty’ side’s actual views and responsibility, as long as somebody of another race feels somehow disadvantaged or slighted (or indeed, a busybody third person thinks that somebody else should feel slighted).  A final step in the process of conceptual extension is that even the alleged grievance or negativity becomes dispensable.  Apparently, mere reference to race can suffice for a ‘racist incident’.

At my former college the following incident occurred some fifteen years ago.  A female undergraduate offered a sandwich to another one, an Asian girl, who didn’t like it because she preferred white bread.  The former tried to persuade her by saying: ‘But brown bread is nice and healthier.  And you are brown too.’  The Asian girl found that last remark offensive, and so did others.  It was treated as a ‘racist incident’, caused a lot of uproar, till the first girl offered a formal and tearful apology. — And yet there was no insult, on the contrary, the cheerfully expressed sentiment was that ‘brown things are nice’.  Nor was there a rule of etiquette making the word ‘brown’ inappropriate for the description of skin colour.  Rather, it appears that the simple reference to the Asian’s skin colour was vaguely felt to be problematic — as if there was something wrong or embarrassing about having brown skin!

Again, on the 8th December 2020, during a football match between Paris Saint-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir, an assistant coach of the Turkish team had to be reprimanded for an inappropriately rude response to a decision by the referee.  The Romanian fourth official Sebastian Coltescu pointed him out to the referee by describing him as the ‘black’ (negru in Romanian) member of the Turkish coaching team, which was overheard by, and greatly annoyed, the man in question.  At first he may have been under the impression that the English word ‘negro’ with its pejorative connotations had been used, but then the explanation that it was simply the Romanian word for ‘black’ failed to calm things down.  All players walked off the pitch in protest.  Against what exactly?  Basaksehir striker Demba Ba tried to explain their indignation: ‘You never say “this White guy,” you say “this guy.” So why when mention a Black guy, you have to say “this Black guy”?’  But that’s nonsense.  If you need to quickly identify a man in a group of five you can’t just say ‘this guy’, you have to describe him.  And if he is the only European among a team of Africans you would be quite likely to say ‘the white guy’; just as, in this case, the only African in a Turkish coaching team could be identified most easily as the black one. — Again, mere mention of a skin colour was regarded as ‘racist’.


Occasionally, the new impressionistic use of the word ‘racist’ can have the opposite effect: that clear instances of racism, or at least racialism, are no longer identified as such.  Conceptual blurring again.  The adolescent mind goes by familiar stereotypes, such as that the victims of racism must be black or Asian.

Thus, to say that being white means being ‘oppressive’ or ‘arrogant’ is apparently not racist — but diversity training.  Another example: in August 2018 the New York Times appointed the Asian journalist Sarah Jeong to a senior editorial position, in spite of her track record of racist tweets about white people (e.g. ‘White men are bullshit’).  Her supporters explained that her obnoxious and infantile remarks about white people were really only attacks on ‘the dominant power structure and culture’.  As Douglas Murray observes: ‘Whereas some people unwittingly use the wrong term and can be castigated for it, other people use terms that are so wrong and so extreme and yet no special castigation is due (2019, 161).

The standard justification of such double standards appears to be that racism is a form of oppression and white people are privileged and not oppressed.  So they can’t be the victims of racism (DiAngelo 2018, 27-8). — That is misguided on three counts.  First, it conflates two logically distinct concepts.  Racism can of course motivate oppression, and has often done so, but cause and effect must be distinct phenomena.  A logical requirement of x causing y is that x is not identical with y.  Racism as a possible cause of oppression is not itself oppression.  And often it doesn’t lead to any oppression either.  I may hold racist beliefs about Eskimos without any intention of oppressing them.  And even if I wanted to oppress them I am obviously in no position to do so.

Secondly, that white people are always ‘privileged’ is another lazy prejudice.  No doubt some of them are, but others are clearly not.  For example, white pupils are the least likely ethnic group in the UK to go to university (Gov.UK 2020; Millward 2021; cf. Ehsan 2021; Tooley 2021; Whelan 2021).  And white minorities in school classes in Berlin Neu-Kölln don’t appear very privileged either.[3]

Thirdly, it is true that in past centuries racism led to horrible oppression, especially, black people being enslaved by white people, but also, on an even larger scale and for longer, by Arabic and Ottoman societies (Flaig 2018).  But to derive from that guilt for today’s white population (or for today’s Muslims) is a deplorable regress to primitive tribal forms of thinking.  It is an important achievement of Western civilization to make the individual the bearer of moral responsibility.  In pre-enlightenment societies people’s identity was primarily that of members of a larger group, a clan or tribe.  It was common for people to be punished in retribution for the deeds of others of their clan, even deeds of decades ago (Weiner 2013).  We have learnt to regard that as unfair.  Nobody should be punished for what they haven’t done.  Everybody should be morally judged on his or her own behaviour.


There can be no doubt that over the last decades the concept of racism has been dramatically reshaped and extended.  From a fairly clear description of certain prejudiced beliefs and their expressions it has been turned into the hazy idea of an invisible social miasma to be applied freely according to one’s impressions.[4]  Let us recapitulate what is wrong with such conceptual change,[5] and add a couple more points.

First, Macpherson’s idea of racism as ‘institutional’, as independent of people’s actual beliefs, something like a pervasive and invisible miasma, is an invitation to see it everywhere without the need to find any clear evidence for one’s accusations.  Yet such an extension of the application of a term of strong moral censure is likely to lead to absurd over-reactions, confusing our moral compass.  As illustrated, trivialities or even non-events are set up to cause moral outrage.  Indeed, such disproportionality is explicitly recommended in the Macpherson report:

That the term “racist incident” must be understood to include crimes and non-crimes in policing terms. Both must be reported, recorded and investigated with equal commitment. [M, Recommendation 13]

Nota bene: the police is to investigate non-crimes with the same commitment as crimes.  That means limited police resources are to be withdrawn from the investigation of murder and robbery cases and to be re-employed where somebody makes a joke based on racial stereotypes or where somebody shows a banner with the words ‘White lives matter Burnley’.

Secondly, it should be obvious what is wrong with Macpherson’s subjectivist extension of the concept.  It should go without saying that a grave moral or legal accusation must be based on fact and not merely on impression.  It is extremely important to ascertain whether somebody is guilty of a misdeed or only believed — perhaps wrongly believed — to be guilty.  Macpherson’s recommendation (subsequently adopted for the UK’s ‘hate crime’ legislation) is a neat example of what Harry Frankfurt calls ‘bullshit’, that is indifference towards the truth (2005, 55-6).  Macpherson’s recommended ‘definition’ brushes aside as irrelevant the question as to whether an incident that appeared racially motivated to someone really was racially motivated.  But then of course what may or may not be a fact is effectively turned into a fact by that new definition.  Somebody who may or may not be racist is now defined to be ‘racist’.  It is a cynically misleading concept.

The conceptual blurring legitimised by Macpherson’s subjectivist definition goes hand in hand with the first point: the haziness and reckless applicability of a de-personalised notion of ‘racism’ as a ubiquitous miasma, infecting even what before seemed quite innocent.

Thirdly, there is nothing wrong with introducing a concept for a social system that by itself, regardless of people’s intentions, disadvantages ethnic minorities.  But for one thing, it is not a good idea to give it the label already used for a very different phenomenon, namely racism (as traditionally understood).  It may be true that the use of ‘racist’ in this new ‘institutional’ or ‘systemic’ sense has gained some currency, at least in some circles, but it hasn’t replaced the old concept.  The paradigm idea of racism is still the psychological one: of having certain attitudes towards people of another race (cf. Preston 2020).  That makes for inconsistency among current anti-racism campaigners.  On the one hand, they have to concede that individually most white people haven’t done anything wrong to any black people — it’s the system that is ‘racist’, not the people in it; on the other hand, it is essential to their rhetoric to blame white people: to make them admit their complicity and apologise.  Thus, campaigners tend to employ a confused, but strategically convenient combination of the two concepts: for blaming white interlocutors they hold on to part of the old concept and the moral opprobrium it carries, but when it comes to giving evidence for their accusations they hide behind the institutional concept, which doesn’t require you to identify any actual wrongdoing.

For another thing, it is doubtful whether that new concept of automatic systemic racial discrimination has any correct applications.  It is easy to understand how an institution can be racist by reflecting and implementing the racist views of its members.[6]  But how would it be possible for an institution to disadvantage a racial group unbeknown to, and against the will of, those that run the institution?  One can imagine a computer program used to distribute certain benefits having an unforeseen twist that makes it less likely for some population group to receive anything.  If it’s a coincidence — really just a systemic fault — we would hardly be inclined to call it ‘racism’.  If on the other hand the program’s bias was intended by the programmers, it’s hard to believe that it shouldn’t be noticed by its users before too long. — In any case, the application of such a concept of systemic racism would not be straightforward.  I haven’t come across any plausible case yet.  As far as I can see, in alleged cases there is either intentional racial discrimination involved, or they are just cases of underperformance of an ethnic group, probably caused by a variety of factors, but not shown to be caused by ‘the system’.  Typically (as illustrated above), the negative outcome for some ethnic group is just assumed without evidence to be due to ‘institutional racism’.  And that is why such a concept is problematic: its actual use is inconsistent with the theoretical ideas involved in its definition.  Its actual criterion of application is, as noted, subjective appearances: whatever seems racist to someone is to be called ‘racist’; yet at the same time, such a judgement is to carry a bold sociological claim very much in need of supporting evidence.  In other words, the actual uses of that new concept tend to be just dogmatic assertions of an unsupported theory.

Fourthly, it is both confused and highly objectionable, indeed sinister, how the Macpherson report promotes a use of language that turns factual disagreement into a form of ‘racist’ misdemeanour.

Fifthly, it should go without saying that racism and racialism must be distinguished from criticisms of a religion.

Sixthly, there is the Rotherham effect, well described by Douglas Murray:

The organised grooming of often underage young girls by gangs of Muslim man of North African or Pakistani background was a theme in towns throughout the north of England and further afield.  In each case the local police had been too scared to look into the issue, and when the media finally looked into it they too shied away. … When the northern Labour MP Ann Cryer took up the issue of the rape of underage girls in her own constituency she was swiftly and widely denounced as an ‘Islamophobe’ and a ‘racist’, and at one stage had to receive police protection.  It took years for central government, the police, local authorities or the Crown Prosecution Service to face up to the issue.  When they finally began to do so, an official inquiry into abuse in the town of Rotherham alone revealed the exploitation of at least 1,400 children over the period 1997-2014. …  The inquiry into the abuse found that although the perpetrators were almost all men of Pakistani origin, operating in gangs, staff of the local council described their ‘nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought as racist; others remembered clear directions from their managers not to do so.’  The local police were also found to have failed to act for fear of accusations of ‘racism’ [Jay 2014].  [Murray 2017, 54-5]

The fear of being castigated as ‘institutionally racist’ sown by the Macpherson report led to a marked reluctance on the side of the police and the media to investigate crimes committed by ethnic minorities.[7]  In Rotherham and other places, thousands of teenage girls had to pay the price for the promulgation of that new concept of ‘institutional racism’.

Finally, it has often been pointed out that, ironically, the ideas underlying the concept of ‘institutional racism’ foster racialism, possibly even racism.  Our ideal used to be the one famously expressed in Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech about his dream that his children should ‘one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character’.  That is to say, we should be morally ‘colour-blind’, in particular the police should investigate crimes regardless of the skin-colour of the people involved.  Not so, decided the Macpherson report: the ‘“colour-blind” … approach is flawed’, the police should not ‘treat everyone the same’ (6.18).  In the same vein, the American political sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva declared the concept of ‘colour-blindness’ itself an act of racism (2003; see Murray 2019, 126-7).  The trend is to increase awareness of racial differences, to try to find racial issues in human relations even where before nobody would have thought of race at all.  New ‘anti-racist’ trends in education assert that primary school children should be encouraged to embrace their racial identity (because of the new axiom that ‘colour-blindness is racist’) (Hart 2014, 70-4).  Black people in the UK are encouraged to see themselves as ‘the black community’.  Ethnically based state funding encourages groups to identify themselves in terms of their ethnicity and to compete against each other (Hart 2014, 56-60).  In short, the new ‘anti-racism’ promotes racial solidarity and hence racial rivalry, sometimes even racial segregation.[8]  That is racialism: racial identity groups separate people and cultivate a spirit of envy and hostility towards other groups.  It is a fallback into the mind set of tribal societies, endangering the great moral achievement of the Enlightenment to hold individuals responsible only for their own actions, rather than seeing them as mere representatives of larger groups.  Furthermore, the social divisiveness of racialism is obviously a breeding ground for prejudice and racism.  (And it is naïve to think that you can promote racial solidarity exclusively on one side, namely that of ethnic minorities regarding themselves as victims.  The idea of a black community logically implies the complementary ideas of a white community and an Asian community, and thus contributes to the formation of such racial identity groups.)  The focus on racial awareness promoted by the Macpherson report and subsequent policies and conceptual changes in the same vein has been a recipe for increasing racial division and racial tensions in our societies.

Dr Schroeder teaches Philosophy at the University of Reading


Binkley, Collin (2019), ‘Federal judge upholds affirmative action at Harvard’, AP News 1/10/19:


Chivers, T. (2021) ‘How racist are Britain’s schools?’, UnHerd 1/4/21:


DiAngelo, R. (2018), White Fragility, Beacon Press.

Ehsan, Rakib (2021), ‘There’s no evidence of “white privilege”’, Spiked 26/2/21:


Flaig, Egon (2018), Weltgeschichte der Sklaverei, Munich, C.H. Beck.

Ford, R. (2008), ‘Is Racial Prejudice Declining in Britain?’, The British Journal of Sociology 59:4, pp.609-36.

Ford, R. et al. (2011), ‘The Melting Pot Generation’, British Future:


Frankfurt, Harry G. (2005), On Bullshit, Princeton UP.

Goodhart, David (2017), The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics, Penguin.

Gov.UK (2020), ‘Widening participation in higher education’:


Hart, Adrian (2014), That’s Racist!  Societas, Imprint Academic.

Jay, Alexis (2014), Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham (1997-2013):


Kendi, I.X. (2019), How to be an Anti-Racist, One World.

Khan, S. (2020), ‘More BAME people are dying from coronavirus. We have to know why’, The Guardian, 19/4/20:


Liao, Shen-yi & Hansen, Nat (2021), “Extremely Racist” and “Incredibly Sexist”: An Empirical Response to the Charge of Conceptual Inflation and Conceptual Deflation of Expressions Condemning Oppression’, WORKSHOP: The Implementation Challenge for Conceptual Engineering (ICCE) @ Arché Philosophical Research Centre (St Andrews):


Macpherson, Sir William (1999), The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry:


McWhorter, John H. (2016), ‘Why Is Colored Person Hurtful and Person of Color OK? A Theory of Racial Euphemisms’, Slate 24/8/16:


Millward, Chris (2021), ‘White students who are left behind: the importance of place’, Office for Students, 26/1/21:


Murray, Douglas (2017), The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, Bloomsbury.

Murray, Douglas (2019), The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, Bloomsbury Continuum.

Murray, Douglas (2021), ‘Why the Left needs “institutional racism”’, UnHerd, 1/4/21:


NatCen Social Research, British Social Attitudes: https://bsa.natcen.ac.uk/

Preston, Aaron (2020), ‘Redefining “Racism”: Against Activist Lexicography’, New Discourses 8/8/20:


Saunders, Sir John (2021), Manchester Arena Inquiry:


Sewell, Tony et al. (2021), Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report:


Tooley, James (2021), ‘When “white privilege” doesn’t count’, Spectator 6/4/21:


Weiner, Mark S. (2013), The Rule of the Clan, Ferrar, Straus & Giroux.

Whelan, Ella (2021), ‘So much for white privilege…’, Spiked 1/2/21:


[1] Of course, a dislike of Japanese people is more likely to be grounded in cultural than racial characteristics, and therefore wouldn’t be racist anyway.  But, for argument’s sake, we can imagine that certain typical character traits have been observed even among people of Japanese descent brought up in a different cultural environment.

[2] Ironically, the institution that has given us the ‘unconscious bias test’.

[3] As Rod Liddle puts it: ‘What does the working-class white kid from a sink comp in Livingston think about his position of innate privilege when he turns up to St Andrews and meets a Nigerian kid from Eton whose dad is worth half a billion? Does he cringe in shame at his enormous advantages in life?’

[4] A more recent American variant of ‘institutional racism’ tends to prefer a quasi-mechanistic metaphor.  ‘Systemic racism’ means that a social system automatically produces disadvantages for ethnic minorities, regardless of the beliefs and intentions of the people involved (e.g. DiAngelo 2018; Kendi 2019).

[5] Shen-yi Liao & Nat Hansen (2021) think that the new concept is ‘ordinary use’ now and they can’t see any ‘good reasons’ not to accept it.

[6] And that was probably the original sense of the term as introduced by the American civil rights activist Stokey Carmichael (Hart 2014, 37).

[7] On the 22nd May 2017 Salman Ramadan Abedi detonated a bomb among people leaving the Manchester Arena after a concert, killing 22 people. The Public Inquiry led by Sir John Saunders found that Abedi with his suspiciously big rucksack had come to the attention of a security guard, Kyle Lawler, who stated that he ‘did think there was something wrong’, and made a half-hearted attempt to report his observation on the radio; but when he didn’t get through he walked away and didn’t pursue the matter any further.  As he explained, he ‘was fearful of being branded a racist and would be in trouble if he got it wrong’ (Saunders 1.55-7).

[8] E.g. the black French socialist Audrey Pulvar has started organising political meetings where white people are not admitted.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the author

Dr. Joachim Schroeder