Vital Signs

Defining Racism

"Racism" and its derivative, "racist," are oft-used words, and so we ought to know what they mean. But often we don't, and we just fling them at each other, hoping they will wound, if not kill, the offensive person.

One of my dictionaries (Standard College Dictionary, 1963) defines racism this way: " 1. An excessive or irrational belief in or advocacy of the superiority of a given group, people, or nation, usually one's own, on the basis of racial differences having no scientific validity. 2. Social action or government policy based upon such assumed differences." Another (Webster's College Dictionary, 1991) defines it this way: "LA belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior. 2. A policy, system of government, etc., based on such a doctrine. 3. Hatred or intolerance of another race or other races." Look how the definition of racism has changed between 1963 and 1991. Gone from the 1991 definition is any notion of rationality or scientific validity, which are virtually the same thing.

By the 1991 definition (please note carefully its use of the word usually; it doesn't say always), if I note in speech or writing that sickle-cell anemia is likely to emerge in the black population but is virtually absent from the...

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