These three terms are usually interchanged even though they don’t define precisely the same things. So what is the difference between racism, bigotry, and prejudice?
Prejudice is judging people or reserving attitudes towards a certain social group without any rational basis. When somebody pre-judges a person using an already constructed stereotype of the person’s social group which they know little else about, then they are being prejudiced. Prejudices could be positive or negative. For example, if you believe tall guys are smarter, you in effect believe short guys are dumb.
Bigotry is a kind of narrow-minded belief is strongly held attitudes and values, especially when they propagate discriminatory behavior against a certain social group. For example, if you believe short guys are dumb without manifesting any discriminatory behavior towards them because of that, then you cannot be a bigot. A bigot—who would have to be tall and believe narrow-mindedly in his own smartness— is apt to take their prejudice a step further to demean, humiliate, and embarrass, any other person lower on the smart totem pole than he is. Some would say Donald Trump is a bigot.
Racism, a common word is thrown about in the media these days. When pre-judgments are made about a certain race and are used to discriminate against them, then that is racism. And when these discriminations become the basis for limiting the group’s political, social, and economic rights, then you have systemic racism. That is, the racial discrimination has been fully normalized, propagated, and is being constantly reproduced by the system so that the discriminated group can do almost nothing to rise above its low station since the basis for its position is equated inherently with its undeniable origins.
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Some minority groups in America hold certain values contrary to the mainstream, like the conservative Pennsylvanian American-Amish, say, or the alt-right movement. If these decide to condemn their beliefs and join up with the conventional herd, there’s nothing to stop them from accessing resources equally with the rest of the American people. But a black man cannot decide to stop being black for the same reason. His blackness is a visibly inherited testament to his place in society.
It was until after the vulnerable blacks became slaves to the Americans, that the whites brought themselves to believe—without any rational basis—that the black man had to be something relatively dumb and sub-human, and that they themselves were by nature the superior race. Then came the civil war when the blacks were liberated from slavery and given all sorts of unfulfilled promises of property and political rights. Then came the post-Reconstruction era when Jim Crow was effected on the basis of racial segregation. And then came King and his civil rights movement and the political liberation of the black minorities. Yet at this time psychological scientific theories founded on conducted intelligence tests were floating about, propounding the natural dumbness of the black man, and the need to limit their retarded numbers in the delicate dealings of State.
But how did a black man expand his mind on certain matters when he hadn’t the choice to pick out a home in a decent neighborhood that fostered adequate learning, or the wherewithal to see himself through school? How did such a man hold any interest in affairs larger than himself, when he struggled night and day from dirt-paying jobs when he had little options in a country that denied him access to economic rights and so pushed him to make illicit trades just to keep alive?
Then the system comes along and calls him a drug-dealing low-life criminal, sending out killers in police uniform to rid the streets of the hoodlum. And if the system is called to it, there is vehement denial at the fore, edicts, and citations that prove that there is indeed equal access to opportunities for all, that the Black Lives Matters movement is just a big victim-playing hoax, while behind there still stands in-group partiality for the prevailing social group.
It is little wonder that James Baldwin had said about Luther’s budding success, that “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.”
Almost forty years since Baldwin’s speech, and we still clearly attest to indiscriminate police brutality against blacks and unlawful accusations of rape, murder, and assault like in the Jim Crow days.
It can only do to hope for now that—come the next sixty years— Baldwin’s words should turn out to be mere speculations of a celebrated essayist in a fervent moment of epistolary scripting.