Roots of Racism and its impact in the Modern World

Share This:

Racism can be defined as the belief that every person is differentiated and they can be judged and be divided according to their physical appearances. It also means discrimination or prejudice against certain people based on their ethnicity or race. 

According to the dictionary of Merriam-Webster,

Racism is “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”

It simply implies that people can be ranked superior or inferior over one another based on their race and ethnicity. It is systemic oppression of a racial group for the social, economic, and political advantage of one another. There had been many political institutions, such as apartheid which supported the expression of prejudice and discrimination of racial practices and laws. 

It is not a new concept, however, it is a surprise that it still exists and thrives within a society claiming to be so modern. While many people happily embrace diversity and appreciate the differences between regional and colors, there are still some groups of people who see these differences as a threat and their intolerance can have worse consequences.

According to the United Nations Convention on Racial Discrimination1, there is no reasonable distinction between ‘racial’ and ‘ethnic’ discrimination. It also concluded that superiority based on racial discrimination is scientific false and socially unjust. 

Sociology of Racism

Most sociologists observe “Race” as a social construct, i.e., although the concepts of race and racism are observable biological features they are highly influenced by cultural ideologies.

Racism affects both at the individual level and at institutional levels.

Most of the sociological works focus on white racism. Initial important sociological work on racism was collected by African American W.E.B.Du Bois, who wrote, “the problem of the twentieth century is much based on the problem of the color line.” In both sociology and economics, racial discrimination is measured by inequality in income, wealth, net worth, and access to other cultural resources between racial groups.

Since the second world war, ‘racism’ has been conceptualized as irrational prejudice according to which certain groups of people are considered inferior to other groups on the basis of their race or ethnicity. 


Apartheid is an African word ‘separateness’ or ‘the state of being apart’. South Africa had allowed the social custom or law for multiracial allocation of access to economic, social, and political status. The system prevailed since 1948 which provided a gap in social structure concerning the rights of non-whites. 

The state passed different laws paving the way for “grand apartheid”. The first grand apartheid law passed was the population registration act 1950, which introduced a compulsory identification card for persons above the age of 18 years specifying their racial group. The next pillar into apartheid racism was the Group areas act 1950, which allotted a specific area for specific races. The prohibition of mixed marriages acts 1951 prohibited marriages between persons of different races and further different acts were passed to make this racial discrimination strong and effective.

It had a major impact on black women as they suffered from racial as well as gender discrimination. 

Contemporary forms of Racism

Contemporary forms of racism are often featured as modern racism or new racism. The new racism has the following two features-

  1. The superiority of one’s own culture and the nation is no longer emphasized either openly or straightforwardly, racist practices are legitimized on the basis of “principal otherness” 
  2. Biological-genetic differences are replaced by differences between cultures and nations, represented as homogenous entities.

Racist practices or ideas are identified if they are “oriented in intention or effect towards the production, reproduction, or affirmation of unequal relations.”

A country with a racist mentality does not allow its citizens to contribute collectively to the nation, which limits its success and development.  

Domains of Racism

There can be four domains of racism in which it can be produced and reproduced- elite racism, everyday racism, institutional racism, and politically organized racism.

  1. Elite Racism

Social elites are people working in most elite social sectors such as politics, policy sectors, media, educational institutions, welfare institutions, etc. They often pre-formulate racist ideologies to dominate less elite people.

  1. Everyday Racism

It refers to the concept of everyday racism developed to explain the integration of racism in everyday life and situations. Problemisation, marginalisation, and exclusion are important effects of everyday racism.

  1. Institutional Racism

Institutional racism refers to the discriminating effects of institutional rules and policies that marginalize and exclude people from non-western groups. 

  1. Politically organized Racism

This type of racism exists when right-extremist parties reject the whole established socio-cultural and socio-political system though they do not openly speak against the democratic system as such.  

United Nations aspects of racism

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Despite many laws passed against racial discrimination, the first-ever significant international instrument for human rights was provided by the UN as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)2, adopted by the UN General Assembly in Paris in 1948. The preamble of the declaration recognizes the inherent dignity of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. 

Article 2 of the declaration states that every person is entitled to every right and freedom have given under this declaration without any discrimination against any race, sex, color, language, religion, political or another opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other statuses. 

UN International Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination

UN defines racial discrimination in the UN international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination3 in 1965 as-
“Racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and cultural organization (UNESCO)

UNESCO’s declaration on race and racial prejudice in 1978 states that All human beings belong to a single species and all have a common stock from which they have descended. All are born with equal dignity and form an integral part of humanity. 

Impact on Mental health 

Racism has an enormous impact on the mental health of young people who experience this kind of racial discrimination. Certain examples of such mental health impacts are-

  1. Continuous feelings of depression, anger, and being left out
  2. Increased heart rate, trembling, and muscle tension
  3. The constant fear of being verbally or physically attacked
  4. Having little or no trust in anybody apart from family

These kinds of mental impacts reduce people’s concentration on study and work. Racism creates a society where people don’t trust each other. 

Racism thriving in society as a whole, it will lead to aggression and worse violence. Fighting, rioting, and even warfare can be the result of racial prejudice and intolerance. 

“Black lives matter”

Black lives matter (BLM) is a loose, decentralized, political, and social movement advocating for protests against police brutality and racially motivated violence against black people. 

The movement began in 2013 with a hashtag(#) “#Blacklivesmatter” in all social media platforms, when George Zimmerman was acquitted for the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. Further in 2014, the movement gained popularity when two African-Americans were killed, i.e, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. In 2015, black lives matter activists also participated in campaigning for the 2016 US presidential elections.

However, this movement gained worldwide international popularity and importance during the protests happening for the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. A video got viral where George literally pleaded for his life before Minneapolis police for nine minutes, but there was no mercy for the police officials. An estimated 15 million to 26 million people gathered there to protest against police brutality and “Black lives matter” became one of the largest movements in the United States. 

The movement was tremendously followed worldwide in nations like Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, United Kingdom, etc. 

No matter how much society tries to separate the different races within it, it is important to realize that, in the end, people of all colors and religions must interact at some level. The key, therefore, to encouraging development and a happy, peaceful future is to learn to develop tolerance and understanding for those who are different from ourselves.

Racism in India

The racism in India can be seen through the differences experienced by north-eastern people, especially women, of India. These people face discrimination on the daily basis from mainland people. These incidents can be of ‘casual racism’, but they slowly develop into systemic racism and institutionalize such racist practices. A north-eastern Indian girl, who had done her schooling from Chennai explains how she had been discriminated against since childhood with racist comments like ‘Chinese’, ‘chinky-Minky’, etc. She further tells that she didn’t even feel bothered as it was so normalized like when she used to discuss it with her family and cousins, they told her that they have experienced the same. Therefore, she always felt like it’s okay to feel that way and every north-eastern Indian has to experience such racism in their lives.

Apart from having to deal with “jokes” and casual racist comments, these kinds of internalization of stereotypes take a mental toll as well. 

These cases are dismissed as individual cases ignoring the overarching elements of racism and misogyny which perpetuates violence in ways that are targeted specifically against women from North-East India.5

Racism does exist in India right from the individual level. It’s time we take a long, hard look at the way marginalized groups are treated and pay attention to their unique struggles. The time has come for the privileged to pass on the mic to the marginalized.


Racism is a highly complex social phenomenon that can only be studied through interdisciplinary studies. The discussion of racism is broadly based on the racisms that are found in western countries. It is highly relevant for countries and people worldwide. Besides differences, expressions of racism in various parts of the world are more and more characterized by similarities. Social, economic, and cultural systems more and more tend to converge.



Anshika Singla

Student, Punjabi University, Patiala

Anshika Singla is a researcher, writer and always a learner. She is from Punjab. She is immensely interested in Constitutional law and Criminal law. She believes that a perfectly written article can change perspectives of people. For any clarifications, suggestions and feedback, contact her at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *