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Cultural Racism

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Cultural racism is one of several terms that scholars have coined to describe and explain new racial ideologies and practices that have emerged since World War II. The postwar era has seen the demise of overt forms of racism in Europe, North America, Australia, and the global postcolonial world. Reeling from the horrors of Nazism, Europe and other Western nations formally rejected racist values and established antiracism legislation. The world community, through the 1966 United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, put itself on record as opposing racism.

The post–World War II era also witnessed the success of anticolonial movements; the dismantling of old colonial, racist structures; and the emergence of newly independent nations, such as India, with strong commitments to equality and social justice. In the United States, the civil rights movement succeeded in eradicating most formal, legal, and other institutionalized forms of racism, from segregated schools, jobs, housing, and public facilities to antimiscegenation laws which forbade interracial sex or marriage.

By the beginning of the 1970s, most overt forms of racism had disappeared in Western countries, colonialism was virtually dead, and with the striking exception of South Africa, majority rule had replaced European minority rule. Yet racial inequality persisted, and in some cases had worsened, judging by standard socioeconomic indicators. This was true on a global scale, when “First World” and “Third World” nations were compared, as well as in western European nations, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Scholars have struggled to understand the apparent stubborn persistence of racial inequality (Harrison 1995; Mullings 2005). They have tried to identify the more covert forms racism has taken since the 1970s, including its varied permutations in different historical, national, and local settings. They have also tried to explain the processes that foster racial inequality without “overtly targeting its victims” (Mullings 2005, p. 679).

There is general agreement that these new forms are both complex and subtle, and that they operate in ways that do not require the formal assistance of educational, legal, and other institutions. Several terms have emerged to characterize what is sometimes called “the new racism” (or, perhaps, racisms. These include “laissez-faire racism,” “cultural fundamentalism,” “unmarked racisms,” “neoracism,” “color-blind racism,” and “cultural racism.”

“Cultural racism” is not yet a standard label in the race and racism literature, especially in the United States. It is virtually absent in the anthropological literature and has only recently appeared in the U.S. sociological literature (Bonilla-Silva 2003). It is more common in the European literature (Modood 2005) and among U.S. scholars familiar with European debates on race (Wylie 2001). Yet even when scholars use the term “cultural racism,” they do not necessarily employ it in the same way.

Yet if one worries less about labels and focuses on recurring themes that emerge in the literature on the “new racism,” there is widespread agreement on a set of processes occurring that can be labeled “cultural racism.” At its core, cultural racism is a form of racism (that is, a structurally unequal practice) that relies on cultural differences rather than on biological markers of racial superiority or inferiority. The cultural differences can be real, imagined, or constructed. Culture, rather than biology, has become a popular, political, and scientific explanatory framework for understanding and rationalizing the unequal status and treatment of various racial groups. Racialized groups are not burdened or blessed by their genetic traits but by their cultural traits.

Cultural racism manifests itself in different ways. At least three forms of cultural racism are discussed in the literature: (1) cultural-difference explanations and solutions for inequality, (2) a continuing rationale for modern imperialism, and (3) race discourse and political rhetoric.

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4 months ago

Cultural Racism