Experimental visualization of narrower problems
Other Names:
Dependence on racism
Dependence on racial discrimination
Denial of right to equality because of race
Unequal rights for different racial groups
Active racial prejudice

Racism and racial discrimination are in practice used in a range of overlapping ways. The ambiguity of their use often causes political and even scientific discourse to become confused and itself prevents progress towards constructive solutions. Racial discrimination can be considered as the broader concept following its definition in the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination as any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which 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 political, economic, social, cultural or any other fields of public life. Such discrimination may be based upon ideas or theories of superiority of one race or group of persons of one colour or ethnic origin, which may be used to justify or promote racial hatred and discrimination in a wide variety of forms. Such action may encourage acts of violence or incitement to such acts against groups of persons of another colour or ethnic origin.

Racism has been the subject of several declarations by UNESCO. In 1978 it was defined as including racist ideologies, prejudiced attitudes, discriminatory behaviour, and institutionalized practices, resulting in racial inequality, as well as the fallacious notion that discriminatory relations between groups are morally and scientifically justifiable. Racism as a doctrine attributes the determination of human capacities to specific inherited physical traits that are considered to distinguish a race. Prejudice and discrimination on the ground of race, colour or ethnic origin occur in a number of societies, where physical appearance – notably skin colour – and ethnic origin are accorded prime importance. "Racism" has increasingly come to mean the hostility that one person feels for another because of his or her colour alone. These racist beliefs have been so widespread that although authoritatively and consistently proved to be erroneous, they still continue to be an important cause of prejudice.

Racism, which takes a number of forms, is a complex phenomenon involving a whole range of economic, political, historical, cultural, social and psychological factors. It is generally a tool used by certain groups to reinforce their political and economic power, the most serious cases being those involving apartheid and genocide. Racism exists in all parts of the world. Violence, even genocide against indigenous groups, has become endemic in many countries. Racism is often aggravated by international systems backed by powerful economic and military factors. Land rights claims of indigenous peoples are often rejected in the name of development and national security. Immigration policies and practices discriminate on the basis of race in many parts of Europe, Asia and North America. Education policies deny equality of opportunity and employment on the ground of race.

Although maintaining the conception of a socially unified society, racial divisions may be preserved but expressed in other terms, so that in reality there is racial differentiation. Some characteristics of society favour a racial differential, incorporated in polity, and expressed as cultural barriers, de-facto segregation, inequality and demographic recognition of racial and ethnic categories. Conflict may be acknowledged but the significance of racial and ethnic difference for the conflict may be denied.


The notion of race was familiar to the peoples of the ancient world. The physical characteristics of different populations were of keen interest to Greek, Latin, and Hebrew historians and geographers, who elaborated many theories as to their origin. The differentiating traits, however, were regarded as no more than accidental qualities of various types of human beings.

Racism as it exists in the contemporary attitude that holds certain racially different people to be inferior or superior, originated with the 16th-century expansion of Europe. As the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors came face to face with the people and cultures of the New World, they refused them a fully human status, as justification for denying them, through conquest and even slavery, the rights of other men. It has also been maintained that some passages from religious writings have reinforced racial prejudice. For example, when Christians tried to justify slavery, they claimed black skin was a punishment from God, and invoked the curse cast upon Cain. Making use of this symbolism, they invented causes for the malady, intended to justify in their own eyes a process of production based upon the exploitation of Negro labour.

Racial discrimination is historically rooted in colonialism and slavery. Colonialism in Africa (which was the most highly colonized continent) started out as an economic venture aimed at creating sources of cheap raw materials as well as captive markets for the manufactured goods of European industrial centres. It was an exploitative venture and later turned into a political game in which the desire for political power reflected a passion to ensure economic advantage. In instances where racial discrimination was already institutionalized, it was found necessary to maintain it to prevent the dominated racial groups from gaining power. Thus, the phenomenon of racial discrimination is inevitably linked with inequalities in power. It is obvious that political domination was one of the principal causes of racial discrimination, as may be seen from the fact that colonialism produced two distinct groups, one consisting of those discriminated against and the other comprising those practising discrimination. Colonization played a significant role in the development of racism and racial discrimination. With its bias towards enslavement, if not slavery, colonialism tended to enforce a spirit of dependence and helplessness on the indigenous population, and sought to justify its existence on the basis of the assumption that colonial peoples were 'a lower form of the species' or 'the white man's burden' to be borne as he saw fit.

The first "scholarly works" on racism appeared in the mid-19th century. J A de Gobineau declared in Essay on the Inequality of Human Races that the fair-haired, blue-eyed Aryans were the "higher" race, the creators of all the high civilizations and survived in the "purest" form among the aristocracy of the Germanic peoples. This theory was based on the scientifically unfounded identification of races with language groups and became the cornerstone of many racist conceptions. Later, racist ideas were frequently associated with social Darwinism, whose exponents applied Darwin's doctrine of natural selection and the struggle for survival to human society. The Darwinists made extensive use of Malthusianism to prove the superiority of the hereditary attributes of the ruling classes to those of the working people and to demonstrate the usefulness of artificial selection of conjugal pairs for improving the race. After World War I (1914-18) the "Nordic myth" became popular in reactionary circles, especially in Germany. The myth asserted the superiority of the northern (Nordic) race of tall, long-headed blonds, who were said to be genetically linked with the Germanic-speaking peoples. This myth was popularized in the works of many German pseudo-scientists who openly supported Nazism.

A committee of experts on race problems, composed of anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists, convened in December 1949 in Paris under the auspices of UNESCO, agreed that the term "race" designates "a group or population characterized by some concentrations, relative as to frequency and distribution, of hereditary particles (genes) or physical characters, which appear, fluctuate, and often disappear in the course of time by reason of geographic and/or cultural isolation". The committee added that the biological fact of race and the myth of "race" should be distinguished. For all practical social purposes, "race" is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth.

Another approach to a definition of the term "race" is that appearing in paragraph 3 of the 1950 UNESCO statement, viz: A race, from the biological standpoint, may therefore be defined as one of the group of the populations constituting the species Homo sapiens. These populations are capable of inter-breeding with one another but, by virtue of the isolating barriers which in the past kept them more or less separated, exhibit certain physical differences as a result of their somewhat different biological histories. These represent variations, as it were, on a common theme.

A group of scientists, composed of physical anthropologists and geneticists, was convened by UNESCO from 4 to 9 June 1951. In concluding their Statement on the Nature of Race and Racial Differences, they set out what they considered to have been scientifically established concerning individual and group differences, as follows: (a) In matters of race, the only characteristics which anthropologists have so far been able to used effectively as a basis for classification are physical (anatomical and physiological). (b) Available scientific knowledge provides no basis for believing that groups of humans differ in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development. (c) Some biological differences between human beings within a single race may be as great as, or greater than, the same biological differences between races. (d) Vast social changes have occurred that have not been connected in any way with changes in racial type. Historical and sociological studies thus support the view that genetic differences are of little significance in determining the social and cultural differences between different groups of men. (e) There is no evidence that race mixture produces disadvantageous results from a biological point of view. The social results of race mixture, whether for good or ill, can generally be traced to social factors.

A conference of experts assembled in Moscow by UNESCO in August 1964 to give their views on the biological aspects of the race question also adopted a set of proposals on this subject. They stated, inter alia, that all men living today belong to a single species and are derived from a common stock; that pure races in the sense of genetically homogeneous populations do not exist in the human species; and that there is no national, religious, geographic, linguistic or cultural group which constitutes a race ipso facto. The proposals concluded: "The biological data given above stand in open contradiction to the tenets of racism. Racist theories can in no way pretend to have any scientific foundation".

In 1969 UNESCO concluded that: all attempts to classify the human species so as to give objective content to the concept of race has been based on visible physical characteristics. In fact, the concept of race can only be based on transmissable characteristics, that is to say, not on visible physical features but on the genetic factors that govern them.

Much has been done internationally to combat the problems caused by racism but the problem still remains despite, for example, the work of the United Nations Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. Part of the latter provides for governments to report every two years on action taken in this field. A recent report (1984) of the UN Economic and Social Council indicates progress in: legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures to prohibit manifestation of racism or racial discrimination (whether or not discriminatory practices actually prevail); guaranteeing the right of everyone to equality before the law without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin; equality of economic, social and cultural rights; specific judicial and administrative procedures for effective recourse by individuals complaining of racial discrimination; measures to include questions relating to racism and racial discrimination in school curricula; measures to render illegal the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred and the establishment of organizations based on racial prejudice; activities to protect migrant workers and their families and to prohibit racial discrimination with respect to laws and regulations on immigration; provision of assistance to the victims of racial discrimination; isolation of governments permitting the perpetuation of racialist policies; and publicity campaigns to mobilize national public opinion against racialism.


Under the dictatorship of Hitler in Germany, racism was made the official ideology of fascism and was used to justify the invasion of foreign territory, the physical annihilation of millions of people, and the incarceration, torture, and execution of German antifascists in concentration camps. Similar racist practices were carried out by Japanese militarists in China and other Asian countries and by Italian fascists in Ethiopia, Albania, and Greece. The practice of apartheid in South Africa is the most well known present-day example of a policy based on inequality of race.

The acceptance of racial discrimination may lead to: unequal treatment before tribunals and other organs administering justice; unequal rights to security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm (whether inflicted by government officials or by any individual, group or institution); unequal political rights (in particular the rights to participate in elections, to vote and to stand for election on the basis of universal and equal suffrage, to take part in the government as well as in the conduct of public affairs at any level, and to have equal access to public service); unequal enjoyment of other civil rights (right to freedom of movement and residence within the border of the State; right to leave any country, including the person's own, and to return to his country; right to nationality; right to marriage and choice of spouse; right to own property alone as well as in association with others; right to inherit; right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; right to freedom of opinion and expression; right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association); unequal enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights (right to work, free choice of employment, just and favourable conditions of work, protection against unemployment, equal pay for equal work; just and favourable remuneration; right to form and join trade unions; right to housing; right to public health, medical care and social security services; right to education and training; right to equal participation in cultural activities); unequal access to any place or service intended for use by the general public such as transport, hotels, restaurants, cafés, theatres and parks.

Black Hebrew Israelites, a black supremacist group in the US, refer their beliefs to the Book of Revelation. They believe group members will comprise the 144,000 people who are saved by God in the second coming that is outlined in Revelation (7:1-17).

Artists Against Racism (AAR)
Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE)
European Network against Racism (ENAR)
International Coalition of Cities against Racism
International League Against Racism and Antisemitism
The International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR)
UNITED for Intercultural Action - European Network Against Nationalism, Racism, Fascism and in Support of Migrants and Refugees (UNITED)
Centre d'études des discriminations, du racisme et de l'antisémitisme (CEDRA)
Hand in Hand tegen Racisme
Internet Centre Anti-Racism Europe (ICARE)
Movement Against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples
SOS racisme international
Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE Network)
Young Europe - Youth Network Against Racism and Intolerance (YNRI)
International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (EAFORD)
Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
International Multiracial Shared Cultural Organization (IMSCO)
European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM)
International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD)
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
Amnesty International (AI)
Anti-Slavery International
International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM)
International Society for Research on Aggression (ISRA)
Africa Atrocities Watch
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
Coordinating Board of Jewish Organizations (CBJO)
Dominicans for Justice and Peace (OP)
Hague Appeal for Peace (HAP)
International Centre for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations (IMIR)
International Colloquium on Conflict and Aggression
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
Defend International (DI)
Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide (IHG)
Mission Without Borders International (MWBI)
Phiren Amenca
Refugee Council
Rights Equality and Diversity (RED Network)
SOCHAIR Organization - Europe
American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG)
European Research Centre on Migration and Ethnic Relations (ERCOMER)
Equipo Nizkor
Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation
Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS)
Institute of Race Relations (IRR)
International ANSWER
Multiethnic Interaction on Xenophobia in Europe (MixEurope)
Olof Palme Memorial Fund for International Understanding and Common Security
Simon Wiesenthal Centre-Europe (CSWE)
Vienna Wiestenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies (VWI)
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 1: No PovertyGOAL 10: Reduced InequalityGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong InstitutionsGOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal
Problem Type:
C: Cross-sectoral problems
Date of last update
04.08.2021 – 15:34 CEST