THE BLOG
12/22/2014 02:16 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

Racism and Racialism Are Different

Our campuses, newspapers, sports commentary, and electronic media are filled with accusations of racism -- most recently, against police departments and sports team owners. A WSJ/NBC poll conducted shortly after the highly-publicized police killings of unarmed black men finds that only 35% of blacks and 40% of whites think that race relations are very good or fairly good -- a sharp drop from a 2013 Gallup poll in which 66% of blacks thought that race relations were very good or somewhat good. Even so, whites overwhelmingly favor racial equality even in the most intimate settings. (85% of whites support black-white marriage -- twice the percentage as recently as 1990).

How can these two things -- acute distress over race relations, and support for interracial marriage and equality -- both be true? Several explanations for this paradox are possible. Perhaps whites more effectively conceal their anti-black bias from pollsters now, embedding it in social institutions. Perhaps they are unaware of their own bias, as some psychologists (including a new MacArthur genius award recipient) infer from experiments in which whites quickly exposed to identical black and white images respond more negatively to the black ones. Perhaps the genuine racists -- former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, for example -- are far more influential than their small share of the population would suggest. Indeed, even if only one in ten Americans are racists, that is still a lot of people.

These explanations surely have some validity, but another reason for the paradox seems even more likely: widespread confusion between racism, which is hostility to blacks based on their supposed inferiority, and what I call racialism, which is a heightened consciousness of the race of others. It is easy to conflate them; dictionaries often define them as synonyms, and distinguishing them empirically is very hard. But they are crucially different. Racism is irrational, contemptible, and toxic. Racialism is rational, morally neutral, and inevitable in a society with our history of slavery, discrimination, and white-black social differences in so many areas.

Whether people are animated by guilt, observation of blacks' pervasive disadvantages, or the racially stratified nature of almost all of our institutions, they would have to be mad or willfully blind not to be racialist -- and callous not to sympathize with the plight of blacks and other subordinated groups.

If whites describe this social reality truthfully, they will inevitably say racialist things, which will seem racist to those unaware of the distinction or ideologically inclined to ignore it. Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson, for example, was forced to sell his team after he sent an email that on its face indicated only a belief that some white fans prefer white cheerleaders and neighboring seatholders to black ones and that this may reduce Hawks' ticket sales. This belief may or may not be true (one hopes it isn't), but it could be true -- and if so, Levenson should not have been pilloried for saying it. Absent evidence of his own hostility to blacks, merely opining on others' views and their financial effects is racialist, not racist.

Similarly, the psychology experiments finding differences in split-second reactions to images of people of different races might reveal racism. But it might instead show only that the subjects were as racialist as most other whites (and probably most blacks as well) in their acute awareness of America's pervasive racial disparities. For all we know, they may ardently want to reduce those disparities. We all entertain many stereotypes, including racial ones, based on perceived probabilities, not hostility. Probabilities, by definition, are true much of the time but not always. Sometimes, we must make quick decisions with no information other than probabilities -- but absent hostility, this bespeaks racialism, not racism. Jesse Jackson famously said that if he were walking down the street, heard footsteps behind him, and feared robbery, he would be relieved to see that the person was white.

Life presents countless examples of such racialism. None of us can escape them, but we can resist using them invidiously. The law and our own moral beliefs tell us that we must treat people as individuals, not statistics. In the workplace, for example, employers are legally required to individualize hiring decisions rather than rely on stereotypes -- even statistically accurate ones. But the law still distinguishes between racism and racialism by allowing employers who do not hire candidates from protected groups to negate the inference of bias by proving legitimate reasons for not hiring them in individual cases.

A just society must struggle to reduce unfair disparities between racial groups. At the same time, we should respect the difference between merely acknowledging disparities and wanting to maintain them out of hostility. It is often challenging to treat people as individuals rather than lazily apply negative group stereotypes. Fortunately, Americans of good will manage to do so every day, while running the risk that their mere awareness of the other's race will backfire. Accusing racialists of racism makes a tough problem much worse because it indicts everyone, blacks included. If mere awareness of race in a racially differentiated society condemns us, then we have no defense and no remedy; we are all guilty and helpless. This is a recipe for endless misunderstanding, recrimination, strife, and misplaced guilt -- not social progress.

Our much-urged "conversation about race problems" should put this on the agenda.

Peter H. Schuck, a Yale law professor and author of Why Government Fails So Often, and How It Can Do Better (Princeton UP), is writing a book on how to think about hard issues.