Racism: What Does it Really Mean?

By Dr. Louis Chiappetta, Ph.D.  |   Aug 19, 2019

If you work in law enforcement, there’s a chance you’ve been told that you are racist. This battle cry is oftentimes baseless and is usually the result of someone being upset with an officer’s perfectly reasonable words or actions.

A well-founded accusation of racism is usually the kiss of death for a police officer’s career. Law enforcement supervisors are especially shy about protecting officers accused of racial misconduct; the racist designation is even more fatal to the career of these leaders. No one wants to be “that guy”- the one who makes a post thinking it’s humorous and harmless, but it is suddenly deemed racist. How does anyone determine that another human has these beliefs? How do we so quickly decide that someone is a true racist?

Racism vs. Prejudice

First of all, when did America change the definition of “racist”?

Merriam-Webster still defines a racist as one who believes that the race of a person is “the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce the superiority of a certain race.” The racist believes one race is inferior or superior to another due to specific intrinsic qualities.

Some actions might roughly indicate how a person thinks, but I have lived and worked with people for years before I was able to confidently determine whether they believed they were superior to another race. How can anyone so immediately see into the heart of a person and determine that they are racist?

Maybe they are conflating racism with prejudice.

Prejudice is a term that is often incorrectly used as a synonym for racism. Identifying that a person is prejudiced is a much simpler task than confirming that they are racist. Prejudice requires opinions which are based on preconceived beliefs, not facts.

Prejudice is also much more of a widespread human condition. Most people have prejudices of some sort, whether they believe they do or not. One behavior based on a prejudiced misconception, for example, is avoiding pit bulls because they are thought to be vicious dogs.

A human’s prejudices are much easier to identify by their action or words than racism. However, holding prejudice does not automatically indicate that someone is a racist. In fact, I am an optimistic believer in the ability of an officer who holds some prejudice to eventually dissolve those beliefs once they are in uniform. ​

Who Started It?

It’s hard to say why people started using the terms “racist” and “prejudiced” interchangeably. Perhaps it was the media, who themselves may have blamed it on the Russians.

The serious outcome of this linguistic blend are the consequences today’s officers must face after being labeled as racist. The social landscape of modern policing is evolving. Officers are always under a microscope, and they are scrutinized not only over traffic stops or arrests, but also social media posts or likes.

Officers must train to purge themselves of any prejudiced feelings which might help others deem them as racist. Officers must closely consider their words, actions, and feelings—and sometimes those of their fellow officers.

How Does it End?

Police officers are exposed to a wealth of safety training. In addition to developing skills related to safety and self-preservation, modern officers must train themselves to recognize and avoid offensive words or actions.

​A statement or social media post that is deemed racist often leads to the end of an officer’s law enforcement career. Just ask the Philadelphia Police Department, who recently lost 13 officers after offensive social media posts were uncovered. Just as officers will be reprimanded or terminated for excessive force or corruption, they will also face the consequences of proven racist words or actions.

Racism is just another form of corruption; it is a corruption of morality and humanity. It is different from prejudice. It is also different from officer safety, but training to rid oneself of such feelings is a self-preservation technique just the same.