A race is a group of people that come from a common background, and that group is generally determined based on skin color. Commonly, but not always, people are categorized into one of five races: White, Black, Latino or Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous or Native. Racism then, is the discrimination or prejudice of a person or group based on the racial group she or they belong to, although it's not always that simple.
This term is actually used in many ways. Some refer to it as white supremacism, the belief that the Caucasian race is superior to all other races. Others define racism as discrimination against a particular race’s culture, beliefs or traditions. The word might refer to the idea that a single race is somehow purer than other races, or that one race genetically exhibits dominance over others. Some believe that race can be a way to determine behavior and performance.
Racism can be used to refer to prejudice based on race against one person or a group of people; it can be expressed either overtly or subtly. Overt expressions are perhaps the easiest to identify; it is fairly simple to see that the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, are racist. They openly proclaim superiority of the white race and inferiority of non-white races.
Subtle racism is a much stickier topic, and much harder to identify. Cultures that contain multiple races often defer to the race that feels it is being attacked in order to define what constitutes this type. For example, the standardized tests that are generally required in applying to a United States college, such as the SAT or ACT, are sometimes argued to be subtly racist because they say non-Caucasians who come from backgrounds steeped in poverty generally don't score as well. The lack of good schools, good books, and stable home environments may adversely affect the test results for those students.
While many problems can be cited in reference to racism, one results from the overgeneralizations that are made in race grouping. The Asian group, for example, includes Koreans, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and Thai. The failure to understand the distinctions between the cultural values of Koreans generally and Vietnamese generally, for example, can be characterized as subtly racist. There is an inherent assumption that all Asians must be the same, and little recognition that people in this vague grouping come from hugely diverse countries and cultures. The same holds true for Hispanics, a group that shares European ancestry with the various Latin Native Americans. Assuming that an Asian person is Chinese or that a Hispanic person is Mexican may be characterized as racist.
Racism is not exclusively the province of the Caucasian race, and discrimination between different racial groups is quite prevalent in areas where two groups of different races exist. For example, the rivalry between Asian and Black street gangs in urban America can be tied to racial tensions that have existed for many decades.
What may be interesting in this fount of tensions between groups is that most people still feel the need to define themselves by race. A United States birth certificate, for example, requires a statement of race, and one cannot write "human." Some of this definition continues because different cultural groups wish to preserve and respect their ancestry, but often, such distinctions, from a genetic standpoint, are relatively unnecessary. Significant scientific research on the DNA that makes up all humans shows virtually no significant genetic advantages or difference between racial groups. Some medical conditions, for example, are more prevalent in certain races over others.
Some argue that the practice of race classifying may further divide people more than it helps as it may lead to stereotypes about a group.