How does "racialist" differ from "racist"?

In 2003, I asked Merriam-Webster the following question. Assistant Editor, Jennifer N. Cislo, replied as follows.

Q: In The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Progress in America (Chicago, 1999), Philip A. Klinkner and Rogers M. Smith use the word racialist when in my opinion racist would suffice. How do the two differ?

A: These kinds of word pairings (racialist and racist) often have overlapping meanings. And sometimes they differ in meaning. It depends a great deal on the context in which the word is used and on the connotations the word carries. Without the context, I could not suggest what the author means or why he chose one word over another.

If you look at the definitions in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, for “racialism” and “racism,” you’ll get a sense of the overlapping as well as the diverging senses of racialist and racist. Both adjectives and their meanings derive from these two nouns.

1. a theory that race determines human traits and capacities; also: RACISM

1. a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2. racial prejudice or discrimination.

Both adjectives refer to theories or beliefs that hold race to be the determinant of human traits. The broader cross-reference at racialism to racism suggests that racialist is often used as a synonym for racist.

Racism, however, is distinguished as a belief that “racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” That meaning is strongly associated with the word racist but less so associated with racialist.

Addendum: It seems that racism also differs from racialism in that where racism holds that race is one of the determinants of human traits, racialism holds that race is the determinant of human traits. So, whereas racist speech refers to the ideas, say, of the Ku Klux Klan, racialist speech refers to, say, a misinformed social scientist.


  1. The less strong association of racialism with doctrines of superiority than is the case with racism is indeed the reason that Phil Klinkner and I used "racialism" in certain contexts.

    Rogers Smith

  2. Race, Racism, Racist, Racial, Racialism, Racialist
    The Noah Webster Dictionary of the English Language 1888 defines the word “race” as:
    “1. The descendants of a common ancestor; a family, a tribe, people, or a nation, believed or presumed to belong to the same stock; a lineage; a breed.”
    It then goes on to provide examples of several divisions of the various races, or how some have determined why these various divisions of the races do exist.
    The word “racist” does not exist in this 1888 dictionary. However, the word racist does exist in our much newer American Heritage Dictionary 1991. It appears that the word racist is a rather new word that has been provided with a new definition in the English language.
    Black’s Law Dictionary, sixth edition, defines the word “race” as:
    “An ethnical stock; a great division of mankind having in common certain distinguishing physical peculiarities constituting a comprehensive class appearing to be derived from a distinct primitive source. A tribal or national stock; a division or subdivision of one of the great racial stocks of mankind distinguished by minor peculiarities.”
    The American Heritage Dictionary 1991 defines the word “racism” as:
    “1. The belief that race accounts for difference in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.” (Emphasis ours).
    “2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race, - racist.”
    It is interesting to see that this definition (as is now used in many newer English dictionaries) has been designed to fall into a negative connotation by the addition and wording of the phrase “…and that a particular race is superior to others” and also by the definition of item “2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.”
    Unfortunately such a definition makes no account or provisions for someone who may believe that there are indeed differences among the various races on the globe; do not believe that “a particular race is superior to another.” It is not really that difficult by simple observation, or by using modern scientific genotype to come to the conclusion that there are indeed differences among the various races on the globe that may contribute to character, ability, physical features, skin color, or a multitude of other variations and distinct differences among the races on the globe, none of which would have anything to do with the modern definitions of “racism, racist, or prejudice” or that obvious existing differences would lead to the conclusion that “a particular race is superior to another.”
    It is a fact that “all men are not in any way “created equal,” but that all men (using the term “men” collectively) are without exception different, and not at all created to be equal. All men are “equal” only by the expressed application of civil or moral laws when those laws are adapted as a National standard. (for example the unanimous Declaration of the 13 united States of America, July 4, 1776).