Theorists who conjecture about racial relations in America posit that racism, an institutional practice, differs from prejudice, a personal flaw, in that racism requires power. It has therefore been argued that while both whites and blacks exhibit prejudice, only white people can be racists.

This conclusion is predicated upon the assumption that an elite class of white people have always possessed more institutional power than has any black person. In the past, this has been largely true — privileged whites controlled the electoral system before the Voting Rights Act was passed; they controlled hiring and promotions in the workplace before anti-discrimination laws were passed; and they controlled law enforcement in many places, using their authority to unfairly target and punish blacks.

But one wonders whether blacks, as they have gained more access to institutional power in recent times (they can now be found in greater ranks in government, business and the media), can also be practitioners of racism. Certainly, many whites have felt discrimination in the form of being passed over in favor of less-qualified minority candidates who were promoted to fill government-mandated quotas. And whites often feel victimized by the fact that they cannot voice perspectives that are critical of certain issues without being called "racist."

In fact, unfairly calling someone a racist may itself be viewed as a form of racism — because it uses prejudice (judging the person without knowing his or her intentions) and implies a threat of power, in this case the threat of social shaming, economic boycott or legal retaliation. Moreover, one wonders whether black elites exhibit the same degree of responsibility for avoiding racism as society requires of white elites. Some would say there’s a double standard at work here: that black elites can get away with being openly prejudiced, while whites cannot.

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