Racism is the belief that certain races are inherently superior to others, and therefore should dominate. Racism is the belief in racial superiority and supremacy.
Racism is not "looking at things through the prism of race" -- as the right would have it. Racism is not the mere discussion of race. One is not a racist if he or she, for instance, talks about the 2nd amendment's roots in protecting slavery. The discussion of that topic does not even remotely imply that one believes in the inherent superiority or inferiority of any race. Obviously.
Racism carries such a hugely dark, ugly and horrifically negative payload because it is an attempt to establish a false biology. There is, in fact, no such thing as "race". Genetically speaking, we are One. We are one people. One species. One genus. It is a social construct, and one of fairly recent vintage, going back no more than a few hundred years. It is a social construct created by some who, naturally, put their own "race" at the top of the heap. Oh how convenient!!
It's a bit like having blue-eyed people determining, for everyone else, that people with blue eyes are necessarily and inherently the smartest, most virtuous, most industrious, etc, etc.
By separating people based upon false biology, and then attaching some form of "biology is destiny" to that, the racist attempts to legitimize discrimination -- or far worse -- based upon a seemingly immutable characteristic. They are also saying that this goes beyond politics, religion, emotion, belief. This is set into scientific stone -- to the racist.
Continued below the fold . . . .
Now, for the dicey part, the part that will no doubt piss off many here.
Being "racist" does require intent. It just does. That's the whole point. That's why it actually matters. The reason why it is such an ugly, ignorant, despicable, dark and gutter-low thing is intent. It does require the belief in the inherent superiority or inferiority of races. If someone says something that is "offensive" to others, then it's offensive and deserves rebuke. But "racism" is in a whole other league. Far, far worse; far, far more dangerous; far more sinister and potentially destructive. If we view all "offensive" things said to X, Y or Z in America as "racist", then we run the risk of diluting the power of subsequent critique and rightful rebuke to the nth degree. We basically cancel out the power of the rebuke by leveling the playing field between the "offensive" and the "racist."
It's a bit like saying that anyone who criticizes the Israeli government is automatically "anti-Semitic." Now, of course, the person doing the criticizing may well be an anti-Semite. But criticizing Israeli government policy does not, itself, necessarily show that, much less prove it.
There's a difference between saying something that is "offensive" and saying something that is racist. The latter is a massive step up into the sinister and dangerous. And, obviously, doing things based upon racist beliefs is far, far worse still. There is also a major leap between actions based upon "offensive" beliefs and actions based upon false biology. And the difference can be a matter of life and death.
And now for perhaps the most contentious of truths. Racism is not "prejudice plus power". Power has no role whatsoever in determining what is or is not "racist." To claim it does lets too many people off the hook for their own ugly beliefs, and needlessly complicates a very straightforward pathology. Power does, of course, determine if racist thought can be turned into racist action. Obviously. A racial majority holding power can impose racist beliefs, as is our history and our present. A racial minority with state power can impose racist beliefs on a majority, which happened under South African Apartheid.
But anyone, in any situation of power relative to others can be a racist. All they have to do is believe that races are inherently superior or inferior. All they have to do is believe in racial superiority and supremacy. If this were not the case, if racism really were "prejudice plus power" then some poor backwoods yahoo without two nickels to rub together couldn't be a racist. Or someone locked up in jail, considered an enemy of the state, totally isolated, alone and obviously "powerless" could not be a racist. And you can play with whatever minority/majority construct you want to with that one -- or place it into any nation or political construct whatsoever. It will always come up the same. The sickness, the pathology itself is not determined by power relations -- though its effects and potential damage are. It is determined by a set of beliefs anyone can hold.
IMO, the reduction (if not the elimination) of "racism" in America depends upon a better understanding of what it is and what it isn't. It does require intent and anyone, literally anyone, can be seduced by its poison.