But the step is only short when the idea is still that discrimination, standing at the gate, is the essence of racism. The progression from racism 2.0 to racism 3.0 is less typical as language change goes. The 3.0 usage implies that calling racial disparities “racism” is natural because it is indisputable that racial disparities stem from bias-infused barriers. For example, many argue that black people lag behind white people in health indexes because of inadequate access to health care and supermarkets. The term racism is often applied to a case like this, even if white bias is not, or is no longer, the cause of the disparities. This is a tenet of much social science, but its pathway toward society-wide consensus would seem paved with thorns. It is especially challenging to that consensus that some of the barriers in question, even if founded in racism 1.0 and 2.0, were in the past rather than the present, such as redlining policies that restricted black people to cramped, decaying neighborhoods. Hardly uncommon will be those who resist a definition of racism that encompasses the actions and attitudes of people now long gone.
The linguist does not prescribe how language is supposed to go. Like Chauncey Gardner, we like to watch. However, we linguists are each of us human beings, and I have my preferences. For one, I don’t like mess.
If I had it my way—which I won’t—we would allow that racism now refers to a societal state, and revive prejudice to refer to attitudinal bias. Prejudiced was once, after all, the word of choice for racist bias. Racist only took over starting in about 1970, with a major uptick after 1980. Here is Sammy Davis Jr. taunting Archie Bunker on All in the Family in 1972. Note that his usage of prejudiced is now antique; the word would be racist today:
If you were prejudiced, you’d go around saying you were better than anyone else in the world, but I can honestly say, after spending these marvelous moments with you, you ain’t better than anybody!
Sexist replaced chauvinist around the same time racist did prejudiced, and for the same reason—potent terms need refreshment, especially when heavily used. This is why, more and more, white supremacy is easing out racism. It was only a matter of time, and dictionaries should be on notice.
Read: An oral history of Trump’s bigotry
I’m not aware of successful attempts to revive antique words for colloquial usage, but goodness, prejudiced would be handy these days. It carries a clear implication of a person and their judgment—a person who bears a prejudice. It would not feel quite right to start referring to a society as “prejudiced”—you keep thinking of that single person, the bigot grumbling on her porch.
Racist was, initially, potentially applicable to alternate interpretations. Is the racist someone who is of a certain race? Or a supporter of people of other races? Or someone calling attention to the existence of different races? Or is racist something that refers to a policy? That latter direction is where things went. But in my idealized English, people would be prejudiced while a society would exhibit racism.