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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 March 2007, 12:25 GMT
Are racism and racialism the same?
The Magazine answers...

Tory MP Patrick Mercer
Mr Mercer was a colonel in the army
After Tory frontbencher Patrick Mercer was sacked for his comments about ethnic minority soldiers, friends have insisted he's not a "racialist". Do they mean racist or do the two words mean the same thing?

Last week Tory MP Patrick Mercer was forced to quit his role as home affairs spokesman over comments he made about black soldiers. The ex-colonel told the Times that he'd met a lot of "idle and useless" ethnic minority soldiers who used racism as a "cover".

Party leader David Cameron promptly asked for his resignation, and Mr Mercer said he deeply regretted any offence caused.

Friends have since jumped to his defence, the latest being former chancellor Ken Clarke, who told the BBC that his colleague was not "condoning racialism" and was not "racialist".

Merged meaning

So do racialism and racism mean the same thing? Yes, says John Simpson, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary Online. They didn't start out that way, but they are now considered one in the same.

Racialism and racialist are older terms, dating from the early 20th Century. When the words were first used in the early 1900s, they loosely referred to semi-anthropological theories about biological differences among races.

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It was a way that people tried to legitimise racist beliefs and practices, but over the years scientists rejected such theories.

Within 20 years or so, people had begun to shorten the terms to racism and racist, possibly to give the words more impact, says Mr Simpson.

The newer terms, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, were also distinct from any theories of race. The shorter words soon became more commonly used, but even today racialism and racialist are still mentioned.

The definition of both words are now identical and interchangeable. They refer to discrimination and antagonism based on ethnicity, especially the belief that one race is superior to another.

The English Oxford Dictionary Online is currently being updated to reflect this merging of meaning.

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