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“Racist” tends to be used to describe someone with bad intentions who commits an overt act of racial prejudice (such as a racial slur or an act of violence). Such a definition is limiting, as it places too much emphasis on intentions and undermines the impact. Racism can occur unintentionally and it is not confined to an individual’s actions.

Regardless of intentions, a person, an institution, a law, a society and a system can be racist when their actions, procedures or existence contributes to the disadvantage of a group of people, and the privilege of another group, based on race. The notion of a "collective failure" rather than an intentional act is emphasised in the definition of institutional racism provided by the Macpherson report following the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in Britain.

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