What is racism? One person says it; what do they mean? Another hears it, what did they hear?

Could it be this highly charged word that is effective at inciting emotions is largely undefined in our public discourse?

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines racism as: "a belief that race is the primary detriment of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race."

By that definition, racism conjures images of Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connors' infamous use of police dogs and fire hoses or Alabama Gov. George Wallace standing in front of the schoolhouse door to symbolically block two black students from entering.

Racism is a word that lies dormant until pricked by some event, like the recent trial of George Zimmerman, leading to severe overuse without the burden of providing a clear definition.

The result is a cacophony of charges and counter charges that invariably result in a foolish conversation of nothingness.

Can blacks be racist? According the definition provided, of course they can. But the dark side of American history has led some to conclude that racism is not possible among blacks.

Those who believe blacks cannot be racist base such beliefs on redefining racism in such a way that allows them to create a false immunity and arrogance.

But those beliefs have been countered by the term "reverse racism," which I have always found amusing because it suggests the victimizer can find refuge by becoming the victim.

What about the criminal justice system? Many frequently cite the disparity between crack vs. cocaine powder cocaine sentencing as exhibit A.

In 1986, the U.S. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created a 100-1 sentencing disparity for crack vs. powder cocaine possession, which some people consider to be a racist law that discriminates against minorities, who are more likely to use crack than powder cocaine.

People convicted in federal court of possession of five grams of crack cocaine will receive a minimum-mandatory sentence of five years in federal prison; it requires possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine to receive a similar sentence.

On the surface, the injustice is undeniable, but when we examine the origins of the law we find the Congressional Black Caucus overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Some believe that the election of President Barack Obama means America has become a post-racial society. This, too, feels to be an overly simplistic analysis for an issue that, in some form, has been with the country since its inception.

The problem with the manner that racism is freely tossed around is twofold. Any attempts of having a judicious conversation are nullified once racism enters the equation. It is a verbal hand grenade, an incendiary device designed only to create destruction.

The current use of racism is also effective at camouflaging any sensible conversation about privilege. According to the May 2013 Census report, 50 percent of Americans are either below or near the poverty line, making it the most diverse group of Americans in the country.

Ironically, it is quite possible that many of those talking at cross-purposes about race share the same economic demographic.

Likewise, equal pay for equal work has more to do with the economic privilege that men enjoy than it does race.

An authentic discussion of privilege would reveal that poor whites and poor blacks and other people of color have far more economic self-interest that unites than any percentage of melanin that divides them.

Maybe that's why periodic discussions about race continue to be the country's preferred modus operandi. It's emotional, caustic; it can be newsworthy, but it's guaranteed to lead nowhere.

Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or byron@byronspeaks.com.