Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), left, listens as he questions Michael Cohen, President Trump's former lawyer, as Cohen testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 27. Lynne Patton, who works in the Trump administration at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, stands behind Meadows as Meadows said to Cohen, "I asked Lynne to come today in her personal capacity to actually shed some light." (AP)

Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, knows the answer, or at least he said he thinks so.

So do Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) doesn’t sound so sure. Trump says he knows. Only 4 percent of the American public polled by Quinnipiac said they don’t know.

Here’s the question: Is Donald Trump a racist? Behind that question lies a still more important one: How should we define the term racism?

There are at least two main ways of defining this word. The most popular definition of racism is racial prejudice. By this definition, racism is a personal, moral failure.

Many social scientists study racism this way. Concepts like “old-fashioned racism” (thinking African Americans are inherently inferior to whites) or “racial resentment” (thinking that African Americans are culturally inferior to whites) think of racism as rooted in the individual.

The other way is to see racism, specifically since the mid-20th century, as a system of discrimination. In this view, a person does not need to be full of hate to perpetuate racism.

In fact, according to the work of researchers such as Ian Hanley-López and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, such personal considerations are irrelevant. Under this broader definition of racism, it is a means to an end. This definition is founded on the concept that race was socially constructed to divide, dehumanize and maintain power.

Why do we keep asking this question?

Despite decades of history indicating that race is socially constructed to obtain and keep power, the popularity of the individual-based understanding of racism leads people to look for someone to blame for the persistent discrimination black people experience.

One reason we keep asking, “Is [fill in the blank] racist?” may be that humans automatically attribute one’s actions to personal flaws rather than considering social factors that may contribute. This tendency is so common it is called the “fundamental attribution error,” and it’s why the person who cuts you off on the road is a jerk and why, when you do the same thing, it’s because you’re in a hurry.

At one level, it is comforting to believe that individual racists are responsible for the evil in the world. After all, if we could get rid of these racists or change their minds, we would have the equality so often invoked by quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Under the individual-actor interpretation of racism, calling someone a racist is a moral indictment of the person’s character. A recent example is Roseanne Barr’s being fired from her television show after making a racist “joke” on Twitter. The moral weight of labeling someone a racist justifies their punishment and, theoretically, discourages racist behavior.

Though the moral authority of anti-racism is valuable — most Americans polled believe racism is a major problem — such an approach treats racism as limited to individual behavior. So while it may be natural to look for a specific someone to blame in the aftermath of a racist incident, doing so can ignore the influence of the system.

Racism and the oft-delayed “national conversation on race”

Last summer, a burst of racial incidents went viral. Two men were arrested for sitting in Starbucks, simply because they were black and had not bought anything. A white woman called the police on an 8-year-old black girl for selling water on the sidewalk without a permit. Another white woman called the police on a black family for barbecuing in the local park.

In the aftermath of these incidents, commentators talked about the state of the United States’ “national conversation on race,” one that focused on individual racists and their individual behavior. But the United States had this conversation, at great cost, during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. That conversation led to structural solutions such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

More than 50 years later, we are again considering the national conversation on race, but from a different angle. Public opinion polls show that most Americans reject old-fashioned racist beliefs. Yet most white Americans also reject systemic solutions to discrimination such as affirmative action, which is intended to address employment discrimination using the enforcement power of the government. Such opposition, though sounding egalitarian, removes a powerful motivator for businesses to allow fair access to jobs for black Americans. White Americans often offer nonracial, economic explanations for their opposition to welfare, though anti-welfare politicians often use coded racial language in their appeals, and cutting what is often referred to as the “social safety net” — welfare, Medicare, unemployment insurance — disproportionately hurts black families. The “War on Crime” had bipartisan support, but disproportionately imprisoned African Americans. Focusing on individual racism and pursuing a colorblind U.S. system fails to change the continued disparities that disadvantage black Americans.

These disparities are real and numerous. The economic gains made by black workers in the 1960s and 1970s have been reversed by several factors, including diminished government enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. The legacy of discriminatory real estate practices has effectively enforced and promoted segregation. These segregated communities are often under-resourced, and under-resourcing disproportionately affects the quality of public education available to black children. The mortality rate is higher and life expectancy is shorter for black Americans compared to white Americans, in part because of factors unrelated to personal choices. These include low birth weight, high infant mortality rates and gaps in health care. When black people in the U.S. break the law, their sentences are 10 percent longer than white offenders — and remain longer, even when sentences are imposed by algorithm. The stress of these and other disparities adversely affect the mental health of black Americans.

Asking “Is Donald Trump racist?” may be a conversation starter. But the evidence reveals a complexity and pervasiveness to the racism that disadvantages black Americans that cannot be reduced to a single person — or undone by eliminating individual bias.

Brian Tilley is an associate professor and academic program director for the master of arts in counseling in the department of psychology at National University in San Diego.