It would seem that they cannot.
1. Some argue that racism is not simply about prejudice against another due to race, but also requires power to prevent the prosperity of those against whom one is prejudiced. But minorities, though they may be prejudiced, do not have such power, and therefore cannot be called racist. For example, calling American white people “crackers” will not affect most white people due to power structures in America which favor white people, whereas jokes about American black people reinforce negative stereotypes that do affect their livelihood.
2. Some argue that it is prudent in current circumstances to say that they cannot, especially facing situations where affirmative action is called racist for favoring minority students. Affirmative action is not racist because it benefits the disadvantaged. Saying that minorities cannot be racist helps reinforce this.
It would seem that they can.
1. It is often argued that, according to most common definitions of racism, racism is simply prejudice based on race. But this can apply both to minorities and non-minorities.
2. Defining racism as something other than the common definition leaves us without a term for prejudice based on race. This is imprudent, since prejudice is a genus of which prejudice based on nationality, prejudice based on sexual orientation, prejudice based on race, etc. are species. To redefine ‘prejudice’ to take the place of what is commonly called ‘racism’ confuses this totally.
3. Rowan, bishop of the English, says “it is quite often said by white liberals or radicals that ‘there is no such thing as black racism’. Apart from the fact that this is demonstrably untrue (even if ‘black racism’ is in considerable part conditioned by white racism), the statement carries overtones of the idea that the victimized group is intrinsically incapable of the kind of violence from which it is suffering. And this in fact obscures the real atrocity of racial oppression: racism is not evil because its victims are good, it is evil because its victims are human.”
I conclude that it is appropriate to say that minorities can be racist. Redefining racism so that minorities are excepted not only confuses communication (as said above), but also mistakenly elevates what is extrinsic to what is intrinsic. Prejudiced remarks against anyone are always wrong in themselves, and are not wrong merely because they happen to negatively impact a group who are oppressed greatly (although this increases the guilt of the prejudiced remark). As Bishop Rowan noted, prejudice is wrong not because its victims are oppressed, but because they are human. But the above (re)definition obscures this.
However, those who argue that minorities cannot be racist are right to the extent that they want to emphasize that racism against different groups can have different consequences depending on their standing in society, and that racism against certain groups has far graver consequences and guilt than racism against other groups. But redefining racism to achieve this end is incorrect.
1. It is not true that minorities cannot harm the prosperity of other groups. For, as Bishop Rowan notes, there are in fact cases where minorities have committed violent acts against other minority groups, or even against the majority group. But even if one replies that the harm must be specifically systematic and long-term, then the redefinition still fails because it implies that many actions which all agree are racist no longer count as racist. If, for example, a white American man insults a black coworker using slurs to his manager, but this results in the white man being fired and has no effect on his coworker’s standing in the company, then it would be hard to classify the white man’s words as racist according to the redefinition. Therefore such a definition is not suitable.
2. There are other ways to respond to the critics of affirmative action than by a confusing redefinition. Further, the same reasoning can be used to argue for the contrary conclusion. For instance: the claim that minorities cannot be racist is often used to defend prejudiced insults made by minorities against members of the majority. It is therefore imprudent to defend a claim that enables such behavior.