“the politicization of the social” and “politics of identity” in Omi and Winant, Cha. 6

A confusing debate in my corner of the intellectual Internet is about (a) whether the progressive left has a coherent intellectual stance that can be articulated, (b) what to call this stance, (c) whether the right-wing critics of this stance have the intellectual credentials to refer to it and thereby land any kind of rhetorical punch. What may be true is that both “sides” reflect social movements more than they reflect coherent philosophies as such, and so trying to bridge between them intellectually is fruitless.

Happily, reading through Omi and Winant, which among other things outlines a history of what I think of as the progressive left, or the “social justice”, “identity politics” movement in the United States. They address this in their Chapter 6: “The Great Transformation”. They use “the Great Transformation” to refer to “racial upsurges” in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

They are, as far as I can tell, the only people who ever use “The Great Transformation” to refer to this period. I don’t think it is going to stick. They name it this because they see this period as a great victorious period for democracy in the United States. Omi and Winant refer to previous periods in the United States as “racial despotism”, meaning that the state was actively treating nonwhites as second class citizens and preventing them from engaging in democracy in a real way. “Racial democracy”, which would involve true integration across race lines, is an ideal future or political trajectory that was approached during the Great Transformation but not realized fully.

The story of the civil rights movements in the mid-20th century are textbook material and I won’t repeat Omi and Winant’s account, which is interesting for a lot of reasons. One reason why it is interesting is how explicitly influenced by Gramsci their analysis is. As the “despotic” elements of United States power structures fade, the racial order is maintained less by coercion and more by consent. A power disparity in social order maintained by consent is a hegemony, in Gramscian theory.

They explain the Great Transformation as being due to two factors. One was the decline of the ethnicity paradigm of race, which had perhaps naively assumed that racial conflicts could be resolved through assimilation and recognition of ethnic differences without addressing the politically entrenched mechanisms of racial stratification.

The other factor was the rise of new social movements characterized by, in alliance with second-wave feminism, the politicization of the social, whereby social identity and demographic categories were made part of the public political discourse, rather than something private. This is the birth of “politics of identity”, or “identity politics”, for short. These were the original social justice warriors. And they attained some real political victories.

The reason why these social movements are not exactly normalized today is that there was a conservative reaction to resist changes in the 70’s. The way Omi and Winant tell it, the “colorblind ideology” of the early 00’s was culmination of a kind of political truce between “racial despotism” and “racial democracy”–a “racial hegemony”. Gilman has called this “racial liberalism”.

So what does this mean for identity politics today? It means it has its roots in political activism which was once very radical. It really is influenced by Marxism, as these movements were. It means that its co-option by the right is not actually new, as “reverse racism” was one of the inventions of the groups that originally resisted the Civil Rights movement in the 70’s. What’s new is the crisis of hegemony, not the constituent political elements that were its polar extremes, which have been around for decades.

What it also means is that identity politics has been, from its start, a tool for political mobilization. It is not a philosophy of knowledge or about how to live the good life or a world view in a richer sense. It serves a particular instrumental purpose. Omi and Winant talk about the politics of identity is “attractive”, that it is a contagion. These are positive terms for them; they are impressed at how anti-racism spreads. These days I am often referred to Phillips’ report, “The Oxygen of Amplification”, which is about preventing the spread of extremist views by reducing the amount of reporting on them in ‘disgust’. It must be fair to point out that identity politics as a left-wing innovation were at one point an “extremist” view, and that proponents of that view do use media effectively to spread it. This is just how media-based organizing tactics work, now.

Racial projects and racism (Omi and Winant, 2014; Jeong case study)

Following up on earlier posts on Omi and Winant, I’ve gotten to the part where they discuss racial projects and racism.

Because I use Twitter, I have not been able to avoid the discussion of Sarah Jeong’s tweets. I think it provides a useful case study in Omi and Winant’s terminology. I am not a journalist or particularly with-it person, so I have encountered this media event mainly through articles about it. Here are some.

To recap, for Omi and Winant, race is a “master category” of social organization, but nevertheless one that is unstable and politically contested. The continuity of racial classification is due to a historical, mutually reinforcing process that includes both social structures that control the distribution of resources and social meanings and identities that have been acquired by properties of people’s bodies. The fact that race is sustained through this historical and semiotically rich structuration (to adopt a term from Giddens), means that

“To identify an individual or group racially is to locate them within a socially and historically demarcated set of demographic and cultural boundaries, state activities, “life-chances”, and tropes of identity/difference/(in)equality.

“We cannot understand how racial representations set up patterns of residential segregation, for example, without considering how segregation reciprocally shapes and reinforces the meaning of race itself.”

This is totally plausible. Identifying the way that racial classification depends on a relationship between meaning and social structure opens the possibility of human political agency in the (re)definition of race. Omi and Winant’s term for these racial acts is racial projects.

A racial project is simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial identities and meanings, and an effort to organize and distribute resources (economic, political, cultural) along particular racial lines.
… Racial projects connect the meaning of race in discourse and ideology with the way that social structures are racially organized.

“Racial project” is a broad category that can include both large state and institutional interventions and individual actions. “even the decision to wear dreadlocks”. What makes them racial projects is how they reflect and respond to broader patterns of race, whether to reproduce it or to subvert it. Prevailing stereotypes are one of the main ways we can “read” the racial meanings of society, and so the perpetuation of subversion of stereotypes is a form of “racial project”. Racial projects are often in contest with each other; the racial formation process is the interaction and accumulation of these projects.

Racial project is a useful category partly because it is key to Omi and Winant’s definition of racism. They acknowledge that the term itself is subject to “enormous debate”, at times inflated to be meaningless and at other times deflated to be too narrow. They believe the definition of racism as “racial hate” is too narrow, though it has gain legal traction as a category, as in when “hate crimes” are considered an offense with enhanced sentencing, or universities institute codes against “hate speech”. I’ve read “racial animus” as another term that means something similar, though perhaps more subtle, than ‘racial hate’.

The narrow definition of racism as racial hate is rejected due to an argument O&W attribute to David Theo Goldberg (1997), which is that by narrowly focusing on “crimes of passion” (I would gloss this more broadly to ‘psychological states’), the interpretation of racism misses the ideologies, policies, and practices that “normalize and reproduce racial inequality and domination”. In other words, racism, as a term, has to reference the social structure that is race in order to adequate.

Omi and Winant define racism thus:

A racial project can be defined as racist if it creates or reproduces structures of domination based on racial significance and identities.

A key implication of their argument is that not all racial projects are racist. Recall that Omi and Winant are very critical of colorblindness as (they allege) a political hegemony. They want to make room for racial solidarity and agency despite the hierarchical nature of race as a social fact. This allows them to answer two important questions.

Are there anti-racist projects? Yes. “[w]e define anti-racist projects as those that undo or resist structures of domination based on racial significations and identities.

Note that the two definitions are not exactly parallel in construction. To “create and reproduce structure” is not entirely the opposite of “undo or resist structure”. Given O&W’s ontology, and the fact that racial structure is always the accumulation of a long history of racial projects, projects that have been performed by (bluntly) both the right and the left, and given that social structure is not homogeneous across location (consider how race is different in the United States and in Brazil, or different in New York City and in Dallas), and given that an act of resistance is also an act of creation, implicitly, one could easily get confused trying to apply these definitions. The key word, “domination”, is not defined precisely, and everything hinges on this. It’s clear from the writing that Omi and Winant subscribe to the “left” view of how racial domination works; this orients their definition of racism concretely. But they also not that the political agency of people of color in the United States over the past hundred years or so has gained them political power. Isn’t the key to being racist having power? This leads O&W to the second question, which is

Can Group of Color Advance Racist Projects? O&W’s answer is, yes, they can. There are exceptions to the hierarchy of white supremacy, and in these exceptions there can be racial conflicts where a group of color is racist. Their example is in cases where blacks and Latinos are in contest over resources. O&W do not go so far as to say that it is possible to be racist against white people, because they believe all racial relations are shaped by the overarching power of white supremacy.

Case Study: Jeong’s tweets

That is the setup. So what about Sarah Jeong? Well, she wrote some tweets mocking white people, and specifically white men, in 2014, which was by the way the heyday of obscene group conflict on Twitter. That was the year of Gamergate. A whole year of tweets that are probably best forgotten. She compared white people to goblins, she compared them the dogs. She said she wished ill on white men. As has been pointed out, if any other group besides white men were talked about, her tweets would be seen as undeniably racist, etc. They are, truth be told, similar rhetorically to the kinds of tweets that the left media have been so appalled at for some time.

They have surfaced again because Jeong was hired by the New York Times, and right wing activists (or maybe just trolls, I’m a little unclear about which) surfaced the old tweets. In the political climate of 2018, when Internet racism feels like it’s gotten terribly real, these struck a chord and triggered some reflection.

What should we make of these tweets, in light of racial formation theory?

First, we should acknowledge that the New York Times has some really great lawyers working for it. Their statement was the at the time, (a) Jeong was being harassed, (b) that she responded to them in the same rhetorical manner of the harassment, that (c) that’s regrettable, but also, it’s long past and not so bad. Sarah Jeong’s own statement makes this point, acknowledges that the tweets may be hurtful out of context, and that she didn’t mean them the way others could take them. “Harassment” is actually a relatively neutral term; you can harass somebody, legally speaking, on the basis of their race without invoking a reaction from anti-racist sociologists. This is all perfectly sensible, IMO, and the case is pretty much closed.

But that’s not where the discussion on the Internet ended. Why? Because the online media is where the contest of racial formation is happening.

We can ask: Were Sarah Jeong’s tweets a racial project? The answer seems to be, yes, they were. It was a representation of racial identity (whiteness) “to organize and distribute resources (economic, political, cultural) along particular racial lines”. Jeong is a journalist and scholar, and these arguments are happening in social media, which are always-already part of the capitalist attention economy. Jeong’s success is partly due to her confrontation of on-line harassers and responses to right-wing media figures. And her activity is the kind that rallies attention along racial lines–anti-racist, racist, etc.

Confusingly, the language she used in these tweets reads as hateful. “Dumbass fucking white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants” does, reasonably, sound like it expresses some racial animus. If we were to accept the definition of racism as merely the possession of ill will towards a race, which seems to be Andrew Sullivan’s definition, then we would have to say those were racist tweets.

We could invoke a defense here. Were the tweets satire? Did Jeong not actually have any ill will towards white people? One might wonder, similarly, whether 4chan anti-Semites are actually anti-Semitic or just trolling. The whole question of who is just trolling and who should be taken seriously on the Internet is such an interesting one. But it’s one I had to walk away from long ago after the heat got turned up on me one time. So it goes.

What everyone knows is at stake, though, is the contention that the ‘racial animus’ definition is not the real definition of racism, but rather that something like O&W’s definition is. By their account, (a) a racial project is only racist if it aligns with structures of racial domination, and (b) the structure of racial domination is a white supremacist one. Ergo, by this account, Jeong’s tweets are not racist, because insulting white people does not create or reproduce structures of white supremacist domination.

It’s worth pointing out that there are two different definitions of a word here and that neither one is inherently more correct of a definition. I’m hesitant to label the former definition “right” and the latter definition “left” because there’s nothing about the former definition that would make you, say, not want to abolish the cradle-to-prison system or any number of other real, institutional reforms. But the latter definition is favored by progressives, who have a fairly coherent world view. O&W’s theorizing is consistent with it. The helpful thing about this worldview is that it makes it difficult to complain about progressive rhetorical tactics without getting mired into a theoretical debate about their definitions, which makes it an excellent ideology for getting into fights on the Internet. This is largely what Andrew Sullivan was getting at in his critique.

what Jeong and the NYT seem to get, which some others don’t, is that comments that insult an entire race can be hurtful and bothersome even if they are not racist in the progressive sense of the term. It is not clear what we should call a racial project that is hurtful and bothersome to white people if we do not call it racist. A difficulty with the progressive definition of racism is that agreement on the application of the term is going to depend on agreement about what the dominate racial structures are. What we’ve learned in the past few years is that the left-wing view of what these racial structures are is not as widely shared as it was believed to be. Example, there are far more people who believe in anti-Semitic conspiracies, in which the dominant race is the Jews, active in American political life than was supposed. Given O&W’s definition of racism, if it were, factually, the case that Jews ran the world, then anti-Semitic comments would not be racist in the meaningful sense.

Which means that the progressive definition of racism, to be effective, depends on widespread agreement about white supremacist hegemony, which is a much, much more complicated thing to try to persuade somebody of than a particular person’s racial animus.

A number of people have been dismissing any negative reaction to the resurfacing of Jeong’s tweets, taking the opportunity to disparage that reaction as misguided and backwards. As far as I can tell, there is an argument that Jeong’s tweets are actually anti-racist. This article argues that casually disparaging white men is just something anti-racists do lightly to call attention to the dominant social structures and also the despicable behavior of some white men. Naturally, these comments are meant humorously, and not intended to refer to all white men (to assume it does it to distract from the structural issues at stake). They are jokes that should be celebrated, because the the progressives have already won this argument over #notallmen, also in 2014. Understood properly as progressive, anti-racist, social justice idiom, there is nothing offensive about Jeong’s tweets.

I am probably in a minority on this one, but I do not agree with this assessment, for a number of reasons.

First, the idea that you can have a private, in-group conversation on Twitter is absurd.

Second, the idea that a whole community of people casually expresses racial animus because of representative examples of wrongdoing by members of a social class can be alarming whether or not it’s Trump voters talking about Mexicans or anti-racists talking about white people. That alarm, as an emotional reaction, is a reality whether or not the dominant racial structures are being reproduced or challenged.

Third, I’m not convinced that as a racial project, tweets simply insulting white people really counts as “anti-racist” in a substantive sense. Anti-racist projects are “those that undo or resist structures of domination based on racial significations and identities.” Is saying “white men are bullshit” undoing a structure of domination? I’m pretty sure any white supremacist structures of domination have survived that attack. Does it resist white supremacist domination? The thrust of wise sociology of race is that what’s more important than the social meanings are the institutional structures that maintain racial inequality. Even if this statement has a meaning that is degrading to white people, it doesn’t seem to be doing any work of reorganizing resources around (anti-)racial lines. It’s just a crass insult. It may well have actually backfired, or had an effect on the racial organization of attention that neither harmed nor supported white supremacy, but rather just made its manifestation on the Internet more toxic (in response to other, much greater, toxicity, of course).

I suppose what I’m arguing for is greater nuance than either the “left” or “right” position has offered on this case. I’m saying that it is possible to engage in a racial project that is neither racist nor anti-racist. You could have a racial project that is amusingly absurd, or toxic, or cleverly insightful. Moreover, there is a complex of ethical responsibilities and principles that intersects with racial projects but is not contained by the logic of race. There are greater standards of decency that can be invoked. These are not simply constraints on etiquette. They also are relevant to the contest of racial projects and their outcomes.

From social movements to business standards

Matt Levine has a recent piece discussing how discovering the history of sexual harassment complaints about a company’s leadership is becoming part of standard due diligence before an acquisition. Implicitly, the threat of liability, and presumably the costs of a public relations scandal, are material to the value of the company being acquired.

Perhaps relatedly, the National Venture Capital Association has added to its Model Legal Documents a slew of policies related to harassment and discrimination, codes of conduct, attracting and retaining diverse talent, and family friendly policies. Rumor has it that venture capitalists will now encourage companies they invest in to adopt these tested versions of the policies, much as an organization would adopt a tested and well-understood technical standard.

I have in various researcher roles studied social movements and political change, but these studies have left me with the conclusion that changes to culture are rarely self-propelled, but rather are often due to more fundamental changes in demographics or institutions. State legislation is very slow to move and limited in its range, and so often trails behind other amassing of power and will.

Corporate self-regulation, on the other hand, through standards, contracts, due diligence, and the like, seems to be quite adaptive. This is leading me to the conclusion that a best kept secret of cultural change is that some of the main drivers of it are actually deeply embedded in corporate law. Corporate law has the reputation of being a dry subject which sucks in recent law grads into soulless careers. But what if that wasn’t what corporate law was? What if corporate law was really where the action is?

In broader terms, the adaptivety of corporate policy to changing demographics and social needs perhaps explains the paradox of “progressive neoliberalism”, or the idea that the emerging professional business class seems to be socially liberal, whether or not it is fiscally conservative. Professional culture requires, due to antidiscrimination law and other policies, the compliance of its employees with a standard of ‘political correctness’. People can’t be hostile to each other in the workplace or else they will get fired, and they especially can’t be hostile to anybody on the basis of their being part of a protected category. This has been enshrined into law long ago. Part of the role of educational institutions is to teach students a coherent story about why these rules are what they are and how they are not just legally mandated, but morally compelling. So the professional class has an ideology of inclusivity because it must.

How the Internet changed everything: a grand theory of AI, etc.

I have read many a think piece and critical take about AI, the Internet, and so on. I offer a new theory of What Happened, the best I can come up with based on my research and observations to date.

Consider this article, “The death of Don Draper”, as a story that represents the changes that occur more broadly. In this story, advertising was once a creative field that any company with capital could hire out to increase their chances of getting noticed and purchased, albeit in a noisy way. Because everything was very uncertain, those that could afford it blew a lot of money on it (“Half of advertising is useless; the problem is knowing which half”).

A similar story could be told about access to the news–dominated by big budgets that hid quality–and political candidates–whose activities were largely not exposed to scrutiny and could follow a similarly noisy pattern of hype and success.

Then along came the Internet and targeted advertising, which did a number of things:

  • It reduced search costs for people looking for particular products, because Google searches the web and Amazon indexes all the products (and because of lots of smaller versions of Google and Amazon).
  • It reduced the uncertainty of advertising effectiveness because it allowed for fine-grained measurement of conversion metrics. This reduced the search costs of producers to advertisers, and from advertisers to audiences.
  • It reduced the search costs of people finding alternative media and political interest groups, leading to a reorganization of culture. The media and cultural landscape could more precisely reflect the exogenous factors of social difference.
  • It reduced the cost of finding people based on their wealth, social influence, and so on, implicitly creating a kind of ‘social credit system’ distributed across various web services. (Gandy, 1993; Fourcade and Healy, 2016)

What happens when you reduce search costs in markets? Robert Jensen’s (2007) study of the introduction of mobile phones to fish markets in Kerala is illustrative here. Fish prices were very noisy due to bad communication until mobile phones were introduced. After that, the prices stabilized, owing to swifter communication between fisherman and markets. Suddenly able to preempt prices rather than subject to the vagaries to them, fisherman could then choose to go to the market that would give them the best price.

Reducing search costs makes markets more efficient and larger. In doing so, it increases inequality, because whereas a lot of lower quality goods and services can survive in a noisy economy, when consumers are more informed and more efficient at searching, they can cut out less useful services. They can then standardize on “the best” option available, which can be produced with economies of scale. So inefficient, noisy parts of the economy were squeezed out and the surplus amassed in the hands of a big few intermediaries, who we now see as Big Tech leveraging AI.

Is AI an appropriate term? I have always liked this definition of AI: “Anything that humans still do better than computers.” Most recently I’ve seen this restated in an interview with Andrew Moore, quoted by Zachary Lipton:

Artificial intelligence is the science and engineering of making computers behave in ways that, until recently, we thought required human intelligence.

The use of technical platforms to dramatically reduce search costs. “Searching” for people, products, and information is something that used to require human intelligence. Now it is assisted by computers. And whether or not the average user knows that they are doing when they search (Mulligan and Griffin, 2018), as a commercial function, the panoply of search engines and recommendation systems and auctions that occupy the central places in the information economy outperform human intelligence largely by virtue of having access to more data–a broader perspective–than any individual human could ever accomplish.

The comparison between the Google search engine and a human’s intelligence is therefore ill-posed. The kinds of functions tech platforms are performing are things that have only every been solved by human organizations, especially bureaucratic ones. And while the digital user interfaces of these services hides the people “inside” the machines, we know that of course there’s an enormous amount of ongoing human labor involved in the creation and maintenance of any successful “AI” that’s in production.

In conclusion, the Internet changed everything for a mundane reason that could have been predicted from neoclassical economic theory. It reduced search costs, creating economic efficiency and inequality, by allowing for new kinds of organizations based on broad digital connectivity. “AI” is a distraction from these accomplishments, as is most “critical” reaction to these developments, which do not do justice to the facts of the matter because by taking up a humanistic lens, they tend not to address how decisions by individual humans and changes to their experience experience are due to large-scale aggregate processes and strategic behaviors by businesses.


Gandy Jr, Oscar H. The Panoptic Sort: A Political Economy of Personal Information. Critical Studies in Communication and in the Cultural Industries. Westview Press, Inc., 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, CO 80301-2877 (paperback: ISBN-0-8133-1657-X, $18.95; hardcover: ISBN-0-8133-1656-1, $61.50)., 1993.

Fourcade, Marion, and Kieran Healy. “Seeing like a market.” Socio-Economic Review 15.1 (2016): 9-29.

Jensen, Robert. “The digital provide: Information (technology), market performance, and welfare in the South Indian fisheries sector.” The quarterly journal of economics 122.3 (2007): 879-924.

Mulligan, Deirdre K. and Griffin, Daniel S. “Rescripting Search to Respect the Right to Truth.” 2 GEO. L. TECH. REV. 557 (2018)

search engines and authoritarian threats

I’ve been intrigued by Daniel Griffin’s tweets lately, which have been about situating some upcoming work of his an Deirdre Mulligan’s regarding the experience of using search engines. There is a lively discussion lately about the experience of those searching for information and the way they respond to misinformation or extremism that they discover through organic use of search engines and media recommendation systems. This is apparently how the concern around “fake news” has developed in the HCI and STS world since it became an issue shortly after the 2016 election.

I do not have much to add to this discussion directly. Consumer misuse of search engines is, to me, analogous to consumer misuse of other forms of print media. I would assume to best solution to it is education in the complete sense, and the problems with the U.S. education system are, despite all good intentions, not HCI problems.

Wearing my privacy researcher hat, however, I have become interested in a different aspect of search engines and the politics around them that is less obvious to the consumer and therefore less popularly discussed, but I fear is more pernicious precisely because it is not part of the general imaginary around search. This is the aspect that is around the tracking of search engine activity, and what it means for this activity to be in the hands of not just such benevolent organizations such as Google, but also such malevolent organizations such as Bizarro World Google*.

Here is the scenario, so to speak: for whatever reason, we begin to see ourselves in a more adversarial relationship with search engines. I mean “search engine” here in the broad sense, including Siri, Alexa, Google News, YouTube, Bing, Baidu, Yandex, and all the more minor search engines embedded in web services and appliances that do something more focused than crawl the whole web. By ‘search engine’ I mean entire UX paradigm of the query into the vast unknown of semantic and semiotic space that contemporary information access depends on. In all these cases, the user is at a systematic disadvantage in the sense that their query is a data point amount many others. The task of the search engine is to predict the desired response to the query and provide it. In return, the search engine gets the query, tied to the identity of the user. That is one piece of a larger mosaic; to be a search engine is to have a picture of a population and their interests and the mandate to categorize and understand those people.

In Western neoliberal political systems the central function of the search engine is realized as commercial transaction facilitating other commercial transactions. My “search” is a consumer service; I “pay” for this search by giving my query to the adjoined advertising function, which allows other commercial providers to “search” for me, indirectly, through the ad auction platform. It is a market with more than just two sides. There’s the consumer who wants information and may be tempted by other information. There are the primary content providers, who satisfy consumer content demand directly. And there are secondary content providers who want to intrude on consumer attention in a systematic and successful way. The commercial, ad-enabled search engine reduces transaction costs for the consumer’s search and sells a fraction of that attentional surplus to the advertisers. Striking the right balance, the consumer is happy enough with the trade.

Part of the success of commercial search engines is the promise of privacy in the sense that the consumer’s queries are entrusted secretly with the engine, and this data is not leaked or sold. Wise people know not to write into email things that they would not want in the worst case exposed to the public. Unwise people are more common than wise people, and ill-considered emails are written all the time. Most unwise people do not come to harm because of this because privacy in email is a de facto standard; it is the very security of email that makes the possibility of its being leaked alarming.

So to with search engine queries. “Ask me anything,” suggests the search engine, “I won’t tell”. “Well, I will reveal your data in an aggregate way; I’ll expose you to selective advertising. But I’m a trusted intermediary. You won’t come to any harms besides exposure to a few ads.”

That is all a safe assumption until it isn’t, at which point we must reconsider the role of the search engine. Suppose that, instead of living in a neoliberal democracy where the free search for information was sanctioned as necessary for the operation of a free market, we lived in an authoritarian country organized around the principle that disloyalty to the state should be crushed.

Under these conditions, the transition of a society into one that depends for its access to information on search engines is quite troubling. The act of looking for information is a political signal. Suppose you are looking for information about an extremist, subversive ideology. To do so is to flag yourself as a potential threat of the state. Suppose that you are looking for information about a morally dubious activity. To do so is to make yourself vulnerable to kompromat.

Under an authoritarian regime, curiosity and free thought are a problem, and a problem that are readily identified by ones search queries. Further, an authoritarian regime benefits if the risks of searching for the ‘wrong’ thing are widely known, since it suppresses inquiry. Hence, the very vaguely announced and, in fact, implausible to implement Social Credit System in China does not need to exist to be effective; people need only believe it exists for it to have a chilling and organizing effect on behavior. That is the lesson of the Foucouldean panopticon: it doesn’t need a guard sitting in it to function.

Do we have a word for this function of search engines in an authoritarian system? We haven’t needed one in our liberal democracy, which perhaps we take for granted. “Censorship” does not apply, because what’s at stake is not speech but the ability to listen and learn. “Surveillance” is too general. It doesn’t capture the specific constraints on acquiring information, on being curious. What is the right term for this threat? What is the term for the corresponding liberty?

I’ll conclude with a chilling thought: when at war, all states are authoritarian, to somebody. Every state has an extremist, subversive ideology that it watches out for and tries in one way or another to suppress. Our search queries are always of strategic or tactical interest to somebody. Search engine policies are always an issue of national security, in one way or another.

The California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018: a deep dive

I have given the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 a close read.

In summary, the act grants consumers a right to request that businesses disclose the categories of information about them that it collects and sells, and gives consumers the right to businesses to delete their information and opt out of sale.

What follows are points I found particularly interesting. Quotations from the Act (that’s what I’ll call it) will be in bold. Questions (meaning, questions that I don’t have an answer to at the time of writing) will be in italics.

Privacy rights

SEC. 2. The Legislature finds and declares that:
(a) In 1972, California voters amended the California Constitution to include the right of privacy among the “inalienable” rights of all people. …

I did not know that. I was under the impression that in the United States, the ‘right to privacy’ was a matter of legal interpretation, derived from other more explicitly protected rights. A right to privacy is enumerated in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. There’s something like a right to privacy in Article 8 of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. California appears to have followed their lead on this.

In several places in the Act, it specifies that exceptions may be made in order to be compliant with federal law. Is there an ideological or legal disconnect between privacy in California and privacy nationally? Consider the Snowden/Schrems/Privacy Shield issue: exchanges of European data to the United States are given protections from federal surveillance practices. This presumably means that the U.S. federal government agrees to respect EU privacy rights. Can California negotiate for such treatment from the U.S. government?

These are the rights specifically granted by the Act:

[SEC. 2.] (i) Therefore, it is the intent of the Legislature to further Californians’ right to privacy by giving consumers an effective way to control their personal information, by ensuring the following rights:

(1) The right of Californians to know what personal information is being collected about them.

(2) The right of Californians to know whether their personal information is sold or disclosed and to whom.

(3) The right of Californians to say no to the sale of personal information.

(4) The right of Californians to access their personal information.

(5) The right of Californians to equal service and price, even if they exercise their privacy rights.

It has been only recently that I’ve been attuned to the idea of privacy rights. Perhaps this is because I am from a place that apparently does not have them. A comparison that I believe should be made more often is the comparison of privacy rights to property rights. Clearly privacy rights have become as economically relevant as property rights. But currently, property rights enjoy a widespread acceptance and enforcement that privacy rights do not.

Personal information defined through example categories

“Information” is a notoriously difficult thing to define. The Act gets around the problem of defining “personal information” by repeatedly providing many examples of it. The examples are themselves rather abstract and are implicitly “categories” of personal information. Categorization of personal information is important to the law because under several conditions businesses must disclose the categories of personal information collected, sold, etc. to consumers.

SEC. 2. (e) Many businesses collect personal information from California consumers. They may know where a consumer lives and how many children a consumer has, how fast a consumer drives, a consumer’s personality, sleep habits, biometric and health information, financial information, precise geolocation information, and social networks, to name a few categories.

[1798.140.] (o) (1) “Personal information” means information that identifies, relates to, describes, is capable of being associated with, or could reasonably be linked, directly or indirectly, with a particular consumer or household. Personal information includes, but is not limited to, the following:

(A) Identifiers such as a real name, alias, postal address, unique personal identifier, online identifier Internet Protocol address, email address, account name, social security number, driver’s license number, passport number, or other similar identifiers.

(B) Any categories of personal information described in subdivision (e) of Section 1798.80.

(C) Characteristics of protected classifications under California or federal law.

(D) Commercial information, including records of personal property, products or services purchased, obtained, or considered, or other purchasing or consuming histories or tendencies.

Note that protected classifications (1798.140.(o)(1)(C)) includes race, which is socially constructed category (see Omi and Winant on racial formation). The Act appears to be saying that personal information includes the race of the consumer. Contrast this with information as identifiers (see 1798.140.(o)(1)(A)) and information as records (1798.140.(o)(1)(D)). So “personal information” in one case is the property of a person (and a socially constructed one at that); in another case it is the specific syntactic form; in another case it is a document representing some past action. The Act is very ontologically confused.

Other categories of personal information include (continuing this last section):

(E) Biometric information.

(F) Internet or other electronic network activity information, including, but not limited to, browsing history, search history, and information regarding a consumer’s interaction with an Internet Web site, application, or advertisement.

Devices and Internet activity will be discussed in more depth in the next section.

(G) Geolocation data.

(H) Audio, electronic, visual, thermal, olfactory, or similar information.

(I) Professional or employment-related information.

(J) Education information, defined as information that is not publicly available personally identifiable information as defined in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 U.S.C. section 1232g, 34 C.F.R. Part 99).

(K) Inferences drawn from any of the information identified in this subdivision to create a profile about a consumer reflecting the consumer’s preferences, characteristics, psychological trends, preferences, predispositions, behavior, attitudes, intelligence, abilities, and aptitudes.

Given that the main use of information is to support inferences, it is notable that inferences are dealt with here as a special category of information, and that sensitive inferences are those that pertain to behavior and psychology. This may be narrowly interpreted to exclude some kinds of inferences that may be relevant and valuable but not so immediately recognizable as ‘personal’. For example, one could infer from personal information the ‘position’ of a person in an arbitrary multi-dimensional space that compresses everything known about a consumer, and use this representation for targeted interventions (such as advertising). Or one could interpret it broadly: since almost all personal information is relevant to ‘behavior’ in a broad sense, and inference from it is also ‘about behavior’, and therefore protected.

Device behavior

The Act focuses on the rights of consumers and deals somewhat awkwardly with the fact that most information collected about consumers is done indirectly through machines. The Act acknowledges that sometimes devices are used by more than one person (for example, when they are used by a family), but it does not deal easily with other forms of sharing arrangements (i.e., an open Wifi hotspot) and the problems associated with identifying which person a particular device’s activity is “about”.

[1798.140.] (g) “Consumer” means a natural person who is a California resident, as defined in Section 17014 of Title 18 of the California Code of Regulations, as that section read on September 1, 2017, however identified, including by any unique identifier. [SB: italics mine.]

[1798.140.] (x) “Unique identifier” or “Unique personal identifier” means a persistent identifier that can be used to recognize a consumer, a family, or a device that is linked to a consumer or family, over time and across different services, including, but not limited to, a device identifier; an Internet Protocol address; cookies, beacons, pixel tags, mobile ad identifiers, or similar technology; customer number, unique pseudonym, or user alias; telephone numbers, or other forms of persistent or probabilistic identifiers that can be used to identify a particular consumer or device. For purposes of this subdivision, “family” means a custodial parent or guardian and any minor children over which the parent or guardian has custody.

Suppose you are a business that collects traffic information and website behavior connected to IP addresses, but you don’t go through the effort of identifying the ‘consumer’ who is doing the behavior. In fact, you may collect a lot of traffic behavior that is not connected to any particular ‘consumer’ at all, but is rather the activity of a bot or crawler operated by a business. Are you on the hook to disclose personal information to consumers if they ask for their traffic activity? If they do, or if they do not, provide their IP address?

Incidentally, while the Act seems comfortable defining a Consumer as a natural person identified by a machine address, it also happily defines a Person as “proprietorship, firm, partnership, joint venture, syndicate, business trust, company, corporation, …” etc. in addition to “an individual”. Note that “personal information” is specifically information about a consumer, not a Person (i.e., business).

This may make you wonder what a Business is, since these are the entities that are bound by the Act.

Businesses and California

The Act mainly details the rights that consumers have with respect to businesses that collect, sell, or lose their information. But what is a business?

[1798.140.] (c) “Business” means:
(1) A sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company, corporation, association, or other legal entity that is organized or operated for the profit or financial benefit of its shareholders or other owners, that collects consumers’ personal information, or on the behalf of which such information is collected and that alone, or jointly with others, determines the purposes and means of the processing of consumers’ personal information, that does business in the State of California, and that satisfies one or more of the following thresholds:

(A) Has annual gross revenues in excess of twenty-five million dollars ($25,000,000), as adjusted pursuant to paragraph (5) of subdivision (a) of Section 1798.185.

(B) Alone or in combination, annually buys, receives for the business’ commercial purposes, sells, or shares for commercial purposes, alone or in combination, the personal information of 50,000 or more consumers, households, or devices.

(C) Derives 50 percent or more of its annual revenues from selling consumers’ personal information.

This is not a generic definition of a business, just as the earlier definition of ‘consumer’ is not a generic definition of consumer. This definition of ‘business’ is a sui generis definition for the purposes of consumer privacy protection, as it defines businesses in terms of their collection and use of personal information. The definition explicitly thresholds the applicability of the law to businesses over certain limits.

There does appear to be a lot of wiggle room and potential for abuse here. Consider: the Mirai botnet had by one estimate 2.5 million devices compromised. Say you are a small business that collects site traffic. Suppose the Mirai botnet targets your site with a DDOS attack. Suddenly, your business collects information of millions of devices, and the Act comes into effect. Now you are liable for disclosing consumer information. Is that right?

An alternative reading of this section would recall that the definition (!) of consumer, in this law, is a California resident. So maybe the thresholds in 1798.140.(c)(B) and 1798.140.(c)(C) refer specifically to Californian consumers. Of course, for any particular device, information about where that device’s owner lives is personal information.

Having 50,000 California customers or users is a decent threshold for defining whether or not a business “does business in California”. Given the size and demographics of California, you would expect that many of the, just for example, major Chinese technology companies like Tencent to have 50,000 Californian users. This brings up the question of extraterritorial enforcement, which gave the GDPR so much leverage.

Extraterritoriality and financing

In a nutshell, it looks like the Act is intended to allow Californians to sue foreign companies. How big a deal is this? The penalties for noncompliance are civil penalties and a price per violation (presumably individual violation), not a ratio of profit, but you could imagine them adding up:

[1798.155.] (b) Notwithstanding Section 17206 of the Business and Professions Code, any person, business, or service provider that intentionally violates this title may be liable for a civil penalty of up to seven thousand five hundred dollars ($7,500) for each violation.

(c) Notwithstanding Section 17206 of the Business and Professions Code, any civil penalty assessed pursuant to Section 17206 for a violation of this title, and the proceeds of any settlement of an action brought pursuant to subdivision (a), shall be allocated as follows:

(1) Twenty percent to the Consumer Privacy Fund, created within the General Fund pursuant to subdivision (a) of Section 1798.109, with the intent to fully offset any costs incurred by the state courts and the Attorney General in connection with this title.

(2) Eighty percent to the jurisdiction on whose behalf the action leading to the civil penalty was brought.

(d) It is the intent of the Legislature that the percentages specified in subdivision (c) be adjusted as necessary to ensure that any civil penalties assessed for a violation of this title fully offset any costs incurred by the state courts and the Attorney General in connection with this title, including a sufficient amount to cover any deficit from a prior fiscal year.

1798.160. (a) A special fund to be known as the “Consumer Privacy Fund” is hereby created within the General Fund in the State Treasury, and is available upon appropriation by the Legislature to offset any costs incurred by the state courts in connection with actions brought to enforce this title and any costs incurred by the Attorney General in carrying out the Attorney General’s duties under this title.

(b) Funds transferred to the Consumer Privacy Fund shall be used exclusively to offset any costs incurred by the state courts and the Attorney General in connection with this title. These funds shall not be subject to appropriation or transfer by the Legislature for any other purpose, unless the Director of Finance determines that the funds are in excess of the funding needed to fully offset the costs incurred by the state courts and the Attorney General in connection with this title, in which case the Legislature may appropriate excess funds for other purposes.

So, just to be concrete: suppose a business collects personal information on 50,000 Californians and does not disclose that information. California could then sue that business for $7,500 * 50,000 = $375 million in civil penalties, that then goes into the Consumer Privacy Fund, whose purpose is to cover the cost of further lawsuits. The process funds itself. If it makes any extra money, it can be appropriated for other things.

Meaning, I guess this Act basically sustains a very sustained bunch of investigations and fines. You could imagine that this starts out with just some lawyers responding to civil complaints. But consider the scope of the Act, and how it means that any business in the world not properly disclosing information about Californians is liable to be fined. Suppose that some kind of blockchain or botnet based entity starts committing surveillance in violation of this act on a large scale. What kinds of technical investigative capacity is necessary to enforce this kind of thing worldwide? Does this become a self-funding cybercrime investigative unit? How are foreign actors who are responsible for such things brought to justice?

This is where it’s totally clear that I am not a lawyer. I am still puzzling over the meaning of [1798.155.(c)(2), for example.

“Publicly available information”

There are more weird quirks to this Act than I can dig into in this post, but one that deserves mention (as homage to Helen Nissenbaum, among other reasons) is the stipulation about publicly available information, which does not mean what you think it means:

(2) “Personal information” does not include publicly available information. For these purposes, “publicly available” means information that is lawfully made available from federal, state, or local government records, if any conditions associated with such information. “Publicly available” does not mean biometric information collected by a business about a consumer without the consumer’s knowledge. Information is not “publicly available” if that data is used for a purpose that is not compatible with the purpose for which the data is maintained and made available in the government records or for which it is publicly maintained. “Publicly available” does not include consumer information that is deidentified or aggregate consumer information.

The grammatical error in the second sentence (the phrase beginning with “if any conditions” trails off into nowhere…) indicates that this paragraph was hastily written and never finished, as if in response to an afterthought. There’s a lot going on here.

First, the sense of ‘public’ used here is the sense of ‘public institutions’ or the res publica. Amazingly and a bit implausibly, government records are considered publicly available only when they are used for purposes compatible with their maintenance. So if a business takes a public record and uses it differently that it was originally intended when it was ‘made available’, it becomes personal information that must be disclosed? As somebody who came out of the Open Data movement, I have to admit I find this baffling. On the other hand, it may be the brilliant solution to privacy in public on the Internet that society has been looking for.

Second, the stipulation that “publicly available” does not mean biometric information collected by a business about a consumer without the consumer’s knowledge” is surprising. It appears to be written with particular cases in mind–perhaps IoT sensing. But why specifically biometric information, as opposed to other kinds of information collected without consumer knowledge?

There is a lot going on in this paragraph. Oddly, it is not one of the ones explicitly flagged for review and revision in the section of soliciting public participation on changes before the Act goes into effect on 2020.

A work in progress

1798.185. (a) On or before January 1, 2020, the Attorney General shall solicit broad public participation to adopt regulations to further the purposes of this title, including, but not limited to, the following areas:

This is a weird law. I suppose it was written and passed to capitalize on a particular political moment and crisis (Sec. 2 specifically mentions Cambridge Analytica as a motivation), drafted to best express its purpose and intent, and given the horizon of 2020 to allow for revisions.

It must be said that there’s nothing in this Act that threatens the business models of any American Big Tech companies in any way, since storing consumer information in order to provide derivative ad targeting services is totally fine as long as businesses do the right disclosures, which they are now all doing because of GDPR anyway. There is a sense that this is California taking the opportunity to start the conversation about what U.S. data protection law post-GDPR will be like, which is of course commendable. As a statement of intent, it is great. Where it starts to get funky is in the definitions of its key terms and the underlying theory of privacy behind them. We can anticipate some rockiness there and try to unpack these assumptions before adopting similar policies in other states.

some moral dilemmas

Here are some moral dilemmas:

  • A firm basis for morality is the Kantian categorical imperative: treat others as ends and not means, with the corollary that one should be able to take the principles of ones actions and extend them as laws binding all rational beings. Closely associated and important ideas are those concerned with human dignity and rights. However, the great moral issues of today are about social forms (issues around race, gender, etc.), sociotechnical organizations (issues around the role of technology), or a totalizing systemic issues (issues around climate change). Morality based on individualism and individual equivalence seem out of place when the main moral difficulties are about body agonism. What is the basis for morality for these kinds of social moral problems?
  • Theodicy has its answer: it’s bounded rationality. Ultimately what makes us different from other people, that which creates our multiplicity, is our distance from each other, in terms of available information. Our disconnection, based on the different loci and foci within complex reality, is precisely that which gives reality its complexity. Dealing with each other’s ignorance is the problem of being a social being. Ignorance is therefore the condition of society. Society is the condition of moral behavior; if there were only one person, there would be no such thing as right or wrong. Therefore, ignorance is a condition of morality. How, then, can morality be known?

On “Racialization” (Omi and Winant, 2014)

Notes on Omi and Winant, 2014, Chapter 4, Section: “Racialization”.


Race is often seen as either an objective category, or an illusory one.

Viewed objectively, it is seen as a biological property, tied to phenotypic markers and possibly other genetic traits. It is viewed as an ‘essence’.
Omi and Winant argue that the concept of ‘mixed-race’ depends on this kind of essentialism, as it implies a kind of blending of essences. This is the view associated with “scientific” racism, most prevalent in the prewar era.

View as an illusion, race is seen as an ideological construct. An epiphenomenon of culture, class, or peoplehood. Formed as a kind of “false consciousness”, in the Marxist terminology. This view is associated with certain critics of affirmative action who argue that any racial classification is inherently racist.

Omi and Winant are critical of both perspectives, and argue for an understanding of race as socially real and grounded non-reducibly in phenomic markers but ultimately significant because of the social conflicts and interests constructed around those markers.

They define race as: “a concept that signifies and symbolizes signifiers and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies.”

The visual aspect of race is irreducible, and becomes significant when, for example, is becomes “understood as a manifestation of more profound differences that are situated within racially identified persons: intelligence, athletic ability, temperament, and sexuality, among other traits.” These “understandings”, which it must be said may be fallacious, “become the basis to justify or reinforce social differentiation.

This process of adding social significance to phenomic markers is, in O&W’s language, racialization, which they define as “the extension of racial meanings to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group.” They argue that racialization happens at both macro and micro scales, ranging from the consolidation of the world-system through colonialization to incidents of racial profiling.

Race, then, is a concept that refer to different kinds of bodies by phenotype and the meanings and social practices ascribed to them. When racial concepts are circulated and accepted as ‘social reality’, racial difference is not dependent on visual difference alone, but take on a life of their own.

Omi and Winant therefore take a nuanced view of what it means for a category to be socially constructed, and it is a view that has concrete political implications. They consider the question, raised frequently, as to whether “we” can “get past” race, or go beyond it somehow. (Recall that this edition of the book was written during the Obama administration and is largely a critique of the idea, which seems silly now, that his election made the United States “post-racial”).

Omi and Winant see this framing as unrealistically utopian and based on extreme view that race is “illusory”. It poses race as a problem, a misconception of the past. A more effective position, they claim, would note that race is an element of social structure, not an irregularity in it. “We” cannot naively “get past it”, but also “we” do not need to accept the erroneous conclusion that race is a fixed biological given.


Omi and Winant’s argument here is mainly one about the ontology of social forms.
In my view, this question of social form ontology is one of the “hard problems”
remaining in philosophy, perhaps equivalent to if not more difficult than the hard problem of consciousness. So no wonder it is such a fraught issue.

The two poles of thinking about race that they present initially, the essentialist view and the epiphenomenal view, had their heyday in particular historical intellectual movements. Proponents of these positions are still popularly active today, though perhaps it’s fair to say that both extremes are now marginalized out of the intellectual mainstream. Despite nobody really understanding how social construction works, most educated people are probably willing to accept that race is socially constructed in one way or another.

It is striking, then, that Omi and Winant’s view of the mechanism of racialization, which involves the reading of ‘deeper meanings’ into phenomic traits, is essentially a throwback to the objective, essentializing viewpoint.
Perhaps there is a kind of cognitive bias, maybe representativeness bias or fundamental attribution bias, which is responsible for the cognitive errors that make racialization possible and persistent.

If so, then the social construction of race would be due as much to the limits of human cognition as to the circulation of concepts. That would explain the temptation to believe that we can ‘get past’ race, because we can always believe in the potential for a society in which people are smarter and are trained out of their basic biases. But Omi and Winant would argue that this is utopian. Perhaps the wisdom of sociology and social science in general is the conservative recognition of the widespread implications of human limitation. As the social expert, one can take the privileged position that notes that social structure is the result of pervasive cognitive error. That pervasive cognitive error is perhaps a more powerful force than the forces developing and propagating social expertise. Whether it is or is not may be the existential question for liberal democracy.

An unanswered question at this point is whether, if race were broadly understood as a function of social structure, it remains as forceful a structuring element as if it is understood as biological essentialism. It is certainly possible that, if understood as socially contingent, the structural power of race will steadily erode through such statistical processes as regression to the mean. In terms of physics, we can ask whether the current state of the human race(s) is at equilibrium, or heading towards an equilibrium, or diverging in a chaotic and path-dependent way. In any of these cases, there is possibly a role to be played by technical infrastructure. In other words, there are many very substantive and difficult social scientific questions at the root of the question of whether and how technical infrastructure plays a role in the social reproduction of race.

“The Theory of Racial Formation”: notes, part 1 (Cha. 4, Omi and Winant, 2014)

Chapter 4 of Omi and Winant (2014) is “The Theory of Racial Formation”. It is where they lay out their theory of race and its formation, synthesizing and improving on theories of race as ethnicity, race as class, and race as nation that they consider earlier in the book.

This rhetorical strategy of presenting the historical development of multiple threads of prior theory before synthesizing them into something new is familiar to me from my work with Helen Nissenbaum on Contextual Integrity. CI is a theory of privacy that advances prior legal and social theories by teasing out their tensions. This seems to be a good way to advance theory through scholarship. It is interesting that the same method of theory building can work in multiple fields. My sense is that what’s going on is that there is an underlying logic to this process which in a less Anglophone world we might call “dialectical”. But I digress.

I have not finished Chapter 4 yet but I wanted to sketch out the outline of it before going into detail. That’s because what Omi and Winant are presenting a way of understanding the mechanisms behind the reproduction of race that are not simplistically “systemic” but rather break it down into discrete operations. This is a helpful contribution; even if the theory is not entirely accurate, its very specificity elevates the discourse.

So, in brief notes:

For Omi and Winant, race is a way of “making up people”; they attribute this phrase to Ian Hacking but do not develop Hacking’s definition. Their reference to a philosopher of science does situate them in a scholarly sense; it is nice that they seem to acknowledge an implicit hierarchy of theory that places philosophy at the foundation. This is correct.

Race-making is a form of othering, of having a group of people identify another group as outsiders. Othering is a basic and perhaps unavoidable human psychological function; their reference for this is powell and Menendian (Apparently, john a. powell being one of these people like danah boyd who decapitalizes their name.)

Race is of course a social construct that is neither a fixed and coherent category nor something that is “unreal”. That is, presumably, why we need a whole book on the dynamic mechanisms that form it. One reason why race is such a dynamic concept is because (a) it is a way of organizing inequality in society, (b) the people on “top” of the hierarchy implied by racial categories enforce/reproduce that category “downwards”, (c) the people on the “bottom” of the hierarchy implied by racial categories also enforce/reproduce a variation of those categories “upwards” as a form of resistance, and so (d) the state of the racial categories at any particular time is a temporary consequence of conflicting “elite” and “street” variations of it.

This presumes that race is fundamentally about inequality. Omi and Winant believe it is. In fact, they think racial categories are a template for all other social categories that are about inequality. This is what they mean by their claim that race is a master category. It’s “a frame used for organizing all manner of political thought”, particularly political thought about liberation struggles.

I’m not convinced by this point. They develop it with a long discussion of intersectionality that is also unconvincing to me. Historically, they point out that sometimes women’s movements have allied with black power movements, and sometimes they haven’t. They want the reader to think this is interesting; as a data scientist, I see randomness and lack of correlation. They make the poignant and true point that “perhaps at the core of intersectionality practice, as well as theory, is the ‘mixed race’ category. Well, how does it come about that people can be ‘mixed’?” They then drop the point with no further discussion.

Perhaps the book suffers from its being aimed at undergraduates. Omi and Winant are unable to bring up even the most basic explanation for why there are mixed race people: a male person of one race and a female person of a different race have a baby, and that creates a mixed race person (whether or not they are male or female). The basic fact that race is hereditary whereas sex is not is probably really important to the interesectionality between race and sex and the different ways those categories are formed; somehow this point is never mentioned in discussions of intersectionality. Perhaps this is because of the ways this salient difference in race and sex undermines the aim of political solidarity that so much intersectional analysis seems to be going for. Relatedly, contemporary sociological theory seems to have some trouble grasping conventional sexual reproduction, perhaps because it is so sensitized to all the exceptions to it. Still, they drop the ball a bit by bringing this up and not going into any analytic depth about it at all.

Omi and Winant make an intriguing comment, “In legal theory, the sexual contract and racial contract have often been compared”. I don’t know what this is about but I want to know more.

This is all a kind of preamble to their presentation of theory. They start to provide some definitions:

racial formation
The sociohistorical process by which racial identities are created, lived out, transformed, and destroyed.
How phenomic-corporeal dimensions of bodies acquire meaning in social life.
racial projects
The co-constitutive ways that racial meanings are translated into social structures and become racially signified.
Not defined. A property of racial projects that Omi and Winant will discuss later.
racial politics
Ways that the politics (of a state?) can handle race, including racial despotism, racial democracy, and racial hegemony.

This is a useful breakdown. More detail in the next post.

Race as Nation (on Omi and Winant, 2014)

Today the people I have personally interacted with are: a Russian immigrant, three black men, a Japanese-American woman, and a Jewish woman. I live in New York City and this is a typical day. But when I sign onto Twitter, I am flooded with messages suggesting that the United States is engaged in a political war over its racial destiny. I would gladly ignore these messages if I could, but there appears to be somebody with a lot of influence setting a media agenda on this.

So at last I got to Omi and Winant‘s chapter on “Nation” — on theories of race as nation. The few colleagues who expressed interest in these summaries of Omi and Winant were concerned that they would not tackle the relationship between race and colonialism; indeed they do tackle it in this chapter, though it comes perhaps surprisingly late in their analysis. Coming to this chapter, I had high hopes that these authors, whose scholarship has been very helpfully thorough on other aspects of race, would shed light on the connection between nation and race that would help shed light on the present political situation in the U.S. I have to say that I wound up being disappointed in their analysis, but that those disappointments were enlightening. Since this edition of their book was written in 2014 when their biggest target was “colorblindness”, the gaps in their analysis are telling precisely because they show how educated, informed imagination could not foresee today’s resurgence of white nationalism in the United States.

Having said that, Omi and Winant are not naive about white nationalism. On the contrary, they open their chapter with a long section on The White Nation, which is a phrase I can’t even type without cringing at. They paint a picture in broad strokes: yes, the United States has for most of its history explicitly been a nation of white people. This racial identity underwrote slavery, the conquest of land from Native Americans, and policies of immigration and naturalization and segregation. For much of its history, for most of its people, the national project of the United States was a racial project. So say Omi and Winant.

Then they also say (in 2014) that this sense of the nation as a white nation is breaking down. Much of their chapter is a treatment of “national insurgencies”, which have included such a wide variety of movements as Pan-Africanism, cultural insurgencies that promote ‘ethnic’ culture within the United States, and Communism. (They also make passing reference to feminism as comparable kind of national insurgency undermining the notion that the United States is a white male nation. While the suggestion is interesting, they do not develop it enough to be convincing, and instead the inclusion of gender into their history of racial nationalism comes off as a perfunctory nod to their progressive allies.)

Indeed, they open this chapter in a way that is quite uncharacteristic for them. They write in a completely different register: not historical and scholarly analysis, and but more overtly ideology-mythology. They pose the question (originally posed by du Bois) in personal and philosophical terms to the reader: whose nation is it? Is it yours? They do this quite brazenly, in a way the denies one the critical intervention of questioning what a nation really is, of dissecting it as an imaginary social form. It is troubling because it seems to be subtle abuse of the otherwise meticulously scholarly character of their work. They set of the question of national identity as a pitched battle over a binary, much as is being done today. It is troublingly done.

This Manichean painting of American destiny is perhaps excused because of the detail with which they have already discussed ethnicity and class at this point in the book. And it does set up their rather prodigious account of Pan-Africanism. But it puts them in the position of appearing to accept uncritically an intuitive notion of what a nation is even while pointing out how this intuitive idea gets challenged. Indeed, they only furnish one definition of a nation, and it is Joseph Stalin’s, from a 1908 pamphlet:

A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up, manifested in a common culture. (Stalin, 1908)

So much for that.

Regarding colonialism, Omi and Winant are surprisingly active in their rejection of ‘colonialist’ explanations of race in the U.S. beyond the historical conditions. They write respectfully of Wallerstein’s world-system theory as contributing to a global understanding of race, but do not see it as illuminating the specific dynamics of race in the United States very much. Specifically, they bring up Bob Blauner’s Racial Oppression in America as a paradigmatic of the application of internal colonialism theory to the United States, then pick it apart and reject it. According to internal colonialism (roughly):

  • There’s a geography of spatial arrangement of population groups along racial line
  • There is a dynamic of cultural domination and resistance, organized on lines of racial antagonism
  • Theirs systems of exploitation and control organized along racial lines

Blauner took up internal colonialism theory explicitly in 1972 to contribute to ‘radical nationalist’ practice of the 60’s, admitting that it is more inspired by activists than sociologists. So we might suspect, with Omi and Winant, that his discussion of colonialism is more about crafting an exciting ideology than one that is descriptively accurate. For example, Blauner makes a distinction between “colonized and immigrant minorities”, where the “colonized” minorities are those whose participation in the United States project was forced (Africans and Latin Americans) while those (Europeans) who came voluntarily are “immigrants” and therefore qualitatively different. Omi and Winant take issue with this classification, as many European immigrants were themselves refugees of ethnic cleansing, while it leaves the status of Asian Americans very unclear. At best, ‘internal colonialism’ theory, as far as the U.S. is concerned, places emphasis on known history but does not add to it.

Omi and Winant frequently ascribe theorists of race agency in racial politics, as if the theories enable self-conceptions that enable movements. This may be professional self-aggrandizement. They also perhaps set up nationalist accounts of race weakly because they want to deliver the goods in their own theory of racial formation that appears in the next chapter. They see nation based theories as capturing something important:

In our view, the nation-based paradigm of race is an important component of our understanding of race: in highlighting “peoplehood,” collective identity, it “invents tradition” (Hobsbawm and Ranger, eds. 1983) and “imagines community” (Anderson, 1998). Nation-based understandings of race provide affective identification: They promise a sense of ineffable connection within racially identified groups; they engage in “collective representation” (Durkheim 2014). The tropes of “soul,” of “folk,” of hermanos/hermanas unidos/unidas uphold Duboisian themes. They channel Marti’s hemispheric consciousness (Marti 1977 [1899]); and Vasconcelo’s ideas of la raza cosmica (1979, Stavans 2011). In communities and movements, in the arts and popular media, as well as universities and colleges (especially in ethnic studies) these frameworks of peoplehood play a vital part in maintaining a sense of racial solidarity, however uneven or partial.

Now, I don’t know most of the references in the above quotation. But one gets the sense that Omi and Winant believe strongly that race contains an affective identifciation component. This may be what they were appealing to in a performative or demonstrative way earlier in the chapter. While they must be on to something, it is strange that they have this as the main takeaway of the history of race and nationalism. It is especially unconvincing that their conclusion after studying the history of racial nationalism is that ethnic studies departments in universities are what racial solidarity is really about, because under their own account the creation of ethnic studies departments was an accomplishment of racial political organization, not the precursor to it.

Omi and Winant deal in only the most summary terms with the ways in which nationalism is part of the operation of a nation state. They see racial nationalism as a factor in slavery and colonialism, and also in Jim Crow segregation, but deal only loosely with whether and how the state benefited from this kind of nationalism. In other words, they have a theory of racial nationalism that is weak on political economy. Their only mention of integration in military service, for example, is the mention that service in the American Civil War was how many Irish Americans “became white”. Compare this with Fred Turner‘s account of how increased racial liberalization was part of the United States strategy to mobilize its own army against fascism.

In my view, Omi and Winant’s blind spot is their affective investment in their view of the United States as embroiled in perpetual racial conflict. While justified and largely information, it prevents them from seeing a wide range of different centrist views as anything but an extension of white nationalism. For example, they see white nationalism in nationalist celebrations of ‘the triumph of democracy’ on a Western model. There is of course a lot of truth in this, but also, as is abundantly clear today when now there appears to be a conflict between those who celebrate a multicultural democracy with civil liberties and those who prefer overt racial authoritarianism, there is something else going on that Omi and Winant miss.

My suspicion is this: in their haste to target “colorblind neoliberalism” as an extension of racism-as-usual, they have missed how in the past forty years or so, and especially in the past eight, such neoliberalism has itself been a national project. Nancy Fraser can argue that progressive neoliberalism has been hegemonic and rejected by right-wing populists. A brief look at the center left media will show how progressivism is at least as much of an affective identity in the United States as is whiteness, despite the fact that progressivism is not in and of itself a racial construct or “peoplehood”. Omi and Winant believed that colorblind neoliberalism would be supported by white nationalists because it was neoliberal. But now it has been rejected by white nationalist because it is colorblind. This is a difference that makes a difference.