Notes on Racial Formation by Omi and Winant, 2014, Introduction

by Sebastian Benthall

Beginning to read Omi and Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, Third Edition, 2014. These are notes on the introduction, which outlines the trajectory of their book. This introduction is available on Google Books.

Omi and Winant are sociologists of race and their aim is to provide a coherent theory of race and racism, particularly as a United States phenomenon, and then to tell a history of race in the United States. One of their contentions is that race is a social construct and therefore varies over time. This means, in principle, that racial categories are actionable, and much of their analysis is about how anti-racist and racial reaction movements have transformed the politics and construction of race over the course of U.S. history. On the other hand, much of their work points to the persistence of racial categories despite the categorical changes.

Since the Third Edition, in 2014, comes twenty years after the Second Edition, much of the new material in the book addresses specifically what they call colorblind racial hegemony. This is a response to the commentary and question around the significance of Barack Obama’s presidency for race in America. It is interesting reading this in 2018, as in just a few brief years it seems like things have changed significantly. It’s a nice test, then to ask to what extent their theory explains what happened next.

Here is, broadly speaking, what is going on in their book based on the introduction.

First, they discuss prior theories of race they can find in earlier scholarship. They acknowledge that these are interesting lenses but believe they are ultimately reductionist. They will advance their own theory of racial formation in contrast with these. In the background of this section but dismissed outright is the “scientific” racism and religious theories of race that were prevalent before World War II and were used to legitimize what Omi and Winant call racial domination (this has specific meaning for them). Alternative theories of race that Omi and Winant appear to see as constructive contributions to racial theory include:

  • Race as ethnicity. As an alternative to scientific racism, post WWII thinkers advanced the idea of racial categories as reducing to ethnic categories, which were more granular social units based on shared and to some extent voluntary culture. This conception of race could be used for conflicting political agendas, including both pluralism and assimilation.
  • Race as class. The theory attempted to us economic theories–including both Marxist and market-based analysis–to explain race. Omi and Winant think this–especially the Marxist theory–was a productive lens but ultimate a reductive one. Race cannot be subsumed to class.
  • Race as nationality. Race has been used as the basis for national projects, and is tied up with the idea of “peoplehood”. In colonial projects especially, race and nationality are used both to motivate subjugation of a foreign people, and is also used in resistance movements to resist conquest.

It is interesting that these theories of race are ambiguous in their political import. Omi and Winant do a good job of showing how multi-dimensional race really is. Ultimately they reject all these theories and propose their own, racial formation theory. I have not read their chapter on it yet, so all I know is that: (a) they don’t shy away from the elephant in the room, which is that there is a distinctively ‘ocular’ component to race–people look different from each other in ways that are hereditary and have been used for political purposes, (b) they maintain that despite this biological aspect of race, the social phenomenon of race is a social construct and primarily one of political projects and interpretations, and (c) race is formed by a combination of action both at the representational level (depicting people in one way or another) and at the institutional level, with the latter determining real resource allocation and the former providing a rationalization for it.

Complete grokking of the racial formation picture is difficult, perhaps. This may be why instead of having a mainstream understanding of racial formation theory, we get reductive and ideological concepts of race active in politics. The latter part of Omi and Winant’s book is their historical account of the “trajectory” of racial politics in the United States, which they see in terms of a pendulum between anti-racist action (with feminist, etc., allies) and “racial reaction”–right-wing movements that subvert the ideas used by the anti-racists and spin them around into a backlash.

Omi and Winant describe three stages of racial politics in United States history:

  • Racial domination. Slavery and Jim Crow before WWII, based on religious and (now discredited, pseudo-)scientific theories of racial difference.
  • Racial hegemony. (Nod to Gramsci) Post-WWII race relations as theories of race-as-ethnicity open up egalitarian ideals. Opens way for Civil Rights movement.
  • Colorblind racism. A phase where the official ideology denies the significance of race in society while institutions continue to reinforce racial differences in a pernicious way. Necessarily tied up with neoliberalism, in Omi and Winant’s view.

The question of why colorblind racism is a form of racism is a subtle one. Omi and Winant do address this question head on, and I am in particular looking forward to their articulation of the point. Their analysis was done during the Obama presidency, which did seem to move the needle on race in a way that we are still seeing the repercussions of today. I’m interested in comparing their analysis with that of Fraser and Gilman. There seem to be some productive alignments and tensions there.