Notes on Omi and Winant, 2014, “Ethnicity”

by Sebastian Benthall

I’m continuing to read Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States (2014). These are my notes on Chapter 1, “Ethnicity”.

There’s a long period during which the primary theory of race in the United States is a theological and/or “scientific” racism that maintains that different races are biologically different subspecies of humanity because some of them are the cursed descendants of some tribe mentioned in the Old Testament somewhere. In the 1800’s, there was a lot of pseudoscience involving skull measurements trying to back up a biblical literalism that rationalized, e.g., slavery. It was terrible.

Darwinism and improved statistical methods started changing all that, though these theological/”scientific” ideas about race were prominent in the United States until World War II. What took them out of the mainstream was the fact that the Nazis used biological racism to rationalize their evilness, and the U.S. fought them in a war. Jewish intellectuals in the United States in particular (and by now there were a lot of them) forcefully advocated for a different understanding of race based on ethnicity. This theory was dominant as a replacement for theories of scientific racism between WWII and the mid-60’s, when it lost its proponents on the left and morphed into a conservative ideology.

To understand why this happened, it’s important to point out how demographics were changing in the U.S. in the 20th century. The dominant group in the United States in the 1800’s were White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs. Around 1870-1920, the U.S. started to get a lot more immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as Ireland. These often economic refugees, though there were also people escaping religious persecution (Jews). Generally speaking these immigrants were not super welcome in the United States, but they came in at what may be thought of as a good time, as there was a lot of economic growth and opportunity for upward mobility in the coming century.

Partly because of this new wave of immigration, there was a lot of interest in different ethnic groups and whether or not they would assimilate in with the mainstream Anglo culture. American pragmatism, of the William James and Jown Dewey type, was an influential philosophical position in this whole scene. The early ethnicity theorists, who were part of the Chicago school of sociology that was pioneering grounded, qualitative sociological methods, were all pragmatists. Robert Park is a big figure here. All these guys apparently ripped off W.E.B. Du Bois, who was trained by William James and didn’t get enough credit because he was black.

Based on the observation of these European immigrants, the ethnicity theorists came to the conclusion that if you lower the structural barriers to participation in the economy, “ethnics” will assimilate to the mainstream culture (melt into the “melting pot”) and everything is fine. You can even tolerate some minor ethnic differences, resulting in the Italian-Americans, the Irish-Americans, and… the African-American. But that was a bigger leap for people.

What happened, as I’ve mentioned, is that scientific racism was discredited in the U.S. partly because it had to fight the Nazis and had so many Jewish intellectuals, who had been on the wrong end of scientific racism in Europe and who in the U.S. were eager to become “ethnics”. These became, in essence, the first “racial liberals”. At the time there was also a lot of displacement of African Americans who were migrating around the U.S. in search of economic opportunities. So in the post-war period ethnicity theorists optimistically proposed that race problems could be solved by treating all minority groups as if they were Southern and Eastern European immigrant groups. Reduce enough barriers and they would assimilate and/or exist in a comfortable equitable pluralism, they thought.

The radicalism of the Civil Rights movement broke the spell here, as racial minorities began to demand not just the kinds of liberties that European ethnics had taken advantage of, but also other changes to institutional racism and corrections to other racial injustices. The injustices persisted in part because racial differences are embodied differently than ethnic differences. This is an academic way of saying that the fact that (for example) black people often look different from white people matters for how society treats them. So treating race as a matter of voluntary cultural affiliation misses the point.

So ethnicity theory, which had been critical for dismantling scientific racism and opening the door for new policies on race, was ultimately rejected by the left. It was picked up by neoconservatives through their policies of “colorblindness”, which Omi and Winant describe in detail in the latter parts of their book.

There is a lot more detail in the chapter, which I found quite enlightening.

My main takeaways:

  • In today’s pitched media battles between “Enlightenment classical liberalism” and “postmodern identity politics”, we totally forget that a lot of American policy is based on American pragmatism, which is definitely neither an Enlightenment position nor postmodern. Everybody should shut up and read The Metaphysical Club.
  • There has been a social center, with views that are seen as center-left or center-right depending on the political winds, since WWII. The adoption of ethnicity theory into the center was a significant culture accomplishment with a specific history, however ultimately disappointing its legacy has been for anti-racist activists. Any resurgence of scientific racism is a definite backslide.
  • Omi and Winant are convincing about the limits of ethnicity theory in terms of: its dependence on economic “engines of mobility” that allow minorities to take part in economic growth, its failure to recognize the corporeal and ocular aspects of race, and its assumption that assimilation is going to be as appealing to minorities as it is to the white majority.
  • Their arguments about colorblind racism, which are at the end of their book, are going to be doing a lot of work and the value of the new edition of their book, for me at least, really depends on the strength of that theory.