Omi and Winant on economic theories of race

by Sebastian Benthall

Speaking of economics and race, Chapter 2 of Omi and Winant (2014), titled “Class”, is about economic theories of race. These are my notes on it

Throughout this chapter, Omi and Winant seem preoccupied with whether and to what extent economic theories of race fall on the left, center, or right within the political spectrum. This is despite their admission that there is no absolute connection between the variety of theories and political orientation, only general tendencies. One presumes when reading it that they are allowing the reader to find themselves within that political alignment and filter their analysis accordingly. I will as much as possible leave out these cues, because my intention in writing these blog posts is to encourage the reader to make an independent, informed judgment based on the complexity the theories reveal, as opposed to just finding ideological cannon fodder. I claim this idealistic stance as my privilege as an obscure blogger with no real intention of ever being read.

Omi and Winant devote this chapter to theories of race that attempt to more or less reduce the phenomenon of race to economic phenomena. They outline three varieties of class paradigms for race:

  • Market relations theories. These tend to presuppose some kind theory of market efficiency as an ideal.
  • Stratification theories. These are vaguely Weberian, based on classes as ‘systems of distribution’.
  • Product/labor based theories. These are Marxist theories about conflicts over social relations of production.

For market relations theories, markets are efficient, racial discrimination and inequality isn’t, and so the theory’s explicandum is what market problems are leading to the continuation of racial inequalities and discrimination. There are a few theories on the table:

  • Irrational prejudice. This theory says that people are racially prejudiced for some stubborn reason and so “limited and judicious state interventionism” is on the table. This was the theory of Chicago economist Gary Becker, who is not to be confused with the Chicago sociologist Howard Becker, whose intellectual contributions were totally different. Racial prejudice unnecessarily drives up labor costs and so eventually the smart money will become unprejudiced.
  • Monopolistic practices. The idea here is that society is structured in the interest of whites, who monopolize certain institutions and can collect rents from their control of resources. Jobs, union membership, favorably located housing, etc. are all tied up in this concept of race. Extra-market activity like violence is used to maintain these monopolies. This theory, Omi and Winant point out, is sympatico with white privilege theories, as well as nation-based analyses of race (cf. colonialism).
  • Disruptive state practices. This view sees class/race inequality as the result of state action of some kind. There’s a laissez-faire critique which argues that minimum wage and other labor laws, as well as affirmative action, entrench race and prevent the market from evening things out. Doing so would benefit both capital owners and people of color according to this theory. There’s a parallel neo-Marxist theory that says something similar, interestingly enough.

It must be noted that in the history of the United States, especially before the Civil Rights era, there absolutely was race-based state intervention on a massive scale and this was absolutely part of the social construction of race. So there hasn’t been a lot of time to test out the theory that market equilibrium without racialized state policies results in racial equality.

Omi and Winant begin to explicate their critique of “colorblind” theories in this chapter. They characterize “colorblind” theories as individualistic in principle, and opposed to the idea of “equality of result.” This is the familiar disparate treatment vs. disparate impact dichotomy from the interpretation of nondiscrimination law. I’m now concerned that this, which appears to be the crux of the problem of addressing contests over racial equality between the center and the left, will not be resolved even after O&W’s explication of it.

Stratification theory is about the distribution of resources, though understood in a broader sense than in a narrow market-based theory. Resources include social network ties, elite recruitment, and social mobility. This is the kind of theory of race an symbolic interactionist sociologist of class can get behind. Or a political scientist’s: the relationship between the elites and the masses, as well as the dynamics of authority systems, are all part of this theory, according to Omi and Winant. One gets the sense that of the class based theories, this nuanced and nonreductivist one is favored by the authors … except for the fascinating critique that these theories will position race vs. class as two dimensions of inequality, reifying them in their analysis, whereas “In experiential terms, of course, inequality is not differentiated by race or class.”

The phenomenon that there is a measurable difference in “life chances” between races in the United States is explored by two theorists to which O&W give ample credit: William J Wilson and Douglas Massey.

Wilson’s major work in 1978, The Declining Significance of Race, tells a long story of race after the Civil War and urbanization that sounds basically correct to me. It culminates with the observation that there are now elite and middle-class black people in the United States due to the uneven topology of reforms but that ‘the massive black “underclass” was relegated to permanent marginality’. He argued that race was no longer a significant linkage between these two classes, though Omi and Winant criticize this view, arguing that there is fragility to the middle-class status for blacks because of public sector job losses. His view that class divides have superseded racial divides is his most controversial claim and so perhaps what he is known best for. He advocated for a transracial alliance within the Democratic party to contest the ‘racial reaction’ to Civil Rights, which at this point was well underway with Nixon’s “southern strategy”. The political cleavages along lines of partisan racial alliance are familiar to us in the United States today. Perhaps little has changed.
He called for state policies to counteract class cleavages, such as day care services to low-income single mothers. These calls “went nowhere” because Democrats were unwilling to face Republican arguments against “giveaways” to “welfare queens”. Despite this, Omi and Winant believe that Wilson’s views converge with neoconservative views because he doesn’t favor public sector jobs as a solution to racial inequality; more recently, he’s become a “culture of poverty” theorist (because globalization reduces the need for black labor in the U.S.) and believes in race neutral policies to overcome urban poverty. The relationship between poverty and race is incidental to Wilson, which I suppose makes him ‘colorblind” in O&W’s analysis.

Massey’s work, which is also significantly reviewed in this chapter, deals with immigration and Latin@s. There’s a lot there, so I’ll cut to the critique of his recent book, Categorically Unequal (2008), in which Massey unites his theories of anti-black and anti-brown racism into a comprehensive theory of racial stratification based on ingrained, intrinsic, biological processes of prejudice. Naturally, to Omi and Winant, the view that there’s something biological going on is “problematic”. They (being quite mainstream, really) see this as tied to the implicit bias literature but think that there’s a big difference from implicit bias due to socialization vs. over permanent hindbrain perversity. This is apparently taken up again in their Chapter 4.

Omi and Winant’s final comment is that these stratification theories deny agency and can’t explain how “egalitarian or social justice-oriented transformations could ever occur, in the past, present, or future.” Which is, I suppose, bleak to the anti-racist activists Omi and Winant are implicitly aligned with. Which does raise the possibility that what O&W are really up to in advocating a hard line on the looser social construction of race is to keep the hope of possibility of egalitarian transformation alive. It had not occurred to me until just now that their sensitivity to the idea that implicit bias may be socially trained vs. being a more basic and inescapable part of psychology, a sensitivity which is mirrored elsewhere in society, is due to this concern for the possibility and hope for equality.

The last set of economic theories considered in this chapter are class-conflict theories, which are rooted in a Marxist conception of history as reducible to labor-production relations and therefore class conflict. There are two different kinds of Marxist theory of race. There are labor market segmentation theories, led by Michael Reich, a labor economist at Berkeley. According to this research, when the working class unifies across racial lines, it increases its bargaining power and so can get better wages in its negotiations with capital. So the capitalist in this theory may want to encourage racial political divisions even if they harbor no racial prejudices themselves. “Workers of the world unite!” is the message of these theories. An alternative view is split labor market theory, which argues that under economic pressure the white working class would rather throw other races under the bus than compete with them economically. Political mobilization for a racially homogenous, higher paid working class is then contested by both capitalists and lower paid minority workers.


Omi and Winant respect the contributions of these theories but think that trying to reduce race to economic relations ultimately fails. This is especially true for the market theorists, who always wind up introducing race as an non-economic, exogenous variable to avoid inequalities in the market.

The stratification theories are perhaps more realistic and complex.

I’m most surprised at how the class-conflict based theories are reflected in what for me are the major lenses into the zeitgeist of contemporary U.S. politics. This may be because I’m very disproportionately surrounded by Marxist-influenced intellectuals. But it is hard to miss the narrative that the white working class has rejected the alliance between neoliberal capital and low-wage immigrant and minority labor. Indeed, it is arguably this latter alliance that Nancy Fraser has called neoliberalism. This conflict accords with the split labor market theory. Fraser and other hopeful socialist types argue that a triumph over identity differences is necessary to realize racial conflicts in the working class play into the hands of capitalists, not white workers. It is very odd that this ideological question is not more settled empirically. It may be that the whole framing is perniciously oversimplified, and that really you have to talk about things in a more nuanced way to get real headway.

Unless of course there isn’t any such real hope. This was an interesting part of the stratification theory: the explanation that included an absence of agency. I used to study lots and lots of philosophy, and in philosophy it’s a permissible form of argument to say, “This line of reasoning, if followed to its conclusion, leads to an appalling and untenable conclusion, one that could never be philosophically satisfying. For that reason, we reject it and consider a premise to be false.” In other words, in philosophy you are allowed to be motivated by the fact that a philosophical stance is life negating or self-defeating in some way. I wonder if that is true of sociology of race. I also wonder whether bleak conclusions are necessary even if you deny the agency of racial minorities in the United States to liberate themselves on their own steam. Now there’s globalization, and earlier patterns of race may well be altered by forces outside of it. This is another theme in contemporary political discourse.

Once again Omi and Winant have raised the specter of “colorblind” policies without directly critiquing them. The question seems to boil down to whether or not the mechanisms that reproduce racial inequality can be mitigated better by removing those mechanisms that are explicitly racial or not. If part of the mechanism is irrational prejudice due to some hindbrain tick, then there may be grounds for a systematic correction of that tick. But that would require a scientific conclusion about the psychology of race that identifies a systematic error. If the error is rather interpreting an empirical inequality due to racialized policies as an essentialized difference, then that can be partially corrected by reducing the empirical inequality in fact.

It is in fact because I’m interested in what kinds of algorithms would be beneficial interventions in the process of racial formation that I’m reading Omi and Winant so closely in the first place.