Race as Nation (on Omi and Winant, 2014)

by Sebastian Benthall

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.