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

by Sebastian Benthall

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.
racialization
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.
racism
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.