On “Racialization” (Omi and Winant, 2014)

by Sebastian Benthall

Notes on Omi and Winant, 2014, Chapter 4, Section: “Racialization”.


Race is often seen as either an objective category, or an illusory one.

Viewed objectively, it is seen as a biological property, tied to phenotypic markers and possibly other genetic traits. It is viewed as an ‘essence’.
Omi and Winant argue that the concept of ‘mixed-race’ depends on this kind of essentialism, as it implies a kind of blending of essences. This is the view associated with “scientific” racism, most prevalent in the prewar era.

View as an illusion, race is seen as an ideological construct. An epiphenomenon of culture, class, or peoplehood. Formed as a kind of “false consciousness”, in the Marxist terminology. This view is associated with certain critics of affirmative action who argue that any racial classification is inherently racist.

Omi and Winant are critical of both perspectives, and argue for an understanding of race as socially real and grounded non-reducibly in phenomic markers but ultimately significant because of the social conflicts and interests constructed around those markers.

They define race as: “a concept that signifies and symbolizes signifiers and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies.”

The visual aspect of race is irreducible, and becomes significant when, for example, is becomes “understood as a manifestation of more profound differences that are situated within racially identified persons: intelligence, athletic ability, temperament, and sexuality, among other traits.” These “understandings”, which it must be said may be fallacious, “become the basis to justify or reinforce social differentiation.

This process of adding social significance to phenomic markers is, in O&W’s language, racialization, which they define as “the extension of racial meanings to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group.” They argue that racialization happens at both macro and micro scales, ranging from the consolidation of the world-system through colonialization to incidents of racial profiling.

Race, then, is a concept that refer to different kinds of bodies by phenotype and the meanings and social practices ascribed to them. When racial concepts are circulated and accepted as ‘social reality’, racial difference is not dependent on visual difference alone, but take on a life of their own.

Omi and Winant therefore take a nuanced view of what it means for a category to be socially constructed, and it is a view that has concrete political implications. They consider the question, raised frequently, as to whether “we” can “get past” race, or go beyond it somehow. (Recall that this edition of the book was written during the Obama administration and is largely a critique of the idea, which seems silly now, that his election made the United States “post-racial”).

Omi and Winant see this framing as unrealistically utopian and based on extreme view that race is “illusory”. It poses race as a problem, a misconception of the past. A more effective position, they claim, would note that race is an element of social structure, not an irregularity in it. “We” cannot naively “get past it”, but also “we” do not need to accept the erroneous conclusion that race is a fixed biological given.


Omi and Winant’s argument here is mainly one about the ontology of social forms.
In my view, this question of social form ontology is one of the “hard problems”
remaining in philosophy, perhaps equivalent to if not more difficult than the hard problem of consciousness. So no wonder it is such a fraught issue.

The two poles of thinking about race that they present initially, the essentialist view and the epiphenomenal view, had their heyday in particular historical intellectual movements. Proponents of these positions are still popularly active today, though perhaps it’s fair to say that both extremes are now marginalized out of the intellectual mainstream. Despite nobody really understanding how social construction works, most educated people are probably willing to accept that race is socially constructed in one way or another.

It is striking, then, that Omi and Winant’s view of the mechanism of racialization, which involves the reading of ‘deeper meanings’ into phenomic traits, is essentially a throwback to the objective, essentializing viewpoint.
Perhaps there is a kind of cognitive bias, maybe representativeness bias or fundamental attribution bias, which is responsible for the cognitive errors that make racialization possible and persistent.

If so, then the social construction of race would be due as much to the limits of human cognition as to the circulation of concepts. That would explain the temptation to believe that we can ‘get past’ race, because we can always believe in the potential for a society in which people are smarter and are trained out of their basic biases. But Omi and Winant would argue that this is utopian. Perhaps the wisdom of sociology and social science in general is the conservative recognition of the widespread implications of human limitation. As the social expert, one can take the privileged position that notes that social structure is the result of pervasive cognitive error. That pervasive cognitive error is perhaps a more powerful force than the forces developing and propagating social expertise. Whether it is or is not may be the existential question for liberal democracy.

An unanswered question at this point is whether, if race were broadly understood as a function of social structure, it remains as forceful a structuring element as if it is understood as biological essentialism. It is certainly possible that, if understood as socially contingent, the structural power of race will steadily erode through such statistical processes as regression to the mean. In terms of physics, we can ask whether the current state of the human race(s) is at equilibrium, or heading towards an equilibrium, or diverging in a chaotic and path-dependent way. In any of these cases, there is possibly a role to be played by technical infrastructure. In other words, there are many very substantive and difficult social scientific questions at the root of the question of whether and how technical infrastructure plays a role in the social reproduction of race.