Racial projects and racism (Omi and Winant, 2014; Jeong case study)

by Sebastian Benthall

Following up on earlier posts on Omi and Winant, I’ve gotten to the part where they discuss racial projects and racism.

Because I use Twitter, I have not been able to avoid the discussion of Sarah Jeong’s tweets. I think it provides a useful case study in Omi and Winant’s terminology. I am not a journalist or particularly with-it person, so I have encountered this media event mainly through articles about it. Here are some.

To recap, for Omi and Winant, race is a “master category” of social organization, but nevertheless one that is unstable and politically contested. The continuity of racial classification is due to a historical, mutually reinforcing process that includes both social structures that control the distribution of resources and social meanings and identities that have been acquired by properties of people’s bodies. The fact that race is sustained through this historical and semiotically rich structuration (to adopt a term from Giddens), means that

“To identify an individual or group racially is to locate them within a socially and historically demarcated set of demographic and cultural boundaries, state activities, “life-chances”, and tropes of identity/difference/(in)equality.

“We cannot understand how racial representations set up patterns of residential segregation, for example, without considering how segregation reciprocally shapes and reinforces the meaning of race itself.”

This is totally plausible. Identifying the way that racial classification depends on a relationship between meaning and social structure opens the possibility of human political agency in the (re)definition of race. Omi and Winant’s term for these racial acts is racial projects.

A racial project is simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial identities and meanings, and an effort to organize and distribute resources (economic, political, cultural) along particular racial lines.
… Racial projects connect the meaning of race in discourse and ideology with the way that social structures are racially organized.

“Racial project” is a broad category that can include both large state and institutional interventions and individual actions. “even the decision to wear dreadlocks”. What makes them racial projects is how they reflect and respond to broader patterns of race, whether to reproduce it or to subvert it. Prevailing stereotypes are one of the main ways we can “read” the racial meanings of society, and so the perpetuation of subversion of stereotypes is a form of “racial project”. Racial projects are often in contest with each other; the racial formation process is the interaction and accumulation of these projects.

Racial project is a useful category partly because it is key to Omi and Winant’s definition of racism. They acknowledge that the term itself is subject to “enormous debate”, at times inflated to be meaningless and at other times deflated to be too narrow. They believe the definition of racism as “racial hate” is too narrow, though it has gain legal traction as a category, as in when “hate crimes” are considered an offense with enhanced sentencing, or universities institute codes against “hate speech”. I’ve read “racial animus” as another term that means something similar, though perhaps more subtle, than ‘racial hate’.

The narrow definition of racism as racial hate is rejected due to an argument O&W attribute to David Theo Goldberg (1997), which is that by narrowly focusing on “crimes of passion” (I would gloss this more broadly to ‘psychological states’), the interpretation of racism misses the ideologies, policies, and practices that “normalize and reproduce racial inequality and domination”. In other words, racism, as a term, has to reference the social structure that is race in order to adequate.

Omi and Winant define racism thus:

A racial project can be defined as racist if it creates or reproduces structures of domination based on racial significance and identities.

A key implication of their argument is that not all racial projects are racist. Recall that Omi and Winant are very critical of colorblindness as (they allege) a political hegemony. They want to make room for racial solidarity and agency despite the hierarchical nature of race as a social fact. This allows them to answer two important questions.

Are there anti-racist projects? Yes. “[w]e define anti-racist projects as those that undo or resist structures of domination based on racial significations and identities.

Note that the two definitions are not exactly parallel in construction. To “create and reproduce structure” is not entirely the opposite of “undo or resist structure”. Given O&W’s ontology, and the fact that racial structure is always the accumulation of a long history of racial projects, projects that have been performed by (bluntly) both the right and the left, and given that social structure is not homogeneous across location (consider how race is different in the United States and in Brazil, or different in New York City and in Dallas), and given that an act of resistance is also an act of creation, implicitly, one could easily get confused trying to apply these definitions. The key word, “domination”, is not defined precisely, and everything hinges on this. It’s clear from the writing that Omi and Winant subscribe to the “left” view of how racial domination works; this orients their definition of racism concretely. But they also not that the political agency of people of color in the United States over the past hundred years or so has gained them political power. Isn’t the key to being racist having power? This leads O&W to the second question, which is

Can Group of Color Advance Racist Projects? O&W’s answer is, yes, they can. There are exceptions to the hierarchy of white supremacy, and in these exceptions there can be racial conflicts where a group of color is racist. Their example is in cases where blacks and Latinos are in contest over resources. O&W do not go so far as to say that it is possible to be racist against white people, because they believe all racial relations are shaped by the overarching power of white supremacy.

Case Study: Jeong’s tweets

That is the setup. So what about Sarah Jeong? Well, she wrote some tweets mocking white people, and specifically white men, in 2014, which was by the way the heyday of obscene group conflict on Twitter. That was the year of Gamergate. A whole year of tweets that are probably best forgotten. She compared white people to goblins, she compared them the dogs. She said she wished ill on white men. As has been pointed out, if any other group besides white men were talked about, her tweets would be seen as undeniably racist, etc. They are, truth be told, similar rhetorically to the kinds of tweets that the left media have been so appalled at for some time.

They have surfaced again because Jeong was hired by the New York Times, and right wing activists (or maybe just trolls, I’m a little unclear about which) surfaced the old tweets. In the political climate of 2018, when Internet racism feels like it’s gotten terribly real, these struck a chord and triggered some reflection.

What should we make of these tweets, in light of racial formation theory?

First, we should acknowledge that the New York Times has some really great lawyers working for it. Their statement was the at the time, (a) Jeong was being harassed, (b) that she responded to them in the same rhetorical manner of the harassment, that (c) that’s regrettable, but also, it’s long past and not so bad. Sarah Jeong’s own statement makes this point, acknowledges that the tweets may be hurtful out of context, and that she didn’t mean them the way others could take them. “Harassment” is actually a relatively neutral term; you can harass somebody, legally speaking, on the basis of their race without invoking a reaction from anti-racist sociologists. This is all perfectly sensible, IMO, and the case is pretty much closed.

But that’s not where the discussion on the Internet ended. Why? Because the online media is where the contest of racial formation is happening.

We can ask: Were Sarah Jeong’s tweets a racial project? The answer seems to be, yes, they were. It was a representation of racial identity (whiteness) “to organize and distribute resources (economic, political, cultural) along particular racial lines”. Jeong is a journalist and scholar, and these arguments are happening in social media, which are always-already part of the capitalist attention economy. Jeong’s success is partly due to her confrontation of on-line harassers and responses to right-wing media figures. And her activity is the kind that rallies attention along racial lines–anti-racist, racist, etc.

Confusingly, the language she used in these tweets reads as hateful. “Dumbass fucking white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants” does, reasonably, sound like it expresses some racial animus. If we were to accept the definition of racism as merely the possession of ill will towards a race, which seems to be Andrew Sullivan’s definition, then we would have to say those were racist tweets.

We could invoke a defense here. Were the tweets satire? Did Jeong not actually have any ill will towards white people? One might wonder, similarly, whether 4chan anti-Semites are actually anti-Semitic or just trolling. The whole question of who is just trolling and who should be taken seriously on the Internet is such an interesting one. But it’s one I had to walk away from long ago after the heat got turned up on me one time. So it goes.

What everyone knows is at stake, though, is the contention that the ‘racial animus’ definition is not the real definition of racism, but rather that something like O&W’s definition is. By their account, (a) a racial project is only racist if it aligns with structures of racial domination, and (b) the structure of racial domination is a white supremacist one. Ergo, by this account, Jeong’s tweets are not racist, because insulting white people does not create or reproduce structures of white supremacist domination.

It’s worth pointing out that there are two different definitions of a word here and that neither one is inherently more correct of a definition. I’m hesitant to label the former definition “right” and the latter definition “left” because there’s nothing about the former definition that would make you, say, not want to abolish the cradle-to-prison system or any number of other real, institutional reforms. But the latter definition is favored by progressives, who have a fairly coherent world view. O&W’s theorizing is consistent with it. The helpful thing about this worldview is that it makes it difficult to complain about progressive rhetorical tactics without getting mired into a theoretical debate about their definitions, which makes it an excellent ideology for getting into fights on the Internet. This is largely what Andrew Sullivan was getting at in his critique.

what Jeong and the NYT seem to get, which some others don’t, is that comments that insult an entire race can be hurtful and bothersome even if they are not racist in the progressive sense of the term. It is not clear what we should call a racial project that is hurtful and bothersome to white people if we do not call it racist. A difficulty with the progressive definition of racism is that agreement on the application of the term is going to depend on agreement about what the dominate racial structures are. What we’ve learned in the past few years is that the left-wing view of what these racial structures are is not as widely shared as it was believed to be. Example, there are far more people who believe in anti-Semitic conspiracies, in which the dominant race is the Jews, active in American political life than was supposed. Given O&W’s definition of racism, if it were, factually, the case that Jews ran the world, then anti-Semitic comments would not be racist in the meaningful sense.

Which means that the progressive definition of racism, to be effective, depends on widespread agreement about white supremacist hegemony, which is a much, much more complicated thing to try to persuade somebody of than a particular person’s racial animus.

A number of people have been dismissing any negative reaction to the resurfacing of Jeong’s tweets, taking the opportunity to disparage that reaction as misguided and backwards. As far as I can tell, there is an argument that Jeong’s tweets are actually anti-racist. This article argues that casually disparaging white men is just something anti-racists do lightly to call attention to the dominant social structures and also the despicable behavior of some white men. Naturally, these comments are meant humorously, and not intended to refer to all white men (to assume it does it to distract from the structural issues at stake). They are jokes that should be celebrated, because the the progressives have already won this argument over #notallmen, also in 2014. Understood properly as progressive, anti-racist, social justice idiom, there is nothing offensive about Jeong’s tweets.

I am probably in a minority on this one, but I do not agree with this assessment, for a number of reasons.

First, the idea that you can have a private, in-group conversation on Twitter is absurd.

Second, the idea that a whole community of people casually expresses racial animus because of representative examples of wrongdoing by members of a social class can be alarming whether or not it’s Trump voters talking about Mexicans or anti-racists talking about white people. That alarm, as an emotional reaction, is a reality whether or not the dominant racial structures are being reproduced or challenged.

Third, I’m not convinced that as a racial project, tweets simply insulting white people really counts as “anti-racist” in a substantive sense. Anti-racist projects are “those that undo or resist structures of domination based on racial significations and identities.” Is saying “white men are bullshit” undoing a structure of domination? I’m pretty sure any white supremacist structures of domination have survived that attack. Does it resist white supremacist domination? The thrust of wise sociology of race is that what’s more important than the social meanings are the institutional structures that maintain racial inequality. Even if this statement has a meaning that is degrading to white people, it doesn’t seem to be doing any work of reorganizing resources around (anti-)racial lines. It’s just a crass insult. It may well have actually backfired, or had an effect on the racial organization of attention that neither harmed nor supported white supremacy, but rather just made its manifestation on the Internet more toxic (in response to other, much greater, toxicity, of course).

I suppose what I’m arguing for is greater nuance than either the “left” or “right” position has offered on this case. I’m saying that it is possible to engage in a racial project that is neither racist nor anti-racist. You could have a racial project that is amusingly absurd, or toxic, or cleverly insightful. Moreover, there is a complex of ethical responsibilities and principles that intersects with racial projects but is not contained by the logic of race. There are greater standards of decency that can be invoked. These are not simply constraints on etiquette. They also are relevant to the contest of racial projects and their outcomes.