Digifesto

Tag: ethnicity

Notes on Omi and Winant, 2014, “Ethnicity”

I’m continuing to read Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States (2014). These are my notes on Chapter 1, “Ethnicity”.

There’s a long period during which the primary theory of race in the United States is a theological and/or “scientific” racism that maintains that different races are biologically different subspecies of humanity because some of them are the cursed descendants of some tribe mentioned in the Old Testament somewhere. In the 1800’s, there was a lot of pseudoscience involving skull measurements trying to back up a biblical literalism that rationalized, e.g., slavery. It was terrible.

Darwinism and improved statistical methods started changing all that, though these theological/”scientific” ideas about race were prominent in the United States until World War II. What took them out of the mainstream was the fact that the Nazis used biological racism to rationalize their evilness, and the U.S. fought them in a war. Jewish intellectuals in the United States in particular (and by now there were a lot of them) forcefully advocated for a different understanding of race based on ethnicity. This theory was dominant as a replacement for theories of scientific racism between WWII and the mid-60’s, when it lost its proponents on the left and morphed into a conservative ideology.

To understand why this happened, it’s important to point out how demographics were changing in the U.S. in the 20th century. The dominant group in the United States in the 1800’s were White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs. Around 1870-1920, the U.S. started to get a lot more immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as Ireland. These often economic refugees, though there were also people escaping religious persecution (Jews). Generally speaking these immigrants were not super welcome in the United States, but they came in at what may be thought of as a good time, as there was a lot of economic growth and opportunity for upward mobility in the coming century.

Partly because of this new wave of immigration, there was a lot of interest in different ethnic groups and whether or not they would assimilate in with the mainstream Anglo culture. American pragmatism, of the William James and Jown Dewey type, was an influential philosophical position in this whole scene. The early ethnicity theorists, who were part of the Chicago school of sociology that was pioneering grounded, qualitative sociological methods, were all pragmatists. Robert Park is a big figure here. All these guys apparently ripped off W.E.B. Du Bois, who was trained by William James and didn’t get enough credit because he was black.

Based on the observation of these European immigrants, the ethnicity theorists came to the conclusion that if you lower the structural barriers to participation in the economy, “ethnics” will assimilate to the mainstream culture (melt into the “melting pot”) and everything is fine. You can even tolerate some minor ethnic differences, resulting in the Italian-Americans, the Irish-Americans, and… the African-American. But that was a bigger leap for people.

What happened, as I’ve mentioned, is that scientific racism was discredited in the U.S. partly because it had to fight the Nazis and had so many Jewish intellectuals, who had been on the wrong end of scientific racism in Europe and who in the U.S. were eager to become “ethnics”. These became, in essence, the first “racial liberals”. At the time there was also a lot of displacement of African Americans who were migrating around the U.S. in search of economic opportunities. So in the post-war period ethnicity theorists optimistically proposed that race problems could be solved by treating all minority groups as if they were Southern and Eastern European immigrant groups. Reduce enough barriers and they would assimilate and/or exist in a comfortable equitable pluralism, they thought.

The radicalism of the Civil Rights movement broke the spell here, as racial minorities began to demand not just the kinds of liberties that European ethnics had taken advantage of, but also other changes to institutional racism and corrections to other racial injustices. The injustices persisted in part because racial differences are embodied differently than ethnic differences. This is an academic way of saying that the fact that (for example) black people often look different from white people matters for how society treats them. So treating race as a matter of voluntary cultural affiliation misses the point.

So ethnicity theory, which had been critical for dismantling scientific racism and opening the door for new policies on race, was ultimately rejected by the left. It was picked up by neoconservatives through their policies of “colorblindness”, which Omi and Winant describe in detail in the latter parts of their book.

There is a lot more detail in the chapter, which I found quite enlightening.

My main takeaways:

  • In today’s pitched media battles between “Enlightenment classical liberalism” and “postmodern identity politics”, we totally forget that a lot of American policy is based on American pragmatism, which is definitely neither an Enlightenment position nor postmodern. Everybody should shut up and read The Metaphysical Club.
  • There has been a social center, with views that are seen as center-left or center-right depending on the political winds, since WWII. The adoption of ethnicity theory into the center was a significant culture accomplishment with a specific history, however ultimately disappointing its legacy has been for anti-racist activists. Any resurgence of scientific racism is a definite backslide.
  • Omi and Winant are convincing about the limits of ethnicity theory in terms of: its dependence on economic “engines of mobility” that allow minorities to take part in economic growth, its failure to recognize the corporeal and ocular aspects of race, and its assumption that assimilation is going to be as appealing to minorities as it is to the white majority.
  • Their arguments about colorblind racism, which are at the end of their book, are going to be doing a lot of work and the value of the new edition of their book, for me at least, really depends on the strength of that theory.

Notes on Racial Formation by Omi and Winant, 2014, Introduction

Beginning to read Omi and Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, Third Edition, 2014. These are notes on the introduction, which outlines the trajectory of their book. This introduction is available on Google Books.

Omi and Winant are sociologists of race and their aim is to provide a coherent theory of race and racism, particularly as a United States phenomenon, and then to tell a history of race in the United States. One of their contentions is that race is a social construct and therefore varies over time. This means, in principle, that racial categories are actionable, and much of their analysis is about how anti-racist and racial reaction movements have transformed the politics and construction of race over the course of U.S. history. On the other hand, much of their work points to the persistence of racial categories despite the categorical changes.

N.B. Sep. 17 2020 – These informal notes were part of the process of writing “Racial categories in machine learning”, with Bruce Haynes.

Since the Third Edition, in 2014, comes twenty years after the Second Edition, much of the new material in the book addresses specifically what they call colorblind racial hegemony. This is a response to the commentary and question around the significance of Barack Obama’s presidency for race in America. It is interesting reading this in 2018, as in just a few brief years it seems like things have changed significantly. It’s a nice test, then to ask to what extent their theory explains what happened next.

Here is, broadly speaking, what is going on in their book based on the introduction.

First, they discuss prior theories of race they can find in earlier scholarship. They acknowledge that these are interesting lenses but believe they are ultimately reductionist. They will advance their own theory of racial formation in contrast with these. In the background of this section but dismissed outright is the “scientific” racism and religious theories of race that were prevalent before World War II and were used to legitimize what Omi and Winant call racial domination (this has specific meaning for them). Alternative theories of race that Omi and Winant appear to see as constructive contributions to racial theory include:

  • Race as ethnicity. As an alternative to scientific racism, post WWII thinkers advanced the idea of racial categories as reducing to ethnic categories, which were more granular social units based on shared and to some extent voluntary culture. This conception of race could be used for conflicting political agendas, including both pluralism and assimilation.
  • Race as class. The theory attempted to us economic theories–including both Marxist and market-based analysis–to explain race. Omi and Winant think this–especially the Marxist theory–was a productive lens but ultimate a reductive one. Race cannot be subsumed to class.
  • Race as nationality. Race has been used as the basis for national projects, and is tied up with the idea of “peoplehood”. In colonial projects especially, race and nationality are used both to motivate subjugation of a foreign people, and is also used in resistance movements to resist conquest.

It is interesting that these theories of race are ambiguous in their political import. Omi and Winant do a good job of showing how multi-dimensional race really is. Ultimately they reject all these theories and propose their own, racial formation theory. I have not read their chapter on it yet, so all I know is that: (a) they don’t shy away from the elephant in the room, which is that there is a distinctively ‘ocular’ component to race–people look different from each other in ways that are hereditary and have been used for political purposes, (b) they maintain that despite this biological aspect of race, the social phenomenon of race is a social construct and primarily one of political projects and interpretations, and (c) race is formed by a combination of action both at the representational level (depicting people in one way or another) and at the institutional level, with the latter determining real resource allocation and the former providing a rationalization for it.

Complete grokking of the racial formation picture is difficult, perhaps. This may be why instead of having a mainstream understanding of racial formation theory, we get reductive and ideological concepts of race active in politics. The latter part of Omi and Winant’s book is their historical account of the “trajectory” of racial politics in the United States, which they see in terms of a pendulum between anti-racist action (with feminist, etc., allies) and “racial reaction”–right-wing movements that subvert the ideas used by the anti-racists and spin them around into a backlash.

Omi and Winant describe three stages of racial politics in United States history:

  • Racial domination. Slavery and Jim Crow before WWII, based on religious and (now discredited, pseudo-)scientific theories of racial difference.
  • Racial hegemony. (Nod to Gramsci) Post-WWII race relations as theories of race-as-ethnicity open up egalitarian ideals. Opens way for Civil Rights movement.
  • Colorblind racism. A phase where the official ideology denies the significance of race in society while institutions continue to reinforce racial differences in a pernicious way. Necessarily tied up with neoliberalism, in Omi and Winant’s view.

The question of why colorblind racism is a form of racism is a subtle one. Omi and Winant do address this question head on, and I am in particular looking forward to their articulation of the point. Their analysis was done during the Obama presidency, which did seem to move the needle on race in a way that we are still seeing the repercussions of today. I’m interested in comparing their analysis with that of Fraser and Gilman. There seem to be some productive alignments and tensions there.