Racial Formation in the United States
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Racial Formation in the United States

Michael Omi, Howard Winant

  1. 330 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Racial Formation in the United States

Michael Omi, Howard Winant

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About This Book

Twenty years since the publication of the Second Edition and more than thirty years since the publication of the original book, Racial Formation in the United States now arrives with each chapter radically revised and rewritten by authors Michael Omi and Howard Winant, but the overall purpose and vision of this classic remains the same: Omi and Winant provide an account of how concepts of race are created and transformed, how they become the focus of political conflict, and how they come to shape and permeate both identities and institutions. The steady journey of the U.S. toward a majority nonwhite population, the ongoing evisceration of the political legacy of the early post-World War II civil rights movement, the initiation of the 'war on terror' with its attendant Islamophobia, the rise of a mass immigrants rights movement, the formulation of race/class/gender 'intersectionality' theories, and the election and reelection of a black President of the United States are some of the many new racial conditions Racial Formation now covers.

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Part I
Paradigms of Race: Ethnicity, Class, and Nation

Chapter 1


In this chapter we examine the historical and theoretical trajectory of ethnicity- based theories of race from their early years as an insurgent and occasionally politically engaged set of arguments for assimilation, cultural pluralism, inclusion, and democracy, through their ascent to dominance in the mid- 20th century, to their ongoing decline and fall in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Throughout, we frame ethnicity theory as a paradigm: It is an approach to race that affords primacy to cultural variables. Ethnicity theory was in fact the first mainstream social scientific account of race to understand it as a socially constructed phenomenon.
Theoretically, the ethnicity paradigm represents the mainstream of the modern sociology of race. The paradigm has passed through three major stages: a pre- 1940s stage in which the emergent paradigm challenged the biologistic (and at least implicitly racist) view of race which was dominant at that time; a 1940s to late 1960s stage during which the paradigm operated as the left/liberal “common sense” approach to race, and during which two recurrent themes— assimilationism and cultural pluralism— were prominent; and a post- 1960s stage, in which ethnicity- oriented accounts of race focused on defending conservative (or “neoconservative”) individualism against what was perceived as the radical assault of group rights.
Ethnicity theories arose in the early years of the 20th century, in anthropology and sociology most centrally, but elsewhere as well.1 In the United States, the development of the ethnicity concept was largely driven by massive European immigration around the turn of the 20th century. The millions of new European immigrants were whites “of a different color” (Jacobson 1999). Their identity and social status needed to be assigned. Their relationships to their new country and to their “mother country” needed to be understood (Thomas and Znaniecki 1984 [1918–1920]).
Yet ethnicity theory has also been losing its grip. In response to the racial conflicts of the 1960s, ethnicity- based approaches to race abandoned their earlier progressivism, opting for neoconservatism, a center- right racial ideology that key ethnicity theorists helped to found (Glazer and Moynihan 1970 [1963]; Murray 1994 [1984]; Thernstrom and Thernstrom, 1999; Wilson and Herrnstein 1985). Since the early 1970s, neoconservative approaches to race have fueled the racial reaction in the United States, operating in an effective although at times uneasy alliance with the new right. Under the banner of “colorblindness” this alliance has attempted to forge a new “post- racial” hegemony, a new “common sense.” The contemporary United States is not only “post- racial” in this account, but also “post- civil rights.” In a colorblind society, it is claimed, racial inequality, racial politics, and race- consciousness itself would be greatly diminished in importance, and indeed relegated to the benighted past when discrimination and prejudice ruled.
To treat race as a matter of ethnicity is to understand it in terms of culture. It is to undermine the significance of corporeal markers of identity and difference, and even to downplay questions of descent, kinship, and ancestry— the most fundamental demarcations in anthropology. Because cultural orientations are somewhat flexible— one can speak a different language, repudiate a previous religious adherence or convert to another, adopt a new “lifestyle,” switch cuisine, learn new dances— ethnicity theories of race tend to regard racial status as more voluntary and consequently less imposed, less “ascribed.”
There are immense and obvious problems with this approach, too many for us adequately to address here. Just to pick one item: The assignment of group identity on the basis of physical appearance— the corporeal— has served for half a millennium as a practical tool in the organization of human hierarchy and domination, and as a tool of resistance as well. Who is a native, and who a settler? Who is a slave, and who a citizen? These and other distinctions, while sometimes made inaccurately on the basis of “ocular” criteria, have nevertheless generally facilitated imperial rule, “primitive accumulation,” mass labor recruitment, and all the main practices of human subjection on view throughout the modern world. It is not so easy to be “colorblind,” after all.
Guided by ethnicity theory, Americans have come to view race as a cultural phenomenon. Racial identity is often seen as parallel to other forms of status- based group identity, such as that of “hyphenated American” groups (Italian- Americans), gendered groups (women), groups identified by sexual orientation (LGBTQ), and religiously identified groups (Catholics, Muslims). In this account race is understood as a fundamentally ethnic (i.e., cultural) matter. It is conceptualized in terms of attitudes and beliefs, religion, language, “lifestyle,” and group identification. In ethnicity- based approaches, the race- concept is thus reduced to something like a preference, something variable and chosen, in the way one’s religion or language is chosen. Racism too is reduced in importance: It is seen as a mere matter of attitudes and beliefs, involving such issues as prejudice, beliefs about others, and individual practices: “I’m not racist; I treat everyone equally.”
There is an undeniable affinity between the concept of race as a cultural phenomenon and such ideas as assimilation, cultural pluralism, diversity, and multiculturalism. The connection is commonly made between ethnicity theories of race and the democratic ideals with which the United States has always identified itself, however much these ideals were (dis)honored in reality. You see, “we” may not be a perfect democracy, we may not be a fully equal society, but at least we believe in the full inclusion of all, “without regard for race, creed, or color.” Sometimes in U.S. history such professions of inclusiveness have appeared quite radical, quite subversive. At other moments, they seem to liquidate racial difference and thus freedom and democracy, to deny deep historical injustice, and to insist on universalizing the dominant— white— culture. Indeed, sometimes these concepts are doing both simultaneously: The offer of inclusion may be a Faustian bargain, in which one (or even a group) achieves acceptance at the price of deracination. In other words, it may sometimes be an offer you can’t refuse, to quote Mario Puzo. Du Bois wrote in 1960, at age 92, when the civil rights movement was on the rise in the United States:
[W]hat we must now ask ourselves is when we become equal American citizens what will be our aims and ideals and what we will have to do with selecting these aims and ideals. Are we to assume that we will simply adopt the ideals of Americans and become what they are or want to be and that we will have in this process no ideals of our own?
That would mean that we would cease to be Negroes as such and become white in action if not completely in color. We would take on the culture of white Americans doing as they do and thinking as they think.
Manifestly this would not be satisfactory. Physically it would mean that we would be integrated with Americans losing first of all, the physical evidence of color and hair and racial type. We would lose our memory of Negro history and of those racial peculiarities which have long been associated with the Negro. We would cease to acknowledge any greater tie with Africa than with England or Germany. We would not try to develop Negro music and Art and Literature as distinctive and different, but allow them to be further degraded as is the case now. We would always, if possible, marry lighter- hued people so as to have children who are not identified with the Negro race, and thus solve our racial problem in America by committing race suicide….
(Du Bois 1973 [1960], 149–150)
Ethnicity theories of race grew out of reaction and accommodation to two fundamental features of U.S. racial dynamics: biologistic understandings of race, and Puritanism, the founding religious/political orientation of the White Anglo- Saxon Protestant (and actually Calvinist) settlers of North America.
The ethnicity- based paradigm arose in the early 20th century as an explicit challenge to the prevailing racial views of the period. The then- prevalent biologistic paradigm continued to explain racial inferiority as part of a natural order of human-kind. Whites were considered the superior race; white skin was the norm, the most advanced form of the human body. Other nonwhite corporeal features, such as dark skin color, nappy hair, or variations in eye shape, had to be explained in respect to the white norm. Religious doctrine had long been employed for this purpose. Since the early days of slavery and colonization the “curse of Ham” had been invoked to connect the phenotype of dark skin with God’s displeasure, espcially with black people, but also with others deemed nonwhite (Haynes 2002).
With the development of evolutionary theory— and especially after the 1859 appearance of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, scientific accounts of racial difference became prevalent. Race was equated with distinct hereditary characteristics and linked to the degree of “development” of a group:2 not only its physicality (the “beauty” and even the supposed smell of its members, for example),3 but also its attributed mental and social level (the group’s level of “civilization”), were identified with race.4 Differences in intelligence, temperament, and sexuality (among other traits) were deemed to be racial in character. Racial intermixture was seen as a sin against nature that would lead to the creation of “biological throwbacks.” These were some of the assumptions in Social Darwinist, Spencerist, and eugenicist thinking about race.5
But by the early decades of the 20th century, biologistic accounts of race were losing coherence. Already in the late 19th century racial biology had come in for significant criticism by black scholars, notably Martin Delaney, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Kelly Miller. But the white “mainstream” was quite oblivious to black voices.6 Biological theories of race eventually were attacked by adherents of Progressivism and were also called into question by the work of the Chicago School of sociology. The Progressive attack was led by Horace Kallen, who introduced the concept of cultural pluralism, which was to become a key current of ethnicity theory (Kallen 1915, 1924). The Chicago sociologists were led by Robert E. Park, who had been secretary and publicist for Booker T. Washington, and whose approach embodied the other major current of the ethnicity paradigm, assimilationism.
The Puritan legacy was imparted by the primordial U.S. ethnic group: White Anglo- Saxon Protestants. This group is not often seen through the ethnicity lens, but that is certainly a worthwhile angle on them. Puritanism’s history has been exhaustively examined: It was an orthodox Protestant sect, Calvinist in its orientation, that was in flight from the conformist and repressive pressures of early Reformation England. Quite repressive itself, ferociously patriarchal (Salem anyone?),7 archetypically Protestant- ethic practitioners (Max Weber, can you dig?), and slave- owning as well (Condé 1994), the broad cultural orientation of this early settler community has steadily and continuously organized and influenced North American ideas of identity and belonging in ways that are deeply intertwined with concepts of race. The tendency to apply to racially defined groups key beliefs and values whose origins lie in the settlement of North America by English immigrants— and later European ones— has been discussed extensively (Miller 1956; Dewey 1984 [1930]; Rogin 1996; White 2010).
This militant, authoritarian, Calvinist sect, quite closely related to the Dutch Reformed Church (NHK) of the Afrikaaners, set the basic ethnic pattern in North America. That pattern, insistent upon strict doctrinal adherence, individualism, repression (especially sexual repression), and a sort of primitive communitarianism of the elect, generated many of the components of what we now call “American exceptionalism.”
Baptism was grafted onto this pattern; especially Southern Baptism, a white denomination that split from other Baptist currents in the 1840s over issues of slavery8 and was abandoned by most of its remaining black congregants after the Civil War. The resulting synthesis (or syncresis) was Southern white Protestantism, now a national religious movement.9
The ending of Reconstruction in 1877 signaled the rise of a new southern racial regime. The post- Civil War United States, now a traumatized “republic of suffering” (Faust 2009), shaken by emancipation and threatened by Reconstruction, reconstituted itself by recurring, as far as possible, to its white nationalist fundamentals. In the South, this meant coercive debt peonage, denial of political rights, segregation, and negrophobic terrorism. A major economic downturn in 1873 had deeply depressed wages and heightened unemployment. A national railroad strike in 1877 was defeated after 45 days of armed attacks on workers by national guards, federal troops, and marines. In the West, 1877 also marked the onset of white working- class assaults on communities of Asian descent and the start of a comprehensive program of expulsion, exclusion, and expropriation of Chinese and Japanese (Pfaelzer 2008). That same year, Crazy Horse surrendered (and was promptly murdered) in the Black Hills of South Dakota, marking the approaching end of Indian resistance (with the Nez Perce Long March in 1890) and the “closing of the frontier.”
After 1877 the U.S. colorline started to be inscribed around Europe, rather than through it, chiefly because of the sheer demographic weight of the new immigrants, and also because other racial conflicts drew attention away. These Atlantic immigrants were not WASPs and not considered white: While not black or Asian either, they did possess an intermediate racial status. In the nation’s industrial heartland, immigrant workers were induced to refashion themselves as white and to compete with each other for that coveted status (Roediger 2005). The cultivation of European workers’ desires for inclusion became a political and corporate priority in the turn- of- the- 20th- century United States: It was a powerful antidote to the radicalism and syndicalism that were brewing among these same workers. Ensuring that European immigrants would not be racialized as blacks and Asians had been, guaranteeing that they would not be equated with the (barely) emancipated ex- slaves or the “coolies” who had built the western railroads and cleared the California heartland for agriculture (Saxton 1971; Almaguer 2008 [1994]), effectively renewed the “psychological wage” dynamic that Du Bois had analyzed as a crucial means for cementing the loyalties of working- class whites in the antebellum South (Du Bois 2007 [1935]; see also Morgan 2003 [1975]).
Beginning in the early 20th century, ethnicity theory challenged this politico-religious bloc, basing itself largely on the incorporation of tremendous waves of non- English, and indeed non- Protestant, European immigrants who had inundated the eastern seaboard and Midwest by that time. Joining their millions of Irish immigrant predecessors, Italians, Slavs, Jews, Greeks, and Middle Easterners entered the mix and required that over time they be admitted to whiteness (Brodkin 1998; Jacobson 1999; Guglielmo 2004).
These demographic shifts generated pressing needs for social scientific theory and analysis at the turn of the 20th century. The ethnicity paradigm became the core of that framework: modern, urban, social scientific, progressive and reform- oriented, but decidedly not radical.10
Ethnicity theory’s main empirical reference point in the United States was the study of immigration and the social patterns resulting from it. Two distinct currents emerged: assimilationism and cultural pluralism. Both largely emphasized European, white immigrants, what Horace Kallen called “the Atlantic migration.” While recognizing the presence of blacks and to a lesser degree, that of Asians, writers on ethnicity sought to incorporate those groups’ experiences into the broad ethnic framework: The arrival of “strangers in the land” (Higham 2002 [1955]), the resettlment of “the uprooted” (Handlin 2002 [1951]), and the subsequent management and eventual overcoming of the consequent cultural differences.
Chicago sociologists Robert E. Park and his student Louis Wirth saw the development of ethnic enclaves and what Park called a “mosaic of segregated peoples” as stages in a cycle leading to assimilation. Kallen’s perspective, by contrast, focused on the eventual democratic acceptance of different immigrant- based cultures (Kallen 1915, 1924). The origins of the concepts of “ethnicity” and “ethnic group,” then, lay ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover Page
  2. Half Title page
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Contents
  6. Author Biographies
  7. Preface and Acknowledgments
  8. Introduction: Racial Formation in the United States
  9. Part I Paradigms of Race: Ethnicity, Class, and Nation
  10. Part II Racial Formation
  11. Part III Racial Politics Since World War II
  12. Conclusion: The Contrarieties of Race
  13. Works Cited
  14. Index