The very notion of a racialized social system may suggest that this approach in CRT is at least partially rooted in the structural functionalist theories of ‘social systems’ that dominated social theory for a period in the twentieth century.1
However, while using the language of ‘systems’ popularized through such structural functionalists, the racialized social system approach’s genesis can be located more in classical theories of structural racism
. Indeed, when we think of scholars such as Oliver Cox – writing when theories of social systems were in the ascendence – their theories of the racial system
are far more influential in CRT than any abstract social theory.
The link between Cox’s theory of structural racism, constructed in the mid-twentieth century, and the contemporary racialized social system approach goes beyond the fact that they both invoke the concept of a ‘social system’. At the heart of both approaches is a desire to provide an understanding of racism as being ‘more than prejudice’, and to therefore direct social scientists towards the study of the social arrangements that are deliberately constructed to reproduce racial inequality. As Cox (1959: 321) summarized, the dominant understanding of racism was ‘likely to be an accumulation of an erratic pattern of verbalizations cut free from any on-going social system’. In opposition to this individualized notion of racism, Cox (1944: 452; emphasis added) instead proposes that:
Within such an approach as that outlined by Cox, we see clearly that the very notion of ‘race’ itself – in terms of what we think race signifies – is a by-product of a total social system. Within such a reality, the only way to get rid of these ideas around race, and the effects of racialization, is therefore to completely overthrow the social system. This is the ethos embodied in Cox’s (1959: xxxviii; emphasis added) claim that the ‘“master race” ideology and fascism, however, are social attributes of a particular social system […] The master-race idea and fascism can be purged from the social system only by a change in the system itself.’
This view of race – whereby race is a product and legitimized force of racism – is shared by the racialized social system approach. As Bonilla-Silva (2015: 73) clarifies, race ought to be understood as an ‘epiphenomenon of a system of racial domination’. Rather than searching for an essentialist conception of race as a static ‘thing’, therefore, scholars such as Cox and Bonilla-Silva have instead focused on the social practices, arrangements and processes that produce and reproduce race and racial inequality. For Cox, this pushed him toward an analysis of the racial system; for Bonilla-Silva, this pushed him towards the study of the racialized social system.
Defining the racialized social system: from ‘the state’ to ‘the structure’
When Bonilla-Silva (1997) sketched out the racialized social system approach, he was attempting not to analyse a system within society, but to analyse society in its totality. As Bonilla-Silva (1997: 469; emphasis added) stated, racialized social systems refer to ‘societies in which economic, political, social, and ideological levels are partially structured by the placement of actors in racial categories or races’. In a similar spirit, Bonilla-Silva (1997: 474; emphasis added) claims that ‘racialized social systems are societies that allocate differential economic, political, social, and even psychological rewards to groups along racial lines; lines that are socially constructed. After a society becomes racialized, a set of social relations and practices based on racial distinctions develops at all societal levels.’
I do not see it to be too beneficial to simply have a list of how such racial structuring works across various racialized social systems. It is sufficient to say that through this approach, when we are talking about ‘racism’ we are not simply talking about bigoted politicians, prejudiced teachers or ‘bad apples’ in the police force; we are instead talking about dynamics such as (to name a few) the fact that Black and Brown Brits are disproportionately represented in poverty and underemployment,2
that people of colour in the US are disproportionately exposed to air pollution,3
that lighter skin still carries a higher symbolic and economic wage in countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia,4
or that indigenous people in New Zealand are subject to disproportionate incarceration and education exclusion.5
The racialized social system approach, therefore, breaks free from the view that ‘race’ only influences specific areas of society, and instead argues that it influences the totality of society’s structure. In this ‘omnipresent’ approach to racialization, the racialized social system approach therefore differs both from other iterations of CRT and from other sociological theories of racism.
Earlier iterations of CRT, as highlighted in the previous chapter, very much focused their attention on specific institutions within the social structure – particularly the education and legal systems. By contrast, within the racialized social system approach, the education and legal systems are, precisely, just that: two organizations within a larger set of racialized social relations. The study of these organizations is essential for understanding racial inequality, but the racialized social system approach reminds us that at the end of the day, these are just two organizations, closely aligned with the actions of the state (if not fully within the state’s remit), through which larger schemes of racial practices, ideologies, representations and grammars are articulated. Earlier CRT may have been able to show how, for instance, many inner-city schools remained racially segregated post-Brown v. Board of Education because of phenomena like white flight to the suburbs, and how the legal definition of discrimination allowed for such segregation to be admissible; but only analysing the education or legal system does not necessarily explain why whites wanted to flee to the suburbs, why whites constructed and reproduced a whole interaction order based on diminishing face-to-face contact with other racialized people, and why they constructed the racial ideologies they did to naturalize this inequality as simply the way things are. In order to answer such questions, the racialized social system approach therefore incorporates, but also goes beyond, the focus on largely state-sponsored institutions.
Indeed, in turning away from the state as a primary locus of analysis, the racialized social system approach also distances itself from other sociological theories of race which do
centre the state in their analysis – such as racial formation theory. Popularized by Omi and Winant’s (2015) prodigious scholarship, racial formation theory analyses the practices of the racial state, which these scholars declare plays ‘a crucial part in racialization, the extension of racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice or group’ (Omi and Winant 2015: 142). In their analysis of the racial state, Omi and Winant thus write that the racial state is ‘increasingly the preeminent site of racial conflict’, whereby
the state both secures and maintains the racial equilibrium.6
Drawing on the work of Gramsci, Omi and Winant thus conceptualize the US racial state as moving from a period of racial dictatorship to a period of racial democracy, where the state now maintains hegemonic power over racialized minorities through absorbing, and consequently in...