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racial%20formations - Racial Formations Michael Omi and...

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Unformatted text preview: Racial Formations Michael Omi and Howard Wincmt In 1982—83, Susie Guillory Phipps unsuccessfully sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records to change her racial classification from black to white. The descen- dant of an eighteenth-century white planter and a black slave, Phipps was desig— nated “black" in her birth certificate in accordance with a 1970 state law which declared anyone with at least one-thirty-second “Negro blood” to be black. The legal battle raised intriguing questions about the concept of race, its meaning in contemporary society, and its use (and abuse) in public policy. Assistant Attorney General Ron Davis defended the law by pointing out that some type of racial clas- sification was necessary to comply with federal record-keeping requirements and to facilitate programs for the prevention of genetic diseases. Phipps’s attorney, Brian Begue, argued that the assignment of racial categories on birth certificates was un- constitutional and that the one-thirty-second designation was inaccurate. He called on a retired Tulane University professor who cited research indicating that most whites have one-twentieth “Negro" ancestry. In the end, Phipps lost. The court up- held a state law which quantified racial identity, and in so doing affirmed the legal- ity of assigning individuals to specific racial groupings,l The Phipps case illustrates the continuing dilemma of defining race and estab- lishing its meaning in institutional life. Today, to assert that variations in human physiognomy are racially based is to enter a constant and intense debate. Scientific interpretations of race have not been alone in sparking heated controversy; reli- gious perspectives have done so as well.2 Most centrally, of course, race has been a matter of political contention. This has been particularly true in the United States, where the concept of race has varied enormously over time without ever leaving the center stage of US history. What Is Race? Race consciousness, and its articulation in theories of race, is largely a modern phenomenon. When European explorers in the New World “discovered” people who looked different than themselves, these “natives" challenged then existing From Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formations in the United States: From the 19603 to the 19805. Copyright © 1986. Reprinted by permission of the authors. 12 l Omi and Winant/Racial Fomiations l3 conceptions of the origins of the human species, and raised disturbing questions as to whether all could be considered in the same “family of man."3 Religious de- bates flared over the attempt to reconcile the Bible with the existence of “racially distinct” people. Arguments took place over creation itself, as theories of polygene- sis questioned whether God had made only one species of humanity (“monogene- sis"). Europeans wondered if the natives of the New World were indeed human beings with redeemable souls. At stake were not only the prospects for conversion, but the types of treatment to be accorded them. The expropriation of property, the denial of political rights, the introduction of slavery and other forms of coercive labor, as well as outright extermination, all presupposed a worldview which distin— guished Europeans—children of God, human beings, etc—from “others.” Such a worldview was needed to explain why some should be “free" and others enslaved, why some had rights to land and property while others did not. Race, and the inter- pretation of racial differences, was a central factor in that worldview. In the colonial epoch science was no less a field of controversy than religion in attempts to comprehend the concept of race and its meaning. Spurred on by the classificatory scheme of living organisms devised by Linnaeus in Systema Naturae. many scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries dedicated themselves to the identification and ranking of variations in humankind. Race was thought of as a biological concept, yet its precise definition was the subject of debates which, as we have noted, continue to rage today. Despite efforts ranging from Dr. Samuel Morton’s studies of cranial capacity4 to contemporary attempts to base racial classifi- cation on shared gene pools,S the concept of race has defied biological definition. . . . Attempts to discern the scientific meaning of race continue to the present day. Although most physical anthropologists and biologists have abandoned the quest for a scientific basis to determine racial categories, controversies have recently flared in the area of genetics and educational psychology. For instance, an essay by Arthur Jensen which argued that hereditary factors shape intelligence not only re- vived the “nature or nurture” controversy, but raised highly volatile questions about racial equality itself.“ Clearly the attempt to establish a biological basis of race has not been swept into the dustbin of history, but is being resurrected in vari- ous scientific arenas. All such attempts seek to remove the concept of race from fundamental social, political, or economic determination. They suggest instead that the truth of race lies in the terrain of innate characteristics, of which skin color and other physical attributes provide only the most obvious, and in some respects niost superficial, indicators. Race as a Sociat Concept The social sciences have come to reject biologistic notions of race in favor of an approach which regards race as a social concept. Beginning in the eighteenth cen— tury, this trend has been slow and uneven, but its direction clear. In the nine— teenth century Max Weber discounted biological explanations for racial conflict 14 I The Social Construction ofDifference: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality and instead highlighted the social and political factors which engendered such conflict.7 The work of pioneering cultural anthropologist Franz Boas was crucial in refuting the scientific racism of the early twentieth century by rejecting the con- nection between race and culture, and the assumption of a continuum of “higher” and “lower" cultural groups. Within the contemporary social science literature, race is assumed to be a variable which is shaped by broader societal forces. Race is indeed a pre-eminently sociohistorical concept. Racial categories and the meaning of race are given concrete expression by the specific social relations and historical context in which they are embedded. Racial meanings have varied tremendously over time and between different societies. In the United States, the black/White color line has historically been rigidly de- fined and enforced. White is seen as a “pure" category. Any racial intermixture makes one “nonwhite.” In the movie Raintree County, Elizabeth Taylor describes the worst of fates to befall whites as “havin’ a little Negra blood in ya’—iust one lit- tle teeny drop and a person’s all Negra."8 This thinking flows from what Marvin Harris has characterized as the principle of hypo-descent: By what ingenious computation is the genetic tracery ofa million years of evolution unraveled and each man {3112] assigned his proper social box? In the United States, the mechanism employed is the rule of hypo-descent. This descent rule requires Americans to believe that anyone who is known to have had a Negro ancestor is a Negro. We admit nothing in between. . . . “Hypo-descent” means affiliation with the subordinate rather than the superordinate group in order to avoid the ambiguity of intermediate identity. . . . The rule of hypo—descent is, therefore, an invention, which we in the United States have made in order to keep biological facts from in— truding into our collective racist fantasies." The Susie Guillory Phipps case merely represents the contemporary expression of this racial logic. By contrast, a striking feature of race relations in the lowland areas of Latin America since the abolition of slavery has been the relative absence of sharply defined racial groupings. No such rigid descent rule characterizes racial identity in many Latin American societies. Brazil, for example, has historically had less rigid conceptions of race, and thus a variety of “intermediate” racial categories exist, Indeed, as Harris notes, “One of the most striking consequences of the Brazilian system of racial identification is that parents and children and even brothers and sisters are frequently accepted as representatives of quite opposite racial types.”m Such a possibility is incomprehensible within the logic of racial categories in the US. To suggest another example: the notion of “passing” takes on new meaning if we compare various American cultures’ means of assigning racial identity. In the United States, individuals who are actually “black" by the logic of hypo—descent have attempted to skirt the discriminatory barriers imposed by law and custom by attempting to “pass" for white.H Ironically, these same individuals would not be able to pass for “black" in many Latin American societies. l OmiandWinant/RacialFormations 15 Consideration of the term “black” illustrates the diversity of racial meanings which can be found among different societies and historically within a given soci— ety. In contemporary British politics the term “black" is used to refer to all non— whites. Interestingly this designation has not arisen through the racist discourse of groups such as the National Front. Rather, in political and cultural movements, Asian as well as Afro~Caribbean youth are adopting the term as an expression of self-identity.12 The wide-ranging meanings of “black” illustrate the manner in which racial categories are shaped politically.l3 The meaning of race is defined and contested throughout society, in both col— lective action and personal practice. In the process, racial categories themselves are formed, transformed, destroyed and re-formed. We use the term racial forma- tion to refer to the process by which social, economic and political forces deter- mine the content and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meanings. Crucial to this formulation is the treatment of race as a central axis of social relations which cannot be subsumed under or re- duced to some broader category or conception. Racial Ideology and Racial Identity The seemingly obvious, “natural" and “common sense" qualities which the exist— ing racial order exhibits themselves testify to the effectiveness of the racial forma- tion process in constructing racial meanings and racial identities. One of the first things we notice about people when we meet them (along with their sex) is their race. We utilize race to provide clues about who a person is. This fact is made painfully obvious when we encounter someone whom we cannot con— veniently racially categorize—someone who is, for example, racially “mixed” or of an ethnic/racial group with which we are not familiar. Such an encounter be- comes a source of discomfort and momentarily a crisis of racial meaning. Without a racial identity, one is in danger of having no identity. Our compass for navigating race relations depends on preconceived notions of what each specific racial group looks like. Comments such as, “Funny, you don’t look black," betray an underlying image of what black should be. We also become disoriented when people do not act “black,” “Latino,” or indeed “white.” The con- tent of such stereotypes reveals a series of unsubstantiated beliefs about who these groups are and what “they" are like.14 In US society, then, a kind of “racial etiquette" exists, a set of interpretative codes and racial meanings which operate in the interactions of daily life. Rules shaped by our perception of race in a comprehensively racial society determine the “presentation of self/’15 distinctions of status, and appropriate modes of con- duct. “Etiquette" is not mere universal adherence to the dominant group’s rules, but a more dynamic combination of these rules with the values and beliefs of sub- ordinated groupings. This racial “subjection” is quintessentially ideological. I6 I The Social Construction ofDifference: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality Everybody learns some combination, some version, of the rules of racial classifica- tion, and of their own racial identity, often without obvious teaching or conscious inculcation. Race becomes “common sense”—a way of comprehending, explain- ing and acting in the world. Racial beliefs operate as an “amateur biology,” a way of explaining the varia- tions in “human nature."16 Differences in skin color and other obvious physical characteristics supposedly provide visible clues to differences lurking underneath. Temperament, sexuality, intelligence, athletic ability, aesthetic preferences and so on are presumed to be fixed and discernible from the palpable mark of race. Such diverse questions as our confidence and trust in others (for example, clerks or sales- people, media figures, neighbors), our sexual preferences and romantic images, our tastes in music, films, dance, or sports, and our very ways of talking, walking, eating and dreaming are ineluctably shaped by notions of race. Skin color “differ- ences" are thought to explain perceived differences in intellectual, physical and artistic temperaments, and to justify distinct treatment of racially identified individ— uals and groups. The continuing persistence of racial ideology suggests that these racial myths and stereotypes cannot be exposed as such in the popular imagination. They are, we think, too essential, too integral, to the maintenance of the US social order. Of course, particular meanings, stereotypes and myths can Change, but the presence of a system of racial meanings and stereotypes, of racial ideology, seems to be a per- manent feature of US culture. Film and television, for example, have been notorious in disseminating images of racial minorities which establish for audiences what people from these groups look like, how they behave, and “who they are.”17 The power of the media lies not only in their ability to reflect the dominant racial ideology, but in their capacity to shape that ideology in the first place. D. W. Griffith's epic Birth ofa Nation, a sympathetic treatment of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction, helped to generate, consolidate and “nationalize” images of blacks which had been more disparate (more regionally specific, for example) prior to the film's ap- pearance.18 In US television, the necessity to define characters in the briefest and most condensed manner has led to the perpetuation of racial caricatures, as racial stereotypes serve as shorthand for scriptwriters, directors and actors, in commer— cials, etc. Television’s tendency to address the ”lowest common denominator" in order to render programs “familiar" to an enormous and diverse audience leads it regularly to assign and reassign racial characteristics to particular groups, both mi— nority and majority. These and innumerable other examples show that we tend to view race as something fixed and immutable—something rooted in “nature." Thus we mask the historical construction of racial categories, the shifting meaning of race, and the crucial role of politics and ideology in shaping race relations. Races do not emerge full-blown. They are the results of diverse historical practices and are con- tinually subject to challenge over their definition and meaning. l Omiand Winant/Racial Formations l7 Racialization: The Historical Development of Race In the United States, the racial category of “black" evolved with the consolida- tion of racial slavery. By the end of the seventeenth century, Africans whose spe— cific identity was Ibo, Yoruba, Fulani, etc. were rendered “black" by an ideology of exploitation based on racial logic—the establishment and mainte- nance of a “color line.” This of course did not occur overnight. A period of in- dentured servitude which was not rooted in racial logic preceded the consolidation of racial slavery. With slavery, however, a racially based under- standing of society was set in motion which resulted in the shaping ofa specific racial identity not only for the slaves but for the European settlers as well. Winthrop Jordan has observed: “From the initially common term Christian, at mid-century there was a marked shift toward the terms English and free. After about 1680, taking the colonies as a whole, a new term of self-identification ap- peared—white.”'9 We employ the term racialization to signify the extension of racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice or group. Racialization is an ideological process, an historically specific one. Racial ide- ology is constructed from pre-existing conceptual (or, if one prefers, “discur- sive”) elements and emerges from the struggles of competing political projects and ideas seeking to articulate similar elements differently. An account of racialization processes that avoids the pitfalls of US ethnic history20 remains to be written. Particularly during the nineteenth century, the category of “white" was subject to challenges brought about by the influx of diverse groups who were not of the same Anglo-Saxon stock as the founding immigrants. In the nineteenth century, political and ideological struggles emerged over the classification of Southern Europeans, the Irish and Jews, among other “non—white" categories.Zl Nativism was only effectively curbed by the institutionalization of a racial order that drew the color line around, rather than within, Europe. By stopping short of racializing immigrants from Europe after the Civil War, and by subsequently allowing their assimilation, the American racial order was reconsolidated in the wake of the tremendous challenge placed before it by the abolition of racial slavery.22 With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, an ef— fective program for limiting the emergent class struggles of the later nineteenth century was forged: the definition of the working class in racial terms—as “white.” This was not accomplished by any legislative decree or capitalist ma— neuvering to divide the working class, but rather by white workers themselves. Many of them were recent immigrants, who organized on racial lines as much as on traditionally defined class lines.23 The Irish on the West Coast, for exam- ple, engaged in vicious anti-Chinese race-baiting and committed many pogrom- type assaults on Chinese in the course of consolidating the trade union movement in California. 18 l The Social Construction ofDifference: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality Thus the very political organization of the working class was in important ways a racial project. The legacy of racial conflicts and arrangements shaped the defini- tion of interests and in turn led to the consolidation of institutional patterns (e.g., segregated unions, dual labor markets, exclusionary legislation) which perpetuated the color line within the working class. Selig Perlman, whose study of the develop— ment of the labor movement is fairly sympathetic to this process, notes that: The political issue after 1877 was racial, not financial, and the weapon was not merely the ballot, but also “direct action"—violence, The anti-Chinese agitation in California, culminating as it did in the Exclusion Law passed by Congress in 1882, was doubtless the most important single factor in the history of American labor, for without it the entire country might have been overrun by Mongolian [sic] labor and the labor movement might have become a conflict of races instead ofone ofclasses.24 More recent economic transformations in the US have also altered interpre- tations of racial identities and meanings. The automation of southern agriculture and the augmented labor demand of the postwar boom transformed blacks from a lar...
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