Racial formation theory


Racial formation theory

Racial Formation Theory is an analytical tool, developed by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, which is used to look at race as a socially constructed identity, where the content and importance of racial categories is determined by social, economic, and political forces [Michael Omi, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986), p.61] . Unlike other traditional race theories, “In [Omi and Winant’s] view, racial meanings pervade US society, extending from the shaping of individual racial identities to the structuring of collective political action on the terrain of the state” [Michael Omi, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986), p.66] . Instead of claiming race as something that is concrete-- where the person’s biology and upbringing is what shapes your racial identity, Omi and Winant suggests that race is something that is fluid, where “the racial order is organized and enforced by the continuity and reciprocity between micro-level and macro-level of social relations” [Michael Omi, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986), p.67] .

The Micro-level social relations refer to “the ways in which we understand ourselves and interact with others, the structuring of our practical activity in work and family, as citizens and as thinkers” [Michael Omi, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986), p.66-67] , basically, a person’s individual interactions with other people.

The Macro-level social relations refer to the social structures and common ideologies. Where the social structures include organizations like businesses, the media and the government, and the common ideologies include cultural and stereotypical beliefs on race, class, sexuality and gender.

Omi and Winant also believe that “race [is] an unstable and ‘de-centered’ complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle” [Michael Omi, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986), p.68] . It is because of this, people are able to constantly contest the definition of race both in the micro- and the macro-level.

Race as a Social Concept

In order to delve further into the topic of racial formation it is important to explore the question of what race is. Racial formation theory is a framework with the objective of deconstructing race as it exists today in the United States. To do this they first explore the historical development of race as a dynamic and fluid social construct. This is in contrast to dominant discourses which would suggest that race is a statistic concept based on physical criteria that has always existed in the same way which it does today.

In their book Racial Formation in the United States race is described as a relatively recent phenomenon (58). It is argued that the concept of race developed gradually was created to justify and explain inequality and genocide that is characteristic of European colonization.

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 distinguished European – 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 while others did not. Race, and the interpretation of racial differences, was a central factor in that worldview. This led to the biological essentialist framework. In this framework White European Americans were viewed as being born inherently superior. Religious debates also flared, -“Arguments took place over creation itself, as theories of polygenesis questioned whether God had made only one species of humanity (“monogenesis”).” (58) There was also a scientific preoccupation with the idea of race. Throughout the 19th and 20th century in particular some of the most respected scientists of the time took up the question of racial superiority. Many of them concluded that White Europeans were in fact superior based on studies on anything from cranial capacity to social Darwinism. This scientific debate was not however a purely academic one. It was a central icon of public fascination, often in the popular magazines of the time. Even today scientists are still working on finding a genetic basis for racial categorization. None of these efforts has been successful. So then what is left to define race if not physical attributes? Racial formation examines race as a dynamic social construct with inherent structural barriers, ideologies, and individual actions, whereas the biological essentialist blames individual deficiency for racial marginalization and oppression.

Racial formation is also a micro-level process. Becoming a citizen of this society is the process of learning to see race – that is, to ascribe social meanings and qualities to otherwise meaningless biological features. And in turn, race consciousness figures centrally in the building of a collective body of knowledge without which we could not make sense of the world around us – a body of knowledge that Omi and Winant call ‘racial common sense.’ That describes the associations we make between individual characteristics, preferences, behaviors, and attitudes and a particular physical appearance or perceived group membership [Michael Omi, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986), p.60] . Those expectations will guide all our daily interactions [Michael Omi, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986), p.59] . Individuals that do not perform according to our racial expectations disrupt this micro-level process. Omi and Winant provide several illustrative examples; it is

“The black banker harassed by police while walking in casual clothes through his own well-off neighborhood, the Latino or white kid rapping in perfect Afro patois, the unending faux pas committed by whites who assume that the non-whites they encounter are servants or tradespeople, the belief that non-white colleagues are less qualified persons hired to fulfill affirmative action guidelines….” [Michael Omi, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986), p.59] .

Our immediate reactions when we encounter a person that does not racially perform betray our “preconceived notions of a racialized social structure” [Michael Omi, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986), p.59] . There are many racial projects dispersed throughout society that “mediate between discursive or representational means in which race is identified and signified on the one hand, and the institutional and organizational forms in which is it routinized and standardized on the other” [Michael Omi, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986), p.60] .

References

ee also

*Sociology
*Michael Omi
*Howard Winant
*Ethnicity theory


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