Politics

American Racism: Is There Really No Way Out?

Racism

Aimed at “disrupting and reorganizing” the discourse in which racism is theorized and debated, Michael Omi and Howard Winant provide a detailed analysis of the ways America constructed race and then race constructed America. Labeling race as a master category that has been instrumental in creating patterns of inequality, marginalization, and difference, the authors focus their analysis on the social construction of race and uses the term “racial project” to explain how ideological views of race are translated into practical realities pertaining to both oppression and resistance, individualistic and collective: “stop and frisk” or march for Trayvon Martin are examples of racial projects. All racial projects, as explained by Omi and Winant, “attempt to reproduce, extend, subvert, or directly challenge that system”.  As they go on, our simple understanding of race from everyday life is a product of racial projects: we identify a person by first by his or her color/race and then by gender and then expect him or her to act out his or her racial identies: phenotype and performativity must match up. Stereotyping is thus the ultimate product of racial projects. Omi and Winant’s view of racial project and its all-pervasiveness echoes the concept of Ideological Apparatus by Louis Althusser. However, Omi and Winant’s define racism as “constructed and transformed socio-historically through the cumulative convergence and conflicts of racial projects that reciprocally structure and signify race.” Racial projects can be both racist and/or anti-racist if those reproduce and sustain discrimination and domination or not.

Despite the somewhat popular assumption that America is colorblind, a little historical sense tells us that this country is constitutionally race conscious, and that race functions as a fundamental determinant factor when one’s political, social, economic, and other rights are concerned. Racial ranking—with Indians below the Whites, and Blacks below everybody else—persists even today in an unquestioned and unchallenged manner. In the words of the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, in the United States“the country where liberty is a statue,” the trope of equality is frequently invoked to justify blatant inequality and injustice. Although the radical movement of the 1960s was killed with Martin Luther King, the specter of it was to be contained to block the fight for equality especially by people of African descent. Despite these efforts to thwart the movement, people are now much aware of social inequalities, and as a result “the old varieties of established racism and white supremacy have officially been discredited.”  The problem is the state still uses race to control politics and people. Omi and Winant’s objective is to “trace how ideologies of race have shifted over the past 50 years.” Paradigmatic approaches to race, based on ethnicity, class, and nation”reveals that classifying a racial issue into one category is particularly difficult as it reduces race specifically to that category alone. Despite the pluralist vision of incorporating the non-Europeans as predicted/expected by the ethnicity theory of assimilation, it has been rejected by the radical movements of the 60s, movements that demanded broad political and economic transformations. Ethnicity theorists now adhered to color-blind policies and advocated individualism, not “groupism”.

Omi and Winant call the process of race making and the ways race create and control the social order as “racial formation”. Dividing it into racialization and racial projects, Omi and Winant explain corporeal dimensions of race manifested through phenotypical differences. However, “racial projects” emerge as the dominant aspect of Omi and Winant’s theorizing on racial formation that criticizes assimilationist and cultural pluralist approaches to racial problems. It also locates the emergence of nation and class based groups like Black Panther Party and League of Revolutionary Black Workers that would find racism everywhere and demand a total restructuring of the social order.

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About the author

Sayeed Noman

Sayeed Noman is a Fulbright scholar and an adjunct professor at Temple University. His PhD dissertation focuses on Afrocentricity, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. His interest ranges from political to economic and cultural issues.

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