Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century

Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520953765
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 392
File size: 524 KB

About the Author

Daniel HoSang is Associate Professor of Political Science and Ethnic Studies at the University of Oregon. His first book, Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California (UC Press), won the James A. Rawley Prize of the Organization of American Historians.

Oneka LaBennett is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University and is the author of She's Mad Real: Popular Culture and West Indian Girls in Brooklyn.

Laura Pulido is Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Among her books is Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles and A People's Guide to Los Angeles, (UC Press).

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Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century

By Daniel Martinez Hosang, Oneka LaBennett, Laura Pulido


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95376-5


Gendering Racial Formation

Priya Kandaswamy

Michael Omi and Howard Winant's Racial Formation in the United States has had a profound effect on the development of the field of ethnic studies. The most important insights of the book—that race is not reducible to ethnicity, class, or nation; that racial categorization shifts and changes over time; and that the state is a preeminent site of racial struggle—have become well-established truths amongst critical race theorists. In staking out the significance and meaning of terms like race, racism, the racial project, and racial formation itself, Omi and Winant developed a vocabulary that enabled discussion of how race comes to be as it is and how race and the meanings associated with it change over time. In addition to delineating the racial formation framework, Omi and Winant's work identified why the study of race and processes of racialization matters. Demonstrating that race was neither an essential fact nor an illusion, they argued that it was best understood as the sedimentation of a vast array of racial projects, as a category produced and reproduced every day at scales ranging from quotidian interactions to macro-level social and political processes. By shifting the question from What is race? to How does race come to be? they emphasized that racial politics happens in the very constitution of race, not just as political struggle between already existing racial groups.

Its influence on ethnic studies notwithstanding, Omi and Winant's work has, however, received far less attention within women's and gender studies. Despite the fact that within the last two decades the field has increasingly recognized the social construction of race as an important component of understanding both women's experiences and gendered structures of power, Racial Formation as a text has still not found a place within women's and gender studies curriculum and scholarship. This is no doubt partly because the neglect of gender and naturalization of sexual difference is a significant shortcoming of the book. However, it may also indicate that, despite the increasing recognition of the importance of thinking about race and gender together, theoretical frameworks that examine the processes by which race and gender are historically produced have not sufficiently engaged each other (Glenn 1999). The critique of the lack of attention to gender in Omi and Winant's work has been part of a more generalized acknowledgement of the tendency of ethnic studies as a field to center men of color in its analysis and of women's studies to center white women. Both of these fields have struggled to sufficiently account for the experiences of women of color and the articulations of race, gender, and other forms of difference. In recent years, "intersectionality" has emerged as a concept that both names this absence and signifies the development of a growing arena of scholarship that theorizes the relationship between race and gender as simultaneous and interacting structures of power.

This essay seeks to put Omi and Winant's theoretical framework of racial formation into conversation with intersectional analysis by highlighting the ways that attention to gender and sexuality might alter the key terms of Omi and Winant's theory, and the ways that Omi and Winant's understanding of processes of racialization might enrich approaches to intersectionality. I suggest that racial formation is fundamentally a gendered and sexualized process and argue that viewing race as unstable, historically produced, and changing in the ways that Omi and Winant demonstrate complicates the meaning of intersectionality. Specifically, I focus on two different aspects of Omi and Winant's theory—the racial project itself (what Omi and Winant term the building block of racial formation) and the trajectory of racial politics (what Omi and Winant call the relationship between the state and social movements). I argue that these two concepts provide important openings through which to elaborate the historical embeddedness of race, gender, sexuality, and class in each other. To illustrate these points, I first place Omi and Winant's work within the context of the development of scholarship on intersectionality and then turn to the specific example of the historical development of the U.S. welfare state, a site where the contradictions of the racialized and gendered state are particularly apparent.

Omi and Winant define race as "a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies" (Omi and Winant 1994, 55). In Omi and Winant's formulation, race is a category grounded not in biological difference but rather in what perceived bodily differences come to mean in the context of particular social struggles. To emphasize this point, Omi and Winant make a telling comparison to gender. In one of the few mentions of gender in the book, they argue, "In contrast to the other major distinction of this type, that of gender, there is no biological basis for distinguishing among human groups along the lines of race" (Omi and Winant 1994, 55). This statement is elaborated in the footnotes with the explanation that gender is a social construct that is grounded in a natural biological division between the sexes. In contrast to race, which has no legitimate biological basis, Omi and Winant write, "the biological division of humans into sexes—two at least, and possibly intermediate ones as well—is not in dispute" (Omi and Winant 1994, 181n4). While Omi and Winant's analysis politicizes the very construction of bodily difference as the basis for racial categories, it relegates gender politics to the struggle over the social meaning of categories firmly anchored in natural sexual difference.

Often cited as evidence of the text's failure to adequately engage feminism, this brief discussion of gender reveals fundamental problems with how Omi and Winant theorize gender and its relationship to race. Although inaccurate, Omi and Winant's understanding of sex and gender in fact mirrors the dominant strand of second wave feminist thinking at the time the book was written. Second wave feminists employed the term gender to challenge biological determinism, not by calling into question the naturalness of sex categories per se, but by shifting the debate to the terrain of the cultural meaning of those categories. In doing so, these feminists took for granted that there was a natural category of women who were the subjects of feminism, an assumption that has since been thoroughly challenged. A number of theorists have pointed out that this approach failed to recognize the ways that biological categorization of people into sexes is a cultural and political practice inseparable from social relations of gender. Rather than seeing sex as the real foundation for a socially constructed gender, these theorists argue that beliefs about gender play a fundamental role in constituting how the naturalized sexed body materializes (Butler 1993; Fausto-Sterling 2000).

Recourse to a natural category of sex has also grounded the category of women in an essential sameness that has enabled the claim that women share a set of common experiences and a common oppression. Feminists of color have critiqued the ways that this idea of "universal sisterhood" has been used to center the concerns of white, economically privileged women and to justify imperialism and racism within feminist movements. They have argued that the category of women is in fact marked by internal differences rather than by any fundamental sameness amongst women. At the time Racial Formation was written, these critiques had not necessarily gained the attention they deserved within predominantly white women's studies programs, but they had already been substantially made. Ironically, in uncritically employing second wave white feminists' theorization of gender, Omi and Winant actually reproduced the marginalization of women of color within both women's studies and ethnic studies.

The deeper problem reflected in Omi and Winant's discussion of gender lies in the framing of the question itself. In the above-quoted statement, Omi and Winant focus on how race is like or not like gender. This positioning of race and gender as potentially analogous represents them as distinct categories to be compared rather than as imbricated categories that are constructed simultaneously and that gain their meaning in and through each other. This is not a problem unique to Omi and Winant's work, but rather one that can be seen within efforts to theorize race within women's and gender studies, as well. As Evelyn Nakano Glenn notes, the fact that much of the scholarship on race and gender developed on independent trajectories has meant not just the exclusion of the experiences of women of color but also a failure to seriously consider the co-constitutive nature of categories such as race, gender, class, and sexuality (Glenn 1999). In relation to Omi and Winant's theory of racial formation, this oversight suggests a difficulty more fundamental than that of simply examining how a socially constructed category of race intersects with an equally socially constructed category of gender. Rather, thinking about race and gender as constituted in and through each other challenges Omi and Winant's assertion that race is an independent and distinct category of analysis that can be thought about in isolation from other kinds of difference. While Omi and Winant's insistence that race is not reducible to anything else is still useful (particularly in revealing the limits of ethnicity theory, economic reductionism, and nation-based ideas of race), in the contemporary moment it seems necessary to recontextualize race in relation to other axes of power and difference. In other words, the irreducibility of race should not be taken to mean that race develops in isolation from other categories of difference. Rather, race must both be seen as an important entity in its own right but also as fundamentally inseparable from the gendered, sexualized, and classed contexts in which ideas of race and racial categories develop.

In recent years, the rubric of intersectionality has emerged as the most prominent sign under which work that attempts to theorize race and gender together happens within ethnic studies and women's and gender studies. The language of intersectionality has its origins in women of color feminism. While this feminist tradition has a long history, texts such as the Combahee River Collective's groundbreaking statement of black feminist politics (Combahee River Collective 1983); Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith's edited collection All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave (Hull, Scott, and Smith 1993); and Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa's edited collection This Bridge Called My Back (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981) articulated a women of color feminist politics out of which the concept of intersectionality in its contemporary incarnation emerged. These texts emphasized the inseparability of race, class, gender, and sexuality, powerfully arguing that social movements that grappled with only one of these forms of inequality effectively negated the existence of women of color. Within academic feminism, critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality just a few years after the first publication of Racial Formation in order to elucidate the very specific ways that women of color were rendered invisible in activist and legal frameworks that centered either on race or gender. In her work on discrimination law, for example, Crenshaw made visible the unrecognizability of black women within a legal structure that required them to frame their claims as individuals who were either black or female (Crenshaw 1991a; see also Crenshaw 1991b).

Despite the profound impact that intersectionality has had upon ethnic studies and women's and gender studies, a number of tensions and difficulties surround the current usage of the term. Within women's and gender studies, the language of intersectionality is often appropriated to mean putting together already existing theoretical frameworks, or including the experiences of those "left out" of white feminist projects, in a way that evades theoretical consideration of race altogether. Thus, grappling with intersectionality is often mistakenly reduced to a call to include the experiences of women of color. Sidestepping the challenge to feminism inherent in the theoretical and political project of intersectionality, this framework of inclusion fails to confront racism for a number of reasons. First, to include women of color into women's and gender studies leaves the core concepts of the field intact and suggests that the lives of women of color are just another area of study that can be analyzed in the same way that white women's experiences have been. Rather than take seriously the theories of race and gender and the feminist politics that emerge when the experiences of women of color are centered, inclusion simply invites women of color into a project that has already been defined in relation to the experiences of white women (Alarcón 1991; A. Smith 2004). Instead of taking intersectionality as a call to fundamentally transform (or abandon) frameworks that cannot grapple with racial difference, inclusion frequently preserves those frameworks as they are by simply adding to them. Second, inclusion often fails to take into account the relationality of different women's experiences and instead repositions white women's experiences as the norm from which experiences of women of color differ. As Elsa Barkley Brown notes, the point is not just that women of color and white women have different experiences but rather that racism is a structure of power in which "white women live the lives they do in large part because women of color live the ones they do" (E. Brown 1992, 298). Finally, including the experiences of women of color does not require the development of theoretical approaches that demonstrate how race is gendered and gender is raced beyond the scale of individual experiences. What emerges from inclusion is a focus on accounting for different identities rather than on critically interrogating the mechanisms of power by which particular identities are produced as such.


Excerpted from Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century by Daniel Martinez Hosang, Oneka LaBennett, Laura Pulido. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Daniel Martinez HoSang and Oneka LaBennett

Part I. Racial Formation Theory Revisited
1. Gendering Racial Formation
Priya Kandaswamy

2. On the Specificities of Racial Formation: Gender and Sexuality in the Historiographies of Race
Roderick A. Ferguson

3. The Transitivity of Race and the Challenge of the Imagination
James Kyung-Jin Lee

4. Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy
Andrea Smith

Part II. Racial Projects and Histories of Racialization
5. The Importance of Being Asian: Growers, the United Farm Workers, and the Rise of Colorblindness
Matthew Garcia

6. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Black): Legal and Cultural Constructions of Race and Nation in Colonial Latin America
Michelle A. McKinley

7. Race, Racialization, and Latino Populations in the United States
Tomás Almaguer

8. Kill the Messengers: Can We Achieve Racial Justice without Mentioning Race?
Gary Delgado

9. The New Racial Preferences: Rethinking Racial Projects
Devon W. Carbado and Cheryl I. Harris

Part III. War and the Racial State
10. "We didn’t kill ’em, we didn’t cut their head off": Abu Ghraib Revisited
Sherene H. Razack

11. The "War on Terror" as Racial Crisis: Homeland Security, Obama, and Racial (Trans)Formations
Nicholas De Genova

12. Racial Formation in an Age of Permanent War
Nikhil Singh

Conclusion. Racial Formation Rules: Continuity, Instability, and Change
Michael Omi and Howard Winant

List of Contributors

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