Racial Formation

Race versus racial formation

Omi and Winant (in Racial Formation in the United States, NY: Routledge, 1986/1989) have a dialectical definition of race and racial formation. A race is a very definite social construction which alters over the course of time due to historical and social pressures.

Omi and Winant's definition of race throws out both the popularized concepts that race is 1) a biological fact and 2) an illusion. Instead, they assert that race is a very real social classification that has both cultural ramifications as well as enforcing a definite social order (54-55).

Racial formation, then, is the process by which these socio-historical designations of race are created and manipulated. Racial formation explains the definition and redefinition of specific race identities. There are, however, two distinct levels upon which racial formation takes place.

  • One, the macro-level, involves the wide reaching influence of social structure and specific political projects launched both by and in opposition to the racial state, such as a court decision (57).
  • Two, the micro-level, involves common sense and every day experiences.
  • The impression of individuals upon perceiving a person's race, although often affected by macro-level processes, has a very definite significance in the definition and perception of racial categories (60).

    The common facilitator of macro and micro level processes is the racial state. The racial state is nothing more than the institution of government, which through laws, court decisions, and other avenues, determines the trajectory of racial relations (78). The racial state typically determines hegemony in racial formations, but can also alter this race hegemony if its trajectory takes it in such a direction. The trajectory of the racial state is "the pattern of conflict and accommodation which takes place over time between racially based social movements and the policies and programs of the state" (78).

    Racial formation would occur similarly to the following sequence of events. The state supports certain laws determining racial hegemony. A popular movement builds in opposition to these laws. The specific project of the movement is opposed to the project of the state, and only when the movement's project gains much support does the state act. Unable to further ignore the racial movement's project, the racial state responds to the crisis in its trajectory by absorbing, insulating, or repressing the movement. The racial state's response to the crisis, by any of the means above, leads to a rearticulation of the racial hegemony so as to appease the movement (usually by a compromise of projects). This rearticulation of racial hegemony is racial formation (86-87).

    The most obvious example of racial formation and conflicting projects with the racial state in America is the Civil Rights Movement. The nonviolent militancy of the black community was sweeping the nation, challenging the racial hegemony and posing a mortal threat to the racial state. To stave off the imposing force of the movement's mass mobilization, the racial state coopted the movement by granting legal recognition of the demands (a rearticulation of the hegemony) without making any real, concrete attempt to equalize the actual conditions and opportunities of racial minorities.

    Similar experiences can be seen in the rearticulation of immigrant to mean "Mexican" and the redefined hegemony of immigration stressing adverse effects. Again racial formation can be seen in the demonization of Native Americans to facilitate expansion and Manifest Destiny as specific projects which won acceptance in the racial state. All of these evidence the existence of a racial state enforcing a race hegemony.

    The purposes of the existence of a racial state can be seen in many ways.

  • First, the racial state mediates competing interests, such as the opposed interests of plantation owners in the south and industrialists in the north during antebellum U.S.
  • Two, the racial state controls the subordinate population through education or lack of education as well as the existence of the police and gendarmarie.
  • Thirdly, this control of the population by the state provides a cheap labor supply through antilabor policy, immigration policy, and the likes.

    These purposes ultimately lead to the fact that the racial state maintains race ideology or hegemony for these very ends. Thus, the state is intimately involved in the unstable and decentered complex of social meanings which are defined as a race.

Author's name omitted by request

Created by Kathryn Russell
SUNY Cortland - Philosophy
Last modified on 2-18-03