Racial Formation in the United States

From p. 379 in Social Theory Re-Wired 2e

Race is a concept that signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies.This definition of race is at the heart of Omi and Winant’s theory. Race signifies and symbolizes social conflict. Here they are pointing out that the idea of race is always related to larger social conflicts. For example, the idea of race and the sharp delineation of Black from white in the United States emerged as a way to ensure cheap, powerless laborers and to ensure that white indentured servants and laborers did not see their interests as aligned with enslaved Africans. We see this in the contemporary US with debates around immigration that have led to racial profiling of Latino Americans and immigrants. The second part of this definition: “by referring to different types of human bodies” de-naturalizes our emphasis on skin color. We might divide humans in any number of ways (by hair or eye color, for instance, or by height), and skin color is no more natural a method of division than any of these. Yet we give it significance and it comes to symbolize far more than other traits, like height. Although the concept of race invokes seemingly biologically based human characteristics (so-called phenotypes), selection of these particular human features for purposes of racial signification is always and necessarily a social and historical process.

From p. 380 in Social Theory Re-Wired 2e

Racial projects do both the ideological and the practical “work” of making these links and articulating the connection between them. A racial project is simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial identities and meanings, and an effort to organize and distribute resources (economic, political, cultural) along particular racial lines.Racial projects interpret, represent, and/or explain racial meanings. For example, protests erupted in 2014 and 2015 following the killings of young black men at the hands of police officers in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. While police killings have disproportionately harmed young black men for decade, several cases made headlines in the mid-2010s, drawing attention to the treatment of young black males by police. The protests that resulted were attempts to reinterpret the meaning of law enforcement involvement in black communities. Omi and Winant continue this definition with “…and an attempt to organize and distribute resources.” If the killing of these young black men is defined as unfair treatment, then efforts to rectify the discriminatory policies of police departments garner support and resources. Racial projects connect what race means in a particular discursive or ideological practice and the ways in which both social structures and everyday experiences are racially organized, based upon that meaning.

Related Activity

Complete the related activity for Racial Formation in the United States:
"Constructing Race"