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Racial Formation in the United States (1960-1980) Essay

Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s book, Racial Formation in the United States, identifies race and its importance to “America”. Saying, it “will always be at the center of the American experience” (Pg.6). Challenging both mainstream (ethnicity-oriented) and radical (class-oriented) analyses, Omi and Winant argue that race has been “systematically overlooked” (Pg. 138) as an important factor in understanding American politics and society. They set as their task in construction of “an analytic framework which to view the racial politics of the past three decades” in America (pg.5)

The book is organized in three parts. Part one surveys three perspectives on American race relations: “ethnicity-based theory”, “class-based theory” and “nation-based theory”. Omi and Winant have arguments with each. Ethnicity-based theory is criticized for its tendency to consider race under the rubric ethnicity and thus to overlook the unique experiences of American racial minorities (blacks, Native Americans, Asians). Class-based theory is similarly taken to task for overlooking the power of race in social, economic, and political relations in its concern with economic interest, processes, and cleavages. Finally, nation-based theory is challenged as geographically and historically inappropriate for analyzing the structure of American race relations.

What is needed according to Omi and Winant, is a “racial formation perspective,” one that can deal with race as “an autonomous field of social conflict, political organizations, and cultural/ideological meaning” (p.52). Part two is an elaboration of racial formation perspective. Omi and Winant define “racial formation” as “the process by which social, economic and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meanings” (pg.61).

The racial formation perspective emphasizes the extent to which race is a social and political construction that operates at two levels: the “micro” (individual identity) and the “macro” (collective social structure). The two levels interact to form a racial social movement when individuals (at the micro level) are mobilized in response to political racial injustice (at the macro level). Through racial movements, social and political conceptions of race are “rearticulated,” and a new racial order immerges. Then the new racial order itself becomes a target of reactionary challenges and re-rearticulating.

In part three, Omi and Winant discuss the period since the 1950s in the civil rights movement and its increasingly militant demands for American political reform, continues through the actual body of civil rights legislative and policy changes enacted by American political system, and culminates in the racial reaction of the new Right and the Reagan “revolution.” While they argue for the continued importance of the role of race in American politics, culture, and economics in their conclusion, Omi and Winant make no specific predictions. They sate, in fact, that “the nature of the racial contest the next time around remains open.”

This lack of specificity is not limited to the conclusion, but a lack of thoroughness throughout the book. The result explanation of Racial Formation in the United States is interesting but ultimately not very compelling or a useful book. The authors present their ideas in an engaging manner but fail to provide detailed analysis. We are told that “race has been a key determinant of mass movements, stat policy, and even foreign policy in the United States” (pg.138), yet we are given only the occasional examples as support for these assertions. The authors remind us that “one of the first things we notice about people when we meet them (along with their sex) is their race” (pg. 62). This is not news. To live in American is to know the power of race in society.

In addition to a lack of efficient evidence, the authors’ criticisms and arguments are often inconsistent and unclear. For example, the three literature review chapters in part one are far from encyclopedic, are rather dated, and draw from a very narrow range of the bodies of writing they are supposed to cover. Such incomplete and unconventional citations rise suspicious arising from selectivity combine with confusion arising from inconsistency. After devoting a chapter to a critique of ethnicity-based theory, the authors conclude that “ethnicity theory…comes closet to our concept of ‘racial formation” (pg. 53). Similarity, after spending a chapter outlining uselessness of nation-based theory, the authors cite “Chicago nationalism” (pg. 104-105) as evidence of the primacy and longevity of race in America.

Perhaps most confusing in the whole presentation is Omi and Winant’s insistence that American sociology’s use of the concept of “ethnicity” has blinded us to the importance of “race” in America. Never in the book’s 201 pages do the authors define either term. We are left to conclude that race refers to some bundle of a body of differences, while ethnicity refers to linguistics, religious, or cultural divisions among populations. The implication is that physical (racial) characteristics are more powerful than social or cultural (ethnic) characteristics in shaping inter group relations and ethnic politics.

This implication reveals the authors’ conceptual short sightings resulting from their exclusive focus on America’s narrow expedience. While color constitutes a powerful ethnic boundary in the United Sates, any broad understanding of racial and ethnic relations in America or elsewhere cannot ignore the reality and unpredictability of no grouping of ethnic boundaries, for example, among black Africans in Nigeria, Uganda, or Zaire, or among white Europeans in Northern Ireland, Belgium, or Spain.

Class lectures and discussion expressed many different experiences of Immigrating groups in the U.S. Omi and Winant’s book explore a theory-based approach to understand racial formation, and the development of immigrating individuals and groups. The class was introduced by four “main concepts in immigration”; Uprootedness (Handlin), Transplantation (Bodnar), Assimilation (Higham) and Ethnicity (Conzen). All important components of the immigrating experience, although assimilation is the most important. The ability for an immigrating individual and/or group to assimilate is imperative for future prosperity, which is the consistent intention behind emigrating from original homelands.

Higham’s theory of assimilation ignores original cultures and identities, classifying many specific cultures under one pluralism. Omi and Winant, criticize this phenomenon and suggestion in the Ethnic-based theory. Believing in specific contribution each American minority makes socially, economically and politically. The diversification of cultures and experience is the “continual building on which America was founded” (pg. 32). Constant with the book, there is no suggestion to improve the ignorance of racial and cultural grouping in assimilation and the books theories are left short at criticism.

Despite its conceptual and evidentiary shortcomings, Racial Formation in the United States makes two important contributions: to assert the independent or at least interdependent power of race and ethnicity in society and emphasizes the extent to which ethnicity is a political phenomenon enacted both in social movements and in political policy. The book will be most useful reading for sociologists who adhere to what Omi and Winant identify as class-based theories of ethnicity, that is, that ethnicity is really class disguise.

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