on omi & winant’s “racial formation”

Omi and Winant posit that race is a key factor in determining one’s place in the social hierarchy. Moreover, they assert that race is not simply apparent on an individual level in shaping racial identities, but pervasive on an institutional level as well; race is central to the organization of United States political life. To justify these claims, they present the theory of racial formation, accompanied with supporting terms “racialization,” “racial projects,” and “racism.”

Omi & Winant define racialization as the process in which racial meaning is extended to a “previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group” (111). Race is socially constructed and does not have biological legitimacy, but the factors we use to determine race are typically biologically-founded and physical. Thus, racialization is the process that occurs when we associate characteristics or practices to certain racial characteristics. It is the ascription of different phenotypic qualities to differing human bodies. Omi & Winant provide racial profiling as an example of racialization: black and brown bodies have become racialized in that their skin color has come to represent something criminal. A less overt type of racialization is biomedical racialization, a term proposed by sociologist Alondra Nelson, which describes the process in which biomedical knowledge obtained with notable racial difference is perceived as valid scientific research, which then becomes diffused in society, affecting therapeutic practice. This insidious form of racialization can be exemplified through the misdiagnoses of many black men with schizophrenia during and following the rise of the Black Power movement, and the current-day misconception by many (including medical students!) that black people have thicker skin and less sensitive nerve endings, affecting the way in which medical professionals assess and treat their pain.

Next, Omi & Winant present the concept of “racial projects,” which are simultaneously ideological and pragmatic: they are the “interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial identities and meanings, and an effort to organize and distribute resources (economic, political, cultural) along particular racial lines” (125). Thus, racial projects take race and ascribe it with a meaning that sheds light on how it is situated within the larger social structure. Racial projects link structure with signification. Racial projects can either reproduce the dominant racial structure or subvert it, and can be carried out by individuals, groups, or institutions. They simultaneously respond to and reflect the pattern of race that is presented in their society. Examples that are given are restrictive state voting rights laws, community health rights in the ghetto or barrio, cops using the “stop and frisk” method, or even the decision to not wear dreadlocks. The “crack epidemic” in the 80s/90s is an example of a racial project, in that those who were sentenced for possession of crack (usually black) were given much heavier sentences than those who were arrested for possession of cocaine (usually upper-class and white). The demonization of crack in relation to cocaine was founded entirely based on the racial (and socioeconomic) identity of its users, and the heavier sentencing was both a reflection of and reaction to the larger racial structure; the poor and the black are lawless and criminal and should be more feared and more punished than the wealthy and the white. The structure of mass incarceration, thus, was in this way linked to race and socioeconomic status.

Finally, “racism” is defined by Omi & Winant as the creation or reproduction of structures of domination based on racial significations and identities. They distinguish between the reductive interpretation of “racism” as simply racial relations, and the more apt interpretation of “racism” as institutionalized, systemic, and structural. Seeing racism as simply “I hate black people,” for example, is narrow. Instead, racism is apparent in, for example, The Grammys’ unwillingness to give Beyonce (or most other black artists, for that matter) a Grammy for general categories such as “Best Album of the Year.” The snubbing of Beyonce reinforces the structure of white normativity and the idea that to “win” cultural recognition and respect, one must appeal to a white audience.

Omi & Winant provide all these terms and their explanations in order to support their theory of racial formation, which they describe as “the sociohistorical process by which racial identities are created, lived out, transformed, and destroyed” (109). Race is not simply a physical trait or individual identity, but rather, a categorization of a person which in turn affects their political, economic, and cultural treatment from society and the state. These categories do not have fixed implications, and are constantly changing and evolving.

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