Grossmont College racism Colorblind & White Like Me documentary Discussion

In 4 paragraphs, answer the following questions.

Have you ever heard anyone (maybe even you) dismiss the existence of racism by using one of the five fallacies? If so, how did the conversation go? What were they discussing, and how did the conversation end?

Analyze the Tim Wise Colorblind Lecture. What are his three beliefs (on racism) that keep society from progressing? Do you agree? Why or why not? Why do you believe Americans love to memorize only some parts of the past?

Also, do a brief review of the White Like Me documentary. Did it expand you understanding of race and power in the United States? If so, how? If not, what are some points Tim Wise failed to recognize?

Matthew Desmond
Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin—Madison
Mustafa Emirbayer
Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin—Madison
When students of race and racism seek direction, they can find no single comprehensive
source that provides them with basic analytical guidance or that offers insights into the
elementary forms of racial classification and domination. We believe the field would
benefit greatly from such a source, and we attempt to offer one here. Synchronizing and
building upon recent theoretical innovations in the area of race, we lend some conceptual
clarification to the nature and dynamics of race and racial domination so that students of
the subjects—especially those seeking a general (if economical) introduction to the vast
field of race studies—can gain basic insight into how race works as well as effective (and
fallacious) ways to think about racial domination. Focusing primarily on the American
context, we begin by defining race and unpacking our definition. We then describe how
our conception of race must be informed by those of ethnicity and nationhood. Next, we
identify five fallacies to avoid when thinking about racism. Finally, we discuss the resilience
of racial domination, concentrating on how all actors in a society gripped by racism
reproduce the conditions of racial domination, as well as on the benefits and drawbacks
of approaches that emphasize intersectionality.
Race, Race Theory, Racial Domination, Inequality, Intersectionality
Synchronizing and building upon recent theoretical innovations in the area of race,
we lend some conceptual clarification to the nature and dynamics of race and racial
domination, providing in a single essay a source through which thinkers—especially
those seeking a general ~if economical! introduction to the vast field of race studies—
can gain basic insight into how race works as well as effective ways to think about
racial domination. Unable to locate a single and concise essay that, standing alone,
summarizes the foundational ideas of a critical sociology of race and racism, we wrote
this article to provide scholars and students with a general orientation or introduction to the study of racial domination. In doing so, we have attempted to lend
Du Bois Review, 6:2 (2009) 335–355.
© 2009 W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research 1742-058X009 $15.00
Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer
analytical clarity to the concept of race, as well as to its relationship with ethnicity
and nationality. Perhaps more important, along with advancing a clear definition of
racial domination, we have identified five fallacies—recurrent in many public debates—
that one should avoid when thinking about racism. Although we believe this paper
will provide guidance for advanced scholars conducting empirical and theoretical
work on race, we have composed it primarily with a broader audience in mind.
You do not come into this world African or European or Asian; rather, this world
comes into you. As literally hundreds of scientists have argued, you are not born with
a race in the same way you are born with fingers, eyes, and hair. Fingers, eyes, and
hair are natural creations, whereas race is a social fabrication ~Duster 2003; Graves
2001!. We define race as a symbolic category, based on phenotype or ancestry and constructed according to specific social and historical contexts, that is misrecognized as a natural
category.1 This definition deserves to be unpacked.
Symbolic Category
A symbolic category belongs to the realm of ideas, meaning-making, and language. It
is something actively created and recreated by human beings rather than pregiven,
needing only to be labeled. Symbolic categories mark differences between grouped
people or things. In doing so, they actually bring those people or things into existence ~Bourdieu 2003!. For example, the term “Native American” is a symbolic
category that encompasses all peoples indigenous to the land that is known, today, as
the United States. But the term “Native American” did not exist before non-Native
Americans came to the Americas. Choctaws, Crows, Iroquois, Hopis, Dakotas, Yakimas, Utes, and dozens of other people belonging to indigenous tribes existed. The
term “Native American” flattens under one homogenizing heading the immensely
different histories, languages, traditional beliefs, and rich cultural practices of these
various tribes. In naming different races, racial categories create different races.2
Such insights into the importance of the symbolic have not always been appreciated. Consider, for example, Oliver Cromwell Cox’s hypothesis “that racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and
nationalism, and that because of the worldwide ramifications of capitalism, all racial
antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist
people, the @W#hite people of Europe and North America” ~1948, p. 322!. Though
few scholars today would agree fully with Cox’s reduction, many continue to advance
structuralist claims, filtering racial conflict through the logic of class conflict ~e.g.,
Reich 1981!, regarding racial formation as a political strategy ~e.g., Marx 1998!, or
concentrating on the legal construction of racial categories ~e.g., Haney-López
1996!.3 Helpful as they are, structuralist accounts often treat race as something given
and accepted—that is, as a “real” label that attaches itself to people ~Bonilla-Silva
1997! or as an imposed category that forms racial identity ~Marx 1998!—and thereby
overlook how actors create, reproduce, and resist systems of racial classification,
dynamics documented in works such as Kimberly DaCosta’s Making Multiracials
~2007!, Thomas Guglielmo’s White on Arrival ~2004!, John Jackson, Jr.’s Harlemworld
~2001!, Robin Sheriff’s Dreaming Equality ~2001!, or John Hartigan, Jr.’s Racial Situations ~1999!. Political and legal racial taxonomies do not necessarily align with
quotidian processes of recognition and identification practiced by classified subjects
What is Racial Domination?
~Loveman 1999!. Since no institution, regardless of its power, monopolizes the
definition of race ~Brubaker and Cooper, 2000!, we must resist assuming an easy
correspondence between “official” categorizations and the practical accomplishments of racial identification.
Phenotype or Ancestry
Race also is based on phenotype or ancestry. A person’s phenotype is her or his
physical appearance and constitution, including skeletal structure, height, hair texture, eye color, and skin tone. A person’s ancestry is her or his family lineage, which
often includes tribal, regional, or national affiliations. The symbolic category of race
organizes people into bounded groupings based on their phenotype, ancestry, or
both. It is difficult to say which matters more, phenotype or ancestry, in determining
racial membership in the United States. In some settings, ancestry trumps phenotype; in others, the opposite is true.
Recent immigrants often are pigeonholed in one of the dominant racial categories because of their phenotype; however, many resist this classification because of
their ancestry. For instance, upon arriving in the United States, many first generation West Indian immigrants, quite familiar with racism against African Americans,
actively resist the label “Black.” Despite their efforts, many are considered African
American because of their dark skin ~that is, they “look” Black to the American eye!.
The children of West African immigrants, many of whom are disconnected from
their parents’ ancestries, more readily accept the label “Black” ~Waters 1999!. And
many individuals with mixed heritage often are treated as though they belonged only
to one “race.”
Some people, by contrast, rely on their phenotype to form a racial identity,
though they are often grouped in another racial category based on their ancestry.
Susie Guillory Phipps, a blond-haired blue-eyed woman who always considered
herself “White,” discovered, upon glancing at her birth certificate while applying for
a passport, that her native state, Louisiana, considered her “Black.” The reason was
that Louisiana grouped people into racial categories according to the “one thirtysecond rule,” a rule that stated that anyone who was one thirty-second Black—
regardless of what they looked like—was legally “Black.” In 1982, Susie Guillory Phipps
sued Louisiana for the right to be White. She lost. The state genealogist discovered
that Phipps was the great-great-great-great-grandchild of a White Alabama plantation owner and his Black mistress and, therefore—although all of Phipps’s other ancestors were White—she was to be considered “Black.” ~This outlandish law was finally
erased from the books in 1983.! In this case, Phipps’s ancestry ~as identified by the
state! was more important in determining her race than her phenotype ~Davis 1991!.
Social and Historical Contexts
Racial taxonomies are bound to their specific social and historical contexts. The
racial categories that exist in America may not exist in other parts of the globe. In
South Africa, racial groups are organized around three dominant categories: White,
Black, and “Coloured.” During apartheid, the Coloured category was designed to
include all “mixed-race” people ~Sparks 2006!. More recently, the Black category has
been expanded to include all groups oppressed under apartheid, not only those of
African heritage but also those of Indian descent and ~as of 2008! Chinese South
Africans. In Brazil, five racial categories are employed in the official census: Branco
~White!, Pardo ~Brown!, Preto ~Black!, Amarelo ~Asian!, and Indígena ~Indigenous!.
Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer
However, in everyday usage, many Brazilians identify themselves and one another
through several other racial terms—including moreno ~other type of brown!, moreno
claro ~light brown!, negro ~another type of black!, and claro ~light!—which have much
more to do with the tint of one’s skin than with one’s ancestry ~Stephens 1999; Telles
2004!. Before racial language was outlawed by the Communist regime, Chinese
racial taxonomies were based first and foremost on blood purity, then on hair, then
odor, then brain mass, then finally—and of least importance—skin color, which,
according to the taxonomy, was divided into no less than ten shades ~Dikötter 1992!.
And in Japan, a group called the Burakamin is considered to be unclean and is
thought to constitute a separate race, although it is impossible to distinguish someone with Burakamin ancestry from the rest of the Japanese population ~Eisenstadt
1998; Searle-Chatterjee and Sharma, 1994!.
Cross-national comparisons, then, reveal that systems of racial classification vary
greatly from one country to the next. Racial categories, therefore, are place-specific,
bound to certain geographic and social contexts. They also are time-specific, changing
between different historical eras. As a historical product, race is quite new. Before the
sixteenth century, race, as we know it today, did not exist. During the Middle Ages,
prejudices were formed and wars waged against “other” people, but those “other”
people were not categorized or understood as people of other races. Instead of the
color line, the primary social division in those times was that between “civilized” and
“uncivilized.” The racial categories so familiar to us only began to calcify around the
beginning of the nineteenth century, a mere two hundred years ago ~Gossett 1965;
Smedley 1999!. In fact, the word, “race,” has a very recent origin; it only obtained its
modern meaning in the late eighteenth century ~Hannaford 1996!.
But racial domination survives by covering its tracks, by erasing its own history.
It encourages us to think of the mystic boundaries separating, say, West from East,
White from Black, Black from Asian, or Asian from Hispanic, as timeless separations, as divisions that have always been and will always be. We would be well
served to remember, with Stuart Hall, that we must grapple with “the historical
specificity of race in the modern world” ~1980, p. 308! to gain an accurate understanding of racial phenomena. In the American context, the “Indian” was invented
within the context of European colonization, as indigenous peoples of the Americas
were lumped together under one rubric to be killed, uprooted, and exploited.
Whiteness and Blackness were invented as antipodes within the context of English,
and later American, slavery. More than any other institution, slavery would dictate
the career of American racism: Blackness became associated with bondage, inferiority, and social death; Whiteness with freedom, superiority, and life. The Mexican
American was invented within the context of the colonization of Mexico. At the end
of the nineteenth century, the Asian American was invented as a response to immigration from the Far East. Whiteness expanded during the early years of the twentieth century as new immigrants from Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe
transformed themselves from “lesser Whites” to, simply, “Whites.” 4 All the while,
White supremacy was legitimated by racial discourses in philosophy, literature, and
science. By the middle of the twentieth century, the racial categories so familiar to
us today were firmly established. Although the second half of the twentieth century
brought great changes in the realm of race—including the rise of the Civil Rights
Movement and the fall of Jim Crow—the racial categories that emerged in America
over the previous 300 years remained, for the most part, unchallenged. Americans,
White and non-White alike, understood themselves as raced, and, by and large,
accepted the dominant racial classification even if they refused to accept the terms
of racial inequality.
What is Racial Domination?
Misrecognized as Natural
The last part of the definition we have been unpacking has to do with a process of
naturalization. This word signifies a metamorphosis of sorts, where something created by humans is mistaken as something dictated by nature. Racial categories are
naturalized when these symbolic groupings—the products of specific historical
contexts—are wrongly conceived as natural and unchangeable. We misrecognize
race as natural when we begin to think that racial cleavages and inequalities can be
explained by pointing to attributes somehow inherent in the race itself ~as if they
were biological! instead of understanding how social powers, economic forces, political institutions, and cultural practices have brought about these divisions.
Naturalized categories are powerful; they are the categories through which we
understand the world around us. Such categories divide the world along otherwise
arbitrary lines and make us believe that there is nothing at all arbitrary about such a
division. What is more, when categories become naturalized, alternative ways of
viewing the world begin to appear more and more impossible. Why, we might ask,
should we only have five main racial groups? Why not ninety-five? Why should we
divide people according to their skin color? Why not base racial divisions according
to foot size, ear shape, teeth color, arm length, or height? Why is ancestry so
important? Why not base our racial categories on regions—North, South, East, and
West? One might find these suggestive questions silly, and, indeed, they are. But they
are no sillier than the idea that people should be sorted into different racial groups
according skin color or blood composition. To twist Bourdieu’s phrase, we might say,
when it comes to race, one never doubts enough ~1998 @1994#, p. 36!.
The system of racial classification at work in America today is not the only
system imaginable, nor is it the only one that has existed in the young life of the
United States. Race is far from fixed; rather, its forms, depending on the social,
economic, political, and cultural pressures of the day, have shifted and fluctuated in
whimsical and drastic ways over time ~Duster 2001!. Indeed, today’s multiracial
movement is challenging America’s dominant racial categories ~which remained
relatively stable during the latter half of the twentieth century! as people of mixed
heritage are refusing to accept as given the state’s racial classification system ~DaCosta
2007!. Race is social through and through. Thus, we can regard race as a well-founded
fiction. It is a fiction because it has no natural bearing, but it is nonetheless well
founded since most people in society provide race with a real existence and divide the
world through this lens.
The categories of ethnicity and nationality are intrinsically bound up with race.
Ethnicity refers to a shared lifestyle informed by cultural, historical, religious, and0or
national affiliations. Nationality is equated with citizenship, membership in a specific
politically delineated territory controlled by a government ~cf. Weber 1946!. Race,
ethnicity, and nationality are overlapping symbolic categories that influence how we
see the world around us, how we view ourselves, and how we divide “us” from
“them.” The categories are mutually reinforcing insofar as each category educates,
upholds, and is informed by the others. This is why these three categories cannot be
understood in isolation from one another ~Loveman 1999!. For example, if someone
identifies as ethnically Norwegian, which, for them, might include a shared lifestyle
composed of Norwegian history and folklore, language, cultural rituals and festivals,
and food, they may also reference a nationality, based in the state of Norway, as well
Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer
as a racial group, White, since nearly all people of Norwegian descent would be
classified as White by American standards. Here, ethnicity is informed by nationality
~past or present! and signifies race.
Ethnicity often carves out distinctions and identities within racial groups. Ten
people can be considered Asian American according to our modern racial taxonomy;
however, those ten people might have parents or grandparents that immigrated to
the United States from ten different countries, including Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, China, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Indonesia, and Laos.
They might speak different languages, uphold different traditions, worship different
deities, enjoy different kinds of food, and go through different experiences. What is
more, many Asian countries have histories of conflict ~such as China and Japan, North
and South Korea!. Accordingly, we cannot assume that a Chinese American and a
Japanese American have similar lifestyles or see the world through a shared vision simply because they are both classified as “Asian” under American racial rubrics.5 Therefore, just as race, ethnicity, and nationality cannot be separated from one another, neither
can all three categories be collapsed into one ~cf. Brubaker et al., 2004!.6
Race and ethnicity ~as well as nationality! are both marked and made.7 They are
marked through America’s racial taxonomy, as well as a global ethnic taxonomy,
which seeks to divide the world into distinct categories. In this case, race and
ethnicity impose themselves on you. They are made through a multiplicity of different practices—gestures, sayings, tastes, ways of walking, religious convictions, opinions, and so forth. In this case, you perform race or ethnicity. Ethnicity is a very fluid,
layered, and situational construct. One might feel very American when voting, very
Irish when celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, very Catholic when attending Easter mass,
very “New Yorker” when riding the subway, and very Northern when visiting a
relative in South Carolina ~Waters 1990!. Race, too, can be performed to varying
degrees. One might act “very Black” when celebrating Kwanza with relatives but
may repress one’s Blackness while in a business meeting with White colleagues. Race
as performance is “predicated on actions, on the things one does in the world, on
how one behaves.” As anthropologist John Jackson, Jr. notes, “You are not Black
because you are ~in essence! Black; you are Black . . . because of how you act—and
not just in terms of one field of behavior ~say, intellectual achievement in school! but
because of how you juggle and combine many differently racialized and class~ed! actions
~walking, talking, laughing, watching a movie, standing, emoting, partying! in an everyday matrix of performative possibilities” ~2001, pp. 171, 188!. Because racial domination attaches to skin color, a dark-skinned person can never completely escape its clutches
simply by acting “not Black.” But that person may choose one saying over another, one
kind of clothing over another, one mode of interaction over another, because she believes
such an action makes her more or less Black ~cf. Johnson 2003!. This is why we claim
that race and ethnicity are ascribed and achieved, both marked and made.
One may create, reproduce, accept, or actively resist imposed systems of racial
classification; one may choose to accentuate one’s ethnicity or racial identity. But in
many cases, one’s choices, one’s racial or ethnic performances, will have little impact
on how one is labeled by others. A person born to Chinese parents but adopted, at
infancy, by a Jamaican American couple might identify as ethnically Jamaican. She
might enjoy Jamaican cuisine, read Jamaican literature, listen to Jamaican music, and
study Jamaican history. However, although her adopted parents may be classified as
racially Black, she would be classified as Asian, her race decided for her ~Conley
2001!. The crucial point is that the degree to which an individual can slip and slide
through multiple ethnic identities depends on the degree to which those identities
are stigmatized. White Americans typically enjoy a high degree of fluidity and
What is Racial Domination?
freedom when self-identifying ethnically. They can choose to give equal weight to all
aspects of their ethnicity or to highlight certain parts while de-emphasizing others.
For instance, the same person could identify as either “half-Italian, quarter-Polish,
quarter-Swiss,” “Polish and Italian,” or just “Italian.” Many people of color do not
enjoy the same degree of choice. Someone whose father is Arab American and whose
mother is Dutch American could not so easily get away with ethnically identifying
only as “Dutch.”
In some instances, non-Whites may perform ethnicity in order to resist certain
racial classifications ~as when African migrants teach their children to speak with an
accent so they might avoid being identified as African Americans!; in other instances,
they might, in an opposite way, attempt to cleanse themselves of all ethnic markers
~be they linguistic, religious, or cultural in nature! to avoid becoming victims of
discrimination or stigmatization. Either way, their efforts may prove futile since
those belonging to dominated racial groups have considerably less ethnic agency
than those belonging to the dominant—and hence normalized—group.8
One reason why race and ethnicity are relatively decoupled for White Americans
but bound tightly together for non-White Americans is found in the history of the
nation’s immigration policies and practices. Until the late nineteenth century, immigration to America was deregulated and encouraged ~with the exception of Chinese
exclusion laws!; however, at the turn of the century, native-born White Americans,
who blamed immigrants for the rise of urban slums, crime, and class conflict, began
calling for immigration restrictions. Popular and political support for restrictions
swelled and resulted in the development of a strict immigration policy, culminating
in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. America’s new immigration law, complete with
national quotas and racial restrictions on citizenship, would fundamentally realign
the country’s racial taxonomy. “The national origins system classified Europeans as
nationalities and assigned quotas in a hierarchy of desirability,” writes historian Mae
Ngai in Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. “@B#ut at
the same time the law deemed all Europeans to be part of a White race, distinct from
those considered to be not @W#hite. Euro-American identities turned both on
ethnicity—that is, a nationality-based cultural identity that is defined as capable of
transformation and assimilation—and on a racial identity defined by @W#hiteness”
~2004, p. 7!. Non-Whites, on the other hand, were either denied entry into the
United States ~as was the case for Asian migrants! or were associated with illegal
immigration through harsh border control policies ~as was the case for Mexicans!.
Indeed, the immigration laws of the 1920s applied the newly formed concept of
“national origin” only to European nations; those classified as members of the
“colored races” were conceived as bereft of a country of origin. The result, Ngai
observes, was that “unlike Euro-Americans, whose ethnic and racial identities became
uncoupled during the 1920s, Asians’ and Mexicans’ ethnic and racial identities remained
conjoined” ~2004, pp. 7–8!.
The history of America’s immigration policy underscores the intimate conception between race, ethnicity, citizenship, and national origin. Racial categories often
are defined and changed by national lawmakers, as citizenship has been extended or
retracted depending on one’s racial ascription. The U.S. justice system has decided
dozens of cases in ways that have solidified certain racial classifications in the law.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, legal cases handed down rulings that
officially recognized Japanese, Chinese, Burmese, Filipinos, Koreans, Native Americans, and mixed-race individuals as “not White.” In 1897, a Texas federal court ruled
that Mexicans were legally “White.” And Indian Americans, Syrians, and Arabians
have been capriciously classified as both “White” and “not White” ~Haney-López
Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer
1996!. Briefly examining how the legal definitions of White and non-White have
changed over the years demonstrates the incredibly unstable and fluid nature of
racial categories. It also shows how our legal system helps to construct race. For
instance, the “prerequisite cases” that determined peoples’ race in order to determine their eligibility for U.S. citizenship resulted in poisonous symbolic consequences. Deemed worthy of citizenship, White people were understood to be
upstanding, law-abiding, moral, and intelligent. Conversely, non-White people, from
whom citizenship was withheld, were thought to be base, criminal, untrustworthy,
and of lesser intelligence. For most of America’s history, courts determined race, and
race determined nationality; thus, nationality can only be understood within the
context of U.S. racial and ethnic conflict ~Loury 2001; Shklar 1991!.9
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center ~2005!, there are hundreds of active
hate groups across the country. These groups are mostly found in the Southern
states—Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina have over forty active groups per state—
but California ranks highest in the nation, housing within its borders fifty-three
groups. For some people, hate groups epitomize what the essence of racism amounts
to: intentional acts of humiliation and hatred. While such acts undoubtedly are racist
in nature, they are but the tip of the iceberg. To define racism only through extreme
groups and their extreme acts is akin to defining weather only through hurricanes.
Hurricanes are certainly a type of weather pattern—a harsh and brutal type—but so
too are mild rainfalls, light breezes, and sunny days. Likewise, racism is much
broader than violence and epithets. It also comes in much quieter, everyday-ordinary
forms ~cf. Essed 1991 @1984# !.
Americans are deeply divided over the legacies and inner workings of racism, and
a large part of this division is due to the fact that many Americans understand racism
in limited or misguided ways ~Alba et al., 2005; Nadeau et al., 1993!. We have
identified five fallacies, recurrent in many public debates ~see, e.g., Harper and
Reskin, 2005; Reskin 1998; Sears et al., 2000!, fallacies one should avoid when
thinking about racism.
~1! Individualistic Fallacy.—Here, racism is assumed to belong to the realm of
ideas and prejudices. Racism is only the collection of nasty thoughts that a “racist
individual” has about another group. Someone operating with this fallacy thinks of
racism as one thinks of a crime and, therefore, divides the world into two types of
people: those guilty of the crime of racism ~“racists”! and those innocent of the crime
~“non-racists”! ~Wacquant 1997!. Crucial to this misconceived notion of racism is
intentionality. “Did I intentionally act racist? Did I cross the street because I was
scared of the Hispanic man walking toward me, or did I cross for no apparent
reason?” Upon answering “no” to the question of intentionality, one assumes one can
classify one’s own actions as “nonracist,” despite the character of those actions, and
go about his or her business as innocent.
This conception of racism simply will not do, for it fails to account for the racism
that is woven into the very fabric of our schools, political institutions, labor markets,
and neighborhoods. Conflating racism with prejudice, as Herbert Blumer ~1958!
pointed out fifty years ago, ignores the more systematic and structural forms of
racism; it looks for racism within individuals and not institutions. Labeling someone
a “racist” shifts our attention from the social surroundings that enforce racial inequalities and miseries to the individual with biases. It also lets the accuser off the
What is Racial Domination?
hook—“He is a racist; I am not”—and treats racism as aberrant and strange, whereas
American racism is rather normal. Furthermore, intentionality is in no way a prerequisite for racism. Racism is often habitual, unintentional, commonplace, polite,
implicit, and well meaning ~Brown et al., 2003!. Thus, racism is located not only in
our intentional thoughts and actions; it also thrives in our unintentional thoughts
and habits, as well as in the social institutions in which we all are embedded ~BonillaSilva 1997; Feagin et al., 2001!.
~2! Legalistic Fallacy.—This fallacy conflates de jure legal progress with de facto
racial progress. One who operates under the legalistic fallacy assumes that abolishing
racist laws ~racism in principle! automatically leads to the abolition of racism writ
large ~racism in practice!. This fallacy will begin to crumble after a few moments of
critical reflection. After all, we would not make the same mistake when it comes
to other criminalized acts: Laws against theft do not mean that one’s car will never
be stolen. By way of tangible illustration, consider Brown v. Board of Education,
the landmark case that abolished de jure segregation in schools. The ruling did
not lead to the abolition of de facto segregation: fifty years later, schools are still
drastically segregated and drastically unequal ~Neckerman 2007; Oaks 2005!. In
fact, some social scientists have documented a nationwide movement of educational resegregation, which has left today’s schools even more segregated than those of 1954
~see Eaton 1994; Harris 2006; Orfield 1993!.
~3! Tokenistic Fallacy.—One guilty of the tokenistic fallacy assumes that the
presence of people of color in influential positions is evidence of the eradication of
racial obstacles. Although it is true that non-Whites have made significant inroads to
seats of political and economic power over the course of the last fifty years, a
disproportionate number remain disadvantaged in these arenas ~Alexander 2006;
Patterson 1997!. Exceptions do not prove the rule. We cannot, in good conscience,
ignore the millions of African Americans living in poverty and, instead, point to
Oprah Winfrey’s millions as evidence for economic equality. Rather, we must explore
how Winfrey’s financial success can coexist with the economic deprivation of millions of Black women. We need to explore, in historian Thomas Holt’s words, how
the “simultaneous idealization of Colin Powell,” or, for that matter, Barack Obama,
“and demonization of blacks as a whole . . . is replicated in much of our everyday
world” ~2000, p. 6!.
Besides, throughout the history of America, one has been able to find at least a
handful of non-White individuals who excelled financially and politically in the teeth
of rampant racial domination. The first Black congressman was not elected after the
Civil Rights Movement but in 1870. Joseph Rainey, a former slave, served four terms
in the House of Representatives. Madame C. J. Walker is accredited as being the first
Black millionaire. Born in 1867, Walker made her fortune inventing hair and beauty
products. Few people would feel comfortable pointing to Rainey’s and Walker’s success as evidence that late nineteenth-century America was a time of racial harmony
and equity. Such tokenistic logic would not be accurate then, and it is not accurate now.
~4! Ahistorical Fallacy.—This fallacy renders history impotent. Thinking hindered by the ahistorical fallacy makes a bold claim: Most U.S. history—namely, the
period of time when this country did not extend basic rights to people of color ~let
alone classify them as fully human!—is inconsequential today. Legacies of slavery
and colonialism, the eradication of millions of Native Americans, forced segregation,
clandestine sterilizations and harmful science experiments, mass disenfranchisement,
race-based exploitation, racist propaganda distributed by the state caricaturing Asians,
Blacks, and Hispanics, racially motivated abuses of all kinds ~sexual, murderous, and
dehumanizing!—all of this, purport those operating under the ahistorical fallacy, are
Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer
too far removed to matter to those living in the here-and-now. This idea is so
erroneous it is difficult to take seriously. Today’s society is directed, constructed, and
molded by—indeed grafted onto—the past ~Ngai 2004; Patterson 1998; Winant
2001!. And race, as we have already seen, is a historical invention.
A “soft version” of the ahistorical fallacy might admit that events in the “recent
past”—such as the time since the Civil Rights Movement or the attacks on September 11—matter while things in the “distant past”—such as slavery or the colonization
of Mexico—have little consequence. But this idea is no less fallacious than the “hard
version,” since many events in America’s “distant past”—especially the enslavement
and murder of millions of Africans—are the most consequential in shaping presentday society. In this vein, consider the question French historian Marc Bloch poses to
us: “But who would dare to say that the understanding of the Protestant or Catholic
Reformation, several centuries removed, is not far more important for a proper grasp
of the world today than a great many other movements of thought or feeling, which
are certainly more recent, yet more ephemeral” ~1953, p. 41!?
~5! Fixed Fallacy.—Those who assume that racism is fixed—that it is immutable,
constant across time and space—partake in the fixed fallacy. Since they take racism to
be something that does not develop at all, those who understand racism through the
fixed fallacy are often led to ask questions such as: “Has racism increased or decreased
in the past decade?” And because practitioners of the fixed fallacy usually take as their
standard definition of racism only the most heinous forms—racial violence, for
example—they confidently conclude that, indeed, things have gotten better.
It is important and useful to trace the career of American racism, analyzing, for
example, how racial attitudes or measures of racial inclusion and exclusion have
changed over time, and many social scientists have developed sophisticated techniques for doing so ~e.g., Almaguer 1994; Bobo 2001; Patterson 1998; Schuman
et al., 1997!. But the question, “Have things gotten better or worse?,” is legitimate
only after we account for the morphing attributes of racism. We cannot quantify
racism like we can quantify, say, birthrates. The nature of “birthrate” does not
fluctuate over time; thus, it makes sense to ask, “Are there more or less births now
than there were fifty years ago?” without bothering to analyze if and how a birthrate
is different today than it was in previous historical moments. American racism, on
the other hand, assumes different forms in different historical moments. Although
race relations today are informed by those of the past, we cannot hold to the belief
that twenty-first-century racism takes on the exact same form as twentieth-century
racism. And we certainly cannot conclude that there is “little or no racism” today
because it does not resemble the racism of the 1950s. ~Modern-day Christianity
looks very different, in nearly every conceivable way, than the Christianity of the
early church. But this does not mean that there is “little or no Christianity” today.!
So, before we ask, “Have things gotten better or worse?,” we should ponder the
essence of racism today, noting how it differs from racism experienced by those living
in our parents’ or grandparents’ generation. And we should ask, further, to quote
Holt again, “What enables racism to reproduce itself after the historical conditions
that initially gave it life have disappeared” ~2000, p. 20!?
We have spent a significant amount of time talking about what racial domination is
not but have yet to spell out what it is. We can delineate two specific manifestations
of racial domination: institutional racism and interpersonal racism.10 Institutional
What is Racial Domination?
racism is systemic White domination of people of color, embedded and operating in
corporations, universities, legal systems, political bodies, cultural life, and other
social collectives. The word “domination” reminds us that institutional racism is a
type of power that encompasses the symbolic power to classify one group of people as
“normal” and other groups of people as “abnormal”; the political power to withhold
basic rights from people of color and marshal the full power of the state to enforce
segregation and inequality; the social power to deny people of color full inclusion or
membership in associational life; and the economic power that privileges Whites in
terms of job placement, advancement, wealth, and property accumulation.
Informed by centuries of racial domination, institutional racism withholds from
people of color opportunities, privileges, and rights that many Whites enjoy. Social
scientists have amassed a significant amount of evidence documenting institutional
racism, evidence that demonstrates how White people—strictly because of their
Whiteness—reap considerable advantages when buying and selling a house, choosing a neighborhood in which to live, getting a job and moving up the corporate
ladder, securing a first-class education, and seeking medical care ~Massey 2007;
Quillian 2006!. That Whites accumulate more property and earn more income than
members of minority populations, possess immeasurably more political power, and
enjoy greater access to the country’s cultural, social, medical, legal, and economic
resources are well documented facts ~e.g., Oliver and Shapiro, 1997; Pager 2003;
Western 2006!. While Whites have accumulated many opportunities due to racial
domination, people of color have suffered from disaccumulation ~Brown et al.,
2003!. Thus, if we talk about “Hispanic poverty,” then we must also talk about White
affluence; if we speak of “Black unemployment,” then we must also keep in mind
White employment; and if we ponder public policies for people of color, then we
must also critically examine the public policies that directly benefit White people.11
Below the level of institutions—yet directly informed by their workings—we
find interpersonal racism. This is racial domination manifest in everyday interactions
and practices. Interpersonal racism can be overt; however, most of the time, interpersonal racism is quite covert: it is found in the habitual, commonsensical, and
ordinary practices of our lives. Our racist attitudes, as Lillian Smith remarked in
Killers of the Dream, easily “slip from the conscious mind deep into the muscles”
~1994 @1949#, p. 96!. Since we are disposed to a world structured by racial domination, we develop racialized dispositions—some conscious, many more unconscious
and somatic—that guide our thoughts and behaviors. We may talk slowly to an Asian
woman at the farmer’s market, unconsciously assuming that she speaks poor English;
we may inform a Hispanic man at a corporate party that someone has spilled their
punch, unconsciously assuming that he is a janitor; we may ask to change seats if an
Arab American man sits next to us on an airplane. Miniature actions such as these
have little to do with one’s intentional thoughts; they are orchestrated by one’s
practical sense, one’s habitual knowhow, and informed by institutional racism.
Conflict between Racially Dominated Groups
“Can people of color be racist?” This question is a popular one in the public
imagination, and the answer depends on what we mean by racism. Institutional
racism is the product of years of White supremacy, and it is designed to produce
far-reaching benefits for White people. Institutional racism carries on despite our
personal attitudes. Thus, there is no such thing as “Black institutional racism” or
“reverse institutional racism” since there exists no centuries-old socially ingrained
and normalized system of domination designed by people of color that denies Whites
Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer
full participation in the rights, privileges, and seats of power of our society ~Brown
et al., 2003!. Interpersonal racism, on the other hand, takes place on the ground level
and has to do with attitudes and habitual actions. It is certainly true that members of
all racial groups can harbor negative attitudes toward members of other groups.
Indeed, some non-White groups have a deep, conflict-ridden history with other
non-White groups. Consider the tense relationship, found in many urban areas,
between Korean immigrants and African Americans. Immigrant groups have always
found a way to establish a business in the inner city. Throughout the twentieth
century, Jewish shopkeepers were a regular fixture in the center of town; but as their
children inherited, not just the opportunities their parents had worked so hard to
provide, but also the opportunities involved in being welcomed deeper into the ranks
of Whiteness, they took leave of their shops and opened up in turn new opportunities
for streams of other ethnic immigrants. Koreans have filled the business niche left by
Jewish shopkeepers, and many have opened up shops in the Black ghetto because
they can afford to live there and because they do not have to compete with large
corporations, which are much more interested in the deeper pockets of suburban
residents ~Lee 2002; Waldinger 1996!.
Some Black ghetto residents, however, view Korean shopkeepers with a fair
degree of animus and resentment. Although Blacks and immigrants usually compete
for different jobs ~Baker 1999; McCall 2001!, many poor Blacks feel that Korean
entrepreneurs have stymied the growth of black business. Conflicts between Black
patrons and Korean storeowners regularly are colored by racist language, with each
party exchanging epithets ~Kim 2000; Lee 2002!. Black-Korean conflict boiled over
in the early nineteen-nineties. In 1991, a Korean merchant shot and killed a Black
teenager in South Central Los Angeles. A year later, Los Angeles went up in flames
as insurgents of all racial identities took to the streets after four White police officers,
who had been caught on videotape beating Rodney King, a twenty-five-year-old
motorist, were acquitted. As the smoke settled from the country’s first multiethnic
uprising, fifty-two had been killed and millions of dollars worth of property had been
destroyed. Korean storeowners were hit the hardest, suffering almost half the total
property damage—roughly $400 million ~Lee 2002!.
Black-Korean conflict, as well as other antagonistic relations between racially
dominated groups—including the so-called Black-Brown divide, bitter relations among
Hispanic subgroups, and animus between various American Indian Nations—remind
us how racial domination can occlude and distort, how it can hide the real causes of
human misery under false arguments that attribute those causes to certain dominated
racial groups. Instead of examining processes of disinvestment and deindustrialization that hollowed out the city’s core, ongoing modes of capitalist exploitation that
keep plump the unemployment rolls, or America’s skimpy welfare state and the
retreat of state involvement in poor urban areas, the mind clouded by racial domination prefers to blame immigrants or Blacks. The distrust and fear that different
racial and ethnic groups living in poor urban neighborhoods harbor towards one
another is matched only by the interests and struggles shared by these groups.
People of color, then, can help to reinforce the White power structure by lashing
out against other non-White groups. That said, we must realize that interpersonal
racism targeting dominated groups and interpersonal racism targeting the dominant
group do not pack the same punch. Take, for example, the following scenario: Two
young men, one Black, the other White, bump into each other on the street. The
Black man calls the White man a “honky.” In response, the White man calls the Black
man a “boy.” Both racial slurs are racial slurs and should be labeled as such, and both
reinforce racial divisions. However, unlike “honky,” “boy” connects to the larger
What is Racial Domination?
system of institutional racial domination. The word derives its meaning ~and power!
from slavery, when enslaved African men were stripped of their masculine honor and
treated like children. “Boy” ~and many other epithets aimed at Blacks! invokes such
times—times when murdering, torturing, whipping, and raping enslaved Blacks were
not illegal acts. Epithets towards White people, including “honky,” have no such
equivalent. “Boy” also reminds the Black man how things stand today. If the confrontation escalates and the police are called, the Black man knows that the police
officers will probably be White and that he might be harassed or looked upon as a
threat; if the two men meet in court, the Black man knows that the lawyers, judge,
and jurors will possibly be mostly ~if not all! White; and if the two men are sentenced, the African American man knows—as do many criminologists ~e.g., Tonry
1995!—that he will get the harsher sentence. “Boy” brings the full weight of institutional racism—systematic, historical, mighty—down upon the Black man. “Honky,”
even if delivered with venomous spite, is powerless by comparison.
Moreover, sociologists have shown that, unlike White people, people of color
are confronted with interpersonal racism on a regular basis, sometimes daily. For
people of color, there is a cumulative character to an individual’s racial experiences.
Humiliating or degrading acts always are informed by similar acts that individuals
have experienced in the past. To paraphrase Joe Feagin ~1991!, the interpersonal
events that take place on the street and in other public settings are not simply rare
and isolated events; rather, they are recurring events shaped by historical and social
forces of racial domination.
Symbolic Violence
Because racism infuses all of social life, people of color and Whites alike develop
thoughts and practices molded by racism; people of color and Whites alike develop
stereotypes about other racial groups. People of color often internalize prejudice
aimed at their own racial group, unintentionally contributing to the reproduction of
racial domination.12 Psychologists have labeled this phenomenon “internalized oppression” or “internalized racism” ~Fanon 1967!. Following the work of Pierre Bourdieu,
we label it “symbolic violence”: “violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or
her complicity” ~Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992, p. 167!. In the case of racial domination, symbolic violence refers to the process of people of color unknowingly accepting and supporting the terms of their own domination, thereby acting as agents who
collude in the conditions from which they suffer. “So we learned the dance that
cripples the human spirit,” laments Smith, “step by step by step, we who were
@W#hite and we who were colored, day by day, hour by hour, year by year until the
movements were reflexes and made for the rest of our life without thinking” ~1994
@1949#, p. 96!.
A good example of symbolic violence is the nearly worldwide acceptance of
European standards of beauty. The false aesthetic separation between “White
beauty”—epitomized by long, straight, blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin—and
“Black ugliness”—epitomized by short, curly, black hair, brown eyes, and dark brown
skin—grew out of slavery. Features associated with the African American phenotype
were demonized. Since the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s, many
African American women have resisted such standards, taking pride in their curly
hair and their ebony-colored skin. Nevertheless, many others have internalized
White standards of beauty. As such, they use costly and painful methods to straighten
and dye their hair and, less frequently, to lighten their skin. In fact, Madame C. J.
Walker, the first Black millionaire mentioned above, made her fortune developing a
Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer
product to straighten Black women’s hair! Today, many Black women and other
members of dominated races, to borrow Sartre’s line, have been “poisoned by the
stereotype others have of them” ~1960 @1946#, p. 95!.
Symbolic violence operates by virtue of the fact that the dominated perceive and
respond to the structures and processes that dominate them through modes of
thought—and, indeed, also of feeling—which are themselves the product of domination. The “order of things” comes to seem to them natural, self-evident, and
legitimate. Such an insight neither grants everything to structural causation nor
blames the hapless victim. “@T#he only way to understand this particular form of
domination is to move beyond the forced choice between constraint ~by forces! and
consent ~to reasons!, between mechanical coercion and voluntary, free, deliberate,
even calculated submission. The effect of symbolic domination . . . is exerted not in
the pure logic of knowing consciousnesses but through the schemes of perception,
appreciation, and action that are constitutive of habitus and which, below the level of
the decisions of consciousness and the controls of the will, set up a cognitive relationship that is profoundly obscure to itself ” ~Bourdieu 2001 @1998#, p. 37!. This in
turn has an important practical implication. What is required is a radical transformation of the social conditions that produce embodied habits, dispositions, tastes,
and lifestyles that lead people to become actively complicit in their own domination.
The only way to bring about change that does not entail merely replacing one
modality of racial domination with another is to undo the mechanisms of dehistoricization and universalization—“always and everywhere it has been this way”—
through which arbitrary workings of power are enabled to continue.
Intersecting Modes of Domination
Racial domination does not operate inside a vacuum, cordoned off from other modes
of domination. On the contrary, it intersects with other forms of domination—those
based on gender, class, sexuality, religion, nationhood, ability, and so forth. The
notion that there is a monolithic “Arab American experience,” “Asian American
experience,” or “White experience”—experiences somehow detached from other
pieces of one’s identity—is nothing but a chimera. Researchers have labeled such a
notion “racial essentialism,” for such a way of thinking boils down vastly different
human experiences into a single “master category”: race ~Harris 2000!. When we fail
to account for these different experiences, we create silences in our narratives of the
social world and fail to explain how overlapping systems of advantage and disadvantage affect individuals’ opportunity structures, lifestyles, and social hardships. The
idea of intersectionality implies that we cannot understand the lives of poor White
single mothers or gay Black men by examining only one dimension of their lives—
class, gender, race, or sexuality. Indeed, we must explore their lives in their full
complexity, examining how these various dimensions come together and structure
their existence. When we speak of racial domination, then, we must always bear in
mind the ways in which it interacts with masculine domination ~or sexism!, heterosexual domination ~or homophobia!, class domination ~poverty!, religious persecution, disadvantages brought on by disabilities, and so forth ~Collins 2000; Crenshaw
1990; Mohanty 2003!.
In addition, we should not assume that one kind of oppression is more important
than another or that being advantaged in one dimension of life somehow cancels out
other dimensions that often result in disadvantage. While it is true that poor Whites
experience many of the same hardships as poor Blacks, it is not true that poverty
somehow de-Whitens poor Whites. In other words, though they are in a similarly
What is Racial Domination?
precarious economic position as poor Blacks, poor Whites still experience race-based
privileges, while poor Blacks are oppressed not only by poverty but also by racism. In
a similar vein, well-off people of color cannot “buy” their way out of racism. Despite
their economic privilege, middle- and upper-class non-Whites experience institutional and interpersonal racism on a regular basis ~Feagin 1991!. But how, exactly,
should we conceptualize these intersecting modes of domination? Many scholars
have grappled with this question ~e.g., McCall 2005; Walby 2007; Yuval-Davis 2006!,
and we do so here, if only in the most provisional way.
The notion of intersectionality is perhaps as old as the social problems of racial,
masculine, and class domination, but in recent memory it was popularized by activists who criticized the feminist and civil rights movements for ignoring the unique
struggles of women of color. The term itself is credited to critical race scholar
Kimberlé Crenshaw ~1989!, who imagined society as divided every which way by
multiple forms of inequality. For Crenshaw, society resembled an intricate system of
crisscrossing roads—each one representing a different social identity ~e.g., race,
gender, class, religion, age!; one’s unique social position ~or structural location! could
be identified by listing all the attributes of one’s social identity and pinpointing the
nexus ~or intersection! at which all those attributes coalesced. This conception of
intersectionality has been the dominant one for many years, leading scholars to
understand overlapping modes of oppression as a kind of “matrix of domination”
~Collins 2000!.
Recently, however, scholars have criticized this way of thinking about intersectionality, claiming that it reproduces, in minimized form, the very essentialist reasoning it sought to dismantle ~see Ferree 2009; McCall 2005!. For example, those
who have concentrated on the ways that “class intersects with race” largely have
bifurcated racial groups ~especially African Americans! into two classes—the middle
class and the poor ~or “the underclass”!—attributing to each certain social characteristics, principles, and practices ~e.g., Jencks 1992; Massey and Denton, 1993;
Wilson 1978!. Thus, instead of Black culture, we now have two distinct Black
cultures; instead of the Black community, we think in terms of subcommunities.
When scholars divide racial groups into a set number of classes, genders, sexualities,
and so forth, the end result is not a critique of essentialism but a new, softer kind of
essentialism, resulting in “a multichrome mosaic of monochrome racial, ethnic, or
cultural blocs” ~Brubaker et al., 2004, p. 45!. At best, a model that represents society
as a hierarchy of culturally discrete boxes—divided by vectors of social identity—
encourages us to conceptualize oppression through a simple additive model ~one
often hears of a “double jeopardy” or “triple oppression”!; at worst, it replaces larger
homogenizing rubrics ~“Hispanics”! with smaller ones ~“Hispanic women”! and
offers little conceptual refuge from reductionist and reifying tendencies.
We believe a more analytically sophisticated and politically useful rendering of
intertwined oppressions is Myra Marx Ferree’s model of “interactive intersectionality” ~cf. Prins 2006; Walby 2007!. In this version, overlapping social identities are
best understood, not as a collection of “points of intersection,” but as a “figuration”
~as Elias would have it! or “field” ~as Bourdieu would! of shifting, deeplydimensioned, and “mutually constituted relationships.” This means “the ‘intersection
of gender and race’ is not any number of specific locations occupied by individuals or
groups ~such as Black women! but a process through which ‘race’ takes on multiple
‘gendered’ meanings for particular women and men. . . . In such a complex system,
gender is not a dimension limited to the organization of reproduction or family, class
is not a dimension equated with the economy, and race is not a category reduced to
the primacy of ethnicities, nations and borders, but all of the processes that systemDU BOIS REVIEW: SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ON RACE 6:2, 2009
Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer
atically organize families, economies, and nations are co-constructed along with the
meanings of gender, race, and class that are presented in and reinforced by these
institutions separately and together” ~Ferree 2009, p. 85!.
The best metaphor for intersecting modes of oppression, therefore, may not be
that of crisscrossing roads but of a web or field of relations within which struggles
over opportunities, power, and privileges take place ~cf. Bourdieu 1996 @1992#;
Emirbayer 1997!. The implication of this new theoretical development is that if we
focus strictly on race and ignore other sources of social inequality ~such as class and
gender!, not only will we be deaf to the unique experiences of certain members of
society—their voices drowned out by our violent and homogenizing categorization—
but we will also ~and always! fundamentally misunderstand our object of analysis:
race itself. Intersectional analysis of the type that breaks with old modes of thinking
~e.g., society as a “matrix of domination”! and adopts a thoroughly relational perspective on multiple modes of oppression ~e.g., “interactive intersectionality”! is not
an option but a prerequisite for fully understanding the nature of racial identity and
racial domination.
The aim of this paper was to advance a socioanalysis of racial domination in embryonic
form, introducing students to the analytical building blocks of a sociology of race and
ethnicity. We strove to consolidate—in a single essay—insights from diverse bodies of
scholarship, critically interrogating several ideas along the way. In so doing, we underscored a shared set of definitions and concepts and emphasized effective ~and dissected
fallacious! ways of thinking about racial domination. Racism can be slippery, elusive to
observation and analysis. Twenty-first century patterns of racial stigmatization, exclusion, and repression—as well as promises of racial reconciliation and multicultural
coalitions—do not immediately resemble those of the twentieth century. Like a recessive tumor, twenty-first-century racism has disguised itself, calling itself by other names
and cloaking itself behind seemingly “race-neutral” laws, policies, practices, and language. As students of society—and as citizens of a world that grows more racially diverse
every year—we must work to render apparent this pervasive, corrosive, and dehumanizing form of domination that infects the health of our society. We must understand
how race works, developing tools to analyze this well-founded fiction responsible for
so many cleavages and inequalities in our world today. This article has attempted to lay
the groundwork necessary to do just that.
Corresponding author : Matthew Desmond, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin—
Madison, 8128 William H. Sewell Social Sciences Building, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI
53706-1393. Email:
1. Race scholars must strive to construct their own object of inquiry rather than allowing
that object to be pre-constructed for them, as it were, by taken-for-granted and commonsense understandings or folk knowledge ~Banton 1979!. As Durkheim ~e.g., 1982
@1895# ! often stressed, crafting a scientific definition is among the most effective ways to
exercise epistemological vigilance. We present our own provisional definition of race
here to break with commonsense impressions of the term and, by unpacking it one
element at a time, to arrive at a “social-scientifically” sound understanding of race. By
emphasizing the process of misrecognition ~or naturalization!, our definition differs
from others, which tend to accept as given the existence of natural physical differences
What is Racial Domination?
that are, through the process of racialization, ascribed social importance or meaning.
Since Weber, sociologists have defined race as a form of social classification based on
“obvious physical differences” ~1978 @1922#, p. 385; e.g., Schaefer 2006, p. 7! or “different types of human bodies” ~Omi and Winant, 1994, p. 55!. In many ~one might say
most! cases, these conditions hold—what becomes known as a “race” is a group set apart
through social classification, practice, and custom by skin tone, hair type, smell, or some
other physical difference—but they prove insufficient in a non-insignificant number of
other contexts, where the process of racialization relies on a set of non-obvious, or even
non-existent, physical attributes ~as in the case of Japan’s Burakamin or even lightskinned African Americans or Native Americans!. Banton was correct when he said that
people “do not perceive racial differences . . . @but# phenotypical differences of colour,
hair form, underlying bone structure and so on” ~1979, p. 130!. But we can go further
still, acknowledging that processes of racialization actually can demarcate difference
where previously no phenotypic difference ~even at the level of melanin count! existed.
In all cases, the process of racialization relies on the process of misrecognition, whereby
a social creation is mistaken for a natural phenomenon, either in hard form ~as with
scientific racism or the early human taxonomies! or in softer manifestations ~as with
stereotypical comments attributing to certain racial groups a collection of attributes,
positive or negative, as if those attributes were genetically inherited!.
Emphatically, this does not mean that refusing to recognize racial groups that were
created through centuries of oppression, colonialism, political discourse, and scientific
manipulation will somehow lead those races ~and racial inequality! to magically disappear. The process of racial misrecognition is found both at the structural and individual
levels and, most important, is a historical process. It follows, then, that the practice of
refusing to recognize the misrecognition, as with France’s aversion to acknowledging
racial categories or the prematurely celebratory declaration of a “color-blind” or “race
free” America usually associated with neoconservative politics, is an ineffective and
wrongheaded response to a world itself not color-blind. In many cases, the refusal to
recognize race—a well-founded fiction—only exacerbates racial inequalities by rendering antiracist programs impossible.
For critiques of ethnicity-, nation-, and class-oriented theories of race, see Omi and
Winant ~1994!.
Recently, an energetic and constructive debate has emerged over the historical construction of Whiteness in America, its genesis, development, and boundaries. While some
historians have argued that certain European immigrants initially were not considered
White but eventually came to be included under this privileged rubric, others have
suggested that these immigrants were “@W#hite on arrival” ~see Arnesen 2001; Guglielmo
2004; Roediger 1991!.
Americans tend to focus on ethnic differences within the White race, while treating
Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans as if they had no ethnicity and as if there were no
cultural or historical differences between ~for African Americans! Haitians, Jamaicans,
Ethiopians, Trinidadians, Angolans, or Nigerians, or between ~for Latinos! Puerto Ricans,
Cubans, Mexicans, Peruvians, or Dominicans, or between ~for Asian Americans! Laotians,
Indonesians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese people ~Waters 1999!.
Although ethnic affiliations are often informed by national affiliations, ethnicity also can
transcend national borders. Jewish ethnic affiliation encompasses a wide variety of people who vary in terms of nationality, political commitments, languages, and religious
beliefs and practices. Despite these differences—which cut across national and religious
boundaries—many Jews see themselves as bound together in a group, sharing a common
history, culture, and ethnic identity.
For an extended discussion, see Desmond and Emirbayer ~2009!.
This is why some scholars have observed that, in its popular usage, the term “Hispanic”
is deployed much more often as a racial, not ethnic, classification, while Hispanic
“sub-categories,” such as “Mexican” or “Cuban,” are treated like ethnic markers ~see
Hirschman et al., 2000!.
Today, many foreign-born residents still face great barriers when applying for U.S.
citizenship. When we compare U.S. naturalization rates with those of Canada, we
notice that the latter are higher than the former: over the past three decades, Canada
has awarded most of its foreign-born population citizenship, while the U.S. has not
naturalized the majority of its foreign-born population ~Bloemraad 2006; see also Joppke
Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer
We eschew the misleading antinomy of “racism” and “prejudice”—or, in the words of
Bonilla-Silva ~1997!, “structure” and “ideology”—since the latter term is only an extension and manifestation of the former; prejudice is in no way qualitatively distinct from
racism and should not be portrayed as such.
At the same time, however, we should not assume that non-White gain automatically
necessitates White loss, or vice versa, for racial domination does not function under such
zero-sum conditions. More realistic is the notion that “racism legitimates the squandering and dissipation of an important surplus of societal resources and human talents”
~Feagin et al., 2001, p. 7!.
For an ethnographic account of symbolic violence among migrant workers, see Holmes
Alba, Richard, Rubén Rumbaut, and Karen Marotz ~2005!. A Distorted Nation: Perceptions
of Racial0Ethnic Group Sizes and Attitudes Toward Immigrants and Other Minorities.
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