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"Some Friendly Comments on "Is Racism Permanent?","

by Howard Winant March/April 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

I've appreciated the last two issues' discussion of racism's "permanence," but I think a crucial point hasn't been fully enough addressed in these short essays. It is that racism is not a static, obvious "thing" anymore, if it ever was. Its meaning and manifestations change as social conditions, state activity, and social movements confront it. There is a big tendency to assume we know what we mean by this term, and to address it as it was identified in the 1960s: as a matter of prejudice (beliefs and attitudes), discrimination (actions enforcing unequal treatment), and "institutional" phenomena (generally, the legacy of past racial inequality imposing inequalities automatically in the present). While these remain important aspects of the racism phenomenon, none of them is the same as it was a quarter century and more ago. It is necessary to re-encounter the concept and disrupt its former meanings in order to understand it anew.

Certainly racial injustice and inequality have not lessened in any overall way, yet they have been transformed and indeed rationalized in the quarter-century since the ambiguous triumph of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s.

The New Racism

Any effective analysis of racism today has to address the following points:
* The existence of real mobility for more favored sectors (that is, certain class-based segments) of racially defined minority groups.
* The substantial-diversification of the North American population (remember that immigration laws were reformed in 1965 to remove their overtly racist features).
* The significant pan-ethnic phenomena among Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans, which have reconstituted the US racial panorama in a multi-polar (as opposed to the old bipolar) direction. Arguments in defense of the white-black bipolar analysis-for example, Andrew Hacker's claim that Latinos and Asians will attain such upward mobility that within one generation they will look more like white ethnics than like a racially defined minority are quite unconvincing.
* The problematic nature of white identity (at least somewhat) for whites. What this means is that in the post-civil rights era whites have been forced to acquire a "pale" version of the Du Bosian racial dualism: they must consider how they are perceived by their racial "others." The idea that "whiteness" is in some sense the norm still persists, although it has been weakened. This is both dangerous (since its weakening inspires tremendous anxieties among whites) and promising (since it involves the creation of common ground across racial lines and indeed transgresses racial barriers). Needless to say, white "racial dualism" remains a limited phenomenon at present.
* The rise of social movements to which the black struggle gave initial impetus, notably feminism and gay liberation in their many forms, has developed to the point where a whole range of cross cutting subjectivities and tensions (as well as new alliances) have developed. This undercuts the insularity of racial identities in various ways, for example by giving millions of whites a personal sense of what discrimination means, or by setting up limited but real zones of common interest across racial lines.
* Finally and perhaps most important, a significant racial reaction has developed over the past 25 or so years. This reaction has reinterpreted the demands for equality and] justice made by the black movement and its allies in a conservative discourse of individualism, competition, and laissez-faire. It has therefore rationalized racism, depriving racially defined institutions of some of the legitimacy, some of the organic connectedness within the segregated community, which they formerly enjoyed, even though these institutions (black political organizations, schools, etc.) also suffered under Jim Crow. We must recognize that the racial reaction with its individualistic rhetoric of equality (opportunity, meritocracy, etc.) is hegemonic today. The effect of this is that racism can be treated as largely an artifact of the past. My white students tell me, "My parents marched for civil rights. They took care of the problem back then. "To understand racism today, we must take these changed cultural circumstances into account. Certainly we should never ignore economic or political inequality (what I would call the "social structural" dimensions of racism).

Racism as Culture

We should pay more attention to a whole series of other dimensions of racism, which I would awkwardly label the "signifying" dimensions of racism. This might include:
* The changing meaning of race and racial identity. Right now, stripped of euphemism, there are five color-based categories in the U.S. racial order: black, white, brown, yellow, and red. Absurd as this is, it is real and critical in people's lives. Yet obviously it is not eternal, and also obviously, a lot of people don't fit (Arab-Americans, "mixed race" folks, etc., etc.). Both in terms of policy and in terms of experience we have to look at the way these categories are constructed and inhabited (or not) by individuals and groups. At the policy level, such issues as census politics and hate speech regulation involve this stuff. At the experiential level, how much choice do variously identified individuals (and groups) have about how they are to be "named"?
* Our understanding of power as a racial phenomenon has to be tackled. "Who has the power?" may not be as straight forward a question as we used to think. My black students tell me that blacks cannot be racist, because racism equals prejudice plus power, and since blacks don't have the power, at most they can be prejudiced. A lot of church groups and antiracist organizations think the same way. But power is not a "thing"; it's a complex field of relationships, including coercive ones and the ability to produce ideas. Power involves the ability to resist as well as to rule; it involves challenging the meaning-systems and "common sense" we use every minute to interpret the world. In this sense, racially defined minorities do have at least some power. In the long run it is very dangerous for a subordinated and oppressed group to think of itself as powerless.

Ideas about race and racism are being raised at a high level by feminists, womanists, and gay activists. The intersection between these currents stems from their common bodily experience of being "the other" for the dominant (white, male, heterosexual, etc.) culture. This should lead us to think more about the politics of the body. Racism is, so to speak, written on the body; coercion always involves the body; and the race gender-sexuality linkage, so central to racial meanings of all sorts, is about the body. In terms of race, essentialism-the belief in real and inherent human qualities impervious to historical or social context-always links such qualities to the racialized human body. It is the key to understanding racism.

In these observations, I have stressed the political and cultural dimensions of racism. I do not mean to de-emphasize the social structural aspects of the phenomenon-the material inequality, the widespread injustice-that continue to plague the United States. But I think we must recognize the profound disruption that racial "common sense" has undergone in the years since, say, 1960. The very need we in PRRAC experience to debate the question of racism's permanence testifies to the depth of the confusion and anxiety we experience today. Now that both the nightmare of legal separation and the limited reforms of the civil rights movement have run their course, we confront a new and far more formidable racism, a "streamlined" model, as one of my students put it. We must understand it anew.

Howard Winant is professor of sociology at Temple Univ. and author of Racial Conditions: Politics, Theory, Comparisons (Univ. Minn. Press, 1994) and (with Michael Omi) Racial Forma-tion in the US: From the 1960s to 1990s (Routledge, 1994). A copy of the "Is Racism Permanent?" symposium from the Nov.-Dec. and Jan.-Feb. issues of P&R is available from us with a SASE. O

Howard Winant is Professor of Sociology at Temple University and author of The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II (Basic Books).

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