In their 2014 book Racial Formation in the United States, Michael Omi and Howard Winant bring attention to the unjustly downplayed issue of racism. Seeing a number of wealthy, powerful and successful celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé and Jay Z, a lot of people believe that the election of Barak Obama as president is the ultimate proof of a ‘colorblind’ society, a society that does not notice the color of skin as a factor for distributing privileges and statuses. However, numerous researches reveal that racism is still an issue, but it is more difficult to notice because it does not take a noticeable form of racial discrimination. Rather, modern racism is institutionalized and manifests itself as racial inequality. Therefore, it is not enough just to acknowledge it. Adequate measures should be undertaken in order to alleviate the situation. Although anti-racial laws and voting rights eliminated the most outrageous of injustices, the racial injustice should still be addressed properly because it is a complicated matter that encompasses not only racial equality but also racial identity.
With its long history of slavery and having a Civil War, of which slavery was a dominant issue, the USA legislature seemed to take necessary steps in order to eliminate inequality. However, it took a lot of time for laws manifest in real life. Their implementation proved to be much harder than it seemed on paper. Besides, racial issues are not only connected to the slavery of blacks. In order to justify their dominant position, white people established their racial doctrine based on religious and biological grounds and which stated that people of any color other than white were inferior and could be subjected to some forms of oppression. Therefore, not only blacks were marginalized and enslaved but also Native Americans, Asians, and Latinos suffered at the hands of the white race in various ways.
Given this grim history, Omi and Winant argue that the split between the races is too deep to be cured only by laws and acts. They explain the situation with Antonio Gramsci’s apt saying, “The old is dying and the new cannot be born” (Omi & Winant). It is very pertinent to racial inequality when there is a new generation of people who are ready to live differently but institutionalized racism is still prevalent.. Thus, the United States look resemble a country with a cognitive dissonance because its politicians and social discourse keep insisting that race does not matter anymore, while at the same time racial inequality is present in every social and political matter.
Omi and Winant explain that race consciousness lies in the basis of the American society, as it was built with hard labor of people who had to be bent into submission on the grounds of their race. Even though classifying people and objects according to certain criteria is an inherent human trait, the category of race is a social construct and has been utilized for justifying exploitation. The authors give an example of age as a number of years a person has lived and state that societies and cultural norms ascribe a certain attitude towards senior years in different countries: while the countries respecting wisdom, which ostensible comes with age, respect elderly people correspondingly, youth-oriented cultures have a tendency to neglect the elderly. To this effect, the category of race does not simply state a person’s skin color; it assigns certain stereotypical characteristics to an individual.
Omi and Winant argue that “race is a master category” and it was used to oppress and exploit one category of people based on their skin color, hair thickness, and eye shape (Omi & Winant). A set of characteristics artificially assigned to races is especially visible in attempts to categorize people of mixed ancestry. Often based on phenotypes such as certain physical features, the concept of race “signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests” (Omi & Winant). However, the authors reject a rigid understanding of race being “an illusion” (Omi & Winant). Even though they agree that race is not essence, they argue that this concept is necessary for sociologists at the very least. The argument that race is based purely on visual characteristics is misleading because even blind people are able to ‘see’ the race of a person as they evidence attitudes and practices towards them.
Therefore, Omi and Winant insist that the concept of race should be recognized and studied but it should be remembered that race is not an objective characteristic, but rather a socially constructed one. If people remember that race is not a flaw or a negative condition that should be ‘treated’ then the ever-changing concept of race can reflect socio-political changes in a society and assist in better understanding of its social structure.
The essence of racial formation is creating the Other. Usually it involves the binary oppositions of superiority and inferiority, intelligence and stupidity, black and white, mastery and servitude, and, eventually, good and bad. Sometimes the Other was even denied a category of humanness in a pair of ‘human – non-human.’ It allowed the domineering race to exploit other races in the most brutal manner. Nowadays the methods of racism are much more refined. No longer is racial segregation present, but the image of a middle class American family living the American Dream still features primarily white-skinned people (Zhou 35). The fact that there is a concept of a model-minority is a good example of how intricate is racial formation. Asian Americans are cast as a model-minority. On the surface, it seems to be a proof that America has cast aside all of its racial prejudices when even immigrants can climb the social ladder and achieve financial and social success. However, in its core it is the same ‘othering’ of a race. Even if Asian Americans sometimes can achieve higher results than the dominant ethnic group, they are still perceived differently. Besides, high expectations limit the model-minorities as much as low expectations limit the “downtrodden minorities” (Zhou 34).
When people realize the depth of racial inequality and see that it is largely a construct rather an inherently present matter, they wonder why it is not possible to simply ignore the races and become ‘race-blind.’ Omi and Winant argue that it is impossible because racial beliefs are at the core of people’s identities and personalities. It takes a lot of time to get rid of the acquired notions. This idea is reworded in Ira Katznelson’s book When Affirmative Action Was White, where she quotes President Johnson’s speech at Howard in 1965, who explained that it is not enough to pretend that the races do not exist because doing only that will not straighten the situation (7). Equal rights are not enough. After all the years of humiliation and poor treatment, simply restoring the rights would not make people equal. President Johnson said: “We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result” (qtd in Katznelson 7). The absence of “not just freedom but opportunity” is what lies at the basis of institutional racism. It is not enough just to allow all races enter the same universities. All races should have equal conditions which encompass a wide range of issues such as education, health care, housing conditions, etc.
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It can be said that racial formation is not a finalized concept. It is affected by the political and social changes. Racial identity is a complex notion, which is not limited by visual characteristics only. Its identification is usually meaningful for political strategies rather than for people themselves. The concept of race assists in studying social structures. Despite having gone a long way since the abolition of slavery, the repercussions of this shameful period have been perceptible through society since then. Although anti-racial laws and voting rights eliminated the most outrageous of injustices, the issue of race should still be addressed properly.
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