Race and Racism - Dilemmas Of Meaning: The Concept Of Racism
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Dilemmas of Meaning: The Concept of Racism
As a world-historical phenomenon, racism is so large and so diverse that no definition can encompass all its varieties. The term's origins are themselves quite modern: its earliest use, in the late 1930s, directed attention chiefly toward anti-Semitism. Of course, awareness of race prejudice and racial discrimination preceded that coinage.
The prejudice/discrimination/institutional racism trichotomy still effectively encompasses many aspects of the complex and varied phenomenon of racism. That synthetic view was without doubt an advance over previous conceptions, and embodied many of the hard-won understandings of the 1960s movements for racial justice and emancipation. Notably, its emphasis on the structural dimensions of racism allowed it to address the intransigence which racial injustice and inequality continued to exhibit, even after discrimination had supposedly been outlawed and bigoted expression stigmatized.
Yet, on closer examination the trichotomy also seems problematic. As Robert Miles has argued (1989), it tended to "inflate" the concept of racism to a point at which it lost precision. If the institutional component of racism is so pervasive and deeply rooted, this makes it difficult to recognize what accomplishments antiracist movements have achieved or what progress civil rights reforms concretely represent. How, under these conditions, could one validate the premises of political action aimed at racial justice and greater substantive social equality? If institutional racism is ubiquitous, it becomes difficult to affirm the existence of any democracy at all where race is concerned. The result is a leveling critique, which denies any distinction between the Jim Crow era (or even the whole longue durée of racism beginning with European conquest and leading through racial slavery, imperialism, "Jim Crow," apartheid, and the like), and the present. Similarly, if the prejudice component of racism is so deeply inbred, it becomes difficult to account for the apparent racial hybridity and cultural interpenetration that characterizes civil society both in the United States and across the globe; this is evidenced not only by the shaping of popular mores, values, language, and style, but also by the social practices of the millions of people, white and black (and neither white nor black) who occupy interstitial and ambiguous racial positions. The result of the "inflation" of the concept of racism is thus a deep pessimism about any efforts to overcome racial barriers: in the workplace, the community, or any other sphere of lived experience. An overly comprehensive view of racism, then, potentially serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yet the alternative view, which surfaced with a vengeance in the 1970s and urged a return to the conception of racism held before the movement's discovery of institutional racism, is equally inadequate. This is the neoconservative project (see, for example, Gerson 1997), which deliberately restricts its attention to injury done to the individual as opposed to the group, and to advocacy of a "color-blind" racial policy. Such an approach almost entirely neglects the continuing organization of social inequality and oppression along racial lines. It denies the continuity of racism in cultural and political life, particularly in the United States, but also in other societies in "cognate" forms such as racial "differentialism." Worse yet, such views tend to rationalize racial injustice as a supposedly natural outcome of group attributes in competition or of intractable national or cultural differences. Neoconservatism and parallel racial reactions have thus rearticulated the demands for equality and justice made by antiracist and anticolonialist movements in a conservative discourse of individualism, competition, and laissez-faire. It is this "new right" discourse which is hegemonic in the early 2000s; in these terms racism is rendered invisible and marginalized. It is treated as largely an artifact of the past.
In the post–civil rights and postcolonial era the world has undergone a substantial modification of what were previously far more rigid lines of exclusion and segregation. The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have witnessed some real mobility for more favored sectors (that is, certain class-based segments) of racially defined minority groups. The entire post–World War II era also featured substantial demographic diversification as North America, Europe; other regions as well experienced new waves of immigration, notably from the global South and East. In the United States, for example, the 1965 reform of immigration laws (a civil rights measure in itself) occasioned large and continuing inflows from Asia and Latin America. In both the United States and Europe panethnic phenomena—the process by which new racial identities develop through alliance or convergence of previously distinct but socioculturally similar groups, such as Latinos/Hispanics or Asian Americans in the United States, or Muslims/Arabs/Turks in Europe—have increased throughout the global North (and elsewhere as well). This has reconfigured European and North American racial dynamics, moving them away from the former bipolar frameworks (white/black, European/ "native") and toward multipolar frameworks (multiculturalism, diversity, and the like). No longer is race a largely black–white issue in the United States; no longer is race in Europe a postcolonial confrontation between former settler and former native. Racial identity has also been problematized (at least somewhat) for whites—a fact which has its dangers but also reflects progress.
Yet at the same time, by almost every conceivable indicator researchers can bring forward, the same racial inequalities—or shall we say the same "structural racism"?—that existed in the past continues in the early twenty-first century: modified here and there perhaps, but hardly eliminated and not even much reduced in scope, for example in terms of U.S. black-white disparities, or in terms of French–North African distinctions in contemporary France. This is not the place to inventory the data, but whether we look at wealth/income (in)equality, health, access to/returns to education, segregation by residence or occupation, rates of surveillance or punishment by the criminal "justice" system, or many other indicators that compare racial "life-chances," we find strikingly persistent patterns.