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Race and Racism

New Patterns

Given the thoroughgoing and persuasive empirical data available on the persistence of racial inequality, discrimination, and prejudice it is difficult to sustain claims that racism is a "thing of the past" or that racial identities and categories have become less salient at the turn of the twenty-first century than they were at the turn of the twentieth, whose problem, as W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) famously proclaimed in the early twentieth century, would be that of the "color-line."

The great achievements of the movements that challenged racism in the twentieth century, and that largely overthrew colonialism as well (a fundamentally racist system), were revealed to be partial and contradictory as the twenty-first century dawned. There is no gainsaying the transformations that have been wrought in the undoing of Jim Crow segregation in the United States or the apartheid system in South Africa, and in the restoration of some degree of self-rule in the global South and East. Yet the racial categories and racist social structures produced by centuries of white supremacism retain a great deal of force. It is more than ironic—it is a rather bitter truth—that racial rule has been strengthened in some ways by the reforms it has undergone. Racism has developed from domination to hegemony: to the extent that it incorporates its subjects it defuses their opposition. Thus in the United States, the European Union, South Africa, Brazil, and indeed in most of the world, racial repression and exclusion continue in practice while simultaneously being disavowed as doctrine (see Winant, 2001).

These racial conditions, however, are no more stable than those of the past. Injustice and inequality necessarily produce opposition. The movements of the early twenty-first century have learned the lessons of the twentieth century at least as well as the states and elites they are challenging. Once again "the wretched of the earth" assert their claims: as landless groups and workers; as women, gays, and students; as slum-and shantytown-dwellers, as prisoners and indigenous peoples. This time they have far more resources at their disposal, supporters in key positions, and indeed white allies (although far too few). All the old traditions of refusal, subversion, and racial solidarity remain available. The legacies of past cycles of resistance are never lost; they are reinterpreted, rearticulated, and put to use once again.

In the twenty-first century the task is no longer to recognize the problem of race, the problem is the color line. Rather, it is simultaneously to affirm and transcend the color line. To challenge racism is at last to be both citizen and subject.


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Howard Winant

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