Monday, September 21, 2009


My peers and I in the American Studies Senior Thesis course have recently read Omi and Winant’s “Racial Formation in the United States.” While I found this book extremely insightful and helpful in better understanding the concept of “race,” (which is also defined in the book “Keywords in American Studies”) I also felt that it was somewhat limited in that it only offered a leftist perspective on racial issues. I would have liked to have heard a conservative viewpoint on race and racism, rather than simply hearing an interpretation of the right’s beliefs based on the authors’ conceptions of them.
Like Professor Hendler pointed out in one of his blogs, a word can have a “wide range of meanings,” and therefore, people can “mean different things by the same word.” Omi and Winant mention how in a classroom discussion of “race” white students saw race as a “nonessential reality” while black and biracial students “saw the centrality of race” in everyday life. For white students, racism had to do with “color-consciousness” while for black and biracial students it dealt with a “system of power.” These differing responses show how there is really no “common sense” understanding of race and racism. Rather than being objective and fixed, “race” seems to be an ambiguous word that has different meaning to different groups of people.
Omi and Winant’s definition of “racial-formation” accounts for this ambiguity. They define this concept as a “sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.”
It is important to think about “race” and understand that it continues to play a vital role in our society. I was just recently skimming thorough an issue of the New York Times magazine (the September 13th issue) and noticed that a special advertising supplement was entirely dedicated to how various companies (including the New York Times itself) actively promoted diversity in the workforce.
Omi and Winant argue that race is a central part of society and should not be dismissed. A “colorblind” view of society, where the significance of race is denied, may actually be counterproductive. I thought of this as I was speaking to my dad, who is a trial attorney, one night after dinner. He was discussing with me the process of selecting a jury for a particular case he had. From what he said, I realized that in addition to taking a perspective juror’s profession, age, and education into account, he also automatically considered a perspective juror’s race (ethnicity, gender, and religion). Stereotypes (however inaccurate) continue to play an important role in the jury selection process.


Professor Glenn Hendler said...

I'd like to comment on one aspect of Sara's thoughtful and interesting post on "race,' specifically the point near the beginning where she wishes for "a conservative viewpoint on race and racism" in a class where she read Omi and Winant's book _Racial Formation in the United States_. Speaking for myself (and not for the instructors of the course in which the Omi and Winant book was assigned—though I've assigned it in courses myself), I have to say that I don't think of teaching as including an obligation to present two sides of every issue a "leftist" perspective and a "conservative" one. Omi and Winant's book is the most influential work on race in the interdisciplinary field of American studies, probably because it ably synthesizes work in critical race theory developed in the social sciences and in the humanities. (I do think it's important to present both social-scientific and humanities-based perspectives, though I'm not sure I always succeed in balancing the two). Its authors are certainly on the left, and that's relevant (they certainly don't try to hide it behind a façade of objectivity). But I don't think the primary characteristic of their scholarship is that it is leftist; the point is that it is a serious exploration of a complex research question (and one that is just as critical of liberal and leftist "racial projects" as it is of conservative ones, when Omi and Winant find those projects to be misguided or based in the understandings of race they show to be self-contradictory or otherwise problematic).

But I just don't think there is any corresponding serious scholarship that would provide some sort of conservative balance to their book. That's because what they do is research and analysis; it's not just a polemic. It would be possible to assign a set of opinion pieces about race, and if I did that, I'd want my students to read opinions from the left and the right. I'd assign those as _objects_ of analysis, not as models on which students could base their own research project. But scholarship is not mere opinion; it's based on research, evidence, argumentation, and different methodologies. I'm not saying it's simply objective; our political opinions—along with many other factors, including our other experiences, our upbringing, and perhaps as much as anything else, our disciplinary and interdisciplinary training—undoubtedly affect the research questions we ask and what we see as persuasive evidence. Trained literary scholars ask different questions about race, and look for different kinds of evidence about it, than trained sociologists, or psychologists, or historians, or performance artists. In an interdisciplinary program, I think it's more important to provide _that_ range of perspectives than it is to engage in the search—a futile one, I think—for a balance between left and right.

I go on at length about this because this wish for political balance is something I occasionally hear—very reasonably stated, as Sara does here—from students. My point is to say that I think the wish for such balance is based on a subtle but important misunderstanding of what teaching, learning, and scholarship is, or should be. Do you see what I mean?

Sara said...

Thank you for your insight, professor. I apologize for my delayed response. I agree that the primary characteristic of Omi and Winant’s scholarship is that it is a serious exploration of a complex research question. They deserve much praise for this! And it is true that they are critical of leftist racial projects (like neo-liberalism) as well as conservative ones.
I also agree that in the American Studies field it is more appropriate to present the various methodologies and research activities of scholars in a variety of academic disciplines than to present a balance of political perspectives on certain issues. If I were talking about the Political Science field, where the objectives are different, I might reach a different conclusion.
However, like you mentioned, Omi and Winant do not try and hide the fact that they are on the left. Just as professors are not obliged to present two sides to every issue they discuss with their students, neither are authors. Nevertheless, we American Studies students are encouraged to look for “alternative approaches” an author (or authors) could have taken to presenting his or her research. I am simply pointing out that Omi and Winant could have taken a more objective approach to presenting their scholarship. I would be very surprised if there were no other influential sources on race that present information more objectively.

Professor Glenn Hendler said...

Thanks for your reply, Sara. I hope others will join in this important discussion, too. I just want to say two things in response.

One terminological clarification. Confusingly, neoliberalism is actually, by most definitions, a name for a conservative economic policy. Economically, the Republican Party is a liberal party, and in pretty much every country other than the U.S., the Liberal or Liberal Democratic party is on the center-right. Of course, these things are very messy in the U.S., since by the standards of the rest of the world we don't have a left-leaning party: economically, the Democrats and the Republicans are very close to the same thing. Despite the hysteria on the right that Obama is a socialist, he is well right of center on economic issues by any standard. Both parties fundamentally agree on neoliberal economic policies; the disagreements are mostly matters of degree within that consensus. That's why, say, Newt Gingrich isn't wrong when he calls himself a true liberal.(What the "neo" means is more complicated than I have time to explain here. I think the keyword essay on "liberalism" may help).

On your most important point, though: I don't believe objectivity is a positive value. Indeed, I think there's no such thing, and that aspiring to objectivity leads to nothing but poor argumentation (and especially bad journalism--I'd like to hear one of the several journalist in American Studies comment more about this). But I do think fairness is a value; I think it's crucial to present things--especially those that I disagree with--fairly and accurately. Otherwise I'm not successfully countering their arguments; I'm knocking down a "straw man" that I've set up yourself. If you (or anyone else) can show that Omi and Winant present the things they argue with unfairly or inaccurately, then there's a problem, and you should be reading something that does present those ideas fairly and accurately. Otherwise, if you're getting a fair account of the positions in the argument, that's what serious academic discussion calls for.

Finally, while there are plenty of influential statements on race from a range of perspectives, I'd challenge you to find a conservative argument about the social construction of race that comes even close to the serious, researched, logically argued work of Omi and Winant. I can't speak for the professors who assigned their book, but while I might assign one of those other statements as an _object_ of analysis (anything interesting or influential can be a useful object of analysis), when I want to assign something as a _model_ of critical analysis of race, I've never found anything better than--or anywhere near as good as--Omi and Winant. To assign anything else alongside it would be, I think, like assigning a badly done physics experiment alongside the properly done experiment. It might be an interesting exercise, but it would mostly be a waste of time.

It's very important that you raise these questions, though. Questioning the way your education is being provided to you is an essential part of learning. Professors like me should always be willing and able to answer such questions, and to justify the decisions we make.