Time to Kill “the Racist” (The Concept)

eduardoA Facebook post from Eduardo Bonilla-silva, professor of sociology at Duke University and author of Racism Without Racists (2013):

It is time to kill the racist (the concept folks, the concept). “The racist” concept, derived from the racism-as-prejudice view, describes individuals filled with rage and hate against the Other—albeit Archie Bunker, the popular TV character, was presented as good-natured ignoramus. All versions of the racist, nevertheless, assume racist individuals have little education, are not cosmopolitan, come from working class backgrounds, and reside in the South or in working class neighborhoods anywhere in America. And, unfortunately, social scientists in general have reinforced this concept with their work, commentary, policies, and actions as the concept is ultimately a very useful defense of their own racial souls (poor whites are “racist,” but WE, liberal, middle-class, educated whites, ARE NOT).

“The racist” term is an obstacle for the proper study and appreciation of the import of racism—the system that structures racialization and racial inequality in societies all over the world. Killing “the racist” conceptually will require a few things.

First, we must acknowledge that once the world was racialized and racism emerged as a social structure, all members of racial polities (in David Goldberg’s term, “racial states”) were racialized. Racialization, defined by Omi and Winant as the extension of racial meaning to a group, is a permanent, never finished process. “Whites,” “blacks,” “Latinos,” “Asians,” “Native Americans,” “Arabs,” “Jews” and other racialized groups are always “in the making” (E. P. Thompson) and, accordingly, the content of their racialization can change. Segments of groups or entire groups can, given particular conditions, move up or down the racial ladder—the former is the case of some Asians and Latinos (see my work on the Latin Americanization of racial stratification) and the latter is the case of Arabs in the post 9/11 era, a situation made worse by Trump’s election.

Second, and most importantly, we must appreciate that racialization is not an independent force. It exists as part of a social order that has incorporated racism structurally to justify genocide, colonialism, and extreme labor exploitation. Once racism becomes part of social order, the culture and practices of the system reflect and reinforce racial domination. When whites were killing “Indians” and taking their land, the culture described them as “savages” and heathen making it easier to massacre them. Too do the dirty deeds, whites used numerous expansionist, tricky, and military practices, but all had a bottom line: “when whites needed land, they took it” (William T. Hagan). Even those who presumably viewed Native Americans favorably such as Thomas Jefferson, ultimately recommended things such as lending them money they could not pay back in order to take their land. To be clear, even if repetitive, racism becomes embedded in practices and in culture thus maintaining a racial order that favors the dominant racial group. And those practices that reproduce the racial order are enacted by ALL whites, which is yet another reason to kill the concept of “the racist.”

Third, although all actors are racialized, their racialization varies by class, gender, and sexual orientation. Hence, all whites are racialized as whites, but middle class and elite whites can buttress their racialization and project it onto their poorer brethren. This is what I think most white liberals and progressives do—and what most white social scientists endeavor to show, that is, they labor to signify that they are not “racist” as racism is a disease afflicting poor, undereducated, authoritarian whites. For example, in this last electoral cycle, we had story after story in the media about the “racists”; maps showing where they reside and all sort of commentary vilifying the Trumpistas. Mind you, my take is not that we should just be “empathetic” to white workers (Arlie Hochschild does too much on this in her STRANGERS IN THEIR LAND as well as ends up safeguarding the soul of white liberals. See also Joel Gest and C, Kramer, whose work lines up in this tradition, too). After all, despite their real class pain, they have always done much better than their non-white counterparts. My take is that all whites are racial subjects* and, as such, participate in various, class- and race-inflected ways in the reproduction of racial order. Voting for Republicans was deemed as “racist,” but voting for the Dems does not exculpate white liberals from racism. (*Let me point out that all members of a racialized social system are racialized. I am focusing here on whites as they are the ones somewhat perceived as beyond racialization.)

Lastly, to kill the racist (again, the concept) we will have to do some serious politics with whites. I think the multiple fractures and possibilities of the white working class—the most vulnerable segment of the white team—suggest that we must place the bulk of our political efforts at transforming their views, practices, cognitions, and emotions to advance social and racial justice in America. This does not mean ignoring the white middle class (after all, politics is about working with as many people as one can to change the world), but it means that we may need to reverse our priorities and put more effort in engaging the white working class. It also does not mean being silly and assume this will be an easy thing to do given their objective location in the social order. They are racialized actors and do in act receive a slightly better social deal than their nonwhite counterparts. More significantly, as part of their racialization, they are charged EMOTIONALLY and believe that they are the shit compared with nonwhites. They think that what they get in life is because they, unlike nonwhite folks, are hard-working, moral, religious folks. Hence, working to challenge and disrupt their race-class consciousness will require effort, finding the commonalities, and developing solidarities that do not exist at this juncture.

Let me sum up what we need to do to “kill the racist”? First, we have to talk more about racism as a system and avoid the racist term. Second, we must refuse to separate whites clinically between those afflicted with racism and those free of racism. This entails making the difficult argument that ALL whites are racialized subjects and thus participate in systemic racism in various ways—this includes “good whites” and anti-racist whites and I personally know many liberal and anti-racist whites who are in DESPERATE need of good kick in their racialized ass. Third, we, the wretched of the earth and our allies, have to work on a new race-class politics that focuses on the white majority and its possibilities—the most vulnerable segment of the white team is the one with the most fractures and ambiguities, something that it is not new in Amerikan history. And I believe that retooling our racial politics can be done without ignoring liberal-progressive whites. Lastly, those of us in the academy or in the media, must work hard at challenging students, colleagues, journalists, and anyone who will listen about the futility of talking about “the racists.” So comrades, time to get on with this hard work. If we do not, the Trump moment will take us back not just objectively (our standing in the racial order), but also theoretically (“the racist” concept will become bigger than ever) and politically (by focusing on “the racists,” we will not do what we must do to advance our struggle).

One thought on “Time to Kill “the Racist” (The Concept)

  1. “Once the world was racialized and racism emerged as a social structure, all members of racial polities . . . were racialized. Racialization . . . is a permanent, never finished process.” Damn, that’s bleak.

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