Racial Formation Theory: A Scholarly Point of View

By: Dania Ahmed

When speaking of race relations, it is important that we look at the academic literature that has been published on these topics. There are outdated findings that are no longer applicable, controversial theories, and simply theories that become a matter of personal agreement or disagreement. Michael Omi and Howard Winant are two race scholars who in their book “Racial Formation in the United States” in Chapter 4 of “The Theory of Racial Formation” have argued that race has become a master class in the United States and possesses the ability to transcend other markers of social identity. This theory is crucial to sociological understandings of race as Omi and Winant argue against the idea of race to be merely ideological and it is one of the top 5 cited works in the sociology of race. It is cited in 6% of all sociology of race articles.

In this module, I will first link chapter 4 of “Racial Formation in the United States” by Omi and Winant which focuses on expanding on Racial Formation Theory with certain important sections highlighted. Following it will be my reading response and I would encourage discussion on whether you agree or disagree with the author’s arguments on the social categorization and importance of race!

Reference: Tanaka, Y. (2020). SOC210H: Theories of Race, week 2 [Powerpoint slides]. Retrieved from https://q.utoronto.ca/courses/158906/files/7394931?module_item_id=1376135

Omi and Winant Reading:

Reading Response:


Authors Omi and Winant delve into the multifaceted complexities of race as it pertains in particular to the US context. They emphasize race as a master category that has increasing relevance in the political, social, economic, and cultural domains in the USA. The authors argue race is the foundational basis upon which a template for all types of marginalization form. They propose the racial formation theory in the expansion of the topics of racialization, racial projects, racism, and racial politics. Racialization is stated to be the process of extending racial, symbolic, and social meaning to perceived phenotypical differences as exemplified through practices such as racial profiling. The authors also investigate the evolution of race consciousness in American history dating back to the Age of Exploration. Furthermore, Omi and Winant examine how race was conceived through the avenues of religion, science, politics, and social construction. A detailed overview of the scientific racism movement was recounted and compared to contemporary reiterations of scientific racism. Racial projects are identified as the links between social structures and racial signification as a simultaneous representation of racial identities, meanings, and efforts to redistribute resources along certain racial lines that take place on both macro and micro levels (p.125). Racism is explored as having gone a conceptual deflation as the focus is increasingly becoming deflected away from racist institutions, policies, and practices that reinforce inequality covertly. Racist projects become those that reproduce structures of domination and anti-racist project are those that resist said structures. In terms of racial politics – despotism, democracy, and hegemony are highlighted. The USA’s history of racial despotism is said to have laid the groundwork for present racially based movements which in turn lead to panethnicizing processes (p.131). Racial politics also include how influential the state is in designating racial categories and subsequently shaping “one’s social status, access to economic opportunities, political rights … and identity” (p.121).

Strengths & Weaknesses:

There are many strengths and weaknesses to this reading. One strength is that the authors support their claims through interlinking scopes as exemplified through their multi-step subsections. Omi and Winant were strong in their assertions that race is a master category by drawing upon historical examples to illustrate their point and present their theory as founded in empirical historical trends. Moreover, it was strong in identifying what social processes need to be altered in order to make space for deeper critical thinking frames. In Omi and Winant’s work this is evident through their understandings of racialization in which they seek to avoid the traditional utopian framework and essentialist formations of race (p.112). Where the reading begins to weaken is in it’s specificity to certain contexts that are painted as applicable to all situations. This is demonstrated by Omi and Winant’s focus on the USA but the assumption that transnational racial projects hold the same weight in different nations as they do in America. Considering the many different global society types, it is unlikely these projects unravel similarly to the way in which they take place in the US.

Connection to World:

This reading can relate to the current global pandemic of COVID-19. Omi and Winant’s critique of race as a master category in the USA is shown through news reports that affirm African Americans are more susceptible to contract the virus. This is proven because of the long-standing health inequalities in America that are based in race and make this particular racial group disproportionately vulnerable to the disease. The inequity in economic and healthcare opportunities for black people in America stands in dark contrast to the privilege the dominantly white 1% enjoys. Considering race is the primary basis upon which they are refused adequate medical attention, pre-existing widespread medical conditions that excessively target the community, such as diabetes, asthma, and obesity, contribute significantly to their vulnerability in catching the coronavirus. This is significant as it pertains to the unequal distribution of resources as evidenced through surges of panic buying and certain groups being more privileged to scarce resources, and others having to survive without. This can also highlight how the particular domain of healthcare activity is socially structured to give enhanced treatment to certain groups and the discrepancy in health care opportunity is apparent through the rising death toll for members of a certain group. This pandemic has brought to attention who is considered as an outsider and who retains membership in an elite or protected group through the health and economic disparities.

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