restricted access 3. Where Culture Meets Structure: Race in the 1990s
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Chapter 3 Where Culture Meets Structure: Race in the 1990s The contemporary United States faces a pervasive crisis of race, a crisis no less severe than those the country has confronted in the past. The origins of the crisis are not particularlyobscure: the cultural and political meaning of race, its significance in shaping the social structure, and its experiential or existential dimensions all remain profoundly unresolved as the United States approaches the end of the twentieth century. Asa result, the society as a whole, and the population as individuals, suffer from confusion and anxiety about the issue (or complex of issues) we call race. This should not be surprising. We may be more afflicted with anxiety and uncertainty over race than we are over any other social or political issue. Racial conflict is the very archetype of discord in NorthAmerica, the primordial conflict that has in many ways structured all others. Time and time again what has been defined as "the race problem" has generated ferocious antagonisms: between slaves and masters, between natives and settlers , between new immigrants and established residents, and between workers divided by wage discrimination, by culture, even by psychosexual antagonisms (Roediger 1991). Time and time again this "problem" has been declared resolved, or perhaps supplanted by other supposedly more fundamental conflicts, only to blaze up anew; Tension and confusion in postwar racial politics and culture are merely the latest episode in this seemingly permanent drama. 22 Where Culture Meets Structure 23 The persistence of racial conflict, and of the anxiety and confusion that accompany it, has defied the predictions of most government officials, social critics, and movement leaders. Until quite recently, mainstream economists and Marxists, liberals and conservatives, ethnicity theorists and nationalists all expected the dissolution of race in some greater entity: free market or class struggle, cultural pluralism or nation-state. That race remains so central a factor both in the U.S. social structure and in the collective psyche, ought—at the very least—to inject a bit of humility into the discourses of all these sages. Thus chastened, let us enter once more into the thickets of racialtheory . No task is more urgent today.The mere fact that basic racial questions are at once so obvious and so obviously unanswered suggests how urgent is further theoretical work on race. Still, one must approach the effort modestly, for the concept of race in some ways is as large as social theory itself. My strategy here is to examine contemporary U.S. racial dynamics from the standpoint of racialformation theory, an approach developed specifically to address the shifting meanings and power relationships inherent in race today. I begin with some basic propositions about racial formation. Then I look at recent U.S.racial history, which, I suggest, is in transition from a pattern of domination to one of hegemony. Next I discuss the range of contemporary racial projects, focusing on the contest for racial hegemony . Finally, I assess the system of racial hegemony in the 1990s. Racial Formation Theory Racial formation theory was developed as a response to postwar understandings of race, both mainstream and radical, that practiced reductionism . Bythis I mean the explanation of racial phenomena asmanifestations of some other, supposedly more significant, social relationship. Examples of racial reductionism include treatments of racial dynamics as epiphenomena of class relationships, or as the result of "national oppression," or as variations on the ethnicity paradigm established in the early twentieth century, after successive waves of European immigration. In contrast to these approaches, racial formation theory looks at race as a phenomenon whose meaning is contested throughout social life (Omi and Winant 1986). In this account race is both a constituent of the individual psyche and of relationships among individuals, and an irreducible component of collective identities and social structures. Because race is not a "natural" attribute but a socially and historically constructed one, it becomes possible to analyze the processes by which racial meanings are attributed, and racial identities assigned, in a given so- 24 Where Culture Meets Structure ciety. These processes of "racial signification" are inherently discursive. They are variable, conflictual, and contested at every level of society, from the intrapsychic to the supranational. Inevitably, many interpretations of race, many racial discourses, exist at anygiven time. The political character of the racial formation process stems from this: elites, popular movements, state agencies, cultural and religious organizations, and intellectuals of all types develop racialprojects, which interpret and reinterpret the meaning of race. The theoretical concept of...