Racism: Essential Readings


Edited by: Ellis Cashmore & James Jennings

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    • Chapter 1: Reprinted with the permission of University of Chicago Press from S. Reinsch Paul, ‘The Negro Races and European Civilization’, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XI, No. 2 (1905).
    • Chapter 2: Reprinted from G.W. Ellis, ‘The Psychology of America Race Prejudice’, The Journal of Race Development, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1915, pp. 297–315.
    • Chapter 3: Reprinted from S.A. Queen and J.R. Gruener, Social Pathology: Obstacles to Social Participation (1925, rev. edn 1948), by Thomas Y. Cromwell Co. New York.
    • Chapter 4: Reprinted with the permission of Scribner, a division of Simon and Schuster from Black Reconstructions in America 1860–1880 by W.E.B. DuBois.

      Copyright © 1935, 1962, W.E. Burghardt DuBois.

    • Chapter 5: Excerpts as specified (pp. 582–93, 658–63) from An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy by Gunnar Myrdal

      Copyright © 1944, 1962 by Harper & Row, Publishers Inc. Reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

    • Chapter 6: Reprinted from Oliver C. Cox, (1948), ‘Caste, Class and Race: A study in social dynamics’, pp. 345–52 and 519–25. Doubleday and Co.
    • Chapter 7: Reprinted from Race and Nationality in American Life, Doubleday Anchor Press (1950). Used by kind permission of Oscar Handlin.
    • Chapter 8: Excerpts as specified (pp. 146–50; 612–22; 653) from The Authoritarian Personality, by T.W. Adorno, E. Frenkel-Brunswick.

      Copyright © 1950 by the American Jewish Committee. Copyright renewed. Reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers Inc.

    • Chapter 9: Reprinted from Louis L. Synder (1962) The Idea of Racialism: Its Meaning and History, published originally by D. Van Nostrand Company Inc. Princeton, New Jersey. Reproduced here by kind permission of International Thompson.
    • Chapter 10: Reprinted from Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, by Ashley Montagu, published in the Los Angeles Times (1965). Reproduced here by kind permission of Los Angeles Times Syndicate, California USA.
    • Chapter 11: From Black Power by Stokley Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton.

      Copyright © 1967 by Stokley Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton. Reprinted by permission of Random House Inc.

    • Chapter 12: Reprinted from Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 1, No. 4, October 1978, Routledge (UK); Pierre van den Berghe, ‘Race and Ethnicity: A Sociobiological Perspective’.
    • Chapter 13: Reprinted from Racism and Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker's Notebook by Boggs J.

      Copyright © 1970 by Monthly Review Press. Reprinted by permission of Monthly Review Foundation.

    • Chapter 14: Reprinted from ‘The Psychohistory of Racism in the United States’, by Joel Kovel. Chapter 8 of White Racism: A Psychohistory, Pantheon Books (1970), pp. 177–230. Used by kind permission of Joel Kovel.
    • Chapter 15: Reprinted from T. Pettigrew, Racially Separate or Together? (1971), McGraw-Hill Publishers. Used by kind permission of McGraw Hill Companies.
    • Chapter 16: Reprinted from A Rap on Race, © 1971 by James Baldwin and Margaret Mead. Published by Dell Books, Reprinted by arrangement with the estates of James Baldwin and Margaret Mead.
    • Chapter 17: Reprinted from D.T. Wellman, Portraits of White Racism (1977), pp. 90–107 and 228–234. Reproduced here by kind permission of Cambridge University Press.
    • Chapter 18: Reprinted from Hermathena No. CXVI; H.M. Bracken (1973) ‘Essence, Accident and Race’. Reproduced here by kind permission of Hermathena, A Trinity College Journal.
    • Chapter 19: Reprinted from Black Scholar: Journal of Black Studies and Research; Welsing, Frances Cress (1974), ‘The Cress Theory of Color-Confrontation’, Black Scholar, Vol. 5, No. 8.
    • Chapter 20: Reprinted with the permission of University of Chicago Press from W.J. Wilson (1978) The Declining Significance of Race, pp. 20–60.
    • Chapter 21: Reprinted from M. Karenga (1982) Introduction to Black Studies, Los Angeles: Kawaida Productions, pp. 198–212.
    • Chapter 22: Reprinted from Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 173–187; Paul Sniderman and M. Tetlock, ‘Reflections on American Racism’. Reproduced here by kind permission of Blackwell Publishers Inc.
    • Chapter 23: Reprinted from Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 2, No. 2; E. San Juan, Jr. (1989) ‘Problems in the Marxist Project of Theorizing Race’. Reproduced here by kind permission of Guilford Publishers Inc.
    • Chapter 24: Reprinted with permission from Urban Geography, Vol. 10, No. 6, pp. 562–77 © V.H. Winston & Son Inc., 360 South Ocean Boulevard, Palm Beach, FL 33480. All rights reserved.
    • Chapter 25: Reprinted from Social Science and Medicine, Vol. 31, No. 8, 1990, pp. 891–906; Leslie et al., ‘Scientific Racism: Reflections On Peer Review’.
    • Chapter 26: Reprinted from Z Magazine, November 1990; E. Martinez, ‘There's More to Racism that Black and White’.
    • Chapter 27: Reprinted from Shadows of Race and Class, pp. viii–xxvii, by R.S. Franklin © 1991 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.
    • Chapter 28: Reprinted from British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 115–30; M. Banton, ‘The Race Relations Problematic’. Reproduced here by kind permission of The London School of Economics, Houghton Street, London, WC2A 2AE and Taylor and Francis Ltd. London.
    • Chapter 29: J.E. King, ‘Dyconscious Racism: Ideology, Identity and the Miseducation of Teachers’, Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 60, No. 2 (1991), pp. 133–46. Copyright © 1991 by Howard University. All rights reserved.
    • Chapter 30: Reprinted from D. Jenness, ‘Origins of the Myth of Race’, International Socialist Review, February 1992.
    • Chapter 31: Beverly Daniel Tatum, ‘Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom’, Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Spring 1992), pp 1–24.

      Copyright © 1992 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

    • Chapter 32: Reprinted from E. Barkan (1992) The Retreat of Scientific Racism, pp. 279–96. Used by kind permission of Professor Elazar Barkan and Cambridge University Press (UK).
    • Chapter 33: Reprinted from A. Allahar (1993) ‘When Black First Became Worth Less’, International Journal of Comparative Sociology, Vol. 34, No. 1–2.

      Copyright © Koninklijke Brill N.V., Leiden, The Netherlands.

    • Chapter 34: Reprinted from Sociology, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 143–61; Solomos and Back, ‘Conceptualizing Racisms: Social Theory Politics and Research’. Used by kind permission of John Solomos, Les Back and Cambridge University Press (UK).
    • Chapter 35: Reprinted from Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control, Verso, 1994, pp. 27–51. By kind permission of Verso.
    • Chapter 36: Reprinted from The Science and Politics of Racial Research. Copyright 1994 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used by kind permission of University of Illinois.
    • Chapter 37: Reprinted from The Racist Mind: Portraits of American Neo-Nazis and Klansmen, Viking Penguin, 1995, pp. 245–56, 269–78. Used by kind permission of Kathi J. Paton, Literary Agency, 19 West 55th Street, New York, NY 10019–4907.
    • Chapter 38: Reprinted from The Recovery of Race in America, pp. 163–82, by A.D. Gresson, © 1995 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.


    Racism: Essential Readings is primarily a textbook for students and others interested in understanding how the concept and story of racism has been defined, utilized, and debated, in modern society. One goal of this anthology is to show that the concept of racism has a long and complex intellectual history as an idea but also a long track record in how powerful groups have utilized racism as an ideology to advance social, economic, or cultural interests. This collection seeks to show how racism has been utilized not only to explain racial and ethnic differences in living conditions, but also as justification for maintaining such differences. The book is organized by presenting a chronological overview of selections illustrating how racism has been approached by scholars and others to explain racial and ethnic differences in various historical periods throughout the twentieth century, as well as in the contemporary period.

    The selections include historical and contemporary essays. They do not include all selections that might be considered ‘classical’, or the most widely read or cited, or debated. But this particular selection is essential in understanding contemporary debates, and more importantly, how the idea and story of racism has developed in different periods and within certain political and economic contexts. While a few of the articles are theoretical, the majority focus on concrete situations that students can relate to, and explore further through classroom discussion.

    Although most of the selections are from works in the 1990s, we do include a few from much earlier periods in order to emphasize two points: first, discussions about the nature and definition of racism have a long history and tradition; secondly, the earlier articles provide a base or framework for noting how the dialogue about racism has both changed, and remained the same. Readers will discover, for instance, that a scholarly explanation for racial inequality that may be countered and dismissed in one period, arises anew in another period. This is reflected by noting that the first chapter in the anthology, written in 1905 and full of paternalistic observations and conclusions, and actions, may be the kind of problem in dealing with racism today that is identified in the last chapter of the book, published in 1995. We decided to place this article first because it summarizes some of the thinking about the nature and causes of racism at the turn of the century during the height of imperialism. This article is useful because it shows that while the concept of racism and what it is has changed over various periods, there are nevertheless enduring ideas that are continually being proposed and debated by those interested in defining, challenging, or excusing racism in the contemporary period. By presenting the selections chronologically, and beginning with the turn of the century, students have an opportunity to discuss the antecedents of the idea and application of racism today.

    Many other articles could easily have been included in this reader. Our collection is presented as one of essential readings because collectively the student can obtain an understanding of the idea of racism and how it has been applied and utilized in economic and political arenas. Students can also witness through this reader how the definition and use of racism has changed in different settings and historical periods. This reader can provide an overview of how racism has changed as a result of differing legal and cultural developments, but at the same time, remained the same in some fundamental ways. Since this anthology is conceived as a textbook, we are also concerned that the selections generate dialogue and further investigation. Therefore, the editors have selected essays that are both informative and provocative, and perhaps even controversial; and as suggested above, concrete in terms of actual political and economic situations.

    Collectively, the selections cover the justification of racism as expounded by some writers throughout recent history, including theoretical explanations and even justifications for racism, the psychology of racism, and how racism has been molded by political interests, as well as racism as ideology. Some of the selections, for example, explain how racism has been, and continues to be utilized as a political tool by wealthy or powerful class interests, sometimes in subtle ways, but other times more openly. These selections serve to illustrate the historical and continuing existence and utility of racism.

    The selections reflect a wide range of perspectives, including those who advocated racist views, and those who challenged them in various social and economic settings. These selections also show that some scholars have concluded that racism is no longer significant as a social, economic, or political process. Scholars in this school may believe that today class and culture are far more significant than racism in explaining social and economic differences between racial and ethnic groups. Other writers in this anthology suggest, however, that racism is an enduring idea and ideology. These particular selections provide examples of how racism may be a factor in a range of social situations in the United States, and other societies. They argue, furthermore, that while the ideology and justification of racism may have been different in the early 1900s from the 1960s, or 1990s, certain components of this ideology, particularly the social and cultural, and intellectual ranking of racial and ethnic groups, has remained constant throughout many periods. It is interesting to note, for example, selections offering ‘evidence’ for justifying the belief that Europeans were intellectually and genetically superior to blacks or other non-European groups at the turn of the century. These presentations can be viewed as ignorant and prejudicial today. Yet, we are still debating and responding to works like that of Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein's The Bell Curve, where the belief in the genetic and intellectual superiority of European peoples is, again, proposed, albeit with supposedly contemporary and objective data.

    The selections in this anthology show that racism is still a pervasive social and intellectual force, and utilized to justify the social status of powerful interests and groups. The selections also show that racism represents a way of thinking that emerges from particular economic and political situations and particular distribution of wealth and privilege by race and ethnicity in many societies. Some writers in this volume believe that it is difficult to recognize racism because it is so imbued within a system of white-skin privileges. The social, cultural, and political order that supports such a system becomes normalized in the world-views of some groups, and therefore, the argument that racism is pervasive is both abhorred and challenged. Racism is abnormal, in other words, while white-skin privileges, while unacknowledged, represents the norm. The latter might be invisible, in a sense, because it represents a way of thinking, a socialization process that is not abrupt but rather constantly at play. Again, this reflects the story of racism which is not simply an event, but rather a way of thinking about racial and ethnic differences in society. Racism, this reader concludes, has been and continues to be pervasive, and is represented in fundamental social processes molding political, economic, and educational decisions in modern societies.

  • Conclusion

    Explaining the origins of racism is not a problem. Western philosophy and science since antiquity have sought to unravel the mysteries of descent, generation, inheritance and diversity by reference to a single, encapsulating framework. Race has proved an extraordinarily convenient instrument in this service. Complex human arrangements have been reduced to relatively simple terms and inequality rendered a matter of destiny.

    A much harder task is explaining the persistence of racism for so long after it has been discredited. Discoveries in the biological sciences and disclosures in the social sciences have challenged perspectives based on race as an organizing concept. As Ivan Hannaford writes in his Race: The History of an Idea in the West, ‘Above all else, these scientific works seriously call into question the definitions and presuppositions of race propounded with such certainty in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and upon which the tottering superstructure of modern intellectual investigation rests’ (1996: 7).

    Other initially persuasive ideas, such as phlogiston, germ-plasm or, entelechy (life-giving force), have been consigned to their place in history as ingenious though flawed attempts to advance understanding. Their retreat, or banishment has led to newer, improved and often liberating forms of knowledge. No one continues to believe in a mysterious internal vital force which directs the biological processes of an organism toward specific goals. And, if they did, they would be received in much the same way as flat-earthers: harmless cranks. But, those who cling to beliefs based on the notion of race are anything but harmless: in fact, they are malificient. As such, they debase rather than enrich culture. While it is important to ask why people accepted racism in the first place, it is now more exigent to ask why they carry on doing so.

    One simple answer is that de jure racism is still very fresh in the minds of whites in the USA and Britain. Until the 1954 Brown decision, the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine that owed so much to nineteenth-century biological and political theory, was a legitimate part of the American constitution. (The Plessy ruling of 1896 ensured this, of course.) In Britain, a racialized discourse, as some writers put it, influenced thoughts about difference, color and inherited inequalities based on race. Legal attempts to eradicate racialism the practice have failed to make too much indentation on beliefs that turn on the concept of race. In both contexts, racist ideas circulate, albeit in new forms and affect social relations in a way that could have been designed to encourage their persistence.

    In the nineteenth and early parts of the twentieth century, the self-fulfilling element of racism was clear enough. Identifying groups as Others and claiming to have special knowledge about their natural inferiority permitted, indeed legitimated, creating conditions under which those Others were denied education, means of worship and other staples customarily associated with a healthy way of life. Growing up with a status no better than that of cattle and living in environments that befitted cattle encouraged pitifully uneducated and impoverished creatures who resembled the Others who were once only a figment of the racists' imagination. Thus, racism fed its own perpetuation.

    Some early writers, many of whose work appears in this book, analyzed the functional importance of maintaining an ideology in which racism held sway. Cox, in particular, saw racism as a highly effective adjunct to Western capitalist economies that thrived on cheap, exploitable labor. Myrdal, who bore the brunt of much of Cox's critique, sensed a certain accommodation of racism in the American creed; though he also identified an inherent tension. Later writers, especially in the 1960s, stamped out the message that racism fitted wonderfully well with an entire system founded on the control, despotism and continued disempowerment of black people.

    But some contemporary writers believe that any vestigial function racism performed had disappeared by the 1990s. Joe Feagin and Hernàn Vera, in their White Racism, insist that Americans (and presumably all who live in racist cultures) should see racism for what it actually is: ‘A tremendously wasteful set of practices, legitimated by deeply embedded myths, that deprives its victims, its perpetrators, and U.S. society as a whole of much valuable human talent and energy and many social, economic, and political resources’ (1995: 9).

    Yet, who are the ‘perpetrators’ of this profligacy? In the 1950s and 1960s, they were easily identified. They were the ones that appeared on our television screens shouting about the free speech that was their natural right and the way of life they wanted to preserve. They were the ones that blockaded school gates to prevent African American children entering; who battered civil rights marchers and set fire to churches. And, of course, they were the ones who sometimes hid under white robes and rampaged across the south, terrorizing black people in their futile efforts to maintain the ancien régime of old America. That was then. Where are they now?

    Nobody is owning up to being a racist today. The passing of the Reagan–Bush era has allowed a new liberalism to flower. Liberals are opposed to any kind of bigotry, racism included; they know what is best for others. Like racists of old, they assert the right to free speech, though, for the most part, it is limited to exactly that: free speech with no necessary action. This is not a condemnation of liberalism. Yet, there are occasional examples of its problems, one coming from Britain.

    In 1997, a British research team published a report in which detailed a new form of racist bigotry which they called ‘Islamophobia’. This was a form of hatred or even resentment directed specifically against Muslims. The report's publication brought forth a welter of liberal indignation. Islam is a rapidly growing, heterogeneous faith. People the world over choose to adhere to this faith. In Britain, there are over one million Muslims. They have shown separatist tendencies, setting up their own denominational schools, their own mosques, their own businesses and other facilities. The report argued that this separatist movement has led to a specific form of phobia, whites either fearing or loathing all things Islamic. As the overwhelming majority of Muslims were of South Asian origin or descent, Islamophobia may have been a persecution based on religion (as the report suggested) or just another instance of racism.

    Today, racists come in many guises. Liberals who extol the virtues of multiculturalism are guided by the spirit of relativism. No one culture is better than another. No matter how exotic or even repulsive their habits may be, other cultures deserve regard, if not approval. But, in fleeing from any taint of racism of one kind, it is rather too easy to succumb to countless other types of coercion, exploitation and downright persecution.

    Racism might be understood as a form of refusal: an attempted fight against the changes catalyzed by civil rights and the expansion of equal opportunities. It appeals to an age when whites seemed safe in their positions of dominance and when they asserted some control over a world that now seems beyond their grasp. The extract by Adorno et al. depicts the kind of world yearned for by many racists. They strike against what must seem at times like a liberal conspiracy, a suspicion that has been lent substance by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Both deaths have, of course, been interpreted as the result of recondite right-wing machinations. Movies like Oliver Stone's JFK assist thinking along these lines.

    The conclusion we must reach is that racism is mutable. For many racists, the biggest shock is that society seems to change by itself; equal opportunity, anti-racism and black empowerment have gathered their own momentum (witness the Million Man and Million Woman Marches in 1996 and 1997 respectively). Culturally, racism and the equal opportunity it opposes are perfectly compatible solutions. Culture tells us to be good liberals and remain steadfast in our adherence to American values – to be good ‘Americans’. This introduces contradictory demands: to be a good American implicates us in a robust defence and perhaps belligerent defense of a nation which has origins in racial oppression, bondage, and subjugation. The boundaries of this nation are constantly being reinforced and good Americans are encouraged to feel proud of this.

    Myrdal's American dilemma, as we have seen in his extract, may once have seemed exactly that. But, from the vantage point of today, racism was not part of the dilemma at all, but a perverse solution to it. Someone can applaud the kinds of changes that have worked to amend some of the more glaring injustices that affect ethnic minorities yet cling to their boast of being a good American.

    During the late 1980s and 1990s, many African American groups became more vocal in the demands for some form of compensation for the atrocities of slavery, an institution once described by Jesse as ‘a hole on America's soul’. It is possible that, had a formal act of catharsis been conducted in the aftermath of the Civil War, when southern slaves were granted their freedom, racism might not linger as it does as the USA's most enduring problem. Of course, this may be a simplisitic piece of historical whimsy.

    What distinguishes black people in the USA from their counterparts in Britain and other parts of Europe or South Africa is the longevity of slavery, or, to be exact, its effects on the material conditions and consciousness of blacks and whites alike. Carmichael, Myrdal and many of the others writers featured in this volume were acutely aware of this.

    In nearly every case, the first black people to migrate to Britain, primarily from the colonial Caribbean, did so of their own free will. Needless to say, the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that factor into any mass migration were at work (in this case in the postwar period), but the movement was a voluntary one. Early studies indicated that, with very few exceptions, migrants in the 1950s confidently expected that they would return to their island homes, preferably after a profitable spell working in what they had come to regard as the ‘Mother Country’.

    For all the inhuman exploitation, savagery and oppression they suffered under apartheid, black people in South Africa managed to hang on to their language, their religions, their culture. It is perhaps one of the unintended consequences of a system that rigidly separated groups and permitted the continuation of cultural traditions.

    The African American experience is different. Blacks were alone in that they were the only people in what is, after all, a society of immigrants who did not originally come to America out of choice. The term du jour ‘colored people’ serves to emphasize the driven rootlessness of the African American experience, failing as it does to distinguish between the multitude of languages and cultures of the continent of Africa, and instead issuing a homogeneous label that may well be politically expedient, but also carries with it memories of the post-emancipation era when the term ‘colored’ was a polite way of describing a black person.

    Let us be plain: black Americans have not capitalized on the American dream because of the obstacles that have been set before them. It is misleading to point – as did Ronald Reagan – to the entrepreneurial zeal of Koreans, or the pluck and determination of other minority groups, many from parts of Europe. Black people's forebears travelled to America not in search of riches or to escape persecution, but because they were enslaved. Unlike the others, they do not possess in their collective memory that sense of optimism or rebirth that is in some way part of the experience of other Americans of migrant origins. Racism affects black people with a sharpness and virulence not felt by other ethnic minorities. If only for this reason alone, we should reconceive its consequences and ways of ameliorating them. For too long, we have satisified ourselves that the transition to a mature, multiethnic society would bring with it a dissolution of racism and the institutional discriminations it has fostered. This pluralistic policy now looks naive.

    Peter McLaren argues that it is time to move beyond a celebration of ‘liberal pluralism – because such a pluralism has an ideological center of gravity that rarely ever gets defined for what it is’ (1997: 214). He means that liberal pluralists, who encourage the promotion of ethnic diversity, remain part of a society that condones paying workers ‘little more than slave wages’, that calls for the privatization of education and looks on while the public sphere is allowed to disintegrate.

    McLaren's alternative is what he calls, in the title of his book on the subject, Revolutionary Multiculturalism, and this involves not only ‘analyzing our cultural and social present and decolonizing the Euro-American mind but… effectively organizing our responses to and encounters with the changing economic and cultural world’ (1997: 214). In an earlier work ('White terror and oppositional agency'), McLaren (1994) has referred to ‘critical multiculturalism’ and warns: ‘Diversity must be affirmed within a politics of cultural criticism and a commitment to social justice’, adding that ‘We need to refocus on “structural” oppression in the forms of patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy’.

    Cultures that espouse white supremacy are easy targets. But, what are we to do about cultures that uphold the virtues of patriarchy (Islam) or capitalism (practically all South and East Asian cultures, including China)? There is a coercive edge about any strategy that purports to affirm the rightness of its own moral position at the cost of others. Intuitively, we know that the kinds of subjugation and tyranny opposed in McLaren's critical multiculturalism are wrong. Yet, we still need to recognize that the reasons we ‘know’ they are wrong are because we are products of a particular kind of radicalized discourse which promotes its own values over those of others. McLaren wants a politically resistant, oppositional approach not only to racism, but to all forms of oppression that he finds intolerable.

    This seems a laudable stance and one which will find favor with all those committed to opposing racism; but it is simply not multicultural in any meaningful sense. True, it offers an unwavering hostility toward racism and several other kinds of -isms. Yet, in terms of values, it surrenders nothing to cultures that differ from that of the critic.

    One of the tendencies that is evident in recent years is found in many of the extracts selected from the mid-1960s. The term ‘institutional racism’ was, as we have seen, introduced by Hamilton and Carmichael. It was an effulgent concept, lighting up a completely new way of understanding and analyzing the manifold effects of racism. The term has been refined in several ways, many of them by authors appearing in this volume. There is no doubting that, in the late 1990s, its purpose was in turning our attentions away from racism as an individual phenomenon – as a property of individuals or as having consequences for individuals – and toward a more abstract formulation; in other words, as a characteristic of entire organizations or even cultures. The problem with conceiving of racism in this way has now become evident: it lessens the responsibility of individuals by offloading the blame onto entire discourses.

    Institutional racism's service has been in its stimulation of debate. How can we discover it? How can we establish culpability? How can we convert it into a research instrument? How can we change social policies designed for individuals into ones that can affect entire institutions? There is no doubting that the term has reoriented thinking and had a bracing effect on all those concerned with racism, whether at a practical or a scholarly level (though, of course, those two levels are not mutually exclusive). But, by the mid-1990s, talk was no longer of institutional racism and how we might search and destroy it. Neoconservative writers, such as Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele, and self-styled liberal William Julius Wilson came to constitute a chorus. All, in their own way, raised doubts, not so much about the existence of race, but about its impact. In Steele's colorful terms, racism, while once a monstrous threat to black people, had diminished to the stature of a irritating insect – which needed to be swotted. As long as ethnic minorities in general and African Americans in particular continued to labor in the role of perennial victims and squander their energies on fighting the insect-like irritant, they would not ‘progress’ as individuals.

    The developing consensus on the insignificance of racism complemented the postmodern turn that was influencing the academies of North America and Europe. New, personalized visions of personal liberation tended to supplant older solidarity-based coalitions, themselves geared toward the condemnation of grand racial narratives. ‘Big’ concepts like racism lost some of their purchase, so that, by the late 1990s, efforts were redirected from emphasizing the unity, sharedness and coherence of ethnic minorities toward a celebration of uniqueness, fragmentation and diffusion of the black experience. By default or design, one of the effects of this was to undermine the potency of racism as an explanatory tool, not to mention as a rallying cry.

    In his The Recovery of Race in America, Aaron Gresson suggests that racism is nearly defunct: by this he does not mean that forms of thought and behavior once described as racist has disappeared, but that the meaning of such thought and behavior has become negotiable. The import of Gresson's argument is that thoughts and deeds that were, until the recent past, thought to be unambiguous instances of racism (indeed, we should add, were instances of racism) are now not so clear-cut. “Traditionalists” will want to retain the moral force of racism and continue to use the language and imagery to effect. These include ethnic minorities and whites. Yet, there are others, again from all ethnic origins, who will confront traditionalists as ‘violators of the individuality of the person’. This heterogeneous group ‘disavow the traditional in favor of a private vision rooted in the experience of problematic but personally satisfying choices’ (1995: 21).

    On this account, there is a new, seductively plausible ‘white racial story’. Many whites have reconstructed the aged racist theory that African Americans and other ethnic minorities are inferior. In the new version, they are privileged. Images of black success abound, not only from sports and entertainment, but, increasingly, from politics and high-profile professions. Compared to the likes of multimillionare superstars, many whites may be impoverished and, according to Greeson, ‘they believe white men have had to pay for Black success’. In this scenario, the white male is the victim. This in itself is intimidating enough, but its iniquity expands when it begins to be examined, debated and even heeded by a variegated black population which grows in complexity, plurality and heterogeneity by the day. Hence we have what Greeson takes to be ‘one of the most powerful threats to belief in the traditional racial narrative’.

    If even part of this vision is to be accepted, we need to recognize not only that a new status may be being (or possibly has been) conferred on the concept of racism, but that many divergent statuses may be under discussion. But, while racism in the popular imagination is under scrutiny, the basic inequalities remain and each new piece of empirical evidence supports the view that efforts to remove them have not had the impact many liberals had hoped for.

    There is a line in Bryan Singer's 1995 movie The Usual Suspects in which one of the characters compares the mysteriously elusive arch-criminal Kaiser Soze to the devil: ‘The devil's biggest trick is in persuading the world that he doesn't really exist.’ We may yet look back at the final decade of the twentieth century and realize that racism's most malfeasant perpetration was not unlike the devil's.

    Feagin, Joe and Vera, Hernán (1995) White Racism: The Basics. New York: Routledge.
    Gresson, Aaron D. (1995) The Recovery of Race in America. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
    Hannaford, Ivan (1996) Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
    McLaren, Peter (1994) ‘White terror and oppositional agency’, in David T.Goldberg (ed.), Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.
    McLaren, Peter (1997) Revolutionary Multiculturalism: Pedagogies of Dissent for the New Millennium. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
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