The concept of racialization has developed over time. In his 1989 book Racism, sociologist Robert Miles described racialization as “a dialectical process by which meaning is attributed to particular biological features of human beings, as a result of which individuals may be assigned to a general category of persons which reproduces itself biologically.… The process of racialization of human beings entails the racialization of the processes in which they participate and the structures and institutions that result” (Miles 1989, p. 76). Earlier, in The Wretched of the Earth, the political theorist Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) had described the “racialization of thought” in reference to the failure of early Europeans to recognize that Africans had a distinct culture that was unique to them. Instead Europeans, “set up white culture to fill the gap left by [what they believed was] the absence of other cultures” (Fanon 2001, p. 171). Sociologist Yehudi Webster later defined the concept of racialization as “a systemic accentuation of certain physical attributes to allocate persons to races that are projected as real and thereby become the basis for analyzing all social relations” (Webster 1992, p. 3). Webster goes on to argue that “the second foundations of racialization are provided by social scientific research on race relations, in which the disciplines of history and sociology play an eminent role” (p. 4).
Culture is a key aspect in both Miles’s and Fanon’s definitions of racialization. Historically, there have been intense debates over the issue of race as a social construction versus race based on biology. Omi and Winant addressed the debate and articulated the concept of racialization that many scholars use today. They defined racial formation as “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.… Race is a matter of both social structure and cultural representation” (Omi and Winant 1994, pp. 55–56). This view revolutionized the conception of race as a process and as a social construction.
Some scholars have critiqued current definitions of racialization. Karim Murji and John Solomos, for example, argue that the idea of racialization “has become a core concept in the analysis of racial phenomena, particularly to signal the processes by which ideas about race are constructed, come to be regarded as meaningful, and are acted upon.… Racialization is applied to whole institutions such as the police, educational or legal systems, or entire religions, nations, and countries” (Solomos 2005, p. 1).
Sociologist Joe Feagin argues that “Omi and Winant view the past of North American slavery and legal segregation as not weighing ‘like a nightmare on the brain of the living,’ but rather as lingering on ‘like a hangover’ that is gradually going away” (Feagin 2006, p. 7). Feagin adds that what is “missing in both the mainstream race-ethnic relations approach and much of the racial formation approach is a full recognition of the big picture—the reality of this whole society being founded on, and firmly grounded in, oppression targeting African Americans (and other people of color) now for several centuries. Given that deep underlying reality of this society, all racialethnic relationships and events, past and present, must be placed within that racial oppression context in order to be well-understood” (p. 7).
Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva notes that although the perspective of Omi and Winant “represents a breakthrough, it still gives undue attention to ideological/cultural processes, does not regard races as truly social collectivities, and overemphasizes the racial projects … of certain actors (neoconservatives, members of the far right, liberals), thus obscuring the social and general character of racialized societies” (Bonilla-Silva 1997, p. 466). Bonilla-Silva further states:
Although all racialized systems are hierarchical, the particular character of the hierarchy, and thus the racial structure, is variable.… The racial practices and mechanisms that have kept Blacks subordinated changed from overt to eminently racist to covert and indirectly racist. The unchanging element throughout these stages is that Blacks’ life chances are significantly lower than those of Whites, and ultimately a racialized social order is distinguished by this difference in life chances.… The historical struggle against chattel slavery led not to the development of race-free societies but to the establishment of social system with a different kind of racialization. (Bonilla-Silva 1997, p. 470)
In their 2005 book Racialization, Murji and Solomos summarize the arguments that suggest that the conception of racialization introduced by Omi and Winant may not have represented a breakthrough:
Barot and Bird feel that Omi and Winant “use the concept of racial formation as a perspective that is not fundamentally different from the concept of racialization as deployed in British literature in the 1980’s.… Miles himself has argued that Omi and Winant’s conception of racialization is underdeveloped and not used systematically.… Miles and Torres state, ‘Omi and Winant’s defence of the race concept is a classic example of the way in which the academy in the US continues to racialize the world.’” (Murji and Solomos 2005, p. 22–23)
Bonilla-Silva proposes use of “the more general concept of racialized social systems as the starting point for an alternative framework. This term refers to societies in which economic, political, social and ideological levels are partially structured by the placement of actors in racial categories or races” (Bonilla-Silva 1997, p. 469). In rethinking a theory of racial oppression, Feagin suggests three elements: “It should indicate clearly the major features— both the structures and the counterforces—of the social phenomenon being studied; it should show the relationships between the important structures and forces; and it should assist in understanding both the patterns of social change and the lack of social change” (Feagin 2006, p. 7). As the critiques of these scholars suggest, the concept of racialization has changed over time and continues to change.
SEE ALSO Discrimination; Preference, Color; Race; Race Relations; Racism; Whiteness; Whitening
Barot, Rohit, and John Bird. 2001. Racialization: The Genealogy and Critique of a Concept. Ethnic and Racial Studies 24 (4): 601–618.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 1997. Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation. American Sociological Review 62 (3): 465–480.
Fanon, Frantz. 2001. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Penguin.
Feagin, Joe R. 2006. Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.
Miles, Robert. 1989. Racism. London: Routledge. 2nd ed., 2003.
Miles, Robert, and Rodolfo D. Torres. 1999. Does Race Matter? In Race, Identity, and Citizenship: A Reader, eds. Rodolfo Torres, Louis Mirón, and Jonathan Xavier Inda, 3–38. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Murji, Karim, and John Solomos. 2005. Racialization: Studies in Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.
Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
Webster, Yehudi O. 1992. The Racialization of America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.