Bonacich, Edna

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Bonacich, Edna 1940-


Edna Bonacich is one of the leading scholars on race and class in the United States. Her work focuses on social inequality, labor, immigration, sweatshops, and global production. She gained prominence in the 1970s based on the publication of three seminal articles in the American Sociological Review. Bonacich later coauthored books on middlemen minorities and immigrant entrepreneurs (with John Modell and Ivan Light, respectively) and she coedited two volumes on Asian immigration. She also coedited a book on the apparel industry in the Pacific Rim region and coauthored (with Richard Appelbaum) Behind the Label (2000), an award-winning book that examines the Los Angeles garment industry and the resurgence of sweatshop labor.

Bonacich was born in Connecticut in 1940. She lived in New York City for several years before moving with her father (a Jewish reform rabbi), mother, and two siblings to South Africa in 1950. Witnessing the worlds most racist regime first-hand profoundly influenced her career as a sociologist. While living in South Africa, she joined a Zionist youth organization that focused on establishing collective farms (kibbutzim ) in Israel. After graduating from high school, she lived in Israel for a year, living on two separate kibbutzim, before she became disillusioned with Zionism (Bonacich 2005). She eventually moved back to South Africa and became a student at the University of Natal, where she graduated with a Bachelors of Social Science degree in sociology, psychology, and English in 1961. She obtained her masters and doctoral degrees in sociology from Harvard University in 1966 and 1969, respectively. In 1970 she started working in the Sociology Department at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), and she stayed there until her retirement in 2006.

Bonacichs experiences in South Africa and Israel strongly shaped her views about race and class. Those views included the well-known but controversial claim that racism and capitalism emerged nearly simultaneously, and that both systems of inequality should therefore be concurrently challenged and abolished. Split labor markets (in which one group of workers is paid more than another) and middlemen minorities prevented these changes from taking place, however. Rather than create coalitions with mostly lower-paid workers of color, higher-paid white workers have typically favored exclusionary legislation in the United States. Meanwhile, both white workers and workers of color have often singled out middlemen minorities, who occupy an intermediate strata (or buffer) between capital and labor. These middlemen minorities are treated as scapegoats as both white workers and workers of color blame them for their problems in the workforce. Before World War II (1939-1945), for example, Japanese American farmers faced racist legislation that prevented them from owning land. During the war, they were put into concentration camps and lost nearly all their possessions.

More recently, many Korean-owned businesses in Los Angeles established a vibrant middlemen minority community in the 1970s and 1980s (Bonacich and Light 1988), only to have them targeted and burned down during the 1992 riots. Capitalisms longevity is thus largely based on these racial and ethnic antagonisms.

This perspective, while theoretically and empirically rich, has generated concerns among some Marxist-oriented sociologists and historians. Bonacich, these scholars claim, mistakenly assumes that the working-class was primarily responsible for creating and sustaining racism. Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994), in contrast, find Bonacichs economic determinism and class reductionism troubling. Miles and Brown (2003), moreover, suggest that racism exists autonomously from capitalism, meaning that it predates capitalism and persists in socialist societies. It has also been claimed that class is no more important than gender, race, or sexuality, and that social movements and nation-states socially construct race around certain practices, projects, and discourses (Anderson and Collins 2006; Omi and Winant 1994). The fact that Omi and Winants racial formation paradigm became so influential in the 1980s and 1990s is extremely ironic because discussions about classthat supposedly anachronistic and old-fashioned conceptmade a comeback as economic inequality rose in the United States and around the world during that same time period.

Globalization, or what some Marxists call imperialism, is largely responsible for this latter trend. Capitalism reproduces itself through imperialism, which generates poverty and misery within the Third World, leading to migration into developed countries like the United States. This fact, coupled with U.S. support for neoliberal economic policies and right-wing dictatorships, facilitated significant migration from Mexico and Central America in the 1980s and 1990s. These Latino migrants made up the backbone of the Los Angeles garment industry, which became the nations largest site for apparel production in the 1990s.

Los Angeles garment workers have endured sweatshop conditions, involving very long hours and extremely low pay. The return of the sweatshop resulted from the restructuring of the U.S. economy following the worldwide economic crisis of the 1970s. Restructuring involved cutting back social programs, attacking labor unions, and rolling back legal protections for workers. The resistance efforts of workers have not been very effective, however, because garment workers sometimes see their immediate employer, typically an Asian immigrant contractor, as their enemy (Bonacich and Appelbaum 2000). But the real power brokers in the garment industry are giant retailers and manufacturers like Wal-Mart and Nike, which are usually controlled by wealthy white men. Class conflict, therefore, is played out along racial lines. The middlemen minority group (Asian contractors) is blamed for labors woes, while capital goes largely unchallenged.

Bonacich and Appelbaum note that even when capital is challengedsuch as when the U.S. garment workers union, UNITE, targeted Guess Inc. in the mid-1990sit can simply shut down and move someplace else. The Guess campaign and many others inside and outside the United States were undermined by capital mobility in the 1990s. Because the garment industry is so mobile, better opportunities for labor organizing may lie within nonmobile sectors like the logistics industry. Bonacich, along with Jake B. Wilson, has been studying the possibility of organizing longshore, trucking, transportation, rail, and warehouse workers (mostly people of color), who could potentially bring global capitalism to a standstill if they refused to handle goods that came through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

These have been the hallmarks of Professor Bonacichs distinguished career. She has not only interpreted the world, but, as Marx famously said, she has worked to change it for the better through her research, teaching, mentoring, and involvement with the labor and anti-sweatshop movements. Her provocative work on split labor markets, middlemen minorities, immigration, sweatshops, and global production has influenced numerous scholars and activists. Split labor market theory, for instance, is mentioned in most introductory sociology textbooks, while her studies on the Los Angeles garment and logistics industries have been invaluable for labor unions and community organizations. She is a true role model for progressive academics who wish to combine scholarship with activism.

SEE ALSO Middleman Minorities; Migrant Labor; Textile Industry



Bonacich, Edna. 1972. A Theory of Ethnic Antagonism: The Split Labor Market. American Sociological Review 37: 547559.

Bonacich, Edna. 1973. A Theory of Middlemen Minorities. American Sociological Review 38: 583594.

Bonacich, Edna. 1976. Advanced Capitalism and Black/White Relations in the United States: A Split Labor Market Perspective. American Sociological Review 41: 3451.

Bonacich, Edna. 1989. Inequality in America: The Failure of the American System for People of Color. Sociological Spectrum 9 (1): 77101.

Bonacich, Edna. 2005. Working with the Labor Movement: A Personal Journey in Organic Public Sociology. American Sociologist 36 (34): 105120.

Bonacich, Edna, and Richard Appelbaum. 2000. Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bonacich, Edna, and Lucie Cheng. 1984. Labor Immigration Under Capitalism: Asian Workers in the U.S. Before World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bonacich, Edna, and Ivan Light. 1988. Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Koreans in Los Angeles, 19651982. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bonacich, Edna, and John Modell. 1980. The Economic Basis of Ethnic Solidarity: Small Business in the Japanese American Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval