Introduced in 1986 by Howard Winant and Michael Omi, the theory of racial formation has extensively influenced the field of racial and ethnic relations. Racial formation theory extends the general sociological principle of race being a socially constructed concept that is contested and undergoes changes over time. Primarily an analysis of how U.S. society has been re-racializing since the 1960s through a number of racial projects, the theory discusses the transformation of racial categories largely by efforts in the political arena and the ways in which racial meanings affect this process.
Omi and Winant define racial formation as “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed” (1994, p. 55). They argue that this process of racialization is situated between structure and representation, whereby, at certain points in history, racial meaning is extended to a racial relationship, social practice, or group. Racial ideology is constructed and reconstructed from preexisting conceptual elements and emerges from the struggles of competing political projects and ideas seeking to articulate similar elements differently. Additionally, Omi and Winant argue that race is an organizing principle not just at the societal (macro) level, but also at the individual (micro) level, shaping the identities of individuals and affecting all areas of social life. However, they do give substantial emphasis in their analysis to the macro level, arguing that racial conflict occurs primarily at the level of the state. In their estimation, the process of racial formation takes place in two steps: through racial projects and the evolution of hegemony.
Omi and Winant (1994) argue that society is suffused with racial projects, which form the “heart” of the racial formation process. They define a racial project as “simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines” (1994, p. 56). Racial projects are the link between structure and ideology, in that they mediate between the discursive ways race is identified and signified on one hand, and the institutional forms in which it is routinized on the other. Racial projects give us new ways of reasoning about race, new plans for action, and often new language and discourse with which to talk about race and possibly even mask racist ideas.
Through historical analysis, Omi and Winant assert that the most successful racial projects since the 1960s (largely carried out by neoconservative members of the ruling class) have furthered the notion that liberal racial policies gone wrong are to blame for many of society’s problems. For example, affirmative action programs created by whites to modestly address some extreme racial inequities have been effectively reframed as “reverse discrimination,” harmful to white Americans’ life chances, and even detrimental to beneficiaries of color on a psychological level. This racial project was one of several competing projects, but eventually prevailed in the political and social arenas.
The theory of racial formation had a major impact on the study of racial and ethnic relations and is incorporated into most critical race scholarship. Little prior theory, in addition to much current mainstream research, gives attention to the role of government in creating racial-ethnic groups and, instead, a great deal of scholarship attempts to subsume contemporary racial issues underneath matters of ethnicity, nationality, or class (e.g., Wilson 1980). However, while Omi and Winant’s theory gives important insight into racial formation as a freestanding social process, critical race scholars give some noteworthy critique.
Some race theorists argue that Omi and Winant give ideological processes excessive emphasis, and little attention is devoted to how racial orders are structured (Bonilla-Silva 2001; Feagin 2006). Specifically, the racial formation theory does not aid understanding of the ways in which the ideological formation of race has been buttressed by extensive generation of wealth and assets for white Americans (Feagin 2006). Thus, Omi and Winant attend well to the symbolic and less well to the structural.
Similarly, because Omi and Winant do not present racial groups as collectivities who contest their positioning in the racial hierarchy, their analysis casts little light on why people fight over racial matters and either accept or challenge racial projects (Bonilla-Silva 2001). Omi and Winant also claim that the most recent rearticulation of the racial ideology has been carried out by certain right-wing members of the dominant class, but this analysis neglects a systemic understanding of the process (Bonilla-Silva 2001). Nevertheless, racial formation theory provides subsequent scholars with a solid reference point for the racial theories of the future.
SEE ALSO Affirmative Action; Ethnic Conflict; Ethnic Fractionalization; Feagin, Joseph; Hierarchy; Inequality, Wealth; Poststructuralism; Race; Racial Classification; Racialization; Racism
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2001. White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Feagin, Joe R. 2006. Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.
Wilson, William Julius. 1980. The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.