Cultural Racism

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Cultural Racism





Cultural racism is one of several terms that scholars have coined to describe and explain new racial ideologies and practices that have emerged since World War II. The postwar era has seen the demise of overt forms of racism in Europe, North America, Australia, and the global postcolonial world. Reeling from the horrors of Nazism, Europe and other Western nations formally rejected racist values and established antiracism legislation. The world community, through the 1966 United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, put itself on record as opposing racism.

The post–World War II era also witnessed the success of anticolonial movements; the dismantling of old colonial, racist structures; and the emergence of newly independent nations, such as India, with strong commitments to equality and social justice. In the United States, the civil rights movement succeeded in eradicating most formal, legal, and other institutionalized forms of racism, from segregated schools, jobs, housing, and public facilities to antimiscegenation laws which forbade interracial sex or marriage.

By the beginning of the 1970s, most overt forms of racism had disappeared in Western countries, colonialism was virtually dead, and with the striking exception of South Africa, majority rule had replaced European minority rule. Yet racial inequality persisted, and in some cases had worsened, judging by standard socioeconomic indicators. This was true on a global scale, when “First World” and “Third World” nations were compared, as well as in western European nations, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Scholars have struggled to understand the apparent stubborn persistence of racial inequality (Harrison 1995; Mullings 2005). They have tried to identify the more covert forms racism has taken since the 1970s, including its varied permutations in different historical, national, and local settings. They have also tried to explain the processes that foster racial inequality without “overtly targeting its victims” (Mullings 2005, p. 679).

There is general agreement that these new forms are both complex and subtle, and that they operate in ways that do not require the formal assistance of educational, legal, and other institutions. Several terms have emerged to characterize what is sometimes called “the new racism” (or, perhaps, racisms. These include “laissez-faire racism,” “cultural fundamentalism,” “unmarked racisms,” “neoracism,” “color-blind racism,” and “cultural racism.”

“Cultural racism” is not yet a standard label in the race and racism literature, especially in the United States. It is virtually absent in the anthropological literature and has only recently appeared in the U.S. sociological literature (Bonilla-Silva 2003). It is more common in the European literature (Modood 2005) and among U.S. scholars familiar with European debates on race (Wylie 2001). Yet even when scholars use the term “cultural racism,” they do not necessarily employ it in the same way.

Yet if one worries less about labels and focuses on recurring themes that emerge in the literature on the “new racism,” there is widespread agreement on a set of processes occurring that can be labeled “cultural racism.” At its core, cultural racism is a form of racism (that is, a structurally unequal practice) that relies on cultural differences rather than on biological markers of racial superiority or inferiority. The cultural differences can be real, imagined, or constructed. Culture, rather than biology, has become a popular, political, and scientific explanatory framework for understanding and rationalizing the unequal status and treatment of various racial groups. Racialized groups are not burdened or blessed by their genetic traits but by their cultural traits.

Cultural racism manifests itself in different ways. At least three forms of cultural racism are discussed in the literature: (1) cultural-difference explanations and solutions for inequality, (2) a continuing rationale for modern imperialism, and (3) race discourse and political rhetoric.


The emergence of cultural racism partially reflects the discrediting of old biological explanations for racial inequality. Arguments of cultural differences in the United States were originally employed as an alternative to biological explanations for racial inequality, often by liberals committed to racial justice. Since the 1960s, anthropologists and other scientists have amassed evidence showing that biological races do not exist, that racial categories are cultural inventions rather than scientifically valid partitions of the human species, and that race is not a useful, accurate, or meaningful description of human biological variation (Mukhopadhyay and Henze 2003; Mukhopadhyay, Henze, and Moses 2007). In short, they have argued that race as biology is fiction and that racial classifications are historical and culturally specific ideologies invented to justify slavery and other forms of systematic, institutionalized inequality.

In the absence of biological explanations for racial differences and racial inequality, researchers turned to culture—exploring, for example, the role of cultural or linguistic factors in the educational achievement of minority groups or the role of family structure in reproducing poverty across generations. For liberals and anthropologists, culture (unlike biology) was never a barrier to achieving racial equality. All humans have the same capacity for culture, and all cultures are learned. Moreover, cultures are dynamic, flexible, creative human adaptations, changing over time and in different circumstances. If, as some argued, the culture of African Americans or Puerto Rican migrants differed from the dominant U.S. culture, that “problem” could be solved. New cultural ways could be learned, either by abandoning old ways or by acquiring a second cultural repertoire, much like a second language. Cultural differences, while recognized, were not viewed as insurmountable obstacles to racial equality. Culture was instead the explanatory paradigm for racial inequality, and cultural assimilation was the solution.

Cultural-difference arguments have come under scrutiny, however, and many scholars have come to consider them examples of cultural racism. Critics have pointed out that, historically, cultural differences between Europeans (or Euro-Americans) and non-Europeans have always been framed in terms of superiority and inferiority. In the United States, Africans and other racial groups were deemed culturally inferior to “whites” (meaning those from northwestern Europe). Nineteenth-century evolutionary science attempted to rank racial groups from “primitive” to “advanced.” They did not simply use biology, but also what would come to be called culture. For example, British marriage and kinship forms (monogamy and nuclear families) were considered more “advanced” than other cultural forms (e.g., polygamy or multigenerational, extended families).

During the twentieth century, arguments for the superiority of Anglo (Christian) culture grew more strident as U.S. anti-immigration legislation restricted the entry of “lower ranked” European subraces (such as “Semitic” or “Alpine”). Dominant groups feared cultural pollution from “inferior” cultures, and immigrants were expected to assimilate to the “superior” culture. The only question was whether all races and subraces, such as southern and eastern Europeans or the Irish, were capable of assimilating to the dominant Anglo (Protestant) culture.

With the rejection of race as biology in the post– World War I, post–civil rights era, cultural difference as cultural deficit, or what is now called “cultural racism,” was the reigning paradigm. During the 1960s, for example, African American school children were considered linguistically impoverished, possessing linguistic forms fundamentally inferior to the standard American English taught in schools. African American families, with a core matrifocal unit and extended kinship ties, were described as not only inferior but pathological (“dysfunctional”) relative to the European American nuclear family.

Oscar Lewis’s theory of a “culture of poverty,” initially based on fieldwork in Mexico and Puerto Rico, focused on cultural adaptations to the circumstances of poverty. Yet some interpreted his findings within what might be called a “poverty of culture” framework, seeing other cultures as clearly inferior and deficient compared to middle-class U.S. American or Western culture, and as the primary barrier to upward mobility. When applied to racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States, the culture of poverty approach, or more often, the poverty of culture approach, became the explanation for why families remained poor or children did poorly in school. Culture, in short, rather than any larger system of inequality, produced racialized poverty or educational underachievement. In the educational jargon of the late 1960s and early 1970s, minority children were “culturally deprived.” Implicitly, for those who wished to see it that way, poor people had only their culture (and hence themselves) to blame. Many scholars now characterize this literature as an example of cultural racism.

During the 1970s and 1980s, largely because of the activism of racial minorities, the U.S. and some European nations, including Britain, began to accept and even celebrate the cultural differences of racial groups. Racial minorities, including indigenous and immigrant groups, embraced their cultural roots, rejecting the prevailing philosophy that assimilation was essential for social advancement. Cultural relativism prevailed, at least in theory. All cultures became valued equally. In this sense, society had become “color-

blind.” That is, “color” was irrelevant. Or rather, all colors were relevant.

From the perspective of many racial minorities, the goal was mutual respect and an institutionalized recognition of cultural diversity as legitimate. The era of “multiculturalism” took various forms. In Britain, it included having Imams as chaplains in prison and setting up separate public schools for Muslim children. In the United States, it ranged from recognizing alternative cultural celebrations such as Kwanzaa, to creating “cultural” (ethnic) clubs on campuses, establishing ethnic studies departments, pursuing Afrocentric curriculum, and broadening affirmative action goals to include cultural diversity.

Old “culturally deprived” terminology was replaced with cultural diversity, cultural competence, and other language that conveyed respect for multiple and equally valid cultural forms. In the educational context, teacher education programs emphasized diverse learning styles, expressive forms, and other educationally relevant cultural resources that children from varied racial backgrounds bring to school. Many well-intentioned educators committed themselves to teaching to the child, rather than forcing the child to assimilate to the culture of the school.

Nevertheless, despite success at institutionalizing multiculturalism, racial inequality persists. Educational under-achievement remains a major problem for most indigenous and racial minorities. In a 2006 editorial in the New York Times, Orlando Patterson put forward the idea that “cultural” arguments have been totally rejected, and that only structural explanations (the “system”) are currently acceptable explanations for underachievement. Yet cultural “differences,” while now positively valued, continue as a predominant explanatory framework for variations in the educational achievement of racial groups. Researchers continue to explore more complex, but nevertheless cultural, processes that depress educational achievement, such as cultures of “opposition” among some U.S. racial groups. These school peer cultures consciously “oppose,” it is argued, the perceived emphasis of the racially dominant culture on academic excellence.

While culture has become the new explanation for racial inequality, cultural racism employs a concept of culture that is, from an anthropological perspective, enormously simplistic, static, rigid, overly homogeneous, deterministic, ahistoric, and without context. Culture is depicted as so deeply embedded, so tradition-bound, that it is nearly “intrinsic” or “natural” to a group. In short, culture is “naturalized” and “essentialized,”making it nearly as immutable as biology. The line between cultural essentialism and biological determinism is sometimes indistinguishable. Culture thus becomes an explanation for racial inequality that offers little hope for change. Cultural racism depicts culture as an insurmountable obstacle for racial minorities or an insurmountable advantage for dominant racial groups.

Minority groups, of course, can also employ essentialized, naturalized images of cultures and ignore underlying structural factors. Sometimes this is a conscious political strategy, such as when it is used by Native Americans (as culturally superior “stewards of the land”) to maintain control over their lands. Nevertheless, such examples would not be considered “cultural racism” because of the power relations involved. That is, they are not the dominant groups’ characterization of a subordinate group.

Cultural-difference explanations for racial inequality are coming under increasing attack, partially for the reasons just cited. But critics go farther. Focusing on culture, they argue, ignores the larger national, global, economic, and political forces that contribute to social inequality, whether racial or nonracial. Thus, complex, multifactorial, multileveled, and nuanced analysis is needed to understand the processes that contribute, on different levels, to persistent racial inequality.


Many scholars argue that social inequality has been racialized, even though its roots are not racial. Cultural racism, from their perspective, is simply a new ideological device for masking more fundamental processes of global capitalism that are responsible for contemporary inequality and stratification. Cultural racism is the latest “discourse” of the powerful to justify domination, a discourse that some say has its roots in the colonial era.

These scholars are examining the relationship between cultural racism and the pursuit of imperialism and capitalist developmental goals. They note how ideas of cultural superiority and inferiority among nations serve to justify the political and economic subjugation of the seemingly economically “backward” Third World countries. With the decline of biological explanations of racial disparities, cultural racism emerges as an updated explanation of continual, yet seemingly hidden, transformations in a postcolonial and globalizing era. Analysts view cultural racism as a widespread manifestation of (and response to) such transformations as global labor competition, powerful multinational corporations, and increasingly concentrated wealth, although these are expressed differently in local contexts.

Studies of colonial and postcolonial migrant labor, particularly within the western European context, trace the emergence of an ideology of cultural racism to industrial and postindustrial capitalism. In the British context, the sociologist Robert Miles (1982) describes the nineteenthcentury racialization of Irish migrant laborers, the negative depictions of the Irish, and the use of these culturally racist images to justify the exploitation and mistreatment of Irish. More significant, cultural racism operated to mask the more substantive class relations underlying Irish-British relations. Studies continue to show how racial ideologies, such as cultural racism, are integral to class formations and capitalist development.

Third World social ills are not interpreted as rooted in institutions, in power relations between nations and governments. Rather, proponents of cultural explanations highlight the cultural inferiority of sub ordinate groups and the cultural superiority of dominant groups. Third World cultures are “mired” in insurmountably “traditional,” “static” values and practices—in contrast to purportedly flexible, pragmatic, and “scientific” First World practices. Third World nations can only “benefit” from their inclusion in the global polity and economy. But to do so, Third World countries must undertake significant self-sacrifices and take “individual” responsibility to overcome their traditional “backward” cultural practices.

Frantz Fanon was one of the first to explore the role of cultural racism as a new legitimizing ideology for imperialism. In his 1956 speech “Racism and Culture,” the Martinique-born and French-trained psychiatrist used the term “cultural racism” to emphasize the impact of western European cultures on the minds of its colonized and newly independent populous. Fanon referred to it as an “enslavement” doctrine that targets the psyche, destroying cultural values and the ways of life of colonized people and producing alienation. The colonized, in contrast, never question the intrinsic “superiority” of their culture. Fanon viewed this doctrine as the ideological content necessary for the “systematized oppression of a people.”

Others have built on Fanon’s work, showing how cultural racism reinforces dominant-subordinate relations between former colonies and colonizers, whether between “First” and “Third” World nations or among racial groups within newly independent states, such as South Africa and Zimbabwe. Cultural racism has shaped the social psyche of varying groups and complicates efforts to create “culturally authentic” national institutions in postindependence contexts. For instance, colonial structures of cultural domination often created both western-trained elites and revolutionary fighters, each offering a different cultural version of postindependence, nationalist redemption.

Scholars such as Arun Sivanandan offer reminders that Fanon’s notion of cultural racism persists under postcolonial forms of imperialism, as political and economic refugees flow from Third to First World nations. One legacy of cultural racism, he argues, is the continuing appeal of the colonial culture, prompting some former colonials to migrate to Europe. Once there, they encounter, even more pervasively, the colonial legacy, including its assumption of cultural superiority and its erosive effects on the psyche of the formerly colonized. This legacy is visible in all institutions, and it exists subliminally in “the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the music you hear, the television you watch, the newspaper you read” (Sivanandan 1989, p. 12).

Some analysts focus on how cultural racism has been linked since the 1980s to what are called “neoliberal” economic practices. These practices seek to privatize government activities (e.g., public health, education, and prisons), dismantle government laws regulating corporations and protecting labor and the environment, and eliminate restrictions on trade between countries. Institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization argue that neoliberal policies and structural adjustment will help “develop” and “modernize” Third World economies, alleviate poverty, and curtail what they describe as cultural deficiencies such as political corruption, social welfare dependency, and insularity (i.e., economic protectionism).

Critics observe how neoliberalism, through the discourses of government officials, development agencies, and powerful media, implicitly employs cultural-racist explanations for inequality. Third World nations are consistently, if subtly, depicted as culturally incompetent, culturally ignorant, and culturally incapable of managing their own affairs. They are seen as being responsible for their own poverty, health problems, agricultural degradation, educational underachievement, and lack of equal participation in civil society. Cultural deficiencies, therefore, provide a rationale and explanation for persistent economic inequalities, legitimizing neoliberal capitalism as a redemptive solution.

Cultural racism, in its neoliberal guise, appears to be enlightened, seemingly promoting global racial equality through eliminating Third World poverty and including “developing nations” in the “world” economy and culture. Yet it ignores history, the impact of colonialism, and prevailing power relations, thus delegitimizing Third World struggles to achieve global justice. It can also be used to legitimize the seizure of communal land, extraction of material resources, and exploitation of human labor (Wylie 2001).


Some scholars have studied another form of cultural racism, one embedded in popular and political discourses about race. While the specifics differ across nations, these rhetorical strategies and framing devices share common features that have allowed social institutions and individuals alike to deny the continual significance of racial meanings, identities, and politics. Race, in these discourses, has become irrelevant—if institutions have become color-blind, then policies should reflect this change.

The Color Blind Society . By the late 1970s, the United States and other Western (and non-Western) nations had enacted equal opportunity and affirmative action policies designed to remedy the pervasive institutional racial discrimination of the past. These actions resulted from decades of political mobilization by racial minorities. Antiracism was initially framed in terms of empowerment and equal participation in all levels of society. Subsequently, this call for institutional integration was reframed to include respect and preservation of race-based cultural distinctiveness, but in the context of social equality.

Since the 1980s, scholars have studied how policymakers, mass media, and prominent political figures have strategically employed cultural racism (and other liberal rhetoric) to justify changes in public policies affecting racial groups, particularly as outright expressions of racism have declined. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2003) asserts that cultural racism in the United States operates through the recurring notion of color-blindness, reflected in particular rhetorical devices that deny the continuing significance of race, racial identities, meanings, and practices. As a framing device, this produces color-blind and cultural-racism narratives that declare race irrelevant and argue—seemingly logically—for the dismantling of earlier affirmative action and other race-sensitive programs, which are seen as being no longer “needed,” and indeed as “discriminatory.” Color-blindness is put forth as the most appropriate form of antiracist strategy because it is fair, equitable, and legally provides for equal opportunities for all individuals.

Conservative politicians, in particular, employ rhetorical elements from the civil rights movements (e.g., “equal opportunity,” “antidiscrimination,” a “color-blind” society) to rationalize continuing racial inequality while simultaneously dismantling affirmative action and other legal remedies for past institutional discrimination. Affirmative action becomes “reverse discrimination,” an “unfair advantage” to those hired, and an “injustice” (though only to those of the dominant racial group). The language of “justice” is used to ignore the continuing legacy of historically rooted injustice.

Color-blind rhetoric also appropriates multiculturalism, including the celebration of racial diversity and cultural pride initially advocated by racial minorities, to “essentialize” culture as immutable cultural practices that, even if voluntary, “prevent” racial minorities from getting ahead in this now color-blind society. Speaking “Ebonics” or “Spanish” is rhetorically placed in opposition to becoming proficient in standard English, rather than as a viable strategy of multilingualism. Multilingualism is equated with educational underachievement, despite evidence from Europe and other countries that academic success and fluency in multiple languages go together. Similarly, in this rhetoric, self-segregation, not covert discrimination, produces racially segregated neighborhoods, workplaces, and social networks.

Political rhetoric also infuses traditional U.S. notions of “individualism,” “hard work,” “meritocracy,” “freedom of choice,” “autonomy” and the “the self-made man” into arguments against attempts to eliminate de facto school segregation (e.g., through “forced busing”), discrimination in hiring (“forced government quotas”), or to diversify other institutions. Code words that are substituted for racial terms (e.g., “welfare queen”) are partially rooted in cultural (and gender) stereotypes, such as long-standing sexual stereotypes about African Americans. Cultural attributes of “model minorities” (e.g., some Asians) are highlighted, with a presumed emphasis on “education,” “family” (nuclear family) life, and “hard work.”

Such rhetoric erases the collective cultural memory of past discrimination, ignores its continuing effects, and portrays racial minorities as unjustly demanding “special privileges.” Instead, it emphasizes unbounded opportunities and implicitly attributes inequality to individual inadequacies or collective but selective cultural traits (e.g., “rap music,” the “drug culture”).

“Law and Order” and Preserving the Nation . Scholars have also observed how cultural racism is employed in framing “law and order” as a social problem, a rhetorical device that does not explicitly mention racial groups yet deliberately utilizes markers that associate criminality and cultural differences with particular racial groups. In Policing the Crisis (1978), Stuart Hall and his associates focused on the rhetoric of mugging “scares,” and on how the British mass media and politicians managed to draw upon and distort cultural traits of young black (especially Caribbean) men in order to portray them as criminals.

While official crime statistics revealed no clear waves of street crimes, British governments from Prime Minister Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher managed to frame them as a national crisis and use them to enact a series of strict law-and-order policies. The enforcement rationale portrayed black communities as sites of crime, unemployment, and underground activities that had to be “cleansed” of young men in order to re-establish law and order in Britain. This form of cultural racism was not explicitly racist, but instead utilized notions of criminality and public safety in ways that had clear racial impacts.

Immigration, multiculturalism, and perceived threats to the “nation” (or, more accurately, to national culture) have also been significant frames in the rhetoric of cultural racism. Nativist rhetoric in France, Great Britain, and other countries employs notions of cultural homogeneity, assimilation, and national patriotism. While officially promoting social inclusion, they nonetheless increasingly use cultural criteria, and hence cultural differences, to exclude and to argue for immutable cultural barriers to citizenship. An assumed monolithic national culture underlies rhetoric about “French culture” or the “British character.” This allows anti-immigrant groups to portray themselves as supporting racial equality and opposing racial discrimination.

Yet the cultural criteria for full national “citizenship” have differential racial impacts. Cultural criteria are employed to justify increased immigration restrictions, control, and regulation on “cultural” grounds, such as religion, family structure, and marriage practices. This, in effect, limits political rights, economic resources, and social inclusion on racial grounds, creating permanent cultural outsiders of some migrants, refugees, guest workers, and descendants of the formerly colonized.

Some scholars emphasize how the xenophobic and patriotic rhetoric masks and conflates racial grouping, cultural distinctions, and national boundaries. They suggest that “Islamophobic” responses to the Salman Rushdie affair involving the novel The Satanic Verses (1988), the headscarf ban instituted in French schools in 2004, and the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy of 2005 are not simply individual forms of racial prejudice, but rather an expression of cultural superiority that intertwines religion, culture, and national differences.

Feminist scholars have shown how groups that promote cultural racism also rely on cultural ideas of femininity, motherhood, and women as the nation’s caretaker to justify the persistence of cultural differences and racial inequalities globally. In these images, conflicting gendered and sexualized notions of aesthetics, purity, responsibility, and submission are deployed to maintain national, regional, and familial traditions conceived as culture.

These ideas are embodied in migration laws, which often contain provisions that are both culturally specific and gendered. For example, software engineers (primarily males) usually receive priority over “domestic” workers (primarily females). Family unification laws privilege spouses over parent-child and sibling relations. Policies that admit “guest” workers often do not allow their accompanying spouses to work, implicitly encouraging male immigrants and the nuclear family with a “stay-at-home wife.”

This subtle form of cultural racism also has a greater impact on countries in the Americas and Asia who are sending relatively low-skilled, low-wage, workers to Western nations, or on families who need both spouses to be employed (or culturally assume that they will be). Consequently, such laws foster racial inequalities without explicitly targeting particular racial groups.

Cultural racism, at its most basic level, rationalizes and perpetuates racial inequality through an ideology of cultural superiority and inferiority. Subordinate groups are culturally deficient even when the vocabulary is less judgmental. Dominant culture forms, or their presumed superiority, are rarely questioned. Cultural superiority is the rationale for cultural dominance, not racism, as though racial groups had no culture.

Cultural racism, when combined with the rhetoric of individualism and meritocracy, makes social inequality, even when extreme and harsh, seem normal, natural, logical, reasonable, and, in many cases, just. It produces racism without racists. By denying racism but covertly racializing inequality, cultural racism masks other fundamental sources of inequality or sources of change that threaten all racial groups and all people, except powerful and wealthy elites. By attributing current inequality to culture, a meritocracy is asserted, consistent with liberal ideals.

Simultaneously, the history of racism and the struggles of subordinated populations against racism is rendered invisible. There is no past, no history, no prior condition, and no legacy that is carried forward to the present. The erasure of the past subtly erases legitimate claims for special treatment (for reparations) and for affirmative action, creating a supposed level playing field.

SEE ALSO Affirmative Action; Color-Blind Racism; Language.


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Carol C. Mukhopadhyay

Peter Chua