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Racial Formations

Racial Formations





Racial formations are social and historical processes by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed. They are also the product of state practices and policies. Michael Omi and Howard Winant outline a theory of racial formations in Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (1994). They note that “racial formation is a process of historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized” (pp. 55–56). Rejecting a nation-based theory of race, Omi and Winant argue that a global perspective on racial formation is essential to understanding all the elements of racial oppression. In their theory of racial formation in the post–civil rights United States, which Winant further elaborates in The World Is a Ghetto (2001), Omi and Winant further argue that “colonialism in the age of capitalism differed from previous imperial systems in that it came to encompass the entire world… . Racial groups are the outcome of relationships that are global and epochal in character” (p. 37). They identify inequality, political disenfranchisment, territorial and institutional segregation, and cultural domination as the central elements of racial oppression and thus, racial formations.


During the period of European colonialism, the territorial consolidation of the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa, parts of Asia, and the South Pacific and their control by a minority of European nations (Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland) were the product of state practices such as extermination, enslavement, forced assimilation, segregation, and discrimination. These practices were part of the racial formation process. Europeans and their descendants established legal and political structures in the colonies and settler nations that racialized non-Europeans and subordinated them. State-sanctioned racism, including diverse practices such as legal statutes, municipal ordinances, private regulations, federal censuses, police practices, and mob violence, were used to establish and enforce white supremacy and racial hierarchies in multiethnic nations.

Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778), a Swedish botanist, produced the first modern classification of human populations in 1735. Linnaeus, the founder of scientific taxonomy, divided the genus Homo into four racial types: Eurapaeus, Americanus, Asiaticus, and Africanus. During this period the dominant view was monogenesis—the view that all humans were the descendants of a common original ancestor. Johann Blumenbach (1752–1840), a German professor of medicine, became the most influential of the scientists who classified human populations. Between 1770 and 1781 Blumenbach proposed the division of humans into four and later five “varieties” that represented the worlds’ major regions: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay.

Blumenbach introduced “Caucasian” into the classification scheme to describe a variety of humankind— the Georgian—that had originated on the southern slopes of Mount Caucasus. He considered women from the Caucasus region in Russia to be the most beautiful of all Europeans, so he chose them to represent the European ideal type, and all other human groups were a departure and degeneration from this ideal. These racial typologies were ranked and were not considered equal in aesthetic beauty, intelligence, temperament, or morality. The racial typologies Blumenbach created reflected a belief in European supremacy, legitimated racialized slavery, and the subordination of groups of people based upon their physical and cultural differences. These racial classification schemes linked physical traits such as eye color, skin color, hair texture, nose shape, and mouth size to intellectual capacities, cultural traits, and moral temperaments. To formulate these classification schemes Blumenbach and other scientists relied primarily on the written observations and descriptions of “ordinary” men who earned their living as slave traders, slave owners, merchants, or others in dominant positions over peoples whom they considered “savages.”

Blumenbach and his contemporaries studying the varieties of the human race laid the foundation for the idea that distinct races existed and that they were inherently unequal. Following the 1770s historians begin to see a general shift in thought from the universal, that is what nations and people shared in common, to an interest in the particular, on what made some races “special” and unique.


How did the belief get established in the United States that Anglo Saxons were racially superior to other groups, and thus that it was their “destiny” to racially and culturally dominate all other groups in what became the United States? American historian Reginald Horsman identifies the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth century as a crucial moment in the development of racial Anglo-Saxon superiority. He argues that these two decades witnessed the growth of a European romantic movement that shifted the emphasis from “a continuity of institutions to the continuity of innate racial strengths” (1981, p. 25). Horsman notes:

in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Englishmen and Americans increasingly compared Anglo-Saxon people to others and concluded that blood, not environment or accident, had led to their success. England and America had separated their institutions, but both countries were surging forward to positions of unprecedented power and prosperity. It was now argued that the explanation lay not in the institutions but in the innate characteristics of the race. (p. 63)

Europeans established and employed racial classification systems to establish their control over the people whom they conquered, enslaved, and colonized. By the eighteenth century, racial classification systems were firmly established and economic, political, and social resources were distributed along racial and ethnic lines. Race was firmly established as a “legal” identity, and the state regulated all aspects of an individual’life. In nations such as the United States and South Africa, one’s racial classification determined where one could reside and attend school, whom one could marry, whether one could hold elected office, and what occupations were suitable. In other words, all aspects of one’s economic, intimate, social, and political life were structured along racial lines.

People who were classified as “white” were granted citizenship rights, property rights, immigration rights, residence rights, the freedom to control their labor, religious freedom, and the ability to freely travel. In the United States, European Americans established laws and state policies that effectively denied citizenship rights to indigenous Americans, individuals of multiracial heritage, and individuals of visible or known African and/or Asian ancestry. For example, Native Americans were not citizens of the United States until 1924 and were classified by the U.S. government as “wards of the government and citizens,” thus denying them political autonomy and subordinating them to European Americans. Between 1800 and 1858 the U.S. Congress passed a series of laws giving the president and commissioner of Indian affairs absolute powers. Indians were forbidden to sell, rent, or lease reservation lands or to sell minerals, timber, fish, cattle, or agricultural products without the prior consent of the government.


Racial classification schemes have been central to racial formations, and they produced political constituencies and racial inequalities reflecting unstable power relations. For example, in the United States racial categories have been added, removed, revised, and altered during the past 300 years in response to demographic changes, immigration, political mobilization, technologies, cultural shifts, and economic interests.

The U.S. government uses census figures to allocate some resources to members of racialized groups. In the past it distributed citizenship rights, land rights, immigration quotes and other political rights exclusively to Europeans and European-Americans while denying people of African, Indigenous/American Indian, and Asian ancestry the same rights. Consequently, there have always been political and economic stakes involved in the criteria for inclusion and exclusion in specific racial and ethnic minority categories. Racial classification schemes are one dimension of racial projects that reconstitute “racial” groups. Although they are socially produced, they continue to have real material, social, and economic consequences for members of racialized groups.

The United States is unique from all other nations in the Americas in its historical enforcement of what has become known as the “one-drop rule,” in which a person of multiracial ancestry who had known or visible African ancestry is legally classified as “black” regardless of appearance, cultural training, and self-identification. The one-drop rule has been consistently upheld by state and federal courts. In states such as Louisiana, there were so many people of African ancestry socially classified and living as “white” that “race clerks” were hired to strictly enforce the one-drop rule.

In 1918, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that at least three-fourths of all native blacks were racially mixed, and it predicted that pure blacks would disappear. Consequently, after 1920 the mulatto category was removed from the census and the U.S. government made no further attempt to systematically count the number of visible mulattos in the United States, partly because so many persons with some black ancestry appeared white. Social scientists have documented the inconsistencies in the logic employed by the census and the disparity between social-cultural and scientific definitions of race. By 1960 the practice of self-identification by race replaced the earlier practice in which the census taker assigned race. Beginning in 1960 the head of household indicated the race of all of its members. This change in policy did not introduce any noticeable changes in the number of blacks in the U.S. population.

In 1970 the Hispanic category was added to the census for the first time. And in 1980, for the first time, a question on ancestry was included in the census. In response to increased political mobilization by members of interracial or multiracial families, the United States added the category “multiracial” to the 2000 census. In the following year the United Kingdom also added a “mixed race” category to its 2001 census. These changes in the official census reflect political struggles over the boundaries between and within racial groups, and they produce new racial formations in the post-civil rights United States. In the late twentieth century, as state-sanctioned racial inequality such as Jim Crow segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa were dismantled, nations established a range of public policies designed to remedy past group-based discrimination. These policies have taken various forms, such as affirmative action in the United States and positive discrimination in the United Kingdom. Although nation-states have dismantled de jure (legal) racial segregation and formally criminalized discrimination against members of racial and ethnic minorities, racial status continues to over-determine an individual’life chances and access to resources in multiracial societies.

SEE ALSO Brazilian Racial Formations; Canadian Racial Formations; Caribbean Racial Formations; Cuban Racial Formations; Haitian Racial Formations; South African Racial Formations; United Kingdom Racial Formations.


Horsman, Reginald. 1981. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lipsitz, George. 1998. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed. New York and London: Routledge.

Winant, Howard. 2001. The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy since World War II. New York: Basic Books.

France Winddance Twine

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