Racial Formation in the United States


Your Racial Identity Does Not Belong to You: Assessing Omi and Winant’s Theory

January 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

Racial identity resides at an unfortunate intersection between social construction and real-life consequences. That is, while the concept of race—Black, White, Asian, Latino, etc.—may be nothing more than labels assigned to groups of varying ethnicities, one’s association with these categories has real ramifications, such as accessibility to well-paid jobs, education, and economic and social privileges. In their work Racial Formation, Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that such consequences are an unavoidable product of the societal framework created by the state and social institutions. These consequences are unique to historical circumstances and inform racial identities not only at the level of society and nation—the macro level—but at the level of the individual—the micro level. Ideas related to race, then, are not static and essential qualities; rather, their definition is beholden to the current sociohistorical context. The same is true for racism. It is widely accepted that while overt and passionate racist aggression in the United States has largely dissipated, we continue to occupy an inherently racist society (Burns, 2). Omi and Winant argue that to understand racism, it is vital we understand how racial identities are formed. For Omi and Winant, the (re)-formation of racial identities begins with racial projects, so that it is necessary to examine how racial projects influence and inform the macro and micro foundations of society, and ultimately come to define the racial identities of individuals.

At the outset, it is useful to consider a tangible example of evolving definitions of race and racial identities. Until the mid-1960s, Jim Crow laws were in effect in the South and worked to segregate black and white Americans (Urofsky). After the 1960s, they were reformed and adapted several times via Supreme Court rulings and social pressures (Urofsky). With the very same societal structures that worked to keep Jim Crow laws afoot, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed in an attempt to erase and redefine racial definitions in the United States. The concept of race was reimagined from one of inequality and superiority toward a definition of equality and liberty. While I may focus on this example only briefly in this essay, I will describe the socio-political framework in the transition from inequality and superiority to equality and liberty and its mechanisms.

Racial projects serve as the building blocks of racial formation, as their purpose is to situate race within a social structure. They are “both a reflection of and response to” the dominant racial structure within society (Omi and Winant, 125). Specifically, they represent “an effort to organize and distribute resources along particular racial lines” (125). Functioning as racial ideologies, they can subvert, advance, or reproduce the dominant racial structure at any level of society: macro through micro (125). Thus, every member of the public is subjected to these projects. However, despite their ability to form at any structural level of society, the success a racial project will have on organizing racial categories is determined by its adoption, and legitimation—or lack thereof—by social institutions and the state. In the example provided above, the enactment of the initial Jim Crow laws can be thought of as a racial project; not only did the laws attempt to stratify resources and opportunities along racial lines, but they affected all of society. Additionally, it took the ideological categories of race and situated them among social hierarchies with practical and consequential outcomes. In this way, racial projects shape how race is signified within society.

The social institutions within society use racial projects to subvert or maintain racial identities and structure. At any given time, there are a myriad of competing racial projects which the social institutions—“religious, scientific, and political ideologies”—must ignore, condemn, or support. They have the power to create a dominant social narrative about race which, often, extends “racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group” (111). This is what Omi and Winant coin “racialization,” which they argue is inevitable, given the existence of perceived phenotypic differences between races and individuals (112). Thus, people are “othered” and classified according to newly defined racial categories (126). For example, Jefferson wrote “that the blacks, whether originally a different race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites” (qtd. in Omi and Winant 116). Here, science provided society, not with a legal justificationto “other” blacks from whites, but a socially enforced one. This distinction is key; social institutions offer ideologies about race which become the “raw materials of racialization” that the state can then use to form legal categories and definitions of race (111). Although, how do these ideas move from the social, non-legalized, sphere to enforcement by the state through law? This transition demarcates a triumphant victory in redefining racial categories.

Omi and Winant suggest that the ability of social institutions to inform racial politics should be understood in the context of “trajectories” (148). Within the social-political sphere, two key actors exist, the “dominant” and the “subordinate,” whose goals are to influence the trajectory of the nation’s racial politics in their favor (149). In the context of post-World War II racial politics, for example, the “racist state” and “anti-racist social movement” were the dominate group and subordinate group, respectively. If the subordinate is successful in influencing the trajectory, the state will implement new legal frameworks and programs whose ultimate function will be to redefine racial categories and hierarchies. However, it is only possible for a social movement to influence the state in this way if the state is unable to “enforce racial ideology” and structure (149). Once these conditions are achieved, the social movement becomes politicized.

If racial projects and social institutions catalyze social movements to redefine racial categories, it is the state that ultimately legitimizes and enforces racial identity. That is, the state, and the structure it imposes, becomes informed by the current, dominant racial ideology found within the social institutions (13). Omi and Winant write that “through its power of racial classification, the state fundamentally shapes one’s social status, access to economic opportunities, political rights, and indeed one’s identity itself” (121). For example, with the promulgation of the Jim Crow laws, the state displayed a form of racial dominance by legitimizing the superiority of whites over blacks. Thus, the political structure enforced by the state becomes racialized. Unequal legitimation of groups, however, is a manifestation of despotism and state policies that lead to “deprivation of life, liberty, or land; dispossession, violence, confinement, coerced labor, exclusion, etc.…” for members of the subordinate race group (139). While the entirety of these elements may not be present at once, Omi and Winant argue that it is always present, in some form, within society (139). Today, however, forms of racial legitimation have moved away from racial domination to racial hegemony (149). The former describes a distinct “color line” which is enforced—regardless of consent—by the state through policies and laws; while the latter characterizes a society in which the subordinate group consentsto occupying a marginalized and oppressed position (66, 67). We will explore exactly how this consent is given when we discuss the role of the individual.

Racial categories, then, become defined through the laws and legal precedents determined by the state. And in this way, the definition of race becomes beholden to its legal interpretation, and is “a constantly reiterated outcome, of the interaction of racial projects on a society wide level” (127). Despite such evolutions, Omi and Winant argue that race will always serve as a master category (106). That is, regardless of its social construction, the presence of phenotypic difference between human beings will continue to have real life ramifications and shape “the history, polity, economic structure and culture of the United States” (106).

Thus, the individual members of the public are forced to live in the resulting racialized social structure. Within this structure, each person is forced to navigate its complexities and nuances, and in doing so develops a type of “racial intelligence” (146). This intelligence manifests as a self-conscious ‘common sense’ for the individual and, as Omi and Winant point out, when the individual “acts self-reflectively in respect to race” they reinforce the racialized structure and framework enacted by the state (146). In other words, when an individual navigates the social forces using his or her racial intelligence. In fact, the racial categories defined by the state are the same categories that dictate how to act, treat others, and carry oneself. Thus, one’s racial identity—or ideas about race—become informed by the state:not themselves. And Further, one’s identity, is only legitimized in so far as the state maintains these categories; wherein a reformation of categories will change an individual’s racial identity.

However, what role does the individual have in facilitating the evolution of racial categories and identities? According to Omi and Winant, this is largely dependent on whether the society is one of racial dominance or racial hegemony (142). Systems of racial dominance exclude the marginalized from political and social spheres, and thus, its members must engage in a war of maneuver, characterized by a seizing of the dominant power with force (142). This is in stark contrast to members in hegemonic systems—such as the United States. As discussed, the state can effectively enforce racial categories “by structures of legitimation and consent” (143). When the state is no longer able to maintain and enforce these categories effectively, it is the job of the individual to “undermine consent” and delegitimate the state using racial projects which catalyze social change among social institutions; and which, with the correct trajectory, result in the state defining new racial categories. For example, the student who joined a memorial march for “the slain teenager Trayvon Martin” (125). The new racial projects signify the cycle of another iteration of racial formation.

Now that we possess an understanding of how racial identities are formed, enforced, and redefined, how can the theory of racial formation inform our understanding of racism? The authors argue that since its conceptual beginning, its definition has been subjected to enormous debate (128). Traditionally, racism has been defined as acts of passionate “racial hate,” which has given rise to categories of hate crimes and speech (128). While this definition encompasses what racism can be, Omi and Winant argue that it fails to capture the bigger picture. Specifically, racial projects that work to redefine racial categories are considered racist if they create or reproduce “structures of domination based on racial significations and identities” (128). However, projects that “undo or resist structures of domination based on racial significations and identities” are deemed anti-racist (129).

At a time when progressive groups, such as Black Lives Matter, are juxtaposed with images of white pride marches, and waves of immigration are met with outward hostility, the future of race relations within the United States is at a tipping point (Hochschild). We are at the cusp of another significant iteration in our definitions of race and racial identities. Perhaps, as we move forward, we can find meaningful use in Omi and Winant’s theory of racial formation to better understand the consequences of the definitions of race we redefine.


Burns, Ryan. “Erasing Race? An Exploratory Study of Correlates of Color-Blind Racism.” Clemson University, TigerPrints, 2016.Hochschild, Jennifer L. “American Racial and Ethnic Politics in the 21st Century: A Cautious Look Ahead.” Brookings, Brookings, 28 July 2016, www.brookings.edu/articles/american-racial-and-ethnic-politics-in-the-21st-century-a-cautious-look-ahead/.Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. Routledge, 2015.Urofsky, Melvin I. “Jim Crow Law.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 Aug. 2018, www.britannica.com/event/Jim-Crow-law.

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