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The Racial Order

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Proceeding from the bold and provocative claim that there never has been a comprehensive and systematic theory of race, Mustafa Emirbayer and Matthew Desmond set out to reformulate how we think about this most difficult of topics in American life. In The Racial Order, they draw on Bourdieu, Durkheim, and Dewey to present a new theoretical framework for race scholarship. Animated by a deep and reflexive intelligence, the book engages the large and important issues of social theory today and, along the way, offers piercing insights into how race actually works in America. Emirbayer and Desmond set out to examine how the racial order is structured, how it is reproduced and sometimes transformed, and how it penetrates into the innermost reaches of our racialized selves. They also consider how—and toward what end—the racial order might be reconstructed.
In the end, this project is not merely about race; it is a theoretical reconsideration of the fundamental problems of order, agency, power, and social justice. The Racial Order is a challenging work of social theory, institutional and cultural analysis, and normative inquiry.

ISBN-13: 9780226253527

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Publication Date: 08-13-2015

Pages: 520

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

Mustafa Emirbayer is professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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The Racial Order

By Mustafa Emirbayer, Matthew Desmond

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-25366-4


A New Theoretical Framework for Race Scholarship

There never has been a comprehensive and systematic theory of race. In more than a century of modern race scholarship, many impressive efforts in that direction have been undertaken, but all have contributed something other than a comprehensive and systematic theory. For instance, in a remarkable body of work spanning poetry, fiction, autobiography, topical commentaries, historical monographs, ethnography, and several collections of essays, W. E. B. Du Bois examined a vast range of issues having to do with race in America and, along the way, opened up multiple lines of theorization and empirical research still being developed today. Not even he, however, was analytically consistent and systematic — one strains to impose systematicity on so many disparate insights and arguments — and his perspective kept evolving over an immensely long and fruitful career, one extending over seven decades. Other influential scholars — one thinks, for example, of mid-twentieth-century sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox — theorized race in a more systematic fashion yet hardly were comprehensive; moreover, as a neo-Marxist, Cox paid little heed to the many dimensions of racial life itself, choosing to reduce it analytically to the level of class dynamics. His contemporary, Gunnar Myrdal, compiled a massive study of virtually every important aspect of race in the United States, yet his work, more a compendium of findings by a team of social researchers than an endeavor in original race theorizing, fell well short of providing a rigorous analytic approach. Frantz Fanon offered brilliant insights into the social psychology of race, but these insights largely were psychoanalytic in inspiration; like Cox, he sought to reduce racial phenomena to some other underlying principle. Several generations of Chicago School sociologists, extending well into midcentury and beyond, also had a great deal to say about racial topics. But while their work, including Robert Park and Ernest Burgess's notion of a race relations cycle, was imbued with a pragmatist sensibility and with numerous insights from sociological theory, its strengths lay more at the level of middle-range theorizing. More recently, Michael Omi and Howard Winant have attempted to engage in rigorous theory building in respect to race. Yet, while producing useful concepts for understanding race, such as "racial projects" and "racial formation," their influential efforts have represented only a first step toward an encompassing theory of racial domination and racial progress.

Race scholarship, meanwhile, has produced an impressive array of empirical investigations. In recent years, especially, some of the most empirically sound and policy-relevant findings in all of social science have belonged to the field of race studies. Much of this work has been highly rigorous. If there is methodological advancement in the social sciences, a new statistical method or in-depth interviewing technique, one can rest assured it soon will be employed in the service of racial inquiry. Nor has there been a problem of volume or mass — that is, of scholarly productivity. Empirical studies of race — ethnographic and historical, but especially statistical — have appeared in prodigious quantities. In both the core disciplines and the interstitial spaces of ethnic and cultural studies, inquiries have been undertaken from almost every conceivable point of view, bringing to light broad social and economic trends, cultural meanings, and political dynamics. Substantive issues including neighborhood effects, segmented assimilation, labor market discrimination, residential segregation, immigration, mass incarceration, racial movements, stereotyping, whiteness, hybridity, oppositional culture, and the intersections of race with gender and class all have been addressed. In the grand style of landmark works such as The Philadelphia Negro (Du Bois) and The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki), which dominated the sociological scene at the dawn of the last century, or Black Metropolis (St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton) and An American Dilemma (Gunnar Myrdal) at midcentury, some of the most influential major works of the last few decades also have dealt squarely with racial tensions and inequalities — such works as American Apartheid (Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton), Still the Promised City? (Roger Waldinger), and the famous trilogy by William Julius Wilson: The Declining Significance of Race,The Truly Disadvantaged, and When Work Disappears. Add to these a small library of other monographs and articles — more are generated with each passing year — and the conclusion is unmistakable: the sociology of race is flourishing.

Putting together race scholarship's theoretical thinness and its empirical richness, we arrive at the problem that drives the present work: from the very start, and in recent decades more than ever, there has been a grossly uneven development of theory and research in race studies and an ensuing (and predictable) decoupling of one from the other. The ceaseless production of empirical work has not proceeded apace with the building of comprehensive and systematic theories. Despite the outpouring of empirical research, there have been no comparable advances at the level of theoretical insight. Indeed, the currently most influential wide-ranging theoretical statement on race — Omi and Winant's Racial Formation in the United States — appeared more than a quarter century ago. Among the many explanations for this disparity between empirical efflorescence and theoretical atrophy, especially in recent years, one is especially telling. The shift from openly violent to more hidden forms of racism has given rise to congratulatory shouts (most, but not all, emanating from the public sphere) that race no longer is a defining feature of American society. This, in turn, has resulted in a surge of voices from the social sciences arguing otherwise. Accordingly, race studies have moved from analyses of how race works (as in Black Metropolis) to demonstrations that racial inequality or discrimination continue to exist (as in studies that "test" for discrimination and conclude more or less as follows: "This study has shown that race matters in fill in the blank: politics, voting patterns, housing discrimination, etc."). Much of our best work no longer tells us how to understand or reconstruct racial dynamics but simply gives us concrete proof of their continuing significance. A few sociologists do take as their interlocutors not those in the public sphere who speak of an era "beyond race" but other critical-minded scholars of race. Yet those sociologists seeking to point out the lacunae in current research trends fail to develop superior ways of conceptualizing race and the racial order. Their contribution is less the generation of new theories than it is the criticism of existing scholarship. Social thinkers — and the public — are left with no clear alternative language in which theoretically to articulate and systematically to address racial concerns.

The yawning gap between theoretical inquiry and empirical research is so pervasive that it has come to be viewed by analysts of all persuasions as natural and unproblematic. The "theorist" and the "empiricist" (artificial labels to which social thinkers have resigned themselves without much protest) can labor in relative isolation from one another, as if belonging to different disciplines entirely, and when forced to confront each other's work, as during a tenure review or some keynote address, often can experience confusion or frustration (and sometimes awe) but rarely familiarity or fraternity. Such an arrangement, one that would scandalize most natural scientists, literary critics, or mathematicians, now is widely accepted in race studies simply as the order of things. But this theory/research gap — a "social division of scientific labor," as Pierre Bourdieu would have it, "which splits, reifies, and compartmentalizes moments of the process of construction of the sociological object into separate specialties" — is not innocent of consequences. It leads, for one, to fractionalization, which impedes the circulation of ideas and promotes the shrinking of research questions. It leads, for another, to misleading assumptions about the nature of social reality, perhaps the most insidious of these being substantialism, a way of thinking that snaps apart the totality of interconnected race relations and treats racial groups, in Eric Wolf's words, as "internally homogeneous and externally distinctive and bounded objects," like so many different plant varieties. Assumptions of this sort seep quietly into the academic unconscious of empirical race scholarship until they function like a kind of implicit theory. As Talcott Parsons recognized, every mode of thought, even that presenting itself as raw positivism, necessarily relies on some kind of theory. "All empirically verifiable knowledge," he wrote, "even the commonsense knowledge of everyday life — involves implicitly, if not explicitly, systematic theory. ... The fact [that] a person denies that he is theorizing is no reason for taking him at his word and [for] failing to investigate what implicit theory is involved in his statements." Parsons drove the point home by quoting Alfred Marshall: "The most reckless and treacherous of all theorists is he who professes to let facts and figures speak for themselves."

Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of the decoupling of theory from empirical research, however, has been a gradual loss of scholarly energy and dynamism in race scholarship. To use the words of Clifford Geertz, race studies today finds itself in a state of "general stagnation," pursuing "minor variations on classical theoretical themes" (e.g., inequality, discrimination, institutional racism) and small modifications to well-known hypotheses (e.g., segmented assimilation, spatial mismatch), each study another brick added to a long road trailing off into the darkness, leading, we hope, to some unknown destination. We find ourselves pursuing relatively similar questions, even if in different spheres of life (e.g., the political, economic, aesthetic, intimate), and generating important facts but rarely big new ideas. To a large degree, race scholarship has become the stuff of normal science. "Empirical inference," John Dewey wrote in How We Think, "follows the grooves and ruts that custom wears, and has no track to follow when the groove disappears. ... Passivity, docility, acquiescence, come to be primal intellectual virtues. Facts and events presenting novelty and variety are slighted, or are sheared down till they fit into the Procrustean bed of habitual belief." When social inquiry is at its best, we arrive face-to-face with the novel by sliding down the curve of a question mark. Yet the seemingly simple act of asking new questions, which is not the same thing as applying old questions to new settings or problems, often does not appear to our mind's eye as a possibility, so busy are we with the everyday work of routine, conventional research. "Theory," to quote Parsons once more, "not only formulates what we know but also tells us what we want to know, that is, the questions to which an answer is needed." But without a comprehensive and systematic theory of race, new questions remain in the shadows just beyond the peripheries of our collective vision. "There are problems," Bourdieu and his colleagues once wrote, "that sociologists fail to pose because the tradition of the discipline does not recognize them as worthy of being posed or does not offer the conceptual tools or the techniques that would make it possible to treat them in canonical fashion; and conversely, there are questions they feel bound to pose because they rank high in the consecrated hierarchy of research subjects."

A race scholarship divorced from theory does not enable us to cope with the novel. And if it throws no light on the novel, then empirical race scholarship — however sound its methods, correct its findings, or relevant its implications — is in danger of becoming irrelevant, of speeding off in one direction while the whole world goes in another. For, undeniably, something new has emerged. Today we find ourselves in a remarkable historical moment, attempting to make sense of a nation tossed about violently by the push-pull of racial domination and racial progress, one beset by racial contradictions and paradoxes. Barack Obama was elected president in a country that imprisons more of its citizens than any other, the incarceration rate of poor black men soaring high above the national average. Astounding racial progress has been documented at the individual level (consider that, merely forty years ago, a near majority of Americans favored a ban on interracial marriage), while, at the social level, racial inequality remains entrenched (consider the degree to which our cities remain starkly segregated). One Native American nation flourishes while another sinks deeper into poverty. Latinos have moved closer to the center while anti-immigrant sentiment and a spirit of "opportunity hoarding," to use Charles Tilly's powerful term, stretches the length of the southern border. And as more African Americans ascend the socioeconomic ladder, making significant inroads in business, politics, science, and art, millions more slip further into despair. Perhaps most perplexingly, politicians and citizens alike promote multiculturalism today and xenophobia tomorrow, cosmopolitanism in some respects and jingoism in others, tolerance for some people or practices and prejudice for others. Much overt racism still exists, while a new racism of today is more intangible, invisible, and insidious. This quieter, more subtle racism often is described as the emblematic form of racial domination in our age, yet there is nothing particularly quiet, subtle, or invisible about the staggering racial disparities along the poverty line or within the criminal justice system. Racial dynamics continue to permeate all domains of contemporary life, from the intimate realm to that of large-scale institutional structures. And they bring with them new uncertainties in interpersonal life, workplace relations, and public policy.

The problems and uncertainties we face, however, are not merely those of the past few decades. While much has changed, much also remains the same, and the continuities in our racial life — in its structures and dynamics, not to mention its social psychology — are every bit as noteworthy as the disjunctures. Indeed, the very opposition between permanance and change in our racial life is misleading. Historical invariants we need also to understand, relative constancies, beneath the visible transformations that have occurred (not all for the better). Orlando Patterson has termed this "the puzzle of persistence." How has racial division endured for so long? And how has this cultural arbitrary come to appear so natural and eternal? To paraphrase Bourdieu, "One should not try to deny the permanences and the invariants, which are indisputably part of historical reality; but, rather, one must reconstruct the history of the historical labor of dehistoricization, or, to put it another way, the history of the continuous (re)creation of the objective and subjective structures of [racial] domination, which has gone on permanently so long as there have been [races], and through which the [racial] order has been continuously reproduced from age to age. ... Posing the question in those terms [can] mark an advance in the order of knowledge which can be the basis of a decisive advance in the order of action." Thus far at least, race scholars have yet to elaborate a system of concepts or a research agenda fully adequate to such an ambitious endeavor. More than a generation after the Civil Rights Movement, we continue to lack a clear and unitary conceptual language for discussing race. Whether as citizens in the public sphere, politicians inside the Beltway, or scholars in the ivory tower, we find ourselves unable to gain analytic leverage on the deeper meanings and significance of the commingling of racial domination and racial progress. Now more than ever, we need a conceptual framework in which to think and talk about such issues and developments. As Winant has written, "We are in a quandary, we sociologists of race. ... No new sociological paradigm of race has appeared in quite some time, as the field struggles — and the nation ... struggles — with the ongoing racial crisis of the post–civil rights ... era. The old has died, but the new cannot be born."

To the extent that race scholars do take up theoretical questions, recent contributions have been concerned less with the overall workings of the racial order than with adding to what might be termed "empirical theory," the accumulation of "explanatory statements at a high level of generality." Suchrelatively circumscribed — or, in academic jargon, middle-range — theories reflect the triumph of specialization and fragmentation in today's academy, a trend that, while certainly fruitful in some respects (we would not have been able to write the present work without it, and we seek to push forward from it and not to repudiate it), is not conducive to the elaboration of broad theoretical perspectives. These studies might be understandable as a reaction to the grand theorizing of a Talcott Parsons. But as philosophers Pierre Duhem and W. V. O. Quine noted long ago, in what now is known as the Quine-Duhem thesis, it is systems of concepts that face the empirical test in science, not particular, isolated propositions or sets of hypotheses. Scientific progress is much like "a symbolic painting in which continual retouching gives greater comprehensiveness and unity[,] ... whereas each detail of this picture, cut off and isolated from the whole, loses all meaning and no longer represents anything." A more fundamental approach to understanding the racial order is needed. We shall have more to say about analytically focused, middle-range analyses — and their relation to our own efforts — later in this chapter.


Excerpted from The Racial Order by Mustafa Emirbayer, Matthew Desmond. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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