Omi M and Winant H


Omi M., Winant H.,(1994) Racial Formation in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s, pp 1-144


The authors of this book explore racial concepts: how they were created and how they are changing. Michael Omi is an Asian American sociologist professor at the University of California, Berkeley who developed the theory of racial formation along with Howard Winant. Omi’s work includes race theory, antiracist scholarship, and Asian American studies.  Omi holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Howard Winant is a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, and director of the Center for New Racial Studies. In addition to writing Racial Formation in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s along with Michael Omi, he is the author of The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II. Winant's teachings and research revolve around racism and race, political sociology, comparative historical sociology, human rights and social theory.


This book presents an analysis of contemporary U.S. racial dynamics throughout the decades using a variety of approaches from the social movement studies of Gramsci, critical theory, postcolonial theory, feminist studies, cultural studies to global scholars and activist debates on concepts of race. The authors focus on critiques of the main paradigms of race in the earlier chapters then move on to “The Racial State” and its unstable equilibrium of racial conflict.  “The Great Transformation” discusses the rise of the movement for social justice and the ultimate destruction of this movement initiated by “Racial Reaction”.


The main thesis of this book develops a stronger understanding of the tumultuous decades and the meaning of race in America.  The three broad topics discussed are the critique of recent theories in the U.S., the concept of “racial formation”, and finally how racial formation is applied to postwar U.S. politics and racial history. Ronald Reagan and his administration played a key role in the racial formation of America.  They had a "color-blind" approach to race, which stemmed from the disadvantages of African Americans in the United States. In 1985, Clarence Pendleton Jr., the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights told President Reagan that the Commission was “working on a color blind society that has opportunities for all and guaranteed success for none.”[1]


The main methods of research come from part one of the book where the authors discuss race theories of ethnicity, class, and nation, and use great socialist theorists such as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels to analyze the transformation from feudalism to capitalist order. Omi and Winant focus on the theories of race, its meaning, transformation and significance to racial events by gathering information based on racial beliefs and important factors of the bourgeois industrial society.[2]  Robert Blauner (author of Racial Oppression in America) writes, “The general conceptual frame of European theory implicitly assumed the decline and disappearance of the ethnicity in the modern world; it offered no hints in the other direction. Without significant alteration, American sociology synthesized this framework into models of social structure and change."[3]


After the institutionalization of Jim Crow in the South, exclusion became a successful racial divider between whites and other ethnic groups.  Blauner assumes that first racial and ethnic groups are neither central nor persistent elements of modern societies. Next, he expresses the ideas that racial oppression and racism are factors of economics and education. Third, the attitudes and prejudices of racism in America are systematic. And lastly, that “immigrant analogy” is the assumption that racial minorities are no different than third world ethnic groups compared to European ethnic groups.[4]


The first three chapters in the book discuss the paradigms of race as a broader understanding of the evolution of ideology, racial theory and politics from the 1960s through the 1980s. Chapter four focuses on racial formation, which develops into a more theoretical approach in chapters five through seven. 

In chapter one on ethnicity, the pre-existing downfalls of racial slavery explain the biological paradigm that coined racial inferiority as the natural order of mankind. “Whites were considered the superior race; white skin was the norm while other skin colors were exotic mutations which had to be explained.”[5] America progressively showed a trend in the acceptance of the “Negro” believing “America is free to choose whether the Negro shall remain her liability or become her opportunity.”[6]  This unfair statement justified the inequalities in America.  The chapter focuses on two premises of the ethnicity theory and how they are flawed: "the bootstrap model" and "they all look alike."  "The bootstrap model" is about making it on one's own without any outside help.  Omi and Winant point out that this part of the ethnicity theory is flawed because there are certain situations beyond the control of minorities that make it hard for them to achieve success without help.  Their experiences are different from the experiences of early European immigrants.  Moreover, the authors challenge the phrase “they all look alike” as just another racial slur to perpetuate ignorance in society.  It denied blacks their “uniqueness” because truly “blacks" are as diverse as “whites.”  Overall, the ethnicity theory of race lumps all people of a particular race into the same category without identifying differences within each ethnic group.


 Class is a paradigm of race that Stuart Hall characterizes as a “social division which assumes a distinctively racial or ethnic character [that] can be attributed or explained principally by reference to economic structure and processes”[7]  The class conflict theory is rooted from a Marxist analysis with the concept of exploitation that poses a fundamental challenge to the ethnicity theory. (Racial Formation p. 29)  This theory insists that “social relations of production”  structure classes and relationships.[8] The class theory of race has three subcategories: market, stratification and class-conflict. The market subcategory states that market pressures will slowly mix blacks and whites who were at first separated and that society is set up to aid whites more than it is to aid nonwhites.  Omi and Winant did not have a strong enough argument against the market component other than stating that it is too fanciful.  The stratification subcategory basically states that if people receive the same income, their life chances are the same.  It also ranks people according to their status in society.  For instance, some blacks are of an elite status whereas the rest are placed on the edge of society, unable to acquire similar resources.  Omi and Winant argue that this subcategory is incorrect because the black middle class do not have the same opportunity as the white middle class due to dynamics of race.  Thus, anything that a few blacks attain is linked to the black race overall and it is important to note that as a whole, the black race is not prosperous.  The class-conflict subcategory relies on the labor market and says that class divisions result in exploitation.  Omi and Winant argue against this third subcategory stating it is wrong because it does not account for racial conflicts and protests of the period or the politics of ideologies of race.  They further argue that it has an all or nothing attitude toward race in which the working class whites advance as the working class blacks fall behind. 


The third classic theory of race that the authors analyze is the nation theory, which states that race is a product of colonialism.  This theory explore race relationships in the United States and worldwide. It is divided into four subcategories: Pan-Africanism, cultural nationalism, the national question and Marxist debates, and internal colonialism.  Omi and Winant argue against all four of these subcategories.  Pan-Africanism is incorrect as a theory of race because it assumes that all blacks want to unite under one nation even though they do not all share the same life experiences.  The cultural nationalism subcategory is incorrect according to the authors because it merely focuses on the cultural idenity of black people and fails to recognize political processes.  Omi and Winant argue against the national question and the Marxist debates subcategory because it fails to address oppression not based on class.  The internal colonialism subcategory is further analyzed as being a weak argument to explaining race because it fails to identify class divisions within a minority group as it only defines race in terms of location, cultural power and its struggle.  Overall, the authors dislike the nation based theory to race because it does not identify the varied minority groups within a nation.     


The chapter on racial formation” best captures the ideology the authors wanted to portray. Omi and Winant discuss their own theory of race: racial formation, which is based on politics and a racial dictatorship because of the hegemony of race, class and gender. They further state that racial formation is based on racial projects, which are about who is in control of monetary resources.   


"The meaning of race is defined and contested throughout society, in both collective action and personal practice. In the process, racial categories themselves are formed, transformed, destroyed and re-formed. We use the term racial formation to refer to the process by which social, economic and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meanings. Crucial to this formulation is the treatment of race as a central axis of social relations, which cannot be subsumed under or reduced to some broader category or conception."(pp. 61-62)


Racialization: the historical development of race

In the United States, the racial category of "black" evolved with the consolidation of racial slavery. By the end of the seventeenth century, Africans whose specific identity was Ibo, Yoruba, Fulani, etc., were rendered "black" by an ideology of exploitation based on racial logic -- the establishment and maintenance of a "color line." This of course did not occur overnight. A period of indentured servitude that was not rooted in racial logic preceded the consolidation of racial slavery. With slavery, however, a racially based understanding of society was set in motion, which resulted in the shaping of a specific racial identity not only for the slaves but for the European setters as well. Winthrop Jordan has observed: "From the initially common term Christian, at mid-century there was a marked shift towards the terms English and free. After about 1680, taking the colonies as a whole, a new term of self-identification appeared -- white."[9]



The Racial Formation in America has followed a blue print or a plan that has created a faulty structure.  In this critical analysis, I will attempt to paint a picture of how American society has been building an infrastructure based on Race, by highlighting the transformation of race from the 1970s to the 1990s, from Michael Omi and Howard Winant research.

America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, used to promise a prosperous and secure life to its citizens.  The U.S. is now struggling with its unemployment rate, which is skyrocketing and has been in over $200 billion dollars in debt since 1984.  Since the 1970s, the United States has struggled through war, impeachment, inflation, and oil shortages; however, the crisis of race in America is sometimes overlooked.



Race is the individual psyche and relationships among individuals that have a collective influence on social structures and collective identities. (p. 138) It has structurally been the building of America that has a unique outside appearance with glass ceilings, but its formation is built on sand, therefore making it unstable and easy to collapse. This structure started from “The Racial State” (p. 770) and has led to a path that has shaped the Racial Formation in America.



Trajectory is defined by Webster’s dictionary as “a path, progression, or line of development resembling a physical trajectory”.  Michael Omi and Howard Winant describe “trajectory” as the pattern of accommodation and conflict which builds over time between the policies and programs of the state, and the racially based society.  The Trajectory of Racial Politics is usually strategized to guarantee reproduction of the prevailing order, however the standpoint is from the dominant racial group.  Karl Marx would call this the overthrow of capitalism and the development of socialism. The racial hemogeny of this pattern to suggests a cyclical movement, which is designated by the trajectory or path of Racial Formation.



 “The Racial State” describes how these transformations have occurred, and the dynamics of the relationship between racial minorities and the state.  When a racial movement occurs, race is then the underlining factor and it then becomes a political issue.  Moreover, when the State gets involved, their structure enforces a racially unjust social order.  This means that the state intuitions can potentially be biased to their racial orientations; thereby conflicting with accommodations to racial based movements and ideologies.  In addition, this radical change causes the transformation of the racial order. However, is the discord and compromise between the state and racial movements a direct reflection from our past?  This can be true.  Our history is indeed the reflection of our past, present and it can be the trajectory to the future.  To further analyze this thought, we must first examine the “Historical Change in the U.S. Racial Order.”

 History has shown that the major intuitions and social relationships in America such as religion, political organization, cultural life, residence, and law, have all been structured from the beginning by racial order. (p. 79) To further paint the picture that America has drawn, let’s examine how slaves were excluded from any rights or justice and were coming from a viewpoint of political opposition.  The authors take a more objective approach to describing the racial ideologies in politics and have certain flexibility about race in order to recall the racial meanings that constitute alternative institutions. In other words, the political space to make justice for all was limited.

Through oppression, racial minorities still have found the means to form their own organization, identity, and cultures, but have remained invisible to the majority society. “The Racial State” shows how the Black culture survived from slavery through music, religion, African traditions and family ties.  Furthermore this has created their own ideological projects: which was the development of a “free” black identity and a collective dedication to emancipation.



The Historical Development of the Racial State was based on the United States history of repression and exclusion. An example of this was the Naturalization law in 1790 that said only “white” immigrants could qualify for America citizenship.  Not much has changed in the way that laws are played out in today’s society.  Immigration laws are “tougher” than ever, and what I mean by tougher is the exclusion of allowing non-whites into the country, or to file for visas, which are like the modern day “freedom papers”.  The fight for Freedom in America always causes wars.

“War of maneuver” is a situation where subrogate groups seek to preserve and extend a definite territory to ward off violent assaults and develop an internal society as an alternative to the repressive social system.  “War of maneuver” is being replaced by “war of position” as racially defined minorities achieve political gains.As the “Model of the Racial State” was formed, it challenged the racial order and destabilized the social structure causing a social reform.



Racial politics now control “War of Position”.   Minorities have achieved significant (but not equal) representation in the political system.  In an ideological climate racial equality can be debated, but the desire of equality is assumed. “To challenge the position of blacks in society is to challenge the position of whites.”(p.91)  This statement is a great reformulation of the meaning of race.  There has been a “change” in the new “rules of the game”.  Omi and Winant ask: “How after several decades of attempts to eliminate racial inequality, had we arrived at this point?”  “What political and ideological shifts had occurred to bring about a tragic reversal?” (p. 113) 

 “The Great Transformation” introduces the paradigm shift in racial politics and the system of racial meanings.  In addition, identities are rooted from the ethnicity paradigms of race.  The oppositions of race were shaped by the civil rights movement, and challenged with segregation in the South, however, it had a strong impact on the transformation of movements against racism. The change was the mobilization of new social movements like the Black Panther Party that led the black movement. Furthermore, these movements helped set the stage of the reorganization of U.S. politics.  Do you surmise it is “normal” politics to include or exclude racial issues? Is there an issue of being “color-blind” in America?  This is a big issue that still needs to be resolved.



While the building of Racial Formation is starting to take form, the “The Great Transformation” manifests.  It evolves from the metaphoric blueprints to a great structure with frames, windows, concrete and designs.  The paradigm shift was established based on the system of racial identities and meanings, built upon the ethnicity paradigm of race, which increased the strain and opposition of race relations. This transformation in the South shaped the civil rights movement and created the national movement to fight against segregation. (p. 96)

The New Social Movements first expanded the concerns of politics to society and the terrain of everyday life. (p. 96) These movements mobilized other racial minorities to organize movements in the imagined communities.  This inspiration has been the cause and effect of the strides to integration and to building a strong foundation for minority group to even stand in political offices and to even now lead the nation.  President Barrack Obama would not be the first black President of the United States of America if it were not for the roads that were paved during the civil rights movement.

While the 1960s saw the weakening of ethnicity paradigm because of the growth of “class-based and nation-based paradigms of race”, (p. 97), the views could not achieve the hegemonic status.



Throughout “The Emergence of the Civil Rights Movement” (p. 97) there first objective did not challenge the dominant paradigm of racial theory, although organizations such as NAACP were effective in mobilizing racial issues.  From the rise of the structure that has been created, a demolition team has also been working overtime to tare down the building blocks that emerged into the Black Power movement.

 President Ronald Regan successfully assaulted the racial policies initiated in response to "The Great Transformation”.  Under Regan’s leadership, the federal government reversed itself and switched sides on racial policy.  Racial formation has been solidified as one of the primary paradigms of sociological understanding of race. Omi and Winant identify reductionism theories of race that identify race as epiphenomenal rather than durable and the chief competing theories of racial dynamics in contemporary sociology.



Some of the shortcomings in this reading were the idea of racial projects and how the fundaments of these projects just seemed to end, however, in reality the projects continued, and merely became voiceless.  Racial projects became a scream to a deaf ear in the social structure to civil rights organizations.  The National Urban League and SNCC struggled to create a “raceless society”, and now the majority was not only deaf, but blind to the “factor of cohesion in society”.[1] This question remains unanswered, is the war on racism lost? The Leagues of Revolutionary Black workers, who confronted the States radical positions namely, the SNCC and Black Panther Party, were repressed and infiltrated with the flux of drugs in the black community.



 The Race and Reaction asked “how after decades of attempts to eliminate racial inequality, had we arrived at this point?” (p. 113) The state of black America was worsened, including the rise of poverty, and unemployment, they were once again considered the “underprivileged” (p.113) This chapter examines the historical context for racially based reactions that were brought upon by the Regan administration, and their role to consolidate and abet the racial reaction.  The state did not accomplish its New Deal or eliminate any economic problems.  Being a “color-blind” society was not the answer, but the fuel for the burning down of the structure.

“Whites” were now the so-called victims of “reverse discrimination” when it came to education and the job market.  This statement could be false considering the social structure was design for whites only. The blueprint for America was a contract printed to draw images rendered as white lines on a blue background, and was smeared with the blood of anyone who stopped them. In comparison, the American Flag of red, white and blue seem to show their true colors.  The architectural plan did not include any other race; therefore the social structures revolve around the dominant class, and exclude everyone else. Affirmative action cannot be accomplished unless people recognize the need for equality in America.  Once the system has made an entire race dependent upon its finance growth, it is hard get the “monkey” off of your back.  In other words, since the dominant class has created this dependency, it is hypocritical for anyone to all minorities “underprivileged” since society had a major role in making them that way.



Some criticism of Omi and Winant Racial Formation was the fact they don’t give strategies or predictions of what they feel will lead to the Racial Formations in the Future. Authors like, Karl Marx, and Gramsci were prolific in paralleling the past to the resent and predicted its outcome and I did not see that is their writing.  It also does not give the reader a clear conscience of what their radical ideologies were in make them come to some of the decisions when they were describing racial politics and racially moved movements.



In conclusion, living through racism and seeing the Los Angeles Riots in 1992, makes it seem that race will always be an issue.  Omi and Winant have three approaches to race that puts race into a social category, defines the culture in ethnicities and they focus on white immigrants originally being the only race allowed to obtain American citizenship.  Race is not an illusion, but it is an ideological construction that has built imagined communities built upon racism, discrimination, trials and triumphs.  Racial projects are the explanation of racial dynamics and the efforts to rebuild, reorganize and redistribute economic resource to a particular racial concern.  “Neoconservative” is the way in which racial projects are morally wrong and cause laws that justify the government to do absolutely nothing.  The only solution is to try something, anything, but to never let this history repeat itself. 

The Racial Formation in the U.S. has structured a landscape of buildings that are made of glass.  Omi and Winant have looked through this glass edifice and found ground-breaking research that critiques the contradictions and limits within power, social structure and race.  Everyday life is affected by race and continues to shape institutions, politics and identities. Omi and Winant asked “What would the contours and battleline of racial contest be the next time around.” (p. 144)  One answer is that there is still work to be done.

The first part (ch. 1-4) was edited by Melissa Gardner 

by Keilah Glover


  1. Yamamoto, J. (1985) Civil Rights Commission Under Fire and amp Pacific Citizen, p. 5
  2. Omi, M., Winant, H. (1994) Racial Formation in the United States, Michael Omi, Howard Winant, p 9
  3. Blauner, R. (1972) Racial Oppression in America, New York: Harper Row pp. 1-44
  4. Blauner, R. (1972) Racial Oppression in America. p 2
  5. Peterson,W.(1982) Concepts of Ethnicity, Harvard Encyclopedia of America Ethnic Groups (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 2
  6. Ibid, I. (1980) Emphasis Original, pp 1021-1022
  7. Hall, S. (1980) Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance; in Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, p. 306
  8. Omi, M., Winant H. (1994) Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, p. 29