Michael Omi on racism

Like the concept of race, the term “racism” is also under critical
scrutiny regarding its overall meaning, conceptual validity, and
analytic power. It is frequently suggested that the term itself is
subject to so many varied meanings as to render the concept greatly
limited in utility. Anything from individual acts of prejudice to
systemic, institutional forms of discrimination potentially fall under
the rubric of “racism.” John [*165] Bunzel, former member of the
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and current senior research fellow at
Stanford’s Hoover Institution, argued in 1998 that the President’s
Advisory Board on Race should call for a halt to the use of terms such
as “racism” and “racist” since they are “wielded as accusations and
smear words” that breed “bitterness and polarization.” n16

The problems of conceptual inflation and its political consequences
are of real concern. But I am worried that the term “racism” in
popular political discourse is increasingly being subject to
conceptual deflation. That is, what is considered racist is being
narrowly defined in ways that obscure rather than reveal the
pervasiveness of racialized power in our social order. David Theo
Goldberg makes the point that, in the last decade or so, racism has
been popularly conceived of as hate. n17 The category of “hate crimes”
has been introduced in many states as a specific offense with enhanced
sentencing consequences, and many colleges and universities have
instituted “hate speech” codes to regulate expression and behavior
both inside and outside of the classroom. Dramatic acts of racial
violence are given considerable play in the mass media, and are the
subject of extensive condemnation by political elites.

The reduction of racism to hate, however, both conceptually and
politically limits our understanding of racism and the ways we can
challenge it. Racism has been silently transformed in the popular
consciousness into acts that are abnormal, unusual, and irrational –
“crimes of passion.” Missing from all this are the ideologies and
practices in a variety of sites in our society that reproduce racial
inequality and domination.

Seen from this perspective, expressions of “hate” are an easy target
for mobilizing popular opposition. Goldberg argues that it is much
more difficult to criminalize or otherwise regulate racist expressions
of power, not least because relations of power are so normalized and
constitute “common threads of the fabric of our social formation.”

We need to expand our understanding of racism as power, and think
about its meaning for our activism. Part of the challenge is to create
a more precise language and conceptual terminology to examine specific
aspects of racialized power, and how they are experienced by, and
affect the overall life chances of individuals and social groups.
Racism is expressed differently at distinct levels and sites of social
activity over historical time, and we need to be attentive to its
shifting meaning in different contexts. Rather than imagining a
single monolithic racism, we need to envision multiple forms of racism
and their meaning for anti-racist activity.

Rethinking the Language of Race and Racism, 8 Asian L.J. 161

7 thoughts on “Michael Omi on racism

  1. No doubt that when the idea of power being shifted or rearranged, the people in power will resist that shift. I think

  2. Somethings wrong with the send button on my PC.

    I think it’s much easier to get people to see how racism can be cruel devastation, but it’s much more difficult to examine the power structure,
    which is why a lot of well meaning people will reject the idea of privilege.
    There is a lot of fear in the concept of a shift in power. I know I struggle with it at times.

  3. Pingback: Racism: It Ain’t Just for the Hooded Type « The Blog and the Bullet

  4. I always thought that racism was the belief that there exists significant biological differences between ethnicities. At least, that’s what the dictionary told me. In other words, unless people believe that all people of all ethnicities are full, equal member of the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens (that’s the full name of our species), then they are racist.

    Racism is actually pretty to define – and racist behavior is pretty easy to define as well – A racist is anyone who believes that race is biologically significant IN ANY WAY.

    Genetics is the key to combating racism. Although race exists, the differences between races is superficial, cosmetic and shallow. The rules of Genetics allow for only one logical conclusion – all of humanity, all races, belong to ONE species. All the different races of humanity, all the different ethnicities, are united by our shared genetics. We are one species.

    So basically – anyone who opposes the complete genetic unity of humanity is a racist.

  5. Magpie, you are so right about race not really being biological, but I would take things one step further. For example, there are plenty of racists who believe that all the races are biologically equal but that some are culturally deficient. In other words – that the Mbuti are inferior because they live in the woods or that black people are societal deviants by nature if not nurture. Many colonizers and imperialists, for example, based their justification around the belief that – yes these people are biologically human, but they aren’t equal to us, so enslaving or colonizing them is a way to civilize them and enlighten them as to their full human potential. One doesn’t have to buy into biological determinism, merely cultural Darwinism, to have a White Man’s Burden attitude.

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