While some accuse the academy of serving as a progressive, liberal space, much of the ideas generated around race by academics suggest otherwise. Sociologist Carole Marks describes the academic history of race and racism1 in her piece “Methodologically Eliminating Race and Racism” published in White Logic, White Methods:
Racial realism is one strain of thought in academia that offers a means to think about race that reinforces the status quo:
In a White majority ideological construct, the concept of race to use Howard Winant’s terms, “is finally obviated” and replaced by colorblindness and racial pluralism.2
According to racial realism, America has made progress, making racism a thing of the past. In fact, race only matters due to race conscious policies that realists believe make matters worse. As “well-meaning Whites,” they blame ongoing inequality on the condescension of alienation and identity politics. Racial realism thus facilitates what Marks describes as an elimination process that predicts and then defines racism as declining in significance despite evidence to the contrary.
Early Constructions of Race and Racism
The theorization of race in the academy occurred in various forms, but the Chicago School had a significant influence in the 20th century. Scholars like Robert Park theorized racial relations as fixed, customary, and routine aspects of the social order. Ultimately, Park predicted minority groups would assimilate into the mainstream.
Along with the Chicago School, Park attempted to add meaning and method to the concept of race, primarily using quantitative techniques.
Scholars like Edward Franklin Frazier argued this approach focused too much on social psychological factors and not social structure, specifically economic relations.
Race and Meaning at Mid-Twentieth Century
According to Marks, social and political events shifted understanding of race. Quantitative research tends to treat race as a preexisting social fact even though social acceptance of biological determinism relates to belief race is fixed.
Marks describes this as studying difference and not race. Most knowledge on race, gender, and class gets regulated by elite White men. For instance, journal gatekeepers blame the lack of research on race on meritocracy rather than White supremacy. This led to a narrowing of research on race, increasingly treating race as a variable and not as a subject.
Current Race Constructs According to Academia
Marks notes that three types of race research persist:
- Doing difference
- Historical archival data to see how the past has present implications
- Theory debates about the micro- and macro- structure of race
Within this modern context, various new debates have emerged. For instance, while some argue that racism results from pure discrimination, others allege that inequality occurs due to racial proxy. Thus, the process of elimination continues to structure the debate on race, leading to the use of methodological procedures Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes as “making race vanish in statistical air.”:
- If samples of “others” are too small, sociologists ignore them
- If evidence in a study doesn’t support racism as an explanation, sociologists claim racism is disappearing
- If “others” have it worse than some, sociologists conclude that there should be no complaints about racism.
Marks points out the logic of such studies is ill-faired as race does not vary so it is not a cause of any particular outcomes sociologists might study including claiming that the significance of racism has declined.
The Declining Significance of Race
According to Marks, scholars like William Julius Wilson write about the declining significance of race and the “truly disadvtanged,” pointing to the gains the Black middle class has made. Nevertheless, other scholars like Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro challenge this notion by stating Black gains in income do not resolve racial inequalities in wealth. Other scholars, like Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue racial formation best explains why race and racism will never be in decline.
Social and Historical Shifts in the Meaning of Race
Marks notes several instances wherein the meaning of race has shifted in the United States:
- Irish immigration – this group proved its possible for some ethnicities to assimilate into Whiteness
- International migration from Asia – the movement of Asians to U.S. complicated the understanding of race as biological and thus existing racial categories.
- Race on a fixed axis – sociologists are now interested in understanding the ways in which racism is structural
- Hegemony – Race can be contested or destroyed but how do others react? Scholars like Aldon Morris argue minorities have an oppositional consciousness wherein they developed insurgent ideals and beliefs to challenge domination. Others, however might internalize oppression.
- Racialized group – reveals the instability of race as a category, thus defining race as a function of social structures, ideologies, and attitudes historically instilled with racial meaning.