Notes on: Bonilla-Silva, E. (1996) Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation. American Sociological Review.Vol. 62, No. 3 (Jun., 1997), pp. 465-480.

Racism has been treated as a 'purely ideological phenomenon'. It is of recent origin and was originally defined as a dogma or a set of beliefs or doctrine.. As a result social psychology has dominated and the focus has been on developing prejudice, negative attitudes which have somehow led to actions. Even Marxists have reduced racism to a legitimating ideology with class as primary. Some work does refer back to the labour market, however. Some other earlier work talks about institutional dimensions of dominance as a form of internal colonialism [these people include Blauner]. This seems to lead to 'nationalist solutions' and have produced some useful empirical studies. Yet there is no 'rigourous conceptual framework

Omi and Winant get closest looking at racial formation as a socio-historical process to create racial categories, a principle of social relationships. It still overemphasises ideological and cultural processes, however and 'overemphasises the racial projects… of certain actors (neoconservatives, members of the far right, liberals)' (466). Instead, we should see racism as an ideology of a 'racialised social system'. (467)

The existing formulations exclude the structure of the social system, the real forces, and this includes Marxism. Here racism emerges as an ideology associated with slavery and other forms of oppression and only survives 'as a residue of the past, a surface for class domination'. There is no theoretical apparatus. Psychological approaches operate at the individual level and examine attitudes with static constructs, usually with the result that racism appears to be declining: racism is a characteristic of individuals not social institutions. Racism is treated as a static phenomenon, so that it's possible to see a decline in racism as a natural process, a matter of  assimilation or an adjustment in norms. Racism has an 'independent structural foundation' (468), with no basis in contemporary society. Racism is seen as incorrect or irrational [Adorno is included here!] and this misses rational elements which originally built racialised systems and the rational foundation of contemporary racism. Neo-Marxists and others do insist on the rationality of racism [examples here include Wolpe and Hall], in the form of short-term advantages, while those stressing internal colonial paradigms acknowledge long-term advantages. Racism is considered as overt behaviour, which ignores examples of practices which are 'subtle, indirect or fluid' as many current American practices are alleged to be, even symbolic: lots of attitude questions still refer back to attitudes in the Jim Crow era, and racism in other societies such as 'Brazil, Cuba and Puerto Rico' often do not have an overt character. Contemporary racism is seen as a remnant of the past, as a result of slavery, perhaps, one of the legacies of white workers or past class interests. Finally, racism becomes a circular matter — racism is belief that produces behaviour which is itself racist, and racist behaviour establishes racism or proves it, rather than actually looking at social relations among the races.

The alternative is to offer a more general concept — a 'racialised social system' (469) where 'economic political social and ideological levels' [an EPIC model! -- he must  have got this from Hall] are partially structured by racial categories. Designations of racial groups are socially designated. Partial structuration arises because there are certain hierarchical patterns, structurations [references here include Hall 1980 and Balibar] which acquire certain autonomy and demonstrate effects [Poulantzas now] hence the apparent free-floating ideological nature of racism. Racial categorisation always involves hierarchy, including economic occupational differences and differences in social estimation [a long footnote distinguishes racialised and ethnic situations as 'different basis for group association. Ethnicity is a primarily sociocultural foundation… Racial descriptions are imposed externally to justify the collective exploitation of a people' (469)]. The particular character may be variable — dictatorial during slavery, but hegemonic afterwards, overwork changing to covert racism. Differences in life chances are the main distinction, however.

Different social rewards mean that the races develop 'dissimilar objective interests' which leads to struggles over a particular racial order, and these are collective, racial and practical, not subjective and individual. They are not necessarily directed at the complete elimination of racial structure, but can lead to 'a different kind of racialisation' (470) [in other words reform].

There are internal divisions of the races along class and gender lines, but races as social groups are subordinate or superrdinate and racialisation does not 'imply the exclusion of other forms of oppression but can accompany them'. The issue is which interests move actors to struggle and this is historically contingent — class interests may take precedence 'as they do in contemporary Brazil, Cuba and Puerto Rico' (471) but race takes precedence in the USA. Much depends on the economic political and social distance between the races, although narrowing differences can cause more rather than less racial conflict as competition increases. Even where there is class-based conflict the racial component can survive until mechanisms producing racial differences are eliminated — Brazil, Cuba, Mexico still have a racial problem.

The independent effects of race can be assessed by comparing data between whites and nonwhites in the same class and gender positions, or evaluating the proportion of different races in some domain of life, or examining racial data at all levels to assess the general position of racial groups. The first procedure is standard practice, where racial statistics are controlled for gender and class, as in many sociological studies. However, limits arise because a large amount of racial data cannot be retrieved through surveys, and controlling for variables tends not to investigate why groups are underrepresented in control variables in the first place. It also tends to assume an artificial separation between the variables [may be].

There have been important racialization processes, racial classifications, highly political acts associated with domination of various kinds, often conquest. Categories of others were invented together with binary categories of sameness [presumably whiteness as well then?]. These had real effects on human associations. They went on to limit life chances and interactions. Races are analogous to class and gender in this respect, so that characteristics like skin tone and hair colour are used to denote racial distinctions, but these are not particularly relevant in all classifications, and there is always contestation over meanings, for example several white ethnic groups have struggled to become accepted as legitimate Americans, and others have struggled to avoid being classified as black. The racial structure is not immutable although it tends to become institutionalised, through the form of constraints on what individuals may do.

Initially, categorisation arose from 'the interests of powerful actors in the social system (e.g. the capitalist class, the planter class, colonisers)' (473) but after that 'race became an independent element of the operation of the social system' [creeping idealism]. He wants to insist that racism occurs only when 'a racial discourse is accompanied by social relations of subordination', which would exclude mediaeval versions.

In racialised social formations, there is always a racial component, even if struggles are based primarily on class or gender, so South African workers in 1922 struck for a white South Africa, and opposed black workers acquiring apprenticeships, while the struggle of women in the USA to attain civil rights has always 'been plagued by deep racial tensions'. There are also specific racial contestations over matters like who can live in particular places who can vote, who can take particular jobs, and what ideological labels might be attached to different races. Contestation can be individual or collective, passive and subtle or active and overt. It doesn't always end in violence but structural foundations might need to be shaken.

He reserves the term racism for racial ideology, the particular segment of the ideological structure that provides rationalisations, acting with 'relative autonomy' [quoting Gilroy here] offering common sense, a practical way to regulate relations.

So the whole alternative framework proposes racialised social systems allocating different rewards along racial lines. A set of social relations based on racial distinctions. Together these can be called the racial structure of the society. Races are historically constituted as an effect of these relations. On the basis of this structure a racial ideology develops which might be seen as racism, but this is not just a superstructural phenomenon but instead 'an organisational map that guides actions of racial actors in society' (474) with the reality of its own. Most struggles over resources have a racial component and sometimes they have a distinctive one.

So, in summary, racism is more than just a series of ideas, not a derivation of the class structure, not the result of an irrational ideology. It needs an alternative framework to focus on racialization itself, a process that begins and then develops a life of its own, interacting with class and gender structuration but then becoming an organising principle of social relations in itself. Once established 'race becomes an independent criterion for vertical hierarchy in society' (475) producing different experiences of subordination in society and different interests for different races.

 It follows that racial phenomena are normal outcomes not derived from other structures. That racism is going to change as racialization changes, that it includes overt and covert racial behaviour, for example in historically specific forms [Hall 1980 is cited here]. Rational emotive behaviour can be rational 'that is as based on the races' different interests'. It follows that racial phenomena are systematic so everyone participates in racial affairs regardless of whether they do so overtly or aggressively. This process goes on in contemporary society and is not an historical lag — it follows that racialised social systems cannot easily be eliminated especially through efforts to cure it as a belief or an irrational view in education, for example. Stereotypes only work if they access 'the group's distinct position and status in society' and will disappear otherwise (476).

Lots more needs to be explained especially how race interacts with class and gender, and how societies are structured in dominance [again reference to Hall 1980]. We also need some comparative work, including comparing different historical practices