Thursday, July 12, 2012

Theorizing racial structures and racial stratification

I just finished Feagin’s (2006) Systemic Racism.   I feel that his work can shed some light on the misunderstandings I have had in some recent conversations with friends and family.  As I stated before, I don’t believe my friends and family, or most white folks for that matter, are “racist people.”  I know my friends and family well enough to see that they have very good intentions and want to love people as well as they can.  However, the recurrent theme in these conversations is the minimization of race and racism.  It is as if talking about race itself is seen as “racist."  Conversely, the subject of “white privilege” seems to elicit protestations of “reverse discrimination” or the equivalent.  I realized that in most cases, we were not coming at the subject from the same understanding of racial inequality.  Feagin’s work is key for theorizing about racial structure and stratification/hierarchy in the U.S. 

First, Feagin does not see a dichotomy between past and present.  In other words, our society is not fundamentally different from the period in history when we became a nation.  Feagin documents the overarching trend of systemic racism in the U.S. from the “founding fathers,” through slavery, the “Jim Crow” era, the Civil Rights movement, until the present. Feagin extensively shows how, over the history of the U.S., systemic racism has been foundational and continuous, not just something tacked on to an otherwise healthy society or something that has cropped up in different points in history.  In general, the narratives of elite white people that Feagin documents reveal denial, amnesia and alexithymia regarding the oppression of black people and other people of color.  As white people have remained mostly segregated, they have socially reproducing racial hierarchies.  This elitist narrative has been transmitted from one generation to the next relatively unaltered and unchallenged by white people.  There is a cumulative effect in terms of oppression and privilege that has created and sustained racial inequality to this day. 

The power of Feagin’s work, however, primarily lies in the voice of African Americans throughout the work.  In line with standpoint theory, he documents how oppressed participants in history have a singular view of not only their own experience, but the experience of their oppressors.  They have grappled with these concepts, struggled for their freedom, resisted and subverted the status quo.  They have displayed greater moral integrity than the men who are traditionally considered to be the heroes and “founding fathers” of this nation. 

This book has strong implications for education, given that this full view of history has been omitted or suppressed in textbooks and curriculum.  This would explain why most white folks, along with some people of color, today have a hard time talking about racial inequality.  Without a view of systemic racism, racism that has “spread throughout, system-wide, affecting… society as a whole,” we are left with weak cultural arguments, or even resort to biological explanations to try to explain inequality that is blatantly racialized.  In the post-Civil Rights era, white people instinctively feel that talking about race might get you labeled a “racist,” so there is an effort to make it “anything but race,” further exacerbating attempts to address societal inequity. 

I just recently revisited Tim Wise’s website (“Michelle Alexander & Tim Wise on Racism and the New Jim Crow,” 2012) and listened to "On the Other Side of the Myth: A Conversation with Michelle Alexander and Tim Wise."  There were a few points that stood out to me, and which I felt related to Feagin’s (2006) work.  Tim Wise commented that indifference, not overt hatred, is actually the core of oppression, Feagin calls this indifference “social alexithymia,” a general inability to empathize with the experience of others, especially those we have made to be very “other” from ourselves.   This “otherizing” or dehumanization, the rationalization of racial difference, is then accompanied by a general amnesia about past oppression.  This has been foundational to racial stratification over the history of the U.S., and is the essence of the “new racism.” 

Many scholars are pointing out that while overt racism still exist, there is a new "color-blind racism" that seems much milder, and yet is much more persistent for the very fact that it is harder to address and dismantle than blatant racist speech or acts.  Tim Wise mentioned that many black people are leaving the West Coast, for example, and moving to the South.  He speculated that in some ways, it might be because the blatant racism of the South is easier to identify and resist than the slippery, “now you see it, now you don’t,” colorblind ideology.  The bottom line, of course, is that neither style of racism is just; both need to end. 

Some of Tim Wise and Michelle Alexander’s conversation centered around how much progress is to be hoped for in the anti-racist movement when many times anti-racist activists are trying to convince white people of something white folks don’t believe is there.  Tim Wise mentioned “interest convergence,” which is based on the premise that most progress in anti-slavery and civil rights movements took place when there was a convergence of white elites' interests with the goals of civil rights activists.  For example, at the time of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, the U.S. had a strong need to appear democratic in the face of worldwide Communism.  This was actually documented in a brief prepared for the legal counsel during the hearing of Brown vs. the Board of Education.  Wise suggests that one tactic is to convince white folks that racism and oppression actually hurt them economically and psychologically. While Michelle Alexander agreed that this approach could be useful at times to get in the door, she maintained that there is a need to build a moral consensus to sustain momentum.  She recommended a call to the “beloved community” in terms of spiritual consequences as a way to build a lasting anti-racist movement.   

On a more positive note, I had a pleasant conversation recently with the man who owns the building next door.  He is an African American minister who lives in another neighborhood but comes by to work on his building occasionally.  I think we honestly didn’t know what to make of each other for the first year or so that we knew each other.  Slowly, we have been getting to know each other, and the other day we had a quite enjoyable conversation about what I have been reading.  As I listened to the pastor, I found myself amazed as he talked about history, white privilege, race relations, racial inequality, etc.  He used none of the terms that I just mentioned, but he was talking about these concepts as I have been reading about them in books.  It was a moment of self-reflection for me, because I realized that I should not be amazed.  He, as an active participant in his own struggle, has thought deeply about racial structures and racial stratification. 

I am only just now reading and thinking about these issues because of my privileged position closer to the top.  In my whitewashed world, I never looked down to see the structure or those who have experienced the systematic, interrelated barriers of the structure.  Only later in life were there white people who pointed out the racial stratification to me, and only now I am finally listening to people of color talk about their perspectives.  As I think about my own developing understanding of systemic racism, this progression should inform my interactions with other white folks.  I hope that I am better able to communicate information in way that can be well received, with an understanding of the deficiencies in my own knowledge. 


Feagin, J. R. (2006). Systemic racism: A theory of oppression. New York: Routledge.

Michelle Alexander & Tim Wise on Racism and the New Jim Crow. (2012, June 25). Tim Wise. Retrieved July 12, 2012, from

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