Theories of Race and Ethnicity: Contemporary Debates and Perspectives

Volume 13, Issue 3  | 
Published 04/04/2017

Authors: Karim Murji and John Solomons
Publ: Cambridge University Press, 2015
ReviewerMiriam Maranga-Musonye

The twin issues of race and ethnicity continue to influence history sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly. In the edited volume Theories of Race and Ethnicity: Contemporary Debates and Perspectives Karim Murji and John Solomons revisit these issues and give them new impetus in the 21st century. Reading this text in the height of the US presidential campaigns in October 2016 was quite an incisive coincidence for me. The text which is divided into two parts was, according to the editors, conceived out of the need to have an in-depth discussion on research agendas on race and ethnic relations spanning the last 20 years. Part I deals with critical debates in the last 20 years or so while Part II deals with current developments in theoretical approaches to the study of race.

In the introduction, the editors situate the volume within the context of scholarship in the field of race and ethnicity and specifically state that this text was spurred by the need to move ahead from an earlier text on the same subject, namely Theories of Race and Ethnic Relations (1986) by John Rex & David Mason. Although both texts raise similar questions, their contexts are quite different and Murji and Solomon’s volume reflects on the changing boundaries of race and ethnic studies and brings together diverse perspectives, making it relevant to current political and civil debates.

A running thread in the first five chapters is the direct or indirect impact of the Obama presidency to the question of race and ethnicity. There is a general postulation in these chapters that the Obama presidency created a euphoric aura of colour-blindness which is deceptive in a world that continues to be greatly influenced by racial and colour differences.  In the chapter ‘Race and the science of difference in the age of genomics’ Sandra Soo-Jin Lee makes reference to the Human Genome Project (HGP) according to which the human genome composition was said to reveal that all human beings regardless of race are more than 99.9 % the same. She goes on to point out the irony that despite this 99.9% mantra, the scientific community continues to do research on population differences at the molecular level, convinced that the answer to complex diseases and variability in drug response lies in understanding the minute, genetic differences between races. According to Lee, the above is genetic reductionism because as a scientific method it singularly locates ethnic identity in genetic variation. This approach confounds the notion of malleable identity, leading to a situation in which identity is no longer a product of self-definition, but one ascribed by science. Lee argues for the need for social scientists and humanists to catalyze the conversation on the concept of race and difference as a way of mitigating against the adverse implications of this scientific reductionism.  

Charles A Gallagher addresses the question of race in the USA context in the chapter ‘Colour blind egalitarianism as the new racial norm’. He posits that many white Americans believe that the USA has achieved colour-blindness; that skin colour is no longer the basis of discriminatory treatment because institutionalized racism has been eliminated and the American creed of ‘racial equality for all’ has been achieved as symbolized in the election of Obama as the first black US president. He holds further that, despite the fact that colour-blind egalitarianism is taken as the norm by many white Americans, a large body of research shows that racial discrimination is rife in America. He cites the case of the arrest of the black professor, Henry Louis Gates Jnr after being mistaken for a burglar. President Obama commented that the police acted stupidly for arresting this black professor as he was getting into his own house and he was consequently accused of being racist. Gates too was accused of being racist for claiming that the reason he was arrested was that he is black. Gallagher argues that a key implication of colour-blind egalitarianism is that race-conscious remedies by the government will likely be seen as discrimination towards whites, who will then see themselves as victims of reverse racism.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva makes direct reference to the Obama presidency in his chapter ‘Getting over the Obama hope hangover: the new racism in ‘post-racial’ America’. He argues that the issue is not whether or not there is a black president, but whether there are mechanisms, traditions and institutions that produce and reproduce racial privilege. He posits that traditional racism has now become covert and subtle and seemingly non-racial which connects to Gallagher’s idea of colour-blind egalitarianism. The basic argument in these two chapters ties with a current argument in psychology that bias and prejudice are conditioned and influenced by culture which is the key input into people’s minds.

Miri Song focuses on the mixed race situation in Britain in her chapter ‘Does a recognition of mixed race move us toward post-race’. She observes that the Obama presidency catalyzed the debate on race and mixed race. She argues that although mixedness seems to have been normalized in contemporary multiethnic Britain, there is the danger that this normalization may feed the naive ideology of colour-blindness especially in the context of the Obama presidency.

In Part II there is the presentation of different theoretical approaches to the study of race, including feminism, cultural studies, psychoanalytic and psychosocial approaches and critical race feminism. Adrien K Wing draws from the ideas of critical race theory (CRT) and presents the new approach of critical race feminism (CRF). She presents CRF as a multidisciplinary approach concerned with the legal status and rights of women of colour. Wing’s ideas relate with Shirley Anne Tate’s in her chapter ‘Performativity and raced bodies’ in which she draws from the works of Judith Butler and Frantz Fanon and focuses on how mixed race women perform identities, arguing that performativity both exposes and unsettles racial binaries. She argues for the identity-constituting nature of naming as it orders free-floating signifiers into an identity; for example, to say ‘I am black’ is to locate oneself, politically, socially, philosophically, racially, psychically and in many other ways.        

The concluding chapter by the editors re-focuses race as an analytical category by postulating that the important question is not what race is per se, but what race does and what is done in the name of race. They observe that in spite of the post-race arguments, certain realities such as Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and whiteness stress the mobilization and operation of racial and racist imaginaries.

This volume no doubt raises pertinent issues on race and ethnicity from diverse perspectives and locates itself at a decisive historical moment marked by the rule of Obama as the first black US president. Coming out as it did towards the end of Obama’s term in office also provides an opportune scenario for reflection on race and ethnicity. The highly charged nature of the 2016 US presidential campaign and the election of Donald Trump is a key indicator that the post-race maxim may be still a mirage.  This event indicates a situation where race, racism and ethnicity feed a climate of fear in which many white Americans feel threatened by the inundation of their country by many legal and illegal immigrants, putting their country at risk of demographic reconfiguration. On the other hand the immigrants fear reprisals of what appears to be a white supremacist regime. In a world facing different crises including political, economic and also a growing population of refugees globally, there is no doubt that issues of race, racism and ethnicity remain fertile issues for scholarship.

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