Friday, March 17, 2006


A few weeks ago I came across a fascinating essay by Berkeley sociology professor Loïc Wacquant. It was a real moment of clarity. The main point of the essay is summed up in these three paragraphs:
The task of defining, confining, and controlling African Americans in the United States has been successively shouldered by four "peculiar institutions": slavery, the Jim Crow system, the urban ghetto, and the organizational compound formed by the vestiges of the ghetto and the expanding carceral system. The first three served, each in its own way, both to extract labor from African Americans and to demarcate and ultimately seclude them so that they would not "contaminate" the surrounding white society that viewed them as irrevocably inferior and vile.

These two goals of labor extraction and social seclusion are in tension: extracting a group's labor requires regular intercourse with its members, which may blur the line separating "us" from "them." Conversely, social isolation can make efficient labor extraction more difficult. When the tension between exploitation and exclusion mounts to the point where it threatens to undermine either of them, the institution is re-stabilized through physical violence: the customary use of the lash and ferocious suppression of slave insurrections on the plantation, terroristic vigilantism and mob lynchings in the post-bellum South, and periodic bombings of Negro homes and pogroms against ghetto residents (such as the six-day riot that shook up Chicago in 1919) ensured that blacks kept to their appointed place at each epoch.

But the built-in instabilities of unfree labor and the anomaly of caste partition in a formally democratic and highly individualistic society guaranteed that each of these peculiar institutions would in time be undermined by the weight of its internal tensions as well as by black resistance and external opposition, and be replaced by its successor regime. At each new stage, the apparatus of ethno-racial domination became less total and less capable of encompassing all segments and dimensions of the pariah group's social life. As African Americans differentiated along class lines and acceded to full formal citizenship, the institutional complex charged with keeping them "separate and unequal" grew more differentiated and diffuse, allowing a burgeoning middle and upper class of professionals and salary earners to partially compensate for the negative symbolic capital of blackness through their high-status cultural capital and proximity to centers of political power. But lower-class blacks remained burdened by the triple stigma of "race," poverty, and putative immorality.

But where the essay really changed my understanding of the world was in the passages about the production of race:
Slavery, Jim Crow, and the ghetto are each "race making" institutions: they do not simply process an independently-existing ethno-racial division; rather, each produces (or co-produces) this division (anew) out of inherited demarcations and disparities of group power and inscribes it at every epoch in a distinctive constellation of material and symbolic forms. All three have consistently racialized the arbitrary boundary that sets African Americans apart from all others in the United States by actively denying that boundary's cultural origin in history, and ascribing it instead to the fictitious necessity of biology.

The highly particular conception of "race" that America has invented, virtually unique in the world for its rigidity and social consequences, is a direct outcome of the momentous collision between slavery and democracy. The Jim Crow regime reworked the racialized boundary between the free and the enslaved into a rigid caste separation between "whites" and "Negros" (comprising all persons of known African ancestry, no matter how minimal), that infected every crevice of the postbellum social system in the South. The ghetto, in turn, imprinted this dichotomy onto the spatial and institutional schemas of the industrial metropolis. So much so that, in the wake of the "urban riots" of the sixties, "urban" and "black" became near-synonymous in policy making as well as everyday parlance. And the "crisis" of the city came to stand for the enduring contradiction between the individualistic and competitive tenor of American life, on the one hand, and the continued seclusion of African Americans from it, on the other.48 Now, a fourth "peculiar institution"—joining the hyperghetto with the carceral system—is remolding the social meaning and significance of "race" in accordance with the dictates of neoliberalism. To be sure, the penal apparatus has long served as accessory to ethno-racial domination. But the role of the carceral institution today is different. For the first time in U.S. history, it is the primary apparatus for the social production of "race."

I'd heard the argument that race isn't real before, of course, but I'd never believed it. Now I understand.

Wacquant is expanding this essay into a book, which will be released later this year (cover art by Jean Michel Basquiat -- cool!).

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