In Howard Winant. New Racial Politics: Globalism, Difference, Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ©2004 Howard Winant. Also in Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society (Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University, Vol. 6, nos. 3-4 (2004).



This is a crucial moment for those of us who teach about race and racism. People, there's a crisis of racial meaning going on out there. In the classic definition, a crisis is a situation in which "the old is dying and the new cannot be born." Well, that's the situation in which racial pedagogy finds itself at the start of the 21st century.

There is a lot more at stake than just what we teach. What we teach is what people learn, and what they learn is what they know. Higher education curricula, taken as a whole, embody what is known in a given society at a given time.1 This certainly applies to curricula that deal with the complex subject of race: its history, theoretical and philosophical status, multiple manifestations in socioeconomic, political, and cultural relationships, embodiment in artistic production and in the toils of the human psyche, etc. Race is a big topic. Sociopolitical confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety about such a complex theme will be reflected in curricula focused upon it, and will be fostered in the hearts and minds of those students who seek knowledge about it. Such is the present situation in the academic treatment of race.

It's no secret that much of what is taught about race is outmoded, that ethnic studies departments are often riven by fierce controversies and antagonisms, and that in mainstream disciplinary settings too there is confusion: the post-civil rights era racial ethos has become "common sense"; decades of advocacy of "colorblindness," diversity, and multiculturalism have taken their toll.

Space is not available here for a full assessment of the conflicts and uncertainties besetting racial studies today, but it is at least possible to provide a glancing overview of the crisis. In what follows I first discuss the changing meaning and political dynamics of race at the start of the 21st century. Next I take note of the centrality of racial studies in the curriculum. I conclude with some notes, necessarily preliminary and sketchy, towards a new racial studies.


In the post-civil rights period, after decades of political and cultural conflict over the meaning of race and the persistence of structural racism in the US, the outlines of the country's 21st-century racial crisis are beginning to emerge. New racial formations have developed from the processes of confrontation and accommodation, of conflict and reform that swept across much of the world over the past few decades. Changing racial dynamics are in part the effects of anti-racist movements and of the achievement of democratic reform in the latter half of the 20th century. They are linked as well to new patterns of globalization, to the unsteady and unfulfilled postcolonial situation that obtains across the world's South, and to the tremendous international flows of people, capital, and information around the planet. Here, however, I propose a narrower "take" on the changing meaning of race, focused on what is to be taught and studied about race in the American university during the 21st century.

These changes, I argue here, have set off a crisis in racial pedagogy. Generally speaking, the crisis comes from two sources. The first of these proceeds from the politics of post-civil rights era, from what I have called in other work "racial hegemony" (Omi and Winant 1994). As the US underwent a transition from the fairly explicit white supremacism and racial domination of the pre-civil rights era to the reform-based and incorporative logic of "colorblindness," diversity, etc. that had become the new racial "common sense" sometime in the 1970s, racial studies had also to confront the newly emergent, hegemonic situation. To be sure, the old issues that had spawned the movement still remained highly salient: discrimination and white privilege, structural and cultural racism, etc. But because reform had occurred, because the incorporation of movement demands (and persons) had taken place, racial studies were beset with a host of new challenges: pedagogical, empirical, and theoretical. Just as fierce debates took place across the country about the supposed "declining significance of race," so too conflicts engulfed numerous academic departments, both mainstream discipline- and ethnic studies-based, over curricular content.

The second source of crisis is linked to globalization. It may be seen in terms of national v. transnational perspectives on race. This debate of course had a long history, stretching back to controversies over slavery, conquest, and colonialism, and touching upon such complex issues as pan-Africanism (and other panethnic movements), nationalism, dependency, world-systems theory, and migration. Here I can offer only the most schematic characterization of this complex question.

Briefly, the post-WWII world racial scene was shaped jointly by racial reform in the global North and decolonization in the global South, two processes that were themselves highly related. As this dual transition unfolded, racial politics became more global: a sustained period of nationalism linked anti-racist struggles in the US to anticolonial revolution, for example, and "internal colonialism" theories enjoyed a significant vogue. Later, while civil rights reforms marginalized racial radicals in the US, postcolonial regimes also lost favor because they descended into corruption, dictatorship, brutal civil war, and new forms of dependency and neocolonial subordination.2 Complicating this huge transition in the US was burgeoning immigration to that country after its 1965 immigration reform -- which was itself an important and often neglected piece of civil rights legislation. Finally, the ever-expanding quest by the US for global economic power -- embodied in NAFTA, the WTO, and other forms of interventionism -- began to cast transnational political economic issues in a newly racialized mold. This process reached new heights at the 2001 UN World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, where the US did its best to undermine and marginalize demands for global racial justice; new global racial politics have also inflected the Bush administration's "war on terrorism" and its Iraq intervention in various ways.

Advancing globalization tends in general to internationalize the racial curriculum. For example, teaching about various racial diasporae is heightened: African, Chinese, Filipino, Dominican, and others. Even Afrocentrism -- which in my view is largely an inchoate and retro effort to revive the black cultural nationalism of the late 1960s -- in some measure works to direct greater attention to diasporic issues. At the same time the internationalization of the racial curriculum disturbs and alienates more locally- and nationally-oriented scholars whose commitments to specific racially-defined communities or to equality and justice is focused on domestic US racial conditions.

This pattern of divergence and debate isn't going away; it is driven by social structure itself. The US increasingly throws its weight around in the big world: neo-imperialism is the name of the game. And it does this at a historical moment when its own demographics are more nonwhite, more replete with recent immigrants from the global South, more "diasporic" in short, than ever before. At the same time domestic racial discontent is rising, as the US tears up its residual commitments to the welfare state, jams its prisons with more and more people of color, and exports poverty and unemployment as much as possible to the ghettos, barrios and reservations.

All these tensions and conflicts flow inevitably into the racial curriculum. It seems apparent that these post-WWII racial transformations and upheavals, most centrally the reforms of the post-civil rights era and the onset of the racial ideology of "colorblindness," have unmoored the higher learning in America, racially speaking, leaving faculty, students, and administrators (even those specializing in this area) uncertain as to what should be taught, and what is to be learned, about race and racism. The significance of race ("declining" or increasing?), the interpretation of racial equality ("colorblind" or color-conscious?), the institutionalization of racial justice ("reverse discrimination" or affirmative action?), and the very categories -- black, white, Latino/Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American -- employed to classify racial groups have all been called into question over recent decades. The paradigmatic approaches to studying these issues -- both in traditional academic disciplines (my main focus here is on the social sciences) and in the widespread interdisciplinary programs that may be grouped under the "ethnic studies" rubric -- largely derive from sociopolitical and cultural conditions that have now been superseded, at least in part.

Exclusion of critical race-oriented problematics from the curriculum and the disciplinary canons has largely ended, reflecting the transformation of the university setting from an apparatus of racial domination to one of racial incorporation. By the 1980s, many universities and colleges had made watchwords of the terms "diversity" and "multiculturalism," although the practical meaning of this was debatable: as "diversity" was being celebrated, affirmative action programs were coming under attack and racially-defined minority enrollments were decreasing. Did attention to racial and ethnic studies, whether proceeding from traditional disciplines or from the newer ethnic studies departments and programs, benefit from this new approbation, or was serious academic commitment to these areas of study being rendered symbolic in the newly dawning "post-civil rights," "colorblind" era?

More recently affirmative action has found new defenders, not in the relatively debilitated organizations and thinkers (myself included) who see themselves as carrying forward the movement's legacy, but in such mainstream and often conservative sectors as large corporations and the military, whose spokespeople have argued that "diversity" and upward mobility for racially-defined minorities are crucial to their organizations' efforts to maintain market share and loyalty in the ranks.

This situation, in which formerly radical democratic demands now serve to undergird elite power, at first seems highly ironic. It calls forth cynicism, and perhaps even mockery, of the movement's legacy. But hold on there, my friends. When we look more deeply, we can see that every successful social movement realizes its goals by embedding them in the heart of the establishment, the power structure. That is what success means: lodging the arrows of your movement's demands in the bosom of your antagonist, most often the state but sometimes corporations, cultural elites, or other power-wielding groups. These elites and state administrators generally come to understand that honey works better than vinegar: moderate reform/hegemony are strategically more effective in maintaining consensual rule than intransigence, repression, or domination could ever be (Gramsci 1971, 182; Winant 1994).

At the same time, there is an implicit contradiction in the success that movements sometimes achieve. What Omi and I characterized as the political "trajectory" of racially-based movements sets in here (Omi and Winant 1994, 84-88). Achieving your goals as a movement involves becoming incorporated: again, within the state, the corporation, etc. Success means that "moderate" versions of movement demands are accepted and institutionalized, while more radical versions (and voices) are marginalized, or worse. Winning counts; winning reforms can mean accomplishing great transformations in patterns of social injustice; it can mean bring the light of democracy to places where only the darkness of dictatorship existed before. But winning is also losing: it means that not only the state and power structure have made concessions, but that the movements that previously opposed them have compromised as well.

In the aftermath of intense political conflict, when reforms have become institutionalized and movement opposition has waned, the political "trajectory" reenters a period of abeyance. But during this period, uncertainty, doubt, and anger simmer: in cultural forums, in political organizations, in the "hood," and in the academy as well. How much did we (or previous generations) accomplish with all our movement blood, sweat, and tears? How much has changed, and how much remains the same? What new issues confront us now, in the age of "colorblindness" and multiculturalism?


Whatever one's answer to those questions, the evidence remains strong that approaches to teaching race and ethnicity have hewed closely to the political and cultural climate of the times. There has always ­ always! -- been some version of "racial and ethnic studies" in operation on American campuses. At one time there was racial theology; Drs. Morton and Agassiz were once prominent racial authorities; Herbert Spencer and E. A. Ross had their day. When racial segregation, quotas on Jews, and immigration restrictions were in place, the predominant view was white supremacist, restrictive, and given to eugenicism. For a long time -- let us say until the aftermath of WWII -- the study of race was almost entirely a conversation among whites. Only in a few places -- notably the HBCs -- were racially-defined minorities even present in any significant number. In the mainstream and elite universities, only an occasional scholar, often beleaguered and derided, could make his voice (and it was almost inevitably a male voice) heard.

Only in the 1960s, when students brought pressure on the universities to make changes -- impelled by shifting demographics, social movements, and political changes at the national and even international levels -- did the institutions finally respond. Only then were ethnic studies programs created and some measure of affirmative action instituted in hiring, admissions, etc. And often this came grudgingly and unevenly. Only in the 1970s, when ethnic studies programs were already in place and the problems of racial inequality and ethnic difference widely studied, did the histories, identities, and cultural varieties of the American "mosaic" even begin to be treated with any degree of respect across the curriculum.

What has happened in recent years? A notable stasis has developed: a gap may be opening up again, as has certainly occurred in the past. The teaching/learning strategies in place today at American institutions of higher learning developed in parallel with the racial and ethnic political and cultural milieux of the 1960s and 1970s. Now, more than three decades later, a new situation confronts this pedagogy, one for which it is unprepared. Such themes as hybridized identities, ethnically- and racially-based experience and "role-taking," generational shifts in specific groups and communities, global and national patterns of racial/ethnic stratification, ethnonationalism and ethnoglobality, race/gender/class "intersectionality," and overlap and antagonism between racially- and ethnically-based concepts of difference/identity/stratification, a new attentiveness toward "whiteness," and a resurgent interest in genocide and "ethnic cleansing," to name just a few (!) of the many issues that confront teaching and learning strategies in this area, seem to call for new investigation and new responses.

Ironically, these new challenges are emerging at a moment when movement activity has waned, when "diversity" commitments are under attack, and when new claims of meritocratism, postraciality, and "colorblindness" are being advanced from numerous quarters (usually from the center-right, but sometimes even from the left or from liberal quarters, and sometimes from interventive courts and legislatures). It is no accident that debates over race/ethnicity on campus, conflict over the legacy of the civil rights movement, and discord within ethnic studies departments have become disturbingly familiar phenomena.


These large themes have been the subjects of a great deal of recent work, including my own (Winant 2001). It is not my intention to address them all in the context of a single paper. Rather I offer a tentative list of emergent issues in racial studies. This is but a hint of some of the axes of promising new work being developed in "new racial studies." These are at least some of the issues given us by the new sociopolitical conditions we face in the 21st century.

Consider the following themes:

Diaspora/globality/migration as racialized processes: Here I am thinking of contested borders and citizenships; the racial continuity of the North-South divide, as expressed in debt peonage, unequal exchange etc.

Micro-macro racial linkages: Here I mean the zone where the whole comparative/historical approach to race (the "macro" stuff) meets the whole experience-based, identity/difference dimension of race (the "micro" stuff).

Means of communication/media as racial phenomena: Here I mean the acceleration of culture contact as both (1) a diasporic (or if you prefer, "global") organizational phenomenon: hip-hop in São Paulo, "one nation under a groove," the globalization of reggae, etc., as well as films, internet connections, etc.; and (2) a means of cultural domination, "appropriation," delocalization and thus disempowerment and suppression of people's expressive needs.

The legacies of conquest and slavery: These can be seen, for example, in labor processes and ideologies, concepts of "freedom," local/national/global divisions of labor, state form, mobilizational and political capacity, and concepts of personal identity.

Race and revolution: This is an evident but under-explored connection visible, for example, in the historical legacy of the Haitian revolution; and in parallels between 19th-century decolonization in the Americas and 20th-century decolonization in Africa and Asia;

Race and capitalism: Here I mean the need for rethinking the world-system's development as a racially instituted process; even old Karl Marx denounced "the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of blackskins." C.L.R. James's (1989 [1938]) account of the sugar industry as foundational to industrialism, Du Bois's (1977 [1935]) analysis of the US Civil War/Reconstruction as a process of national (and global) realignment, Williams's (1994 [1944]) work, and the huge contemporary literature on the economics of race need to be reintegrated into the curriculum;

Race and democracy: Patterson's concept of "freedom" is premised on a thorough (though problematic) analysis of slavery (1982); abolitionism was a central factor in actualizing democracy and indeed propelling concepts of popular sovereignty forward (Keck and Sikkink 1998). Some signals of this complex of problems include: Du Bois's (1935) account (again!) of the US Civil War/Reconstruction as a failed attempt to break the world-historical democratic bottleneck; and the continuing presence of racial dictatorship in the form of structural racism (Feagin 2000), as evidenced in reparations controversies and lawsuits. In general continuing racial pluralism and the equalization of "life-chances" across racial lines are effective indices of the presence of democracy.

Race/gender as co-constitutive in modernity: Here I mean sex-based enforcement of racial subjection and its consequences (like hybridization) in colonial and slavery-based settings, and the generalized subjection of women's bodies in racial oppressions of the most varied types (Stoler 2002); all of it carrying forward in one way or another to the postcolonial, "emancipated" world; as well as sex-based resistance, women's resistance, from then to now.

Whiteness as a central theme: What does it mean to think of whiteness as non-normalized? This is still a relatively new and difficult subject. What does it mean to see "white" as a negative category? To experience whiteness as a beleaguered identity? How should we understand ethnicity within whiteness? Are whites a racial group? Is there white subjectivity in the same sense as there is black or Latino subjectivity?

Regarding ethnicity: when does it trump, and when does it get trumped by, race? Non-racialized subjects/groups are always racializable. Hitler's goons had to make my dad pull down his pants to check if he was a Jew (my dad became a refugee from his native Vienna, made it to the US, and thus survived the Holocaust), but the fact that the Nazis couldn't tell who was a Jew just by looking didn't keep the Volkischer Beobachter from printing a hook-nosed caricature of "the Jew" on every page. The Brits still racialize the Irish when they need to, and so did the Americans in the 19th century. The Bosnian Serbs racialized the Bosnian Muslims, reinterpreting an ostensibly religious distinction racially. The Hutus and Tutsis racialize each other; Jews and Arabs in Israel and Palestine (cousins whose languages and appearances deeply overlap) do the same. That's going in one direction, from ethnicity to race. Going in the other direction, from race to ethnicity: in the liberal (and some radical) versions of anti-racism, race will become ethnicity, a more benign version of difference, by and by, when the age of sweet tolerance arrives. But in the meantime, what do we do with the persistence of ethnicity within racial categories, as noted above? What do we do when ethnic divisions become quasi-racial chasms, as in Rwanda or Srebrenice?


This paper is far from a fully worked-out program for the revitalization of the racial curriculum in the contemporary US academy. Adequately to formulate a "new racial studies" pedagogy will require a much more systematic effort than is possible here. What is intended instead is an overview of at least some of the "thematic considerations" (as this paper's title puts it) that would be involved in such an endeavor. I hope that this brief sketch will at least contribute to the effort to reinvent the racial curriculum as the 21st century advances. We must build on what we have accomplished thus far, and what our predecessors did in their time. But we cannot rest. Racial oppression is dynamic, ever-changing, adaptable and absorptive. That is what hegemony, racial hegemony, means in the 21st century: the ability to incorporate opposition, to neutralize critique, to "get beyond" -- and thus preserve -- racism. Can we teach this to our students? Can we learn it ourselves?


1. Of course I don't mean this in the Arnoldian sense in which culture is seen as "the best that has been known and thought" (Arnold 1921), for what is best and even what is known are subject to continuous contention. But the point that what is taught and learned in university represents the general summa of intellectual life in a given society -- including all the debates and controversies being explored -- remains valid, it seems to me.

2. A partial exception to this pattern was the belated but triumphant South African transition to racial democracy, but even this was fraught with difficulty.


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James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2nd ed. New York: Vintage, 1989 (1938).

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