Race is a relationship, and not a thing.
The term "racial processes" itself encompasses an array of discrete but intertwined histories, including those of racial formation, racism, racial conflict, and the multiple histories of the disparate people and groups racialized and stigmatized in the course of human history. (2) Historians are only beginning to unravel their complex relatedness. It is ironic to be called upon to defend the salience of class in this endeavor, as for many the goal was once the converse. In the past, we have struggled first to apply the powerful and persuasive tools of class analysis to historicize race and gender, and in turn to persuade other scholars that class analyses failing to account for racial and gender formation remained impoverished and inadequate. These struggles to integrate analyses of race, gender, and other social dynamics into historical and theoretical accounts of class formation have deepened our understanding that all social formations have been fissured on multiple axes of power and the resources power commands. We can no longer assume that social groups--classes, races, nations, sisterhoods, will be homogeneous and consensual: we look instead for evidence of power, resistance, coercion and consent. As historians, we do look for evidence.
The methods of class analysis remain vital for understanding and explaining racial processes. Social historians' exposure and exploration of the contingency, relationality, and contextuality of all historical processes remains unsurpassed and indispensable in understanding race, gender, sexuality, and imperialism, among the multiple historical formations "the cultural turn" has rendered newly visible. We need not dwell on the mundane point that racialized groups are not and never have been homogeneous, instead riven by class as well as other differences. The challenge to functionalist and consensus interpretations, first and most insistently posed by class analysis, has subsequently broadened and deepened. We now recognize that collectivities such as racialized or cultural groups, nations, societies, have not been consensual, monolithic, or unitary, but have been divided, sometimes bitterly, not only by class, but by age, gender, culture, skill, sexuality and so forth. We now ask, whose nation? whose culture? whose society? We now ask, whose history? For racialized people were neither the sole nor necessarily the most visible "others" in these multiply stratified societies.
The application of this basic tool of class analysis to racial processes is so obvious, so tedious, so utterly banal, that it is astonishing how often scholars continue to overlook it. Just as the point of parsing English sentences remains obscure until one is learning a foreign language, the enduring utility of class analysis--with its emphatic disaggregation of historical collectivities--is never more glaring than when absent from works purporting to account for gender, race and empire. Investigations of "imperial culture" or European "national" identities tread perilously close to reimposing a fallacious unity and homogeneity on diverse populations. Practical class, racial, gender and other heterogeneities demand attention to how dominant classes have simultaneously spoken for and silenced a diverse polity. Put another way, denouncing metropolitan populations as uniformly racist and imperialistic, thus implicitly white, may inadvertantly concede, participate in and reproduce racialized and colonized people's exclusion from these societies. It implicitly ignores evidence of their continual struggles for social resources and political power throughout modern history. The point is that anyone who questions whether class analysis has anything left to offer our understanding of race and other historical processes need only spend an afternoon in the library.
But the more interesting and useful application of class analyses to racial processes is the recognition and articulation of their contingent, protean and relational nature, and that of all historical processes. This dynamic view of social formations is indebted to Thompsonian, Gramscian, and other Marxian interpretations. Understanding racial formation as an historical process rather than a static, naturalized "category," as "a relationship, and not a thing," can rescue racial difference, racism, and the history of racialized people themselves from the margins and ghettos of historical scholarship, placing them instead at the intersection of the multiple social processes that have shaped our history. Evidence of the changing and inconsistent composition of racialized groups, and definitions of racial difference in the course of modern history, suggests that "race" must be recognized as at least as unstable, at least as contingent, as subject to the same historical contexts that have continually reproduced and reconstituted class, gender, and other social formations. (3) Evidence for the inextricability of racial formation from other historical processes emerges in the frequent observation that the "new racism" of the late nineteenth century accompanied rising antisemitism, including pogroms, and the Dreyfus Affair, and enhanced class stratification in Europe. (4) Yet how do we comprehend the relationship between race and other historical processes?
The good news is that the lessons of class formation are not really difficult to apply. As a crude rule of thumb, assumptions about the fixity of racial boundaries, the inevitability of racial conflict, the naturalness of racial categories must automatically provoke the question: "would such a simplistic formulation be tolerated if applied to gender or class?" Applying these tests and the lessons of class analysis to racial processes could enhance our ability to historicize race, understanding racial formation as ongoing and ever-changing, a process thus susceptible to historical analysis.
So, what are the lessons class analyses can contribute to a better grasp of racial processes? Perhaps the first and most encompassing is class analyses' emphasis on the unstable dialectical circuit between structure and agency, material practice and consciousness. To reiterate what we have learned from the best theorists in the Marxian tradition, class "is an active process, which owes as much to agency as to conditioning." (5) This insight has much to offer analyses of racial difference and of racism: reconceptualizing race as an "active process", as racial formation, would merely reconcile historical scholarship with scientists' longstanding rejection of objective bases for racial differences. Yet in much scholarship, racial identities have been treated as objective qualities, innate attributes, unproblematically fixed essences, from which we can predict or extrapolate how people will behave or must have behaved with only occasional recourse to evidence. Reference to class analysis reminds us of the fluidity, contingency, instability, and processural nature of all social distinctions, including racial ones, making them artifacts of specific historical contexts. Just as "class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition," (6) evidence shows us that racial categories have been reproduced and renegotiated in ad hoc fashion by individuals pursuing explicit and implicit goals, and have altered to meet historical contingencies. Thus my reservations about the wrenching of a reified construct of "whiteness" from the historical context of the antebellum United States for use to explain racial relationships and practices with quite different historical contexts, including those in Britain, past and contemporary. (7) I, for one, have never encountered in a historical source of nineteenth or early twentieth century Britain a historical actor using the term "whiteness" to describe his or her identity.
Second, the stress on agency found in the best class analyses suggests first that racism is not a regrettable but universal aspect of "human nature," but shaped and reproduced by historical actors who may and must be held accountable. Agency also implies the imperative to specify and identify historical actors and to evaluate their influence over outcomes. Third, the conviction that historical actors have been "present at [their] own making" has prompted a search for evidence of how Black and other racialized people exercised "agency and creativity" (8) in shaping the terms of their participation in past societies, even if outcomes sometimes spun out of their own or anyone's control. The stress on Black agency balances necessary attention to racism and racists, in which people of color can all too often seem merely "victims," and objects, either of popular racism or of institutional processes such as slavery or state coercion.
Fourth, conversely, potentially voluntaristic celebration of Black agency must be corrected with scrupulous investigation of the pervasive processes of racial subordination; a reconciliation between structure and agency most originally and eloquently formulated by analysts of class formation. From social historians we have learned how everyday forms of violence such as imperialism or institutionalized racism, shaped by powerful institutions such as police, employers, and the state, have conditioned apparently spontaneous outbreaks of overt racial conflict such as the anti-Semitic pogroms of the fourteenth century, or the British riots of 1919. (9)
Fifth, recognizing that such hegemonic power is nonetheless never secure can inform the analytical reconciliation of racist power structures with human agency. (10) Understanding racism and racial formation as products of impressive mechanisms of hegemonic coercion, we must still account for evidence that racial subordination has remained incomplete, unstable, and continually contested. Multiple examples come to mind, but perhaps the best remains that of interracial marriages, which have continued to defy racist hegemony from both sides of the racial boundary. Such defiance repudiates assumptions about the essential incompatibility between people of different racial or cultural groups; the view that racial antagonism has been and remains a visceral expression of the viciousness and frailty of human nature; or that hegemonic pressures to conform to racial polarization were irresistible, thus excusable. Such defiance can, in the words of the prophet, "renew our sense of our nature's range of possibilities." (11)
Sixth, illustrated by such defiance is class analyses' elegant yet complex reconciliation of material processes with consciousness in the dialectical unity of discursive and material practice: class, we are told, took place both "in the raw material of experience and in consciousness." Like class, race is arguably "neither a structure nor a category, but something which happens ... in human relationships ... it is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead ... embodied in real people and in a real context." (12) This insistence on the materiality of historical and cultural practice can be enormously beneficial in comprehending racial formation. Given that biologists and anthropologists have for some time despaired of defining race or racial difference, it seems inescapable that racial distinctions themselves have been constructed by historical contexts. It follows that alleged distinctions between racial difference and cultural difference have no real, empirical basis either, no "real existence:" they too remain social constructs, and in the historical complexities of their formation lie the origins of racialization and its remedies.
Seventh, although biologized interpretations of racial difference have been discredited, reified notions of cultural difference, what one scholar has called "cultural determinism and uniformity" (13), are in danger of becoming a new essentialism, explaining racial formation, racial difference, and racial conflict as products of deeply embedded, unconscious, indelibly imprinted, and apparently involuntary responses. (14) If we refer again to lessons drawn from the analysis of class we cannot make this error. The lessons of working class formation show that culture itself has been a historical process, constructed by people, thus susceptible to analysis and modification. (15)
Since the most compelling analyses of class trace its formation and reproduction through cultural processes, it seems that to understand the cultural construction of racial differences we must look to the same historical processes that have constructed class, and indeed, gender, sexuality, and other social formations. (16)
Finally, such cautions apply as well to the common conflation of race and empire, historical processes admittedly related but in need of analytical disaggregation. Too often what passes for cultural analysis of empire has involved the simplistic reification, objectification, and universalization of decontextualized artifacts, from texts to jam jars, artifacts that ought to be looked at as products of historical processes inextricable from the rest of history. (17) Rereading Edward Said recently, I was reminded of his scrupulous specification that imperialism was a set of practices best studied as they were operationalized in concrete historical contexts such as Algeria or British India. (18) Thus the imperative to retrieve the cultural processes and artifacts of empire from "the thin air of 'meanings, attitudes and values'," locating them instead within the social and racial practices they were shaped by and in turn helped to shape. Once again, this involves investigation of concrete processes.
I will conclude with a caution against universalizing racial antagonism, a caution informed by the lessons of class analysis: Locating racial differences or racism outside of historical processes, as an explanation for human action, rather than something needing to be explained, as some sort of epiphenomenon or essence, or in the abstract and desembodied realm of "attitudes" and atavisms, is both to abdicate the historian's responsibility to explain through the analysis of historical evidence, and to despair of remedies for racism, racial conflict, and racial subordination. Approaches to these racial processes, and, incidentally, gender, can benefit from the several insights derived from class analysis. If we are to learn from class analysis then we must discipline ourselves to apply the lessons of process, power, and individual agency, not in some abtract way that makes race, colonization or imperialism a distant and amorphous "cultural context", the wallpapered backdrop to the historical narrative, but in tracing how, when, where, and by whom racial and imperial processes have been reproduced through historical practices that can be documented and analyzed.
Tucson, AZ 85721
(1.) The title is, of course, a paraphrase of E. P. Thompson's admonition that, "class is a relationship, and not a thing," from The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1966), 11. I wish to thank my colleague David Ortiz for his comments and suggestions on this piece.
(2.) I use the term "racialized" provisionally to emphasize the distinction between inoffensive physical and cultural differences and the power relations that convert some of them to political, social and economic disabilities--but only provisionally, since in truth race itself is the social construct.
(3.) Barbara Jeanne Fields, "Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America," New Left Review 181 (May/June 1990): 95-118; Stuart Hall, "Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities," in Anthony King, ed., Culture, Globalization and The World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity (London, 1991), especially 57, 59, 62, 68.
(4.) Leo Spitzer, Lives In Between: Assimilation and Marginality in Austria, Brazil, and West Africa, 1780-1945 (Cambridge, 1989); Douglas Lorimer, Colour, Class, and the Victorians: English Attitudes to the Negro in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Leicester, 1978).
(5.) I borrow here from Thompson, Making, 9, and particularly his "Introduction: Custom and Culture," in Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (New York, 1991), 1-15; from the early Marx and Engels, particularly The German Ideology; and from Gramsci and his interpreters, including T. Jackson Lears, "The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities," American Historical Review 90, 3 (June 1985): 567-593; and Michael Omi and Howard Winant, "By the Rivers of Babylon: Race in the United States," Socialist Review 71 (September-October 1983): 31-65.
(6.) "Preface" to The Making, 11.
(7.) To belabor Thompson, it is well to recall that he eschewed assimilating even the Welsh and Scottish experience to that of England, citing distinctions of religion, politics, and culture that required investigation. Making, 13. To illustrate the contextuality of racial difference, I quote a revealing passage from Richard Rodriguez: "The registration clerk in London wonders if I have just been to Switzerland. And the man who carries my luggage in New York guesses the Caribbean. My complexion becomes a mark of my leisure. Yet no one would regard my complexion the same way if I entered such hotels through the service entrance.... my complexion assumes its significance from the context of my life. My skin, in itself, means nothing." Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (New York, 1982) 137.
(8.) The phrase is from Neville Kirk "'Traditional' working class culture and 'the rise of Labour': some preliminary questions and observations," Social History 16:2 (May 1991): 209.
(9.) David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton, 1996); Neil Evans, "Regulating the Reserve Army: Arabs, Blacks and the Local State in Cardiff, 1919-45 in Kenneth Lunn, ed., Race and Labour in Twentieth-century Britain (London, 1985).
(10.) Customs in Common, 6, 9.
(11.) Customs in Common, 15.
(12.) Making, 9.
(13.) Kirk, "Traditional Working Class Culture...."
(14.) David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence "Introduction;" Since the Holocaust, "general support of biological racism" has become "profoundly unfashionable," but has been replaced by "renewed emphasis on culture rather [than] biology as an essential source of difference ..." 36, in Roger Ballard, "Islam and the Construction of Europe," in W.A.R. Shadid and P.S. van Koningsveld, eds., Muslims in the Margin: Political Responses to the Presence of Islam in Western Europe (Kampen, the Netherlands, 1996), 15-51; Neville Kirk," 'Traditional' working class culture," 216.
(15.) It was Thompson himself who warned against "the very term culture, with its cosy invocation of consensus." arguing instead that "culture" is a clumpish term ... we need to take this bundle apart." Customs in Common, 13.
(16.) "Class is a cultural as much as an economic formation," Thompson, Making, 13; see also Leonore Davidoff, Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender & Class (New York, 1995); Neville Kirk writes, "Cultures do not unproblematically produce their own unambiguous meanings ... The latter ... are created by means of processes of interaction among the ensemble of cultural, social, political, economic and ideological forces," "'Traditional' working class culture," 211. Kirk quotes Richard Oestricher on culture as "a set of contingencies ... possibilities." 211.
(17.) "Generalisations as to the 'universals' of popular culture become empty unless they are placed firmly within specific historical contexts," Thompson Customs in Common, 6.
(18.) Orientalism (Vintage, 1979), 1, 2, 5, 17 and passim.; idem., Culture and Imperialism (Vintage, 1993), passim.
By Laura Tabili
University of Arizona
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|Title Annotation:||Central Issues|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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