What Is Racial Formation Theory?

A Black Harvard student shows how racism impacts her experience
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Racial formation is the process through which the meaning of race and racial categories are agreed upon and argued over. It results from the interplay between social structure and everyday life.

The concept comes from racial formation theory, a sociological theory that focuses on the connections between how race shapes and is shaped by social structure, and how racial categories are represented and given meaning in imagery, media, language, ideas, and everyday common sense.

Racial formation theory frames the meaning of race as rooted in context and history, and thus as something that changes over time.

Omi and Winant's Theory

In their book Racial Formation in the United States, sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant define racial formation as

“...the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.”

They explain that this process is accomplished by “historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized.”

“Projects,” here, refers to a representation of race that situates it in social structure.

A racial project can take the form of common-sense assumptions about racial groups, about whether race is significant in today’s society, or narratives and images that depict race and racial categories through mass media, for example.

These situate race within social structure by, for instance, justifying why some people have less wealth or make more money than others on the basis of race, or, by pointing out that racism is alive and well, and that it impacts people’s experiences in society.

Thus, Omi and Winant see the process of racial formation as directly and deeply connected to how “society is organized and ruled.” In this sense, race and the process of racial formation have important political and economic implications.

Composed of Racial Projects

Central to their theory is the fact that race is used to signify differences among people, via racial projects, and that how these differences are signified connects to the organization of society.

In the context of U.S. society, the concept of race is used to signify physical differences among people but is also used to signify actual and perceived cultural, economic, and behavioral differences. By framing racial formation this way, Omi and Winant illustrate that because the way we understand, describe, and represent race is connected to how society is organized, then even our common-sense understandings of race can have real and significant political and economic consequences for things like access to rights and resources.

Their theory frames the relationship between racial projects and social structure as dialectical, meaning that the relationship between the two goes in both directions, and that change in one necessarily causes change in the other. So the outcomes of a racialized social structure—differentials in wealth, income, and assets on the basis of race, for example—shape what we believe to be true about racial categories.

We then use race as a sort of shorthand to provide a set of assumptions about a person, which in turn shapes our expectations for a person’s behavior, beliefs, worldviews, and even intelligence. The ideas we develop about race then act back on the social structure in various political and economic ways.

While some racial projects might be benign, progressive, or anti-racist, many are racist. Racial projects which represent certain racial groups as less than or deviant impact the structure of society by excluding some from employment opportunities, political office, educational opportunities, and subject some to police harassment and higher rates of arrest, conviction, and incarceration.

Changeable Nature of Race

Because the ever-unfolding process of racial formation is one carried out by racial projects, Omi and Winant point out that we all exist among and within them, and they inside of us.

This means we are constantly experiencing the ideological force of race in our everyday lives, and what we do and think has an impact on social structure. This also means that we as individuals have the power to change the racialized social structure and eradicate racism by changing the way we represent, think about, talk about, and act in response to race.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "What Is Racial Formation Theory?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/racial-formation-3026509. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2021, July 31). What Is Racial Formation Theory? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/racial-formation-3026509 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "What Is Racial Formation Theory?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/racial-formation-3026509 (accessed June 5, 2023).