What Are Racial Projects?

A Sociological Approach to Race

A sign at a Black Lives Matter protest reads "End White Supremacy"

Zoran Milich / Getty Images

Racial projects are representations of race in language, thought, imagery, popular discourse, and interaction that assign meaning to race, and situate it within the higher social structure. This concept was developed by American sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant as part of their theory of racial formation, which describes an always unfolding, contextual process of making meaning that surrounds race. Their racial formation theory posits that, as part of the ongoing process of racial formation, racial projects compete to become the dominant, mainstream meaning of race and racial categories in society.

Extended Definition

Omi and Winant define racial projects:

A racial project is simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines. Racial projects connect what race means in a particular discursive practice and the ways in which both social structures and everyday experiences are racially organized, based upon that meaning.

In today’s world, complimentary, competing, and contradictory racial projects battle to define what race is, and what role it plays in society. They do this on many levels, including everyday common sense, the interaction between people, and at the community and institutional levels.

Racial projects take many forms, and their statements about race and racial categories vary widely. They can be expressed in anything, including legislation, political campaigns, and positions on issues, policing policies, stereotypes, media representations, music, art, and Halloween costumes.

Neoconservative and Liberal Racial Projects

Politically speaking, neoconservative racial projects deny the significance of race, which produces colorblind racial politics and policies that do not account for how race and racism still structure society. American legal scholar and civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander has demonstrated that the seemingly race-neutral “war on drugs” has been waged in a racist way. She argues that racial biases in policing, legal proceedings, and sentencing have caused the vast overrepresentation of Black and Latino men in U.S. prison populations. This purportedly colorblind racial project represents race as inconsequential in society and suggests that those who find themselves in prison are simply criminals who deserve to be there. It thus fosters the “common sense” notion that Black and Latino men are more prone to criminality than are white men. This kind of neoconservative racial project makes sense of and justifies a racist law enforcement and judicial system, which is to say, it links race to social structural outcomes, like rates of incarceration.

In contrast, liberal racial projects recognize the significance of race and foster activist-oriented state policies. Affirmative action policies operate as liberal racial projects, in this sense. For example, when the admissions policy of a college or university recognizes that race is significant in society, and that racism exists at individual, interactional, and institutional levels, the policy recognizes that applicants of color are likely to have experienced many forms of racism throughout their time as students. Because of this, people of color may have been tracked away from honors or advanced placement classes. They may have been disproportionately disciplined or sanctioned, as compared with their white peers, in ways that impact their academic records.

Affirmative Action

By factoring in race, racism, and their implications, affirmative action policies represent race as meaningful and assert that racism shapes social structural outcomes like trends in educational achievement. Therefore, race should be taken into account in the evaluation of college applications. A neoconservative racial project would deny the significance of race in the context of education, and in doing so, would suggest that students of color simply do not work as hard as do their white peers, or that they are perhaps not as intelligent, and thus race should not be a consideration in the college admissions process.

The process of racial formation is constantly playing out, as these kinds of contradictory racial projects compete to be the dominant perspective on race in society. They compete to shape policy, impact social structure, and broker access to rights and resources.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010.
  • Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. Routledge, 1986.
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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "What Are Racial Projects?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 2, 2021, thoughtco.com/racial-project-3026510. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2021, January 2). What Are Racial Projects? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/racial-project-3026510 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "What Are Racial Projects?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/racial-project-3026510 (accessed June 1, 2023).