What does race do?

What does race do?

Ethnic and Racial Studies
Volume 38, Issue 8, 2015
Special Issue: Ethnic and Racial Studies Review
pages 1401-1406
DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2015.1016064

Alana Lentin, Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis
University of Western Sydney, Australia

In writing on ‘John Rex’s Main Mistake’, Michael Banton reveals more about Banton than he does about Rex. I use Banton’s discussion of the differences between his own and John Rex’s ‘mistakes’ to explore why, in my view, race continues to have analytical purchase in a purportedly ‘post-racial’ age

Why race?

Michael Banton claims that while he ‘wanted to supersede the use of race in sociology altogether’, Rex argued that its meaning should be expanded to ‘cover other beliefs of a deterministic kind’ (Banton this volume, original emphasis). This was born of Rex’s insistence on the significance of class and colonialism for understanding racial categories. Banton notes Rex’s neglect of other concepts that may have been ‘fit for purpose’, such as ‘gender, faith, or social origin’ (Banton this volume). However, the search for alternatives seems a fruitless one, even for Banton, who has devoted his entire career precisely to attempting to answer the question ‘why race?’

…Race as ordering, as management, sedimentation, sifting, as correction and disciplining, as empowering some while causing others to buckle under that power has always relied on a plurality of processes. Racism’s genocidal impulses have been condemned by those who live by the logics of division that ultimately enable the other’s annihilation. To be clearer: I can be utterly opposed to deaths in police custody while doubting whether I should send my child to the public school in the Aboriginal neighbourhood. So, race, not as wrong-headed theorization of inherent difference, but as a logic that gathers a suite of rationales in its armoury, persists precisely because so much has been invested in dismissing it as unreasonable. This is why Jared Sexton (2008, 27), following Albert Memmi, rightly points to the problem of attempting to unveil racism’s ‘secure foundation’. The arguments of those who call for race to be abandoned because it somehow participates in the reproduction of racism miss the point that there is no way of separating between race and racism as though racism were easily definable in relation to a pre-prescribed series of actions, beliefs or policies. On the contrary, while racism is ‘incoherent, unjustified’, according to Sexton, this does not mean that it is not ‘systemic, structuring and governing for the whole racist complex’ (27). In other words, it is not by treating racism as irrational that that very irrationality dissipates. Rather, as Sexton so presciently remarks, ‘racism does its most essential work in the shadow of the very attempt to explain it’ (27). We can see this most clearly in the workings of the supposedly ‘anti-racist racist states’ that most readers, I wager, inhabit…

Read the entire article here.

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