I recently completed a two-volume work (co-authored with Matthew Desmond) on the topic of race in America: a theoretical study entitled The Racial Order and a mass-market textbook entitled Race in America. Between them is a deep symbiosis at the levels of theoretical inspiration, conceptual innovation, and structural organization. The two companion volumes, one pitched at established scholars and the other at young students, grew out of a double need within social science.
First, we recognized that an analytically sophisticated and comprehensive work that theorizes race is long overdue. More than a generation after the Civil Rights Movement, we continue to lack a clear and unitary conceptual language for discussing how race works in America. The rich production of empirical work on that topic has far outpaced the development of new theoretical insights. Drawing on a wide range of intellectual currents, notably American pragmatism, the Durkheimian tradition, and Bourdieuian field theory, together with classical as well as contemporary contributions to
race scholarship, The Racial Order offers a new theoretical framework through which to confront the predicaments and challenges of racial life, a new language with which to think, and intelligently to address, the complex problems of racial division in today’s society. It discusses how a global racial order arose coterminously with European expansion and colonialism. It develops an analytic perspective on racial life in the present day, devoting scrutiny to different racial structures (social structures; cultural structures; collective fantasies) as well as to different modalities of racial agency (racial propensity, or the illusio of race; racial projects; racial competence and racial negotiations). In a more substantive vein, it explores the small-scale interactions, large-scale institutions, and interstitial movements and publics involved in racial domination and racial progress. And it inquires into how race figures in, and is reproduced and contested at, the social-psychological level, with particular attention to racial dispositions and racialized bodies; normalization and symbolic violence; and racial intelligence. The Racial Order also deploys a Deweyan pragmatist approach to normative analysis, critically evaluating different extant ideals of racial reconstruction and arguing in favor of racial democracy and racial justice over colorblindness and multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism. Many of the analytic insights in this work can help to illuminate spheres of social life other than the racial order; we conclude by imagining generative extensions of our approach into the study of class, gender, and ethnicity and by reflecting as well on its implications for intersectional analysis.
The second insight that led us to work on our two-volume project was that a new way of conceptualizing race ought not to be reserved only for those engaged in scholarly research on race but also should be disseminated to the largest audience possible: undergraduate students, many thousands of whom enroll in introductory race and ethnicity courses every year. Race in America (the first edition was entitled Racial Domination, Racial Progress) breaks with current textbooks in several ways. First, instead of dividing the presentation into chapters dealing with separate and reified racial groups, it centers the analysis of race around the political, economic, residential, legal, educational, aesthetic, associational, and intimate life-spheres of contemporary society. It examines how race is a matter not of separate entities but of systems of social relations; as such, it is a work of relational sociology. Second, and again in a pragmatist spirit, it offers readers a way of thinking about race that they can apply to their everyday lives, incorporating critical and normative insights developed in The Racial Order. Third, it fuses fiction, music, and popular culture with social science and, while analytically rigorous, is composed in an engaging manner.
By concurrently addressing professional scholars and new students alike with these interrelated book projects, I have hoped to narrow the gap between "high" and "low," thereby unifying and advancing multiple audiences’ thinking about racism and providing them with ideas with which to fight it. I also have aimed to draw together in these works, particularly in The Racial Order, many of the diverse theoretical ideas I have been developing over many years. In what follows, I provide brief descriptions of some of those ideas, focusing on publications since my arrival at Wisconsin. My aim is to offer an analytic narrative that highlights some of the continuities as well as discontinuities in my thinking during that time. Not included in the overview are several essays, also coauthored with Matthew Desmond, which form part of the project on race surveyed above: "What is Racial Domination?" (The Du Bois Review); "To Imagine and Pursue Racial Justice" (Race, Ethnicity, and Education); and "Race and Reflexivity" (Ethnic and Racial Studies).