New Racism pp 373-427 | Cite as

Research Conducted in Terms of Retroductive Processes: Rethinking the Theorization of Racism

  • Norma RommEmail author


In this chapter I examine possibilities for investigating the structuring of modes of social organization with the help of retroductive processes of inquiry. I suggest that an appeal to (some version of) retroductive logic – as a form of logical inference – can provide a justification for proffering social-structural analyses of the kinds outlined in  Chapter 2, Sections 2.3.5 and 2.3.6, and as pointed to through my discussions in other chapters too. (See in particular,  Chapter 5, Section 5.2.3;  Chapter 6, Section 6.1.2; and  Chapter 7, Sections 7.3.3 and 7.6.2.) I point to various opportunities for forwarding what Marks calls “convincing theorizing” (2008, p. 49) in which analyses of, inter alia, racism are developed at the level of social structure. Before I address the question of how such research can be justified (or in my terms, accounted for), I start off by showing how retroductive logic has been conceived by Peirce (whose suggested definition hereof I cited briefly in  Chapter 7, Section


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8.1 Introduction

In this chapter I examine possibilities for investigating the structuring of modes of social organization with the help of retroductive processes of inquiry. I suggest that an appeal to (some version of) retroductive logic – as a form of logical inference – can provide a justification for proffering social-structural analyses of the kinds outlined in  Chapter 2, Sections 2.3.5 and 2.3.6, and as pointed to through my discussions in other chapters too. (See in particular,  Chapter 5, Section 5.2.3;  Chapter 6, Section 6.1.2; and  Chapter 7, Sections 7.3.3 and 7.6.2.) I point to various opportunities for forwarding what Marks calls “convincing theorizing” (2008, p. 49) in which analyses of, inter alia, racism are developed at the level of social structure. Before I address the question of how such research can be justified (or in my terms, accounted for), I start off by showing how retroductive logic has been conceived by Peirce (whose suggested definition hereof I cited briefly in  Chapter 7, Section

As I indicated in  Chapter 7, Peirce proposes that the form of logical inference that he calls abductive or retroductive reasoning can and must operate over and above induction and deduction to “open up new ground” in processes of theorizing (1911, p. 2).1 Indeed he notes that he considers “retroduction … to be the most important kind of reasoning, notwithstanding its very unreliable nature, because it is the only kind of reasoning that opens up new ground” (1911, p. 2). He defines retroduction as a logical inference that allows us to proceed from

finding ourselves confronted by a state of things that, taken by itself seems almost or quite incomprehensible … to supposing that perhaps there is … another definite state of things … which would shed a light of reason upon that state of facts with which we are confronted, rendering it comprehensible. (1911, p. 2)

He remarks that the “characteristic formula” of reasoning that he calls retroduction is that it involves reasoning from a consequent (any observed/experienced phenomena that confront us) to an antecedent (i.e., a posited state of things that helps us to render comprehensible the observed phenomena). Or, as he otherwise puts it, it can be considered as “regressing from a consequent to a hypothetical antecedent” (1911, p. 4). He believes that this form of “probable reasoning” is, as he apprehends it, “what Aristotle meant by {apagögé}” in his “train of thought.” But he suggests that apagögé “should be translated not by the word abduction, as the custom of translators is, but rather by reduction or retroduction.” He indicates in his lectures on Reasoning and the Logic of Things that he “shall generally call this type of reasoning retroduction” (1898).2

Hanson (1958), following Peirce, and drawing on his argument, also wishes to give due attention to abduction/retroduction as a form of inference separate from inductive and deductive inference. Marsden points to Hanson’s summary account of the form taken by this mode of inference:
  1. (1)

    Some surprising phenomena, P1,2,3 are observed.3

  2. (2)

    P1,2,3 would be explicable if H [a hypothesis about an unobservable state of affairs] were true.

  3. (3)

    Hence, there is reason to think that H is true.


Marsden indicates that in this formulation, although there is no logical necessity between P and H, retroduction is still seen by Hanson (1958, 1961) as a form of logical inference – one that, however, expresses its “conclusions … only problematically or conjecturally” (1998, p. 299). Marsden elaborates on this logic as part of his suggestion that Marx adhered to this manner of practicing science, and that his work should be read and understood in the light hereof (1998, p. 299). In this regard Marsden follows Sayer (1983), who likewise refers to the importance of recognizing this form of logic in order to appreciate “the procedures of what Marx practiced as science” in his exploration of capitalism as a social formation (1983, p. 141). Sayer argues that there is a connection between the view of explanation that he sees Marx as invoking in Capital (1965) and the retroductive account of theory development. That is, he argues that we can reconstruct the logic of Marx’s Capital by reading it in terms of the retroductive mode of developing theoretical explanations.4

Sayer elucidates that the use of retroductive logic implies that one is oriented to postulating (albeit conjecturally) the existence of underlying mechanisms or structures in reality as part of the process of explaining discernible phenomena. This is because retroductive logic proceeds by “postulat[ing] mechanisms which should they exist would explain how the phenomena under investigation come to assume the forms in which they are experienced” (Sayer, 1979, p. 40). In terms of retroductive logic, the logical link between “H” (causal mechanism) and “P” (observable phenomena) consists in the fact that “H” posits a mechanism which, “if it existed, would offer an explanation for P1, P2, P3, and so on” (Sayer, 1983, p. 116, my italics). In other words, the logic is used to postulate mechanisms whose posited existence helps us to make sense of the events (phenomena or appearances) as we experience them in their observable form.

Sayer’s reference to retroductive logic is used by him to suggest that Marx proceeded, via retroduction, to generate theoretical accounts of, for instance, the causal power of capitalist social structures and mechanisms that, once theorized, help to explain experienced phenomena. Sayer insists that it is important to maintain the distinction between social mechanisms and the phenomenal forms that we experience in order to be able to provide adequate explanations for the latter’s appearance. Unless efforts are made to get to grips with underlying causal mechanisms, “causes” may come to be understood in terms of constant conjunctions between observed phenomena (as they are in the positivist and hypothetico-deductivist traditions) – leading people to leave unexplored the causal power of capitalist relations of production in generating outcomes. The focus on retroductive logic thus involves a critique of various forms of positivist/hypothetico-deductivist empiricism.5

This ties in with Layder’s argument (1993) to which I referred in  Chapter 6 (Section 6.1.2) in relation to his critique of “middle range theorizing” as an approach to scientific inquiry. In similar vein to Sayer, Layder argues that what is properly involved in the process of such inquiry (whether applied in the natural or social sciences) is different from what is supposed within a positivist/hypothetico-deductive-oriented understanding of science. He points out that

a key aspect of the [scientific] realist project is a concern with causality and the identification of causal mechanisms … in a manner quite unlike the traditional positivist search for causal generalizations [stating a relationship of causality between variables]. (1993, p. 16)

Layder’s suggestion is that besides testing specific hypotheses about relationships between variables (as, for instance, seems to be the primary focus of the researchers’ work I discussed in  http://Chapters 3 and  http://4), space should be made for theory-constructing approaches that go beyond looking for such relationships (1993, p. 31). Theorizing should also not, however, be confined to the emergent theorizing suggested by certain more qualitatively oriented researchers – because, he argues, the attendant view of structure still does not allow us to assign analytic weight to structures beyond the “immediate environment of actors” (1993, p. 56).6

Joseph and Kennedy for their part argue that a crucial consequence of Marx’s use of retroductive reasoning toward an understanding of social structures is that it points to the historization of these structures (2000, p. 514). That is, the “causal connections” that may be observed between any phenomena (or variables in positivist/hypothetico-deductive terms) are seen to be linked in turn to structures that are historically variable. This means that “causal regularities” can become recognized to be transformable if the underlying structures that are postulated to generate them, themselves become changed. In contrast, theories that are unable to theorize the socialization and historization of specific modes of social organization become “trapped in the realm of fetishized relations” – unable to imagine their transformation.

While authors such as Sayer (1983), Layder (1993), Marsden (1998), and Joseph and Kennedy (2000) adopt a (scientific) realist argument in posing the utility of retroductive logic to explore structures and their causal mechanisms and possibilities for transformation, this is not the only manner in which the use of retroductive logic can be seen. Indeed, as Burch notes, even when Peirce calls himself a “realist” or is called by others a “realist,” it must be kept in mind that his realism is more an “internal realism” – in the sense that “the world” as it is comprehended is considered by Peirce as interpreted through mental concepts as well as evolving (Burch, 2006, pp. 8–9). Burch thus considers that the labels of “anti-foundationalist” and “fallibilist” aptly apply to his position (2006, p. 9).7

I point to this interpretation of Peirce’s argument in order to show that retroductive logic need not always be associated with a scientific realist position.8 What can be called a non-realist interpretation of retroductive logic is also made by McIntyre-Mills when she defines it as a mode of inference that allows people to

trace the connections across institutions in society and demonstrate how society shapes life chances … . It also involves understanding what the terms mean and why, in terms of the different stakeholders’ assumptions and values. (2006b, p. 391)

In McIntyre-Mills’s account, retroductive logic need not go hand in hand with striving to develop a more or less value-free understanding of the workings of social systems (as “objects” to be disclosed). Value-full understanding (and discussion around different values that may be brought to bear) is catered for in her approach. She links retroductive logic to Churchman’s argument (1979) concerning the need to sweep in a range of felt concerns and values as part of the process of defining systemically issues at stake to be addressed. As she explains in the context of her book exploring Indigenous ways of life in Alice Springs (Australia):

This book is about “unfolding” and “sweeping in” … the issues that can be explained retroductively as historical, economic, intergenerational violence associated with marginalization, alcohol and poverty. An economy that supports the class/culture system is [considered as] written in the socio-demographic patterns of disadvantage (educational outcomes, unemployment and incarceration), morbidity and mortality and life chances. That is why the intervention to break the interlinked cycles has to be at the level of regional governance [promoting citizenship rights and responsibilities]. (2003, p. 11)

She indicates that the challenge for retroductive thinking in this case was linked to the policy goal of “addressing power, empowerment and governance needs of people marginalized in terms of conceptual, geographical and cyberspace/time” (2003, p. 12). The results of a history of colonization and marginalization – spelt out in alcoholism, cultural despair, and a sense of real powerlessness – needed to be addressed by “breaking the cycle,” through Indigenous people “refocusing the direction of development” (2003, p. 14). She points out that refocusing this direction involved moving away from “the market rules” philosophy, toward exploring the liberative potential of other frameworks for living (2003, p. 14). In this way, she offers an account of how the historical contextualization via a form of retroductive reasoning offered a route for enabling people to become more equipped to “co-create the designs of their … futures” (2003, p. 16).

In the course of the chapter, I discuss various interpretations of what is involved in the “logic” of retroduction, and I show how an understanding hereof can aid us to re-examine as well as refresh the theorizing of race issues. My suggestion on the whole is that while it is possible to invoke retroductive processes of inference within both realist and more constructivist-oriented approaches, the latter approaches offer more scope for linking our ways of developing theorizing to practical processes of forwarding social justice projects.

I structure this chapter by delving – as my prime example – into the theorizing that Bonilla-Silva advances (which I argue can be understood in terms of the logic of retroductive inference). I show that there are various ways in which Bonilla-Silva’s self-understanding of his work can be interpreted. And I suggest that insofar as we are able to interpret the texts as veering in a constructivist/pragmatic direction (see Table 8.1 in Section 8.3.3), they can more readily be used to support the orientation as pleaded for, by example, Douglas (1998,  Chapter 6, p. 13), Collins (2000, p. 289), and Ladson-Billings (2003, p. 399), who call for inquirers to exemplify via the inquiry process the practicing of non-dominative social relations.
Table 8.1

Comparing some alternative understandings of retroductive inference


Retroductive logic understood in terms of a realist view of science

Retroductive logic understood in terms of a more constructivist- and pragmatic-oriented approach

Understanding the status of concepts in relation to observed phenomena

The theoretical concepts proffered by analysts postulate mechanisms in (natural and social) reality whose existence helps explain phenomena that appear

In social life in particular, we can try to trace connections across social institutions with a view to considering how societies can be said to differentially shape life chances as experienced (observed) and discussed by people

Defining the main research goal

Researchers should direct themselves toward developing accounts of structures that are likely to be causing phenomenal (empirical) appearances. They should embrace the ideal of objectivity in attempting to develop sound theorizing (that takes on board empirical information, while not being unduly narrow in analytic focus)

Inquirers engaged in social inquiry should sweep in – in a value-full manner – a range of considerations to be discussed as part of thinking systemically about issues seen to be at stake (with the help of retroductive inquiry processes). This is inextricably linked to the purpose of reconsidering the directions of our historical development

Using retroductive logic as a route to “knowing”

Although retroductive reasoning is necessarily conjectural, it may be regarded as a form of logical inference that should be used to advance our understanding of reality

Use of retroductive logic needs to include an admission that logic and emotion are not separable (as binaries) and that our ways of thinking and visioning in social life are filtered through our emotions/concerns

Deciding on the strengths of class-based analysis in relation to, say, race-based (or other category-based) analyses when examining (retroductively) social patterns

Concepts should be judged on the basis of their explanatory power in aiding our comprehension of real structural constraints that primarily determine outcomes

There is no need to make judgments in regard to the theoretical primacy (or not) of certain forms of analysis (such as, say, class- or race-based analysis) and there is no need to label any one form of oppression as more important than others. This is crucial for the practical project of developing coalitions

Considering the helpfulness of structurally oriented theorizing in relation to political practice

Sound and incisive theorizing should be helpful to actors in that their actions become better theoretically informed in relation to realities that need to be confronted

To the extent that theorizing opens conceptual spaces toward generating social justice projects that involve workable (political) coalitions, it is valuable

Acknowledging the importance of theorizing that points to the historization of social formations

A historical lens (such as that implicit in retroductive logic) is important in that it allows us to understand that structures posited to exist are capable of historical transformation

A historical lens in theorizing/storying enables people to respond to challenges that are seen to be of concern, as part of together considering values that can become embodied in historical reconstruction. In order to develop new forms of human relationship, our inquiry processes and the manner in which “knowing” is assessed must be practiced in such a way that potential relations of domination here are attended to as research issues themselves

Before I look into these arguments around what it may mean to employ retroductive processes of inference in constructivist/pragmatic-oriented fashion, and what the social implications hereof might be, I first (Section 8.2) offer a summary elucidation of Sayer’s account of Marx’s retroductive mode of explanation as a way of theorizing around capitalism and I show how similarly certain theorizations of racism can likewise be argued to invoke this mode of inference. With this backdrop to elucidating retroduction as a mode of inference, I then (Section 8.3) consider in some detail Bonilla-Silva’s systemic approach to exploring racism while providing an indication of how he sees the relationship of his work to Marxism. I indicate how an understanding of retroductive logic can provide an account of how he justifies his conceptualization of racialized social systems.

In Section 8.4 I delve further into how we might consider his deliberations around the status of his theorizing. I suggest that he seems to be appealing to critical theoretical arguments that in some way offer a critique of realist epistemologies. I revisit his approach to theorizing by drawing out further the implications of some of his statements about his inquiry endeavors. I suggest that these need indeed to be further drawn out and extended so as to incorporate more fully the concerns raised by authors such as Collins (1990, 2000), Douglas (1998), and Ladson-Billings (2003) in relation to the dominance of styles of knowing that separate “epistemology” from “ethics.” Finally, in Sections 8.5 and 8.6, in discussing the various arguments, including a re-look at Bonilla-Silva’s deliberations on the USA and on Brazilian social relations, I remark on how his work can be seen to cast light on the issues raised by the debate between Bourdieu and Wacquant that I introduced in  Chapter 2 (Section 2.4) in relation to the apparent global dominance of the US discourse on “race relations.”

8.2 Retroductive Logic: The Potential for Theorizing Around Structures

In Sayer’s account, the use of retroductive logic implies an endeavor to advance our understanding of (natural or social) mechanisms or structures that are posited to have causal efficacy, albeit that they are themselves rarely observable. Sayer argues that Marx implicitly draws on this mode of inference in his theorizing of capitalism as a social formation. For instance, Marx suggests that any consideration of the “laws of the market” regulating the supply and demand of commodities and determining the wage level of workers in capitalism needs to be related back to an understanding of the essential relation between “capital” and “labor” that characterizes the capitalist mode of production (although this is itself not observable). It is only with reference to an understanding of the constitution of the entity called “capitalism” that we can properly explain the way that outcomes become generated in the society (1983, p. 141). This implies a particular view of causality, namely, the causality that arises because the essential structure of certain entities – in this case, capitalism – produces certain outcomes. According to Sayer, it is this kind of causality that retroductive logic is properly geared to come to grips with.

Just as Sayer recovers Marx’s retroductive approach as a way of examining capitalism, we can apply a similar inspection of the style of inference used by certain authors theorizing racism in terms of social-structural mechanisms. As an example, we can consider the argument of Stewart, who creates a model to explain the continued racial outcome disparities that we find “in the Western world,” where, as he puts it, “race is perhaps the most salient representation of inequality” (2008, p. 111). He points to “persistent, significant racial disparities in education, earnings, wealth, health, mortality and other indicators of social well being” (2008, p. 111). In developing his model, he uses an allegory of “swimming upstream” – where different swimmers swim in different directions to start with in the rivers (social institutions), disadvantaging the upstream swimmers. Via this allegory, he suggests that inequality becomes produced through “countless social interactions taking place in various locations and levels in society” (2008, p. 118). He presents his allegory by comparing the swimming scenario with social situations embodying:
  1. (1)

    Competition for Social Status and Resources;

  2. (2)


  3. (3)

    Racial Classification/Structure;

  4. (4)

    Confronting Racial Discrimination;

  5. (5)

    Receiving Racial Privilege;

  6. (6)

    Social Outcomes;

  7. (7)

    Racial Disparities in Outcomes;

  8. (8)

    Reactions to Racial Treatment;

  9. (9)

    Relationship between Racial Disparities across Institutional Contexts.


In explicating his account of the “mechanisms of racial privilege” (2008, p. 111), he criticizes the inadequacy of certain quantitative methodologies. For instance, he criticizes “variable analytic research” which examines disparities between people’s wages by suggesting that if we control for certain “background factors,” the Black-White wage disparity becomes “reduced to insignificance” (2008, p. 120). The background factors (considered as variables) that have been drawn upon in studies of the US labor market are factors such as “years of education,” “work experience,” [and] “skills” (2008, p. 120). Stewart points out that this way of proceeding is not equipped to assess “the complex social interactions that create wage inequality.” Thus although the studies are often cited as “evidence of race neutrality in the labor market” (because it appears that factors other than race are determining the outcomes), a deeper examination of the “results” indicates that they are not equipped to offer any conclusions as to whether “racism exists or does not exist in the American labor market” (2008, p. 120). Nor are “comparative analyses” – which try to determine “what distinguishes successful minority actors from the unsuccessful mass” by locating variables such as “family structure, culture and motivation” – equipped to explore the underlying mechanisms producing racialized inequality. One of the reasons why comparative analysis (using identified variables) is inadequate to this task is because it “often overlooks the dependence of current characteristics on prior treatment and reactions” (2008, p. 121, my italics). Due to the deficiency of these “variable-based models of difference” (variable analysis and comparative analysis), Stewart calls for a “theoretical shift” in approach (2008, p. 121).

In providing his account of how to examine racial privilege and disadvantage, I would suggest that Stewart invokes a retroductive style of inference not unlike the one that authors such as Sayer attribute to Marx. That is, Stewart cautions against stopping the analysis at the level of (what are taken to be) observed correlations (as observed via, say, the mathematical regressions). Instead of taking at face value what appears to be observed, he moves beyond these and provides an allegory detailing the mechanisms that he sees as functioning as a totality to effect the reproduction of structured inequality. He thus moves toward developing a systemic approach to the theorizing of race, by viewing outcome disparities in terms of different, broader theoretical lenses than he sees as supplied through the “variable analysis.”

What is important to note here too is that Stewart indicates that observations as made by people (including by scientists) need not be regarded as themselves theory- or value-neutral. For example, the “observations” produced by the variable-oriented research to which he refers can be regarded as indeed generated through the specific way of organizing the research. (This is related to my argument in previous chapters concerning the way in which the research process itself can lead to certain “data” becoming presented via the way the research is designed.) It is in this sense Stewart argues that the mathematical regressions of quantitative variable analysis are only seemingly objective: they already carry with them a specific way of looking at “the data” in the first place, that is, in a way that in this case renders invisible to our vision the prior (racialized) treatment of people and their reactions to this.

Stewart finds it important to trace (observed) disparities in education, earnings, wealth, health, mortality and other indicators of social well being, and so on, back to the complex interaction of events across various social institutions – through his allegory of racial privileges and disadvantages built into the “swimming against the stream” scenario. This can be seen as bearing some similarity to Essed’s (1991) emphasis on examining events as reported in this case through her interviewees, by assessing them in relation not only to other events in their lives but also in relation to events as experienced across their different lives in order to show how an understanding of racism can serve to explain many of the incidents as reported upon. (See  Chapter 5, Section 5.2.3.)

Stewart indicates that he regards his allegory as a way of showing how researchers can shift focus (from narrow variable-based analyses) toward “aim[ing] to [better] locate the sources of racial inequality” (2008, p. 122). While he offers some examples of research that can be seen as oriented in this direction, he suggests that future research should be aimed at

revealing the connectedness of social interactions – racial treatment [including racial discrimination and racial privilege], perceptions, and coping responses – across time and space. More specifically, future research should examine how the tenor of social interactions in one institution (e.g., education) at a particular time are either reinforced or weakened by the tone of social interactions in another institution (e.g., labor force) – or the same institution at a later time. (2008, p. 123)

He adds that “future research … should expand beyond the labor force and immigrants to include a broad array of populations and a variety of institutions (e.g. familial, health care, and residential)” (2008, p. 124).

Stewart indicates that while he uses the “allegory of the swim meet” to point to the importance of institutionally directed research, the allegory “does not capture the historical dynamics of race.” He points out that literary techniques such as allegories can “involve limitations” (2008, p. 124, Endnote 1). But he clearly wishes to take a historical perspective in explaining the development of racialized social formations. He regards this as important in “our goal [both] of understanding and eradicating racial inequality” (2008, p. 124). Hence I suggest that his proposed approach spurring structurally oriented research in terms of an historical lens is consistent with the account of retroduction that I have outlined above. However, he does not concentrate on spelling out how the attendant understanding might become put forward as indeed offering “understanding.” As the chapter proceeds, I show with reference to a detailed exposition of the work of Bonilla-Silva that there may be various ways of viewing the arguments/insights of those forwarding structural-oriented theorizing. As mentioned earlier, I use the work of Bonilla-Silva as a springboard to discuss these. But first it is necessary to show how Bonilla-Silva himself presents his case for offering a structural interpretation of racism that goes beyond “idealist” definitions of racism and incorporates a concern with (material) structures – in particular, the materiality (as he puts it) of racism.

8.3 Bonilla-Silva’s Approach to Rethinking Racism via a Structural Interpretation

Bonilla-Silva begins his presentation of a structural interpretation of racism by claiming that “the area of race and ethnic studies lacks a sound theoretical apparatus.” He suggests that many analysts of racial matters have “abandoned the serious theorization and reconceptualization of their central topic: racism” (1997, p. 465). He argues that one of the problems with these analyses is that they tend to define racism in “idealist” terms – thus neglecting its material basis. The narrow idealist focus, in which racism is defined as a set of beliefs or ideas (such as in the definition of it by Schaefer, 1990, p. 16, as cited in Bonilla-Silva, 1997, p. 465), implies that:

First, racism is defined as a set of ideas or beliefs. Second, those beliefs are regarded as having the potential to lead individuals to develop prejudice, defined as “negative attitudes toward an entire group of people” (Schaefer, 1990, p. 53). Finally, these prejudicial attitudes may induce individuals to real actions of discrimination against minorities. (1997, p. 466)

As can be gleaned from my discussion of the exemplars of social psychological experiments and surveys in  http://Chapters 3 and  http://4, I believe that Bonilla-Silva’s commentary on how racism is envisaged by those focusing on “prejudicial attitudes” can be considered as still currently pertinent insofar as the research focus appears to be on people’s cognitions and categorical representations. It is for this reason that I suggest that these approaches need to be shifted/extended through, inter alia, developing an increased “theoretical literacy” – as argued for by, for example, Douglas (1998,  Chapter 4, p. 16), Harris-Lacewell (2003, p. 246), McIntyre-Mills (2003, pp. 33–34), and Morton, Hornsey, and Postmes (2009, p. 36) (See, e.g.,  Chapter 3, Section 3.4.2; and  Chapter 4, Section 4.3.2).

And I also argued in  http://Chapters 5,  http://6, and  http://7 that certain theorizations of racism proffered as part of interviewing, ethnographic, and action research approaches too can become extended with a view to reflexively (re)considering the manner in which theoretical constructions are being developed. (See, e.g.,  Chapter 5, Section 5.3.2;  Chapter 6, Section 6.3.1; and  Chapter 7, Section 7.5.2.)

I now turn to considering Bonilla-Silva’s relationship to the way in which racism has been studied within what he calls the “orthodox Marxist” or “neo-Marxist” positions – which he sees as strtucturally oriented, but not sufficiently oriented to exploring the specific structuration of a racialized social order.9 To be able better to appreciate Bonilla-Silva’s critique of these positions, I commence (Section 8.3.1) by providing a brief outline of certain self-labeled Marxist accounts of the primacy of the concept of “class” as a central analytic tool.

8.3.1 The Marxist Focus on Class Analysis

Stating an argument that Bonilla-Silva labels as neo-Marxist in orientation (1997, p. 466), Miles points out that the purpose of a Marxist-oriented theory is to focus on the concept of class as “anchored in production relations, a structural feature of social formations” (1996, p. 5). Miles contends that it is only by proceeding through the first analytic step of mapping out class positions in the social formation, that we can begin to recognize the structural underpinnings of the production of race differentiation and the way in which this has been utilized within the development of capitalism (1996, p. 5). As he explains, this way of proceeding in our analyses allows us to better understand the “processes by which ‘race difference’ is socially constructed and the processes by which resources and rewards are … produced” (1996, p. 6).

Miles avers that putting forward class rather than race as the central analytic tool enables us to consider the ways in which issues of race are handled in various (capitalist) societies – by referring back to the constraints that are set by the needs of capital and the nature of capitalist production. For example, he believes that immigration policies in Britain can be explained (albeit not necessarily predicted) by making reference to these needs (1996, p. 7). Miles here follows authors such as Keat and Urry (1975), Keat (1981), and Sayer (1983), who argue that it is not necessary for researchers to put their focus on generating predictions in order that their theorizing is regarded as credible; more important is that they can provide plausible explanations by referring back to structures that render the events explicable.

McLaren follows a similar line of argument (while being interviewed by Rikowski) when he suggests that “we need to understand not only the theoretical concepts that Marx offers us but also the way in which Marx thinks” (2005, p. 478). He emphasizes that the importance of Marx’s works is that they “constitute a critique of relations [of production] historically specific to capitalism” (2005, p. 478). When Rikowski questions McLaren about whether his own Marxism “swamps concerns with ‘race’, gender [and] with social movements in general” (2005, p. 496), he agrees that it is “important to continue this discussion” (2005, p. 497). He answers as follows:

But let me shift here to your comment about privileging class oppression over other forms of oppression. I hold that in general class struggle modifies the particularities of other struggles, that there is a strategic centrality to class struggle in that capitalism is the most powerful and far-reaching process of commodification imaginable. (2005, p. 497)

He adds that there is no need to believe that the “stress on class detracts from anti-racist efforts in [say] education or efforts to de-claw patriarchy” (2005, p. 497). He argues that such a position would be an “insult to feminists and activists of color who have historically played an important role in the struggle against capitalist exploitation” (2005, p. 497).

McLaren states that the main point he wants to make is that “capitalism will find ways to survive the challenge of multiculturalism and feminism by co-opting these struggles” (2005, p. 497). He points out that he supports projects that bring into view “the relation between capitalism and racism, and capitalism and sexism and capitalism and heteronormativity” (2005, p. 497). But he emphasizes that there is

a strategic centrality to my work that I won’t deny, or apologize for, that seeks to unite new social movements with the old social movements, so that anti-capitalist struggle becomes a unifying priority. (2005, p. 497)

McLaren and Farahmandpur further argue that, as they see it, Marx’s analysis of capitalism is today even more “desperately needed” than it was in Marx’s time (2005, p. 4). They point to the “dangerous politics that we face today,” where “limitless concessions” are granted to transnational corporations and

private interests [are permitted to] control social life in the pursuit of profits for the few (i.e. through lowering taxes on the wealthy, scrapping environmental regulations, and dismantling public education and social welfare programs). (2005, p. 5)

In the light of the global “intensification of class polarization and the upward redistribution of wealth” (2005, p. 4), they urge us to recognize the relevance of Marx’s work – which enables us to expose “the historically specific limits of the capitalist mode of production” (2005, p. 4). They summarize their position:

That Marxism appears to have lost its epochal footing and does not yet enjoy a new refunctional status as the official opponent of neoliberalism and the downsizing of democracy does not mean that educators [and others] should remain inactive until history is suddenly served by a wake up call that will make Marxism relevant again. (2005, p. 5)

Mocombe likewise points to the continued relevance of Marxism in terms of a theoretical framework offered “at the global institutional or world system” (2006, p. 399). He elucidates that:

The upper class of owners and high-level executives, based in the corporate community of developed countries like the United States, represent today’s dominant bourgeois capitalist class whose various distributive powers lead to a situation where their policies … determine the “life chances” of not only local social actors, within the globalizing developed nation, but global ones as well. (2006, p. 399)

He argues that considering the desires of the corporate community to “continue to grow and make profits,” the corporate-driven agenda of the developed world (in line with the structure of their social relations) in turn creates conditions such that the

developing countries must establish open markets as the basis for development and social relations, but these markets when established are unable to compete with those of competitors in the West, and therefore get usurped by the capitalists of the West who take advantage of the labor force – which is cheapened in order to compete globally with other, cheaper, prospective markets – and other resources of the developing country. (2006, p. 399)

Mocombe thus calls for an increased theoretical focus on the locus of causality of what he calls “class-based structural differentiation” across the globe (2006, p. 398).

Harvey sets the Marxist argument in the context of the 2008 world financial crisis and its aftermath – which, he argues, can be seen as evidence (as Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, 1848, foresaw) of a “violent, brutalizing, and perpetually revolutionizing capitalism” (2008, p. 7). Using some of the wordings of the Communist Manifesto, he points to wages of workers being “ever more fluctuating” and livelihoods being “more and more precarious” while insecurities over jobs, social provision, and pensions generate collective anxieties where “all that is solid” seems to be “perpetually melting into air” (2008, p. 6). He points out that while some “corporate heads” that “innovated us into this mess” have lost their jobs, they

have had to pay nothing back of the many millions they earned in the halcyon years and some received incredibly generous golden handshakes when they stepped down – $161 million in the case of Stan O’Neal of Merrill Lynch and $40 million for Charles Prince of Citicorp … . And just to add insult to class injury, those companies and lawyers employed in the “foreclosure mill”, as it is now called [in relation to house foreclosures] are reaping the handsomest of profits. Who said class differences (neatly intertwined, as is all too often the case, with race and gender) are irrelevant to the sociality of our postmodern times? (2008, p. 5)

Meanwhile he argues that over the last 30 years a no-holds-barred corporate capitalism has emerged across the globe. He notes that:

In China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Guatemala and Vietnam, contemporary descriptions of the catastrophic conditions of laboring could be inserted into Marx’s chapter on “the Working Day” in Capital without anyone being able to tell the difference. And the most rabid forms of exploitation rest, as is so often the case, on the backs of women and people of color. (2008, p. 12)

He contends that with a capitalist class that “many now regard as being by definition transnational,” we need to try to gauge the economic situation as well as “the political possibilities of our time.” But he comments that, unfortunately, many workers, “desperate for jobs, are corralled into supporting local alliances to promote development packages and projects that offer sweet subsidies to highly mobile multinational capital to come to or stay in town” – thus rendering any prospective “unity of the working classes” far more difficult (2008, pp. 14–15).

He re-iterates that the issue concerns the “predatory practices” of “the capitalist classes” in all their manifestations – including the practices that led to workers in the USA and Europe “losing not only their homes but also their hard-won pension and health-care rights” (2008, p. 16). He indicates that this is what he calls the “accumulation of dispossession” in the current situation (2008, p. 17). And, he points to the continued necessity for “both progressive and permanent revolutions of the sort that capitalism so successfully and vigorously prosecutes” – through an “organizational form of class struggle” that is able to “jump geographical scales” and “move smoothly from the local to the global and back again” (2008, p. 19). He argues that there is good reason why “Marx and Engels return to the proletariat again and again as the central agent of radical and transformative change” (2008, p. 16).

8.3.2 Bonilla-Silva’s Reconsideration of Marxist Analyses: Lacunae in Theorizing Racialized Social Systems

Faced with these kinds of Marxist-oriented arguments, Bonilla-Silva concedes the value of such thinking in attuning us to the (historically specific) structures of capitalism as a social formation. Nevertheless, he is concerned that in Marxist and neo-Marxist modes of analysis, racialized differentiation is seen as somehow a by-product of class dynamics, and as such, it becomes difficult to conceptualize the structuring of what he calls racialized social systems (1997, p. 468, 2006, p. 9). His contention is that Marxist-oriented authors stressing the primacy of class may not be analytically equipped to delve into the full significance of the materiality and structuring of racism in the social fabric (1997, p. 468). He explains that by structure he means (following Whitmeyer, 1994, p. 154) “the networks of (interactional) relationships among actors as well as the distributions of socially meaningful characteristics of actors and aggregates of actors” (1997, p. 469). And by materiality he means “the economic, social, political, or ideological rewards or penalties received by social actors for their participation … in social structural arrangements” (1997, p. 469).

In order to offer a “structural interpretation” of racism that enables it to be viewed as involving a specific “materality or structure,” Bonilla-Silva considers it crucial that the concept of racialized social system is accorded theoretical importance (1997, p. 469). He elucidates his use of the term:

This term refers to societies in which economic, political, social, and ideological levels are partially structured by the placement of actors in racial categories or races. Races typically are identified by their phenotype, but … the selection of certain human traits to designate a racial group is always socially rather than biologically based. (1997, p. 469)

Bonilla-Silva indicates that the reason why he suggests that racialized social systems are only partially structured by race is because modern social systems also articulate “two or more forms of hierarchical patterns.” It is in view hereof, he notes, that certain researchers have focused on intersections of different forms of oppression.10 (See also my discussion on intersectionality in  Chapter 3, Section; and  Chapter 5, Section 5.2.1.)

He points out that because “historically … racialization occurred in social formations also structured by class and gender,” one of the consequences is that the racial structuration of subjects becomes “fragmented along class and gender lines” (1997, p. 470). Hence

not all members of the subordinate race receive the same level of rewards and (conversely) not all members of the subordinate race or races are at the bottom of the social order. (1997, p. 470)

But he suggests that this does not “negate the fact that races, as social groups, are in either a superordinate or a subordinate position in the social order” (1997, p. 470).

As regards the important question concerning the bases on which actors are moved to struggle, he emphasizes that this “is historically contingent and cannot be ascertained a priori.” (He cites, for instance, Anthias and Yuval-Davis, 1992 on this.) He provides as empirical examples class interests taking precedence over racial ones in the countries of Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico; while he suggests that in other situations, “racial interest may take precedence over class interests as in the case of Blacks throughout the U.S. history” (1997, p. 471).

In any case, to say that a society can be characterized as a racialized social system is to draw attention to the way in which “the placement of people in racial categories involves some form of hierarchy that produces definite social relations between the races” (1997, p. 469). Furthermore, it is to point out that (contrary to the Marxist insistence on the primacy of class) racialized forms of social relationship need to be given specific consideration as such.

He defines a racialized system (which may be more or less empirically manifested) as one where life chances are differentiated along racialized lines. He explains that

ultimately a racialized social order is distinguished by this difference in life chances. Generally, the more dissimilar the races’ life chances, the more racialized the social system, and vice versa. (1997, p. 470)

He also elucidates that the specific ways in which racialized hierarchies are formed is variable. He cites Omi and Winant’s indication (1994) that

domination of Blacks in the United States was achieved through dictatorial means during slavery, but in the post-civil rights period this domination has been hegemonic [resting on different forms of social control]. Similarly [he notes] the racial practices and mechanisms that have kept Blacks subordinate changed from overt and eminently racist to covert and indirectly racist. (1997, p. 470)

Although he remarks (1997, p. 466) that Omi and Winant’s perspective provides an important theoretical approach in that they conceptualize race as “an organizing principle of social relationships that shapes the identity of individual actors at the micro level and shapes all spheres of life at the macro level,” he does not concur with them on certain points. He believes that their perspective

still gives undue attention to ideological/cultural processes, does not regard races as truly social collectivities, and overemphasizes the racial projects … of certain actors (neoconservatives, members of the far right, liberals), thus obscuring the social and general character of racialized societies. (1997, p. 466)

It is worth noting in this regard that Omi and Winant comment that “academic and political controversies about the nature of racism have centered on whether it is primarily an ideological or structural phenomenon” (2002a, p. 138). They indicate that those putting the emphasis on racism as ideology consider racism as “first and foremost a matter of beliefs and attitudes, doctrines and discourse” (2002a, p. 138). Those emphasizing the structural embeddedness of racism “see racism as primarily a matter of economic stratification, residential segregation and other institutional forms of inequality which then give rise to ideologies of privilege” (2002a, p. 138). Their own view is that

it is crucial to disrupt the fixity of these positions by simultaneously arguing that ideological beliefs have structural consequences and that social structures give rise to beliefs. (2002a, p. 138)

They aver that “today, racial hegemony is ‘messy’” in that it cannot be understood via any either/or position. As they put it: “The complexity of the present situation is the product of a vast historical legacy of [both] structural inequality and invidious racial representation” (2002a, p. 139, my italics). They thus believe that our theorizing should be attuned to recognize that both structure and ideology can interact and mutually determine each other.

I would suggest that Omi and Winant’s argument in this respect can be seen to concur in large part with that of Bonilla-Silva, who too wishes to emphasize the adaptable character of racism, which continues to be infused in the social formation aided by the development of new ideologies (such as color-blind racism). The question on which I wish to concentrate now is how we should regard the standing of the concept of racialized social system that Bonilla-Silva defines as so important in his theorizing. I discuss this by offering an account in the next section of how Bonilla-Silva draws on the concept in his study (and interpretation) of racial structures.

8.3.3 The Standing of Bonilla-Silva’s Theoretical Conceptualizations: Excavating Mechanisms Reproducing Racial Privilege

From Bonilla-Silva’s discussion of the concept of racialized social system, it seems that he is arguing that the employment of this concept allows us theoretical scope to appreciate the ways in which raced relations as hierarchical relationships develop in different social formations. Relating this to my account of retroductive logic as presented in the introduction to this chapter, it could be suggested that Bonilla-Silva is considering the concept of racialized social system as helpful in locating more or less invisible mechanisms reproducing racial privilege. As he notes:

Accordingly the task of analysts interested in studying racial structures is to uncover the particular social, economic, political, social control, and ideological mechanisms responsible for the reproduction of racial privilege in a society. (2006, p. 9)

By employing the concept of racialized social system, Bonilla-Silva contends that we become equipped to delve into the structures leading to the development of observed (and experienced) racial privileges and racial disadvantages across different societies. And we become equipped to better recognize the ways in which racism can transmute over time in any specific social formation (while still reproducing racially structured hierarchy).

With reference to the concept of racialized social system, Bonilla-Silva explains how the structures that give rise to racial privilege become reproduced:

Since actors racialized as “white” – or as members of the dominant race – receive material benefits from the racial order, they struggle (or passively receive the manifold wages of whiteness) to maintain their privileges. In contrast, those defined as belonging to the subordinate race or races struggle to change the status quo (or become resigned to their position). Therein lies the secret of racial structures and racial inequality the world over. They exist because they benefit members of the dominant race. (2006, p. 9)

With the concept of racialized social system at our theoretical disposal, then, we are able to understand that the dominant racial group would try to justify and account for its manifold privileges received from the racial order. He draws explicitly on Marx and Engels’ concept of ideology in The German Ideology (1970) to make reference to what he calls “racial ideology.”

It should surprise no one that this group [a constructed dominant race] develops rationalizations to account for the status of the various races. And here I introduce … [another] key term, the notion of racial ideology. (2006, p. 9)

Drawing on a Marxist understanding of ideology, Bonilla-Silva suggests that we can appreciate how the ruling material force of society (in this case, the materiality of racial privilege) can operate at the same time as a ruling intellectual force – with the dominant party in social relationships being able to exert a “master framework,” which serves as the dominant framework for thinking in the society.11 He points out that this does not imply that the master framework is all-powerful and that subordinate groups are unable to develop oppositional views. But he suggests that “it would be foolish to believe that those who rule a society do not have the power to at least color (pun intended) the views of the ruled” (2006, p. 10).

All in all, in relation to the concept of ideology (with specific reference to racial ideology), he suggests that

because the group life of the various racially defined groups is based on hierarchy and domination, the ruling ideology expresses as “common sense” the interests of the dominant race, while oppositional ideologies attempt to challenge that common sense by providing alternative frames, ideas, and stories based on the experiences of subordinate races. (2006, p. 10)

He sees his own project as part of an oppositional movement to explore possibilities for moving beyond the “common sense” which glues together the racialized social fabric and its attendant relations of racial domination.

In line with his view that one cannot make predictions about “the bases on which actors are moved to struggle” (1997, p. 471), he points out that it is not possible to predict how people occupying a privileged position in the racial order (i.e., Whites) might perceive their interests, especially because contradictory interests may be at play. For example, he asks us to consider the question: “Do white workers have more in common with white capitalists or with black workers?” (2006, p. 10). He suggests that despite his not being able to make definite predictions in relation to this question, it makes sense that:

Because all actors awarded the dominant racial position, regardless of their multiple structural locations (men or women, gay or straight, working class or bourgeois) benefit from … the “racial contract”, most have historically endorsed the ideas that justify the racial status quo. (2006, p. 10)

As I indicated in  Chapter 2, Bonilla-Silva believes that the current ideology that is mainly used to sustain the racial order is color-blind racism. He argues that while experiments and surveys may have some uses as research approaches in investigating new forms of racism such as color-blind racism, it is difficult – if not impossible – via these methods to examine “how people explain, justify, rationalize, and articulate racial viewpoints” (2006, p. 11). For this reason, he relies mostly on interview material (and a critical exploration of views expressed during interviews) in order to study the operation of color-blind racism as an ideology (2006, p. 11). He indicates that the interview material on which he relies in explicating his understanding of color-blind ideology was generated from interviews undertaken with college students and other respondents in the USA – 1997 and 1998 (2006, p. 12).

Considering the study of racial ideology, his view is that it can be conceived for analytic purposes as comprising what he calls “frames, style, and racial stories” (2006, p. 10). He suggests that in the case of color-blind racism, it is a curious ideology in the sense that it is “slippery” – functioning in a “now you see it, now you don’t” style. But its slipperiness is precisely what renders it a powerful ideology operating to defend the “contemporary racial order” (2006, p. 25). As he explains:

… the language of color-blindness is slippery, apparently contradictory, and often subtle. Thus, analysts must excavate the rhetorical maze of confusing, ambivalent answers to straight questions; of answers speckled with disclaimers such as “I don’t know, but …” or “Yes and no”; of answers almost unintelligible because of their higher than usual level of incoherence. (2006, p. 53)

Meanwhile, when engaging with interviewees, analysts also need to be attuned to the “storylines” that become drawn upon in “the ‘matter-of-fact’ world” where people create “social representations” as they converse with others (2006, p. 75). For example, storytelling might include the “past is past storyline” or the storyline that “I didn’t own any slaves,” or stories that include accounts of “someone close who is racist” (thus excluding oneself from this attribution) (2006, pp. 75–95). He argues that in processes of storytelling, people are “least aware that they are using a particular framework” (2006, p. 75). Most importantly, he explains that “the central component of any dominant racial ideology is its frames or set paths for interpretation” (2006, p. 26). It is these that underlie people’s style of presentation of arguments and their storytelling processes.

In discussing the frames underpinning the ideology of color-blind racism, Bonilla-Silva indicates that he has gleaned (and isolated) four frames from the interview material. (See Section 8.3.4 for more detail.) These frames, he contends, can be considered as penetrating the arguments of “an overwhelming majority of the white respondents” (2006, p. 26). Although they themselves may not have used the language used by Bonilla-Silva in his analysis of their arguments, Bonilla-Silva has isolated these frames, along with styles of argumentation and stories told. He points out in this regard that although he believes that “people’s accounts count,” it is also important for those studying social meaning making not to relinquish their responsibilities to place people’s accounts in wider theoretical context, which may involve “outstripping the conceptual resources of those being studied” (2006, p. 24, Endnotes 77, 79, and 80). He cites in particular the philosopher of science Fay in this regard (1996, p. 34) – who has advanced arguments in keeping with the critical theoretical tradition such as that developed by, inter alia, Habermas (1974b).

Before turning to a discussion of Bonilla-Silva’s way of detailing the frames of color-blind (new) racism, I offer as further backdrop to this discussion an outline of his account of the standing of his own “conceptual resources” (or conceptualizations that he forwards). In order to help readers to “follow” my ensuing discussion, I now present Table 8.1 that provides a rendition of how we might understand differently what is involved in generating structurally oriented conceptualizations – depending on the epistemological orientation that we adopt. This table should act as a support for readers to make sense particularly of the material in Section, where I discuss Bonilla-Silva’s self-understanding, and where I show that it can be interpreted as veering in either realist- or constructivist-oriented directions. The table should also be consulted to help make sense of my discussion in Sections 8.4 and 8.5, where I continue to “unpack” his proffered approach. Furthermore, the conclusion of the chapter (Section 8.7) can also be read in relation to the table.

Bonilla-Silva’s Self-understanding of His Analytic Work

To start with, I suggest that Bonilla-Silva’s citing of Fay (1996) is important in terms of the question of what standing we should assign to his own theoretical conceptualizations. In support of the critical theoretical tradition in the social sciences, Fay has put forward the view that critical theorizing does not pose as rooted in striving for value-freedom as an ideal for scientific inquiry. Critical theoretical accounts are instead presented as being admittedly based on particular concerns that theorists may bring to bear in developing their theorizing. Fay argues that critical theorists can and should operate in terms of a concern with enabling actors to reconsider their own “needs, wants and purposes” in the light of identified “structural conflicts in the social order” (1975, p. 165). The function of critical theorizing is to aid people to explore new ways of interpreting the social world of which they are part, so that they can develop their actions accordingly. Fay does not believe that theorizing can or should be divorced from the practical (political) intention to aid people toward rethinking and regenerating their ways of life. In this sense he sides with a pragmatically inclined inquiry approach. (See also  Chapter 6, Section 6.3.2.)

In considering more realist-oriented views of theorizing, Fay warns that we should not regard theorizing as an instrument to guide and direct people in terms of a so-called (more) “objective” understanding of the situation (1975, p. 102). He is concerned that such a view of theory eventuates in a form of social manipulation whereby people can become manipulated by theorists proposing to have superior, more “objective,” understandings of the interests of people. It is for this reason that critical theorists, he suggests, do not endow those posing as scientists with what he calls “expert authority” (1975, p. 107).

I would like to point out at this juncture that when offering me feedback on her reading of this (draft) section of the chapter (May 2009), Susan Weil raised as an issue for consideration how the writing practices of authors such as Fay and Bonilla-Silva can be seen (if at all) to support this “valid and valuable intention” – that is, the intention of forwarding less “objectivist” approaches. She was finding the style (as she read my renditions of the arguments) as not sufficiently supportive of their expressed intentions. She suggested that some “postmodern irony” could perhaps be injected here – namely, to point to the irony of writing about social possibilities while not writing in a manner that displays new options for engaging with audiences. She also indicated that I myself “seemed to be disappearing” in my write-up of these arguments – and she suggested that I make a clearer appearance! I have tried in response to her commentary to offer pointers throughout the chapter as to where I am heading in the chapter – namely, by displaying my preference for constructivist and pragmatic approaches that support the development of more humane styles of knowing and living. But it is worth noting at this point Weil’s commentary that she is not (yet) seeing the “human being” of these authors (through my write-up in this chapter). This could be because I am concentrating on showing how they are spelling out their epistemological arguments, rather than on whether (if at all) their way of expressing these supports their intention. Nevertheless, as I have indicated earlier, I believe that we can indeed point to a tension in the arguments of Bonilla-Silva and others whom he favorably cites, between veering in more realist or constructivist/pragmatic directions. And this tension could be manifested also in the irony that Weil is identifying – namely, that the writing style may belie an “objectivist” orientation, despite trying to offer alternatives (such as those that I elucidate via the right-hand column of Table 8.1). Bearing this in mind, I continue to discuss their arguments below.

Bonilla-Silva and Zuberi make the point that “today, few philosophers of science would agree in toto with [an] objectivist and realist stand” – that is, one that posits the possibility of accessing reality independently of observers (2008, p. 26).12 They cite Fay’s argument (1996, p. 204) that in both the natural and social sciences

nature is never encountered in an unvarnished way; experience, sensations, and other perceptions require a priori conceptual resources in order to occur; and the language in which we articulate our thoughts are inherently permeated by our conceptual commitments. (2008, p. 26, Endnote 26)

However, Bonilla-Silva and Zuberi argue that admitting this does not imply the adoption of a relativist position that accords equal value to all ways of seeing and cognizing. Rather, they indicate that their position is that the value of theorizing can be judged in terms of the notion that “science and scientists (social or otherwise) can be responsible, responsive to community needs, and, hopefully, multicultural” (2008, p. 26). They indicate that their position in regard to the “color” of scholarship in terms of whether it is able to incorporate “the knowledge/experience of nonwhites” (2008, p. 18) is similar to that of Ladson-Billings (whose argument I introduced in  Chapter 1, Section 1.5.3 – as pivotal to the epistemological discussions in this book). They point out that the central issue for her is not just to “color the scholarship” but to

challenge the hegemonic structures (and symbols) that keep injustice and inequity in place. The work is not about dismissing the work of European-American scholars. Rather, it is about defining the limits of such scholarship [especially insofar as it fails to incorporate epistemologies that admit the political character of research]. (Ladson-Billings, 2003, p. 421, as cited in Bonilla-Silva & Zuberi, 2008, p. 27, Endnote 28)

Bonilla-Silva considers it important to explicitly admit as influencing his scholarship the political commitments toward forwarding justice and equity. Hence in the context of discussing his attempt to “describe the main components of color-blind racism and explain their functions,” he points out that another goal is also operative. This is the important political goal to “uncover the basic profile of the main ideology reinforcing contemporary racial inequality” (2006, p. 13). This means that by definition his work

is a challenge to post-Civil Rights white common sense; to the view that race no longer matters; and to anyone who believes that the problems afflicting people of color are fundamentally rooted in their pathological cultures. (2006, pp. 13–14)

He argues that accepting the political nature of his work does not mean that he can resort to “sloppiness” or “one-sidedness” in his work (2006, p. 14). This is why he takes pains to

support my arguments with systematic interview data and reference where my data analysis differs from that of mainstream analysts so that readers can find alternative interpretations to mine. (2006, p. 14)

He also deals with the issue of what “authority” should be accorded to his work. Considering the question as to whether he has been “conferred a special gaze,” he contends that:

In truth, given the situational and partial character of all knowledge, neither I, nor my potential critics hold the monopoly over the right way of interpreting data. All of us try our best to construct robust explanations of events and hope that in the tilted market of ideas (tilted toward the interpretations of the powerful) the most plausible ones achieve legitimacy. (2006, p. 14)

Having pointed out that as he sees it, no one has the monopoly over interpreting data and developing explanations that account for them, he asks the following question:

But if research is political by nature and my interpretation of the data is guided by my theoretical and political orientation, how can readers ascertain if my interpretation is better than those of other analysts? (2006, p. 15)

His answer to this question is that his explanations, as well as those provided by other analysts, “ought to be judged like maps” – with reference to their

usefulness (Does it help to better understand whites’ views?), accuracy (Does it accurately depict whites’ arguments about racial matters?), details (Does it highlight elements of whites’ collective representations not discussed by others?) and clarity. (Does it ultimately help you move from here to there?) (2006, p. 15, my italics)

Of course, all of the terms used by Bonilla-Silva in this passage themselves can be viewed differently depending on the understanding of science that we wish to apply here (as more or less realist- or constructivist-oriented – see Table 8.1). For example, according to a critical theoretical position of the kind proposed by Fay – where it is acknowledged that all interpretation is value-full – when researchers “depict” other’s views, they are already offering a specific interpretation (cf. Romm, 1991, 1998c, 2001). Hence when Bonilla-Silva asks us to judge whether his depictions of Whites’ arguments are accurate, this could be understood as implying that he has created constructions for us to consider as a plausible way of interpreting their arguments. In this way he would acknowledge that we do not have the means of checking in an unmediated manner what people being studied “really” are arguing independently of us assigning an interpretation. As indicated earlier, Bonilla-Silva and Zuberi make the point that “today, few philosophers of science would agree in toto with [an] objectivist and realist stand” (2008, p. 26, Endnote 26). This accounts for Bonilla-Silva’s remarks in the context of proffering his particular interpretations of “whites’ arguments,” that other analysts may well offer alternative interpretations.

It seems that Bonilla-Silva is in any event cautioning us as readers to be aware that interpretations may be tilted toward those of “the powerful” in the market of ideas. So when considering the plausibility of his interpretations of “the data” and of his explanations for the appearance of the data, our awareness hereof can be factored into our assessment of the interpretations that he presents as part of his research. Weil, in her continuing commentary on this draft chapter (May 2009), mentioned here that it is worth highlighting that in terms of my intentions for the whole book, I am making the point that “truth making” is all too easily controlled by dominant credentializing processes in society – as, for instance, has been spelled out in detail by Collins (1990, 2000). In earlier chapters, I referred to Collins’s concerns with finding ways of countering prevailing “truths” that function to obscure the “forms that new racism take in the post-civil rights era” (2005, p. 5). Like Bonilla-Silva she expresses concern with the way in which these apparent truths have taken hold in the “market of ideas” – and her focus has been on credentializing alternative ways of knowing as part of the process of exploring new avenues for generating “quality” explorations of new racism that can revitalize social justice projects. She puts the focus on finding ways of knowing that can serve the project of, in her terms, “foster[ing] our humanity” (2000, p. 289). I return to her argument in Section 8.4.

Interestingly, when offering the criterion of “clarity” as a way of judging his interpretations, Bonilla-Silva defines this as “Does it ultimately help you move from here to there?” (2006, p. 15). Here he proposes a pragmatic criterion as a possible way of judging the value of the interpretations.13 If audiences find that the analysis is helpful in activating ways of moving forward (to address highlighted social injustices), this in itself becomes a criterion for judging the worth of the analysis (see again Table 8.1). This, then, would tally with arguments that I introduced in  Chapter 7 too in regard to the practical edge of “action inquiry” as a way of proceeding: People’s ways of drawing on, as well as developing, social theorizing to enable them (through co-inquiry) to revisit their ways of framing issues and their considerations of options for action become criteria for considering the value of the theorizing. (See especially  Chapter 7, Section 7.3.1.)

Nonetheless, unless the map analogy proffered by Bonilla-Silva is indeed tied to an epistemology that breaks with “objectivism” and with a concern with “finding out,” use of the analogy could give the impression that he believes that his analysis can be seen as “mapping” in some way an independently existing social world – and that it is by virtue hereof that the map becomes useful. But the map analogy can also be interpreted in a more constructivist fashion (in terms of arguments that I developed in  Chapter 7, Section 7.1.1). In this case, it would be treated as a construction that helps us to form a social world in-the-making, according to values that are regarded as important.

Bonilla-Silva here in any case opens the space for readers to consider that his interpretations are at the same time admittedly offering action options and clarifying these for us. He also at the end of his book offers a range of suggestions for “moving from here to there” – which I discuss in Section 8.3.6.

Before I proceed to discuss some of the detail of his analysis of color-blind ideology, I would also like to point out that Bonilla-Silva shows recognition that his theoretical ensemble that he brings to bear in his analysis has “etched in it” certain assumptions. As he puts it:

Although this is not a theory book, my analysis of color-blind racism has etched in it the indelible ink of a “regime of truth” about how the world is organized. Thus, rather than hiding my theoretical assumptions, I state them openly for the benefit of readers and potential critics. (2006, p. 8)14

When utilizing the phrase “regime of truth,” Bonilla-Silva refers (2006, p. 21, Endnote 50) to Foucault’s The Order of Things (1973). By referring to the Foucauldian phrase “regime of truth,” Bonilla-Silva suggests that any claims that he makes are to be understood as containing certain assumptions about “the world.” That is, he does not present his claims as statements about the world free of the influence of specific (paradigmatic) assumptions. He tries to state these openly so that readers can appreciate how his analyses may be influenced hereby and also readers (who may also be critical of the assumptions) can enter into a dialogue with the work in an understanding of his view of these assumptions. I offer a fuller discussion of Bonilla-Silva’s drawing on Foucault’s argument, and implications hereof in terms of reflecting back on starting assumptions, in Section 8.4.

8.3.4 Frames of Color-Blind Racism

Having indicated to us as readers that his discussion of color-blind racism is set in the theoretical context of an exploration of ideology in a sense akin to Marx and Engels’ use of the term (2006, p. 9), Bonilla-Silva proceeds to identify four frames of color-blind racism. He starts by first explaining how he is defining the notion of a frame. He explains that frames provide a “path” that people follow when interpreting racial phenomena (as they see them) or indeed in helping them not to “see” in some cases – for example, to avoid seeing “facts hidden by color-blind racism” (2006, p. 26). He explains further that:

Dominant racial frames … provide the intellectual road map used by rulers to navigate the always-rocky road to domination and … derail the ruled from their track to freedom and equality. (2006, p. 26)

He elucidates the way in which interviews conducted with college students and other respondents – via qualitative interviewing of 66 White and 17 Black interviewees (2006, pp. 152–154) – pointed to the use of these frames. (He specifies that the interviews were conducted in the respondents’ homes using a “structured interview protocol,” and lasted about an hour each – 2006, p. 13. He admits that his sample size for the study, especially as regards the 17 Black interviewees, may be seen as small – thus limiting the possibility of generalization. But he points to its significance “given the limited number of systematic qualitative studies of Blacks’ views”; and he also points out that the interviewing was part of a larger survey study – 2006, p. 152. That is, the cases for in-depth interviewing were randomly selected from a larger (random) sample of White and Black people who had been surveyed.)

He indicates that his analysis of the data herefrom revealed four central frames of color-blind racism. These frames are abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism, and minimization of racism. He avers that “all these frames are essential to whites’ explanations of racial matters” (2006, p. 152). He points out that while White respondents/interviewees can be seen to draw directly on these frames, content analysis of the interviews suggests that “blacks are significantly less likely than whites to use the frames of color-blindness directly” (2006, p. 152). Nevertheless, three of the frames (abstract liberalism, naturalization, and cultural racism) have “impacted blacks’ consciousness” (2006, p. 152). The ideology of color-blind racism can thus be said to “dominate the space of what people [including black people] think is feasible and thinkable” (2006, p. 152).

Abstract Liberalism

The frame of abstract liberalism involves using in abstract manner ideas such as “equal opportunity,” “not using force to achieve social policy,” “choice,” and “individualism.” For example, these ideas can be used in an abstract way to oppose affirmative action policies on the grounds that they involve “preferential treatment” of certain groups.15 But Bonilla-Silva notes that this frame involves

ignoring the fact that people of color are severely underrepresented in most good jobs, schools and universities and, hence, it is an abstract utilization of the idea of “equal opportunity”. (2006, p. 28)

Meanwhile, the idea of treating people as “individuals” with “choices” enables Whites to justify “the right of choosing to live in segregated neighborhoods or send their children to segregated schools” (2006, p. 28). But this requires “ignoring the multiple institutional and state-sponsored practices behind segregation and being unconcerned about these practices’ negative consequences for minorities” (2006, p. 28).

In considering the frame of abstract liberalism in relation to the views of Black respondents, Bonilla-Silva notes that when questions about affirmative action were asked, Blacks “overwhelmingly expressed support” for such policies (2006, p. 153). Typical responses when asked during the interviews whether it was “unfair to whites” were to answer: “What do you call fair?” and to suggest that Blacks have had, and still have, a “hard time” (2006, p. 153). Thus concrete experiences became appealed to in order to express support for the policies. However, when it came to interpretations of segregation, the views expressed by these interviewees were not as “monolithic.” Some of them suggested that school residential segregation was “natural”; some felt that “blacks have something to do with residential segregation” or that it was “no-one’s fault”; and some felt that racial segregation was “not a problem.” And, “significantly, some used the abstract liberalism frame directly to account for school or residential segregation” (2006, p. 155). That is, segregation was seen as a product of people’s choices – and it was suggested that there is no scope for intervention to help change the situation” (2006, pp. 156–157).


The frame of naturalization, Bonilla-Silva notes, is a frame that “allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting that they are natural occurrences” (2006, p. 28). For example, in terms of this frame, “whites can claim ‘segregation’ is natural because people from all backgrounds ‘gravitate toward likeness’” (2006, p. 28). Bonilla-Silva explains that here “preferences for primary associations with members of one’s race are rationalized as nonracial because they (racial minorities) do it too” (2006, p. 28).

The naturalization frame functions to legitimize a racialized social order as “the way things are” (and therefore as natural). Bonilla-Silva comments that with being socialized in a “white habitus” and influenced by Eurocentric culture, it is not surprising that “whites interpret their racialized choices … as ‘natural’” (2006, p. 39). But he offers his perspective – namely, that “they are the ‘natural’ consequence of a white socialization process” (2006, p. 39).

As indicated above, Bonilla-Silva detects that this naturalization frame was present in some of the responses of Black respondents too – for example, when they “relied on the naturalization frame mixed with abstract liberalism to explain segregation” (2006, p. 159). He gives an example of a Black interviewee attributing neighborhood segregation to “natural tendencies in people,” as follows (2006, p. 159):

I mean whites tend to stay with whites because they’re comfortable. But given, you know – I’d say if we tried to mix a little more, we might tend to get together more and all, integrate more and all, but as it stands now and all, we tend to be comfortable [with] our race and that’s the way it generally goes. (2006, p. 159)

Bonilla-Silva thus indicates how the naturalization frame – where race is regarded as referring to some “thing” in social reality of which people are naturally “members” (and with which people feel “comfortable”) – can be seen as penetrating the discourse of many of the White, and some of the Black interviewees. But despite the operation of this frame in this way, Bonilla-Silva indicates that “most blacks point out that whites have something to do with segregation or that whites do not want to live or share resources with blacks” (2006, p. 159).

Cultural Racism

Bonilla-Silva refers to Taguieff’s understanding that in this form of racism, the presumed cultural practices of “minorities” are seen as deficient. Bonilla-Silva argues that the cultural racism frame as defined by Taguieff in the context of Europe is “very well established in the United States” (2006, p. 40), where cultural characteristics supposedly “in” the group are used to account for their being worse off in the society (2006, pp. 39–40). He indicates that the frame of cultural racism here relies on “culturally based arguments such as ‘Mexicans do not put much emphasis on education’ or ‘blacks have too many babies’ to explain the standing of minorities in society” (2006, p. 28).16 He remarks that this frame has been given attention by “many commentators” and does not require much (further) discussion by him. (See  Chapter 2, Section 2.3.4.) But he makes the point that the invocation of cultural criteria (that in cultural racism can be seen to replace biological ones) are “as effective in defending the racial status quo” (2006, p. 29).

As regards cultural racism and the views of the Black respondents, he notes that “few blacks bought completely the cultural explanation.” Yet this can be argued to have “bounded the way many blacks discuss issues such as discrimination or the specific charge that they are lazy” (as a cultural characteristic) (2006, p. 157). He indicates that the influence of this cultural frame did not come as a surprise to him, because in an earlier survey (from which some Black interviewees were chosen to be interviewed in depth) about a third of the Black respondents had agreed that blacks are “violent,” about a third with the idea that they are “lazy,” and about a third with the notion that “blacks are welfare dependent” (2006, pp. 157–158).17 The cultural stereotypes have thus arguably taken some hold in the views of many of these respondents (2006, p. 158).

Minimization of Racism

The minimization of racism frame is one that suggests that “discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities’ life chances” (2006, p. 29). Bonilla-Silva sees this frame as operative when it allows Whites to accept

the neglect and slow response of government officials toward a mostly black population during Hurricane Katrina, and many other cases … [while still] accusing minorities of being “hypersensitive,” or using race as an “excuse,” or of “playing the infamous race card.” (2006, p. 29)

He explains that a significant feature of this frame is that it

involves regarding discrimination exclusively as all-out [overt] racist behavior, which, given the way “new racism” practices operate in post-Civil Rights America … eliminates the bulk of racially motivated actions by individual whites and institutions by fiat. (2006, pp. 29–30)

Because subtle and institutional forms of racism are not given attention in the minimization of racism frame, it becomes possible hereby to ignore the continued persistence of racism.

In considering the views of Blacks on this score, Bonilla-Silva points out that:

Notwithstanding how color-blind racism affects blacks’ understandings of various racial issues, the reality of discrimination is such that few blacks believe discrimination is no longer significant. (2006, p. 160)

With reference to their answers on the question of the significance of discrimination, he indicates that the Blacks interviewees “believe discrimination is salient, that it affects them personally, and that it operates in crude and subtle ways” (2006, p. 162).

8.3.5 A View of Things to Come

Bonilla-Silva indicates that one self-criticism that he has with the interviews conducted and his analysis thereof is that “the respondents are black and white only” (2006, p. 13). He indicates that although he still posits “color-blind ideology [as being] the general ideology of the post-Civil Rights era,” it is also important to show “how other people of color fit into the notion of color-blind racism” (2006, p. 13). For increased comprehensiveness, he finds it necessary to also provide a sketch of “the future of racial stratification in the United States” – based also on “data from other sources” (2006, p. 13).

In offering his “view of things to come” based on a range of “data sources,” Bonilla-Silva begins what he calls his “sketch” by pointing out that “Latinos are now officially the largest minority group in the nation.” He suggests that the “Latino population explosion, generated by immigration, has already created a number of visible fractures in the United States that seem to be shifting the racial terrain” (2006, p. 177). He suggests furthermore that

in addition to the Latino population explosion, other trends have emerged that challenge our traditional biracial divide (white vs nonwhite) and, more specifically, our black-white understanding of racial politics in the United States. (2006, p. 177)

He points in this respect to the visibility of Asian Americans in racial discussions, which he attributes to their demographic gains (their being now 5% of the population) and to the perception that they are “doing very well economically” (2006, p. 178). Another illustration of the changing racial terrain is “our recent national discussion on the status of ‘multiracial’ and ‘biracial’ people” (2006, p. 178). He indicates that the

struggles by people in the multiracial movement to force changes in the way the Census bureau gathered racial data – specifically to include a multiracial category – … ended with the addition of the “More than one race” item in the 2000 Census Schedule. (2006, p. 178)

And finally he points out that the rate of interracial dating and marriage between Latinos and Whites and Asians and Whites has skyrocketed (2006, p. 178). He remarks that many demographers and some public intellectuals have “heralded this development as signifying the erosion of racial boundaries” (2006, p. 178).

He comments that as he is writing his revised edition of his book, “we all ponder about what will be the future of race in America” (2006, p. 178). In this context, he himself postulates an “emerging triracial system” (see Fig. 8.1) that he anticipates will be comprised of

“whites” at the top, an intermediary group of “honorary whites” – similar to the coloreds in South Africa during apartheid – and a nonwhite group or the “collective black” at the bottom. (2006, p. 179)

Fig. 8.1:

Preliminary map of triracial order in the USA as anticipated by Bonilla-Silva (Source: Bonilla-Silva, 2006, p. 180)

He hypothesizes that:

The white group will include “traditional whites”, new “white” immigrants and, in the near future, totally assimilated white Latinos, … lighter skinned multiracials, and other subgroups; the intermediate racial group or honorary whites will comprise most light-skinned Latinos … , Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Asian Indians, Chinese Americans, and most middle Eastern Americans; and finally, the collective black group will include blacks, dark-skinned Latinos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Filipinos, and Laotians. (2006, p. 179)

He contends that within this triracial system that he envisages (which he sees as a Latin- or Caribbean-like racial order) “race conflict will be buffered by the intermediate group, much like class conflict is when the class structure includes a large middle class” (2006, p. 179). And in this scenario,

Americans, like people in complex racial stratification orders, will begin making nationalist appeals (“We are all Americans”18), decry their racial past, and claim they are “beyond race”. (2006, p. 179)

Bonilla-Silva puts forward this scenario in the context of his understanding of how race-talk has become eclipsed in “the Americas,” where, as he puts it:

Despite claims of nonracialism (“We don’t have racism here. That is an American problem”), racial minorities in Latin American countries tend to be worse off, comparatively speaking, than racial minorities in Western nations. (2006, p. 181)

He emphasizes that in making his claims about how he anticipates the emergence of a triracial system in the USA similar to Latin-Americanization, it is of course possible that some groups may end up in different strata to the ones he envisages – for example, it is possible that Filipinos could “become ‘honorary whites’ rather than another group in the ‘collective black’ strata” (2006, p. 180). He also points out that his thesis does not exclude “categorical porosity as well as ‘pigmentocracy’” (2006, p. 180). That is, the categories could be somewhat porous, also depending on, for example, individual people’s “skin tone, phenotype, hair texture, eye color, culture and education, and class” (2006, p. 182). Thus his “map” cannot be used to make individual-level predictions. But it could well be useful for group-level ones. As he explains:

The former [the individual-level] refers to individual members of a racial strata moving up (or down) that stratification system (e.g. a light-skin middle-class black person marrying a white woman and moving to the “honorary white” strata) and the latter [group level] refers to the rank ordering of groups and members of groups according to phenotype and cultural characteristics (e.g. Filipinos being at the top of the “collective black” given their high level of education and income as well as high rate of interracial marriage with whites). (2006, pp. 180–181).

Nevertheless, in setting out his “sketch of things to come” Bonilla-Silva adds an important stipulation: “Lastly, since I am predicting the future, I truly hope that we can prevent the crystallization of this racial order altogether or at least derail it partially” (2006, p. 181).19 He offers various possibilities for action to try to “derail” the (sketch of the) racial order as depicted in Fig. 8.1 – possibilities that I discuss in the next section.
Fig. 8.1

Sample Table for normal table with specific width of 250 points.



New whites (Russians, Albanians, etc.)

Assimilated white Latinos

Some multiracials

Assimilated (urban) Native Americans

A few Asian-origin people

“Honorary Whites” 20

Light-skinned Latinos21

Korean Americans

Asian Indians

Chinese Americans

Middle Eastern Americans

Most multiracials

“Collective Black”

Vietnamese Americans

Filipino Americans

Hmong Americans

Laotian Americans

Dark-skinned Latinos


New West Indian and African immigrants

Reservation-bound Native Americans

Before considering his sketch, it is worth noting that Collins likewise theorizes the tenacity of the “racial triangle” – which she describes as a triangle of “White, native and Black” – in terms of the “continuity it provides to American national identity” (2006, p. 35). She suggests that the triangle (as she describes it) “constitutes benchmarks against which individuals and groups measure racial categorization and the political power it engenders” (2006, p. 35). She considers that the “tenacity of the triangle” points to ways in which

American society can undergo massive reorganization of its basic social institutions and ethnic populations in response to phases of capitalist development, yet somehow manage to replicate a seemingly permanent racial hierarchy. Whites were on the top at the founding of the nation-state reliant on agrarian capitalism; they remain so today. Native Americans and African Americans were on the bottom, and these groups remain so today. Despite massive reorganization of social institutions in the United States during transitions from industrial capitalism to a global capitalism reliant on the service industry, the basic contours of the triangle persist. (2006, p. 35)

These remarks of Collins are in line with her view of new racism as “past-in-present forms of racial oppression” (2005, p. 201) and her concern with trying to develop new visions and attendant social movements to counter it. (See  Chapter 2, Section 2.3.6.)

8.3.6 Some Possibilities for Action

Bonilla-Silva indicates that in his first edition of his book Racism Without Racists (2003) he chose not to concentrate on taking a position on “what is to be done” (2006, p 239). However, a few years after finishing the book, he questioned that choice, and decided that he had a responsibility to his readers to try to answer the “burning question of what is to be done?” (2006, p. 229). Part of his reasoning for his (new) choice was his knowledge that behind the “norms of science” which require scientists to try to assume a “detached” position as scientists “lurks a pro-status quo position” (2006, p. 229). On his understanding that science can all too easily operate in support of the racialized order (and attendant hierarchical patterns), he chose now to take a strong position in forwarding his own suggestions as to how one might address the issues as highlighted via his analysis. To this end, in his second edition of the book (2006), he proposes both individual-level and collective strategies for consideration.

Individual-Level Strategies

On the level of individual strategies, he suggests that as far as Whites are concerned, he agrees with others who have proposed that they could become what are called “race traitors” by doing “undercover work in whites-only spaces” with a view to “tell[ing] the world when whites do or say things that disadvantage minority groups” (2006, p. 230).22 In offering this as an option for action, he asks us to “imagine what would happen if whites never know for sure if what they say or do in private, whites-only spaces could be potentially leaked to the public” (2006, p. 231). He here indicates that what Whites say in “private” should enter the public domain – so that there can be more “straight talk” around racism. (See also  Chapter 5.)

He also suggests that Whites can engage in actions such as:

Why not tell your neighbors that you are concerned about the neighborhood being perceived as racist because it is all white and America is a wonderfully diverse country? …. Why not tell your white co-workers that their comments about the new black worker are problematic and will not help her become a full member of the organization? (2006, p. 231)

His concerns here can be seen to tie in with Weil et al.’s (1985) understanding of how everyday racism can become reinforced by a myriad of choices on the part of people – that can be reviewed and accordingly altered. (See  Chapter 7.)

Also on the level of individual strategy, he suggests that young people can

create teams – one white and one black, two whites and two blacks, etc. – to test whether race affects a host of social transactions such as trying to rent an apartment, purchase things at the mall, apply for jobs, hail a cab, and the like. The teams could try to assess the “race effect” in these affairs by sending teammates alone to the various settings and then comparing notes afterward with their teammates. (2006, p. 231)

Bonilla-Silva believes that this strategy “could bring to the fore clear and convincing evidence of how discrimination occurs in the streets of the United States” (2006, p. 231).23 He suggests that if this strategy were to “catch on,” it could “uncover the many faces that racism takes on in the real world” (as experienced by the teammates) (2006, p. 232). And this, he believes, could provide “legal ammunition for lawsuits and serve as an embarrassment factor for those cases where there is no legal recourse” (2006, p. 232).

Bonilla-Silva thus indicates how people’s way of involving themselves in the social world can operate to create the relevant experiences (such as experiences of discrimination), which serve as a springboard for further action (on the part of themselves and others).

Collective-Level Strategies

In relation to collective-level strategies, Bonilla-Silva states that, as he had suggested in the first edition to the book, “we need a new civil rights movement if we want to attack frontally the system responsible for the production and reproduction of racial inequality” (2006, p. 232). He indicates that he did not say much about this in the first edition, but in his second edition he ventures to do so.

In the first place, he suggests that a civil rights leadership (for a new movement) needs to avoid become trapped in the “battles and issues of the past.” He reminds us that “new racism style discrimination … does not involve the overt, nasty practices of the past.” Hence the “new civil rights movement will require new leaders who understand the nature of contemporary racial dynamics” (2006, p. 232). He also points out that when considering leadership positions, gender issues will have to be dealt with in a “more systematic way” than has been done in the past. He comments that the “old rampant sexism of the civil rights movement,” in which women were given “little space in leadership positions, having their issues excluded because they were supposedly ‘divisive’ …, has to go” (2006, p. 233). He suggests that even if there is no other reason for taking this position (i.e., even if one does not try to argue for it on other grounds),

given that women of color are central to the new working class, particularly the organized segment of the class, the new movement will have to be inclusive in its agenda and leadership. (2006, pp. 233–234)

He argues that in his view the new movement needs to be a “racially pluralist, gender/class/race conscious movement” (2006, p. 234).

Considering the way in which race and class issues have been dealt with in previous “movements,” he argues that, “this new civil rights movement … will have to deal with issues of class and racial diversity in a more straightforward manner” (2006, p. 232). He explains that:

It is no longer possible for the black middle class, who led the struggle of the past, to present their issues as the issues of all blacks and it is no longer possible for blacks to continue believing they are the most important minority group in this country. (2006, p. 232)

As far as addressing the question of racial plurality within the “new civil rights movement” is concerned, he indicates that if Black leaders wish to represent minority community viewpoints, they will have to exhibit a “pluralist” style of leadership”; and likewise, “blacks must [also] begin to understand that a Latino or an Asian can represent them, too” (2006, p. 233). As far as class issues are concerned, he indicates that

the issues before us are, more than ever, the issues of the black, Latino, and Asian working class, i.e., the need for adequate and decent schools, jobs, social services, medical care, housing, and transportation. (2006, p. 232)

He claims that for this segment of the minority community, one needs a movement “that deals in a straight manner with their class/race issues.” He elaborates further that what is here required is “not ‘equality of opportunity’ [which in any case is thus far only abstract – as explained in Section] but ‘equality of results’” (2006, pp. 232–233). Faced with what he sees as a possible hopelessness of those who might have become pessimistic about such prospects, he comments that, in participating in the new social movement,

We all need to regain the energy we seem to have lost, drop the pessimism that has filled our souls, and get over the individualism and materialism that has eaten so many of us from within. (2006, p. 236)

In clarifying this statement of his, he refers to the work of bell hooks (2006, p. 241, Endnote 22). As I indicated in  Chapter 3, Section 3.4.2, hooks is concerned that while the civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King had emphasized what she calls a “love ethic,” the “Black Power movement” put the emphasis “more on power” (1994, p. 291). She considers it crucial that “we must collectively return to a radical political vision of social change rooted in a love ethic and seek once again to convert masses of people, black and nonblack” (1994, p. 292). She suggests that

without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations, we are often seduced, in one way or another, into continued allegiance to systems of domination – imperialism, sexism, racism, classism. (1994, p. 289)

Bonilla-Silva appreciates hooks’s advice that a way of people being with one another that is non-exploitative needs to be practiced in “lived practices of interaction” (hooks, 1994, p. 287).

8.4 Revisiting Bonilla-Silva’s Approach to Theorizing

I suggested in Section 8.3.3 that Bonilla-Silva’s way of developing his theorizing can be accounted for by appealing to some notion of retroductive inference. In operating according to such logic, theorists/scientists are not required to concentrate on trying to generate predictions in relation to observable events and their connections. They are required to direct their focus more at the level of systemic theorizing so as to be able to provide explanations for whatever observable occurrences (and connections between them) become manifested – explanations which make sense of the totality of manifestations.

In a scientific realist approach to the utility of retroductive logic, it is assumed that if theorists are repeatedly able to provide plausible explanations for observable events in terms of their concepts (which posit the existence of structural generative mechanisms), this lends support to the idea that the causal mechanisms do exist. It is possible to read Bonilla-Silva’s work as implying that his conceptualizations, if considered plausible by other analysts as well as by others in society, should be treated as probably referring to real structural characteristics of the social world. When he states that “all of us try our best to construct robust explanations of events and hope that … the most plausible ones achieve legitimacy” (2006, p. 14), this statement of his could imply that plausible explanations are indeed plausible because they refer ultimately to some independently existing realities (existing independently of our knowing processes).

Yet Bonilla-Silva cites favorably critics of the Enlightenment dream of “pure objectivity,” and in this context he remarks that when scientists pose problems, develop theories, use methods, and perform analyses, they are bringing to bear their “selves” as researchers (2006, p. 13). Thus (as with many others before him) he criticizes Weber’s (1949) “call for a separation between researcher, method, and data” (2006, p. 13). And this goes hand in hand with an admission that his theorizing should be understood as springing from his “presence” therein – including his specific concerns, values, and so on.

Moreover, Bonilla-Silva (2006, p. 24) and Bonilla-Silva and Zuberi (2008, p. 26) cite favorably Fay’s work – albeit in endnotes – on the philosophy of social science. Fay (following the critical theoretical tradition) considers that theoretical statements can be judged as true/worthwhile in terms of their posing insights that help people to rethink their mode of social being and living. Here the search for “truth” is not seen as separable from a concern with social justice.

For example, as I noted in  Chapter 6, Section 6.3.2, Habermas indicates that what he calls his reconstructive social theory is meant to serve the function of offering

a guide for reconstructing the network of discourses that, aimed at forming opinions and preparing decisions, provides the matrix from which democratic authority emerges. (1996, p. 5)

Habermas’s critical theorizing can thus be read as directed toward highlighting the potential for developing an enhanced communicative fabric in society, out of which new goal directions for humanity can emerge. (See also Delanty, 1997, p. 87.) Bonilla-Silva’s reference to the criterion of worthwhile theorizing to be judged in terms of the (practical) question “Does it ultimately help you move from here to there?” (2006, p. 15) can be seen as calling forth this kind of critical theoretical argument – albeit that as Weil points out in her feedback to me (May 2009) “we do not always know where ‘there’ is” or indeed “what (else) it may mean to move to ‘there’.” (Weil would thus appreciate it if more critically reflexive co-inquiry practices were to be explicitly called for within “critical theorizing” – see also  Chapter 7, Section 7.3.1.)

In reviewing Bonilla-Silva’s orientation, it is also important to bear in mind his favorable citing of Foucault’s conception that statements made by theorists (and others) can be understood as embodiments of a “regime of truth” – that is, as infused with assumptions about how the world is organized (2006, p. 8). By speaking of his own examination of color-blind racism as having etched in it a “regime of truth,” Bonilla-Silva implies that he recognizes that his way of speaking about “the world” is indeed a way of speaking (a narrative), which can be counterpoised against other ways of constructing interpretations. It is worth highlighting here that when Foucault points to “regimes of truth” – which, as regimes, would seem not to provide scope for reflection on paradigmatic assumptions – he simultaneously can be seen as making space for a different form of theorizing (i.e., one which is able to reflect back on starting assumptions). Thus Rajchman interprets Foucault’s location of regimes of truth as pointing to an alternative, namely, to a “style of critical investigation based … in the supposition of critical moments in which we start to depart from those conditions or ‘regimes’ and invent new ways of talking and seeing” (2007, p. 21).

Rajchman indicates that Foucault follows Habermas’s concern with creating “public spaces” for “actively critically thinking together” (2007, p. 15) – although Foucault does not agree with Habermas’s postulate of a regulative ideal of consensus governing discursive reason.24 According to Foucault (as interpreted by Rajchman), people have to “constantly invent or re-invent the means, the techniques, the strategies and the spaces” for revisiting their relationship to “historically determined forms of power” – as part of the effort to say “we don’t want to be governed like this anymore” (2007, p. 14). Rajchman argues that Foucault tried to isolate a different style of critical thinking (than that proposed by Habermas), which is

more closely tied to material conditions – uncertain and questioning, “dissensual” or “problematizing,” associated as well with fiction and aesthetics rather than with sociological expertise or academic positions. (2007, p. 10)

Thus Rajchman sees Foucault as indeed opening more space for dialogue (and different forms of dialogue) than that provided for in Habermas’s account of reconstructive theorizing. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that Foucault appreciates Habermas’s critique of ideologies, including an ideology of science that presents itself as forwarding information (more or less) free of presuppositions and antecedents. Foucault agrees that exposing these is “precisely the advantage of critique” (cf. Foucault’s conversation with Mouloud, as reported in Foucault, 2007).

Foucault makes the point in relation to the purpose of philosophical reflection in the present period to which we belong that “here it is a matter of showing specifically and in what ways the one who speaks as a thinker, a scientist, and a philosopher is himself [or herself] a part of this process” (cf. 2007, p. 84). He points to the importance of reflecting upon one’s own complicity (as thinker, scientist, philosopher) in the unfolding of the social world of which one is both an element (of the emergent relations) and an actor (cf. 2007, p. 85). This relates to Bonilla-Silva’s suggestion that one needs to be aware that already by thinking/theorizing (about racism in his case) one is making some kind of political intervention and cannot avoid taking some responsibility for this (2006, p. 229).

As far as the content of Foucault’s ideas on racism are concerned, Bonilla-Silva takes on board Foucault’s suggestion that constructions of racial identities are historically created through specific discourses. Bonilla-Silva and Zuberi (2008, p. 26, Endnote 27) refer to McWhorter’s discussion of Foucault’s account of the origin of “race” as a socially meaningful category. In her presentation of the Foucauldian exploration of the question “where do white people come from,” McWhorter (2005) indicates that according to Foucault, the “thematics of blood” seems to have gained historical importance in the second half of the nineteenth century. She cites Foucault’s statement that it was then that

a whole politics of settlement (peuplement), family, marriage, education, social hierarchization, and property, accompanied by a long series of permanent interventions at the level of the body, conduct, health, and everyday life, received their color and their justification from the mythical concern with protecting the purity of the blood and ensuring the triumph of the race. (Foucault, 1978, p. 149)

McWhorter indicates that Foucault traces race discourses as far back as the early seventeenth century, but argues that “those early discourses did not mobilize a concept of race like the one that has been operative in the 20th century” (Foucault, 2003, as cited in McWhorter, 2005, p. 540). Foucault suggests that “the earliest concepts of race were neither biological nor even morphological; race was a matter of lineage, language, and tradition, correlated perhaps with religion and character.” However, she points to a “gradual mutation of the idea of race as it was adapted for use in a variety of political contexts in Europe” (McWhorter, 2005, p. 540). (See also  Chapter 2, Section 2.2.2.)

Most importantly, Foucault emphasizes that in order to understand the construction and deployment of racialized identities in specific social formations, they must be “studied in relation to the networks of power that generated them” (McWhorter, 2005, p. 540). That is, the power relations that serve to sustain the established racial hierarchies have to be explored. And Foucault hopes that by attempting to expose the way in which the notion of race has become historically constructed, the political space is created for reconfiguring, inter alia, the networks of power sustaining racism. Hence McWhorter states that “Foucault meant for his work to have political effects, to disrupt power formations and make new configurations possible” (2005, p. 544).

Bonilla-Silva for his part proposes that his theorizing (specifically around racism) might function to have “political effects” by, for instance, serving to “tilt the balance” in the already tilted market of ideas (tilted toward the interpretations of the powerful) (2006, p. 14). Bonilla-Silva and Zuberi note (2008, p. 26, Endnote 26) that they do not hereby wish to conceptualize knowledge production as “the mere expression of power relations” as in certain postmodernist arguments – such as those offered by, say, Baudrillard (e.g., 1983) and Lyotard (e.g., 1984). They believe that Ladson-Billings (2003) helps to cast light on the question of how knowledge production should be conceived when she suggests certain criteria for assessment – such as an assessment of its contribution to challenging “injustice and inequity” (2008, p. 27). By their citing Ladson-Billings in this regard, they also can be interpreted as invoking her concern with developing an epistemology that problematizes the manner in which power relations can infuse our forms of “knowing” in society (as I explained this in  Chapter 1, Section 1.5.3.)

Regarding the issue of how the new social movement that Bonilla-Silva envisages can work toward generating visions of a more just social order, he does not try to adjudicate on the debate around how “capitalism” is to be transformed in this process. It is noteworthy though, that like Obama (whose arguments I cited in  Chapter 2, Section 2.2.1), he indicates that the issues before us are, more so than ever, “the need for adequate and decent schools, jobs, social services, medical care, housing, and transportation” (2006, p. 232). Obama (2007) likewise expresses concern that thus far in the USA and indeed the global economy, policy-making has been skewed in favor of the “corporate sponsors and wealthy donors” (2007, p. 35) – at the expense of the needs of the working class. He expresses concern that in the USA “we ran up the national credit card so that the biggest beneficiaries of the global economy could keep an even bigger share of the take” (2007, p. 188). Obama refers to Warren Buffet’s statement (stated in conversation with Obama) that: “If there is class war in America, then my class is winning” (2007, p. 189). He points to his own, as well as Buffet’s, concerns about this. He remarks that he was surprised to hear Buffet – the world’s foremost capitalist – reflect an understanding that:

How well we respond to globalization won’t be just a matter of identifying the right policies. It will also have to do with a change of spirit, a willingness to put our common interests and the interests of future generations ahead of short-term expediency. (Obama, 2007, p. 191)

On the issue of how capitalist patterns of existence can be modified, Obama takes the line that the wealth that it produces needs to be “distributed fairly and wisely” – so that wealth can be ploughed into education, infrastructure, and providing safety nets for those who “lose out in a market economy” (2007, p. 190). He also cites as problematic that “between 1971 and 2001, while the median wage and salary income of the average worker [in the USA] showed literally no gain, the income of the top hundredth of a percent went up almost 500 percent” (2007, p. 192). He expresses dismay at the “levels of inequality [that] are now higher than at any time since the golden age” (2007, p. 192).

Interestingly, with the global financial crisis to which I referred earlier in the chapter, when discussing Harvey’s (2008) Marxist-oriented view hereof, the New York Times (11 April 2009) makes the point that

all the conservative shouting about how Obama is a socialist has had the unexpected effect of educating a sizable portion of the public to think of socialism as synonymous with “European socialism” (i.e., democracy plus private industry plus nice, soft, 400-thread safety nets) instead of Soviet-style “socialism” (i.e., totalitarianism plus gigantism plus poverty).25

Of course, the “socialism” advanced by Obama would not be of the kind recommended by Harvey, who sees the problem as lying in the way in which capitalist production, rather than distribution, processes are organized in the social system. Nevertheless, Obama can be seen as trying to inject new codes for people to consider as meaningful options for re-organizing economic and social life.

As Lakoff (2009) points out:

The word “code” [when speaking about the Obama Code] can refer to a system of either communication or morality. President Obama has integrated the two. The Obama Code is both moral and linguistic at once. The President is using his enormous skills as a communicator to express a moral system. … . His economic program is tied to his moral system. (2009, p. 1)26

Lakoff argues that Obama’s Code introduces a different language of causality than the language of “direct causation” in terms of which “conservatives tend to think.” He believes that Obama’s systemic thinking (with its attendant break with linear causality) is more equipped to come to grips with global economics (as well as global ecology) as “examples of systemic causation.” He avers that Obama has understood that:

The global economic collapse is … systemic in nature. That is at the heart of the death of the conservative principle of the laissez faire market, where individual short-term self-interest was supposed to be natural, moral, and the best for everybody. (2009, p. 7)

He argues that the old “rational actor model,” can be shown to be “fallacious” in the light of the “twin disasters of global warming and global economic breakdown. Both must be dealt with on a systematic, global, long-term basis” (2009, p. 7). He states that “President Obama understands this, though must of the country does not” (2009, p. 7). He postulates that as Obama proceeds, he seems to be trying to find a way of situating the meaning of concepts such as “freedom, equality, prosperity, unity,” and so on, within his view of values such as “empathy, [and] social as well as personal responsibility,” while also redefining American patriotism and developing new visions of democracy (2009, p. 8).27

This would be consistent with Bonilla-Silva’s favorable citing of hooks, who calls for a “love ethic” to shape the direction of people’s political visions as well as radical aspirations – in order to create moves away from “imperialism, sexism, racism, classism” (1994, p. 289). The theorizing that offers conceptions as to how best to move away from these forms of domination, however, cannot present itself as authoritative, because this goes against the grain of practicing non-dominative human relationships.

It is for this reason that Collins emphasizes that in developing a “politics of engagement” we become empowered when we reject “the dimensions of knowledge that perpetuate objectification, commodification, and exploitation” (2000, p. 289). Considering this in relation to her discussion of Black feminism (see  Chapter 1, Section 1.3; and  Chapter 6, Sections and 6.6), she suggests that “African-American women and others like us become empowered when we understand and use those dimensions of our individual, group, and formal educational ways of knowing that foster our humanity” (2000, p. 289). She considers it important to invoke Black feminist epistemologies as counterpoints to dominative ways of knowing that may be argued to stifle possibilities for “fostering our humanity.” She argues that within such a (epistemological and ethical) stance, conceptual spaces also become created for identifying “new linkages” between different forms of activism toward fostering social justice projects. She points out that this is important because “just as oppression is complex, so must resistance aimed at fostering empowerment demonstrate a similar complexity” (2000, p. 289). And she argues that in order to create practical linkages, we need to develop an inclusive perspective that refrains from “labeling one form of oppression [such as based on, say, race, gender, class, sexuality, and nation] as more important than others, or one expression of activism as more radical than another” (2000, p. 289). In this way, she argues, we can avoid having to adjudicate between the explanatory power of analyses based on categories such as, say, race, gender, or class as having any particular (analytic) primacy; and instead we can focus on developing conceptual spaces for creating coalitions in practice.

8.4.1 A Note on Interpreting Texts

The issue of what is involved in interpreting texts, which would include my interpretation of all the authors discussed in this and previous chapters (such as Bonilla-Silva, Foucault, Ladson-Billings, hooks, Collins, etc.), is itself a subject of heated debate. In line with the constructivist position that I have espoused (and detailed with reference to various examples in the book), I do not believe that one can posit a “correct” reading of any text or set of texts.28 In this regard, I concur with Kaufmann’s account (which she explains in the context of exploring Foucault’s contribution). As she expresses it:

I have come to recognize that … every text I read is interpreted and rewritten through my own biography, and my autobiography is rewritten as I read it through alternate texts …. According to this understanding, not only is there no “real” Foucault for me to use as the underpinning theoretical framework for my work but also each use of theory is constructed through the autobiography of the researcher and interpreted and rewritten through the autobiography of the reader. (2004, p. 578)

Kaufmann suggests that as one reads and interprets texts, the texts themselves become rewritten through their being (re)constructed by readers, while at the same time readers interact with (and thus learn from) their engagement with texts. The rewriting of the text by readers opens up a suggested way of seeing it (for other audiences also to consider), so that in this sense it becomes a living document.

In terms of Kaufmann’s language, then, I see my interaction with, inter alia, Bonilla-Silva’s work in this chapter, as both a reading and (re)writing of the texts. With this reminder to readers of my constructivist-oriented engagements with the texts, I proceed in the next section to cast (what I regard as) further light on some of Bonilla-Silva’s statements that he has provided in sketching his account of Latin American racism.

As noted above, Bonilla-Silva compares the racism that he understands as operative in Latin America with his anticipated crystallization of a triracial stratification system in the USA – which he considers as crystallizing unless it becomes “derailed” (2006, p. 181). To cast additional light on Bonilla-Silva’s sketch, I offer some detail on an argument developed by Dos Santos and Da Silva (2006), who have concentrated on examining the patterning of the Brazilian social fabric. By comparing their argument with his (Section 8.5), I show how one can lend support to his statements on the operation of color-blind racism in this context. I also show how this can be interpreted through a constructivist/pragmatic-oriented lens (Section 8.5.1). Finally (Section 8.6), I show how one could interpret both his and Dos Santos and Da Silva’s theoretical claims (and attendant practical proposals) in view of the debate between Bourdieu and Wacquant (1999) and Hanchard (2003) that I introduced in  Chapter 2, Section 2.4.

8.5 A Way of Considering Racism in Latin America with Special Reference to Brazil

In providing his understanding of the racialization of social relations in Latin America, Bonilla-Silva emphasizes that despite claims made by some that issues of racism are “past” and are irrelevant here, the issues can be seen as ever-present. As noted in  Chapter 2, Section 2.2.1, Bonilla-Silva expresses concern that, despite the operation of discrimination in practice in Latin America, “any one trying to address racial divisions is likely to be chided” (2006, p. 184).

Bonilla-Silva’s account of the way in which “collective blacks” have tended toward the bottom of a racialized (but not officially recognized) system in Latin America (2006, p. 179) is lent support by Dos Santos and Da Silva in their discussion of racism in Brazil. I now provide some detail on their argument and I show how it compares with that of Bonilla-Silva (although they have not cited him in their text).

Dos Santos and Da Silva state that in the late 1970s,

when there was a resurgence of social movements of Afro-Brazilians protesting the racial discrimination that they suffer every day, the myth of Brazilian racial democracy was still generally accepted and proclaimed. (2006, p. 13)29

They indicate that up until 1978, Brazil had “gone almost 20 years without any statistical information on the color or race of its population” (2006, p. 13). However,

with the inclusion of a question on color/race in the censuses of 1980 and 1991 and some components of the National Survey of Sample Households, it became possible to obtain more accurate statistical information on the reality of racial inequalities in Brazil. (2006, p. 14)

They remark that they are using the term “race”

not as a biological concept denoting physically and mentally distinct varieties of human being but as … a concept denoting only a form of social classification …. Race, as a [social] reality, is therefore limited to the social world. (2006, p. 27)

They support the inclusion of a concept of race in the censuses and in the survey of sample households, because it allows “statistics on racial inequality” to come to the fore (2006, p. 14). However, they are concerned that despite the statistical information that has been available, there is an “inertia in seeking solutions to our pattern of racial inequality.” To account for what they see as the “lack of moral indignation at Brazilian racism,” they suggest that “we are socialized not to regard Afro-Brazilians as ordinary citizens, our equals in law, because the Brazilian mass media have made them either invisible or stigmatized” (2006, p. 14). Their argument in this regard concurs with Bonilla-Silva’s view that in Brazil (as in other Latin American countries) racism is largely ignored and not spoken about.

To try to render more visible the continued discrimination in particular against Afro-Brazilians, they emphasize that:

The statistics, both the official ones supplied by the state and the unofficial ones from private institutions, have shown that Afro-Brazilians … suffer the most prejudice in the labor market. They suffer the highest unemployment rates and are paid the least, even for the self-same jobs. (2006, p. 15)

Dos Santos and Da Silva thus show that in terms of labor-market statistics, “the labor market became much more affected by racism in the 1990s” (relative to earlier) (2006, p. 17). This would lend support to Bonilla-Silva’s view of a trend toward crystallization, rather than a dismantling, of a racialized social order in contemporary Brazil. Furthermore, in line with Bonilla-Silva’s conception of the intersection of gender and race issues – with reference to which he cites, for example, Essed’s notion of “gendered racism” (1997, p. 469) – they point out that:

Suffering double discrimination for being both Afro-Brazilian and women, they [Afro-Brazilian women] have the highest rates of unemployment in all six metropolitan regions surveyed in 1998, and in 1999 they had the highest unemployment rate nationally. (2006, p. 17)

They situate these statistics in the context of Brazil’s lack of economic growth, which has meant that

most workers have had no wage increase and a considerable number have lost their jobs, temporarily or for good, but the problems of white workers have been nothing like the penury to which Afro-Brazilians have been reduced, nor has the gender discrimination against white women in the labor market been anything like that suffered there by Afro-Brazilian women. It is racism that lies at the root of this inequality. (2006, p. 20)

They argue that despite the existence of the data that they present here, there still persists “a failure to see the data … in government, trade unions, and social movements” – even though certain “activists in the Afro-Brazilian movement and some intellectuals have been effectively challenging the myth of Brazil as a ‘racial democracy’ ever since the 1970s” (2006, p. 20).

Like Bonilla-Silva, they locate a taboo in Brazilian society around “talking about racism.” And like Bonilla-Silva, they suggest that the taboo in speaking about race issues does not mean that Brazilians are color blind. On the contrary, they suggest that:

It seems that we are blind to racism and its malignant consequences because neither causes us any moral difficulty either as human beings or as citizens. We practice discrimination against nonwhites but are loathe to admit it. (2006, pp. 20–21, my italics)

They try to account for people’s ability to deny continued racism, despite the available data, which should tell us that “something is going on” (2006, p. 21). They suggest the following:

Moral indifference with regard to the social fate of individual nonwhites is so widespread that we remain unaffected when we are faced with Brazilian racial inequality. They do not touch us or bother us, not even as citizens who expect and insist on a full and total application of the Brazilian constitution. (2006, p. 21)

They suggest that this in turn can be explained in terms of the fact that “we have been (and still are being) socialized against seeing nonwhites as ordinary citizens” (2006, p. 21). They argue that through the messages that people receive on a daily basis,

Brazilians assimilate the invisibility of nonwhites in the media, with their underlying prejudices and consequent discrimination against them, and feel no guilt about this situation. …. Because we have been (and are still being) socialized to live with racial discrimination and inequality, we believe them to be normal. (2006, p. 24)

They see a continuity as well as a rupture between present-day racism and racism in colonial times. As they state:

While we have no wish to adopt the simplistic position that present-day racism is a mere reflection of colonial slavery, the interdependence between today’s images and those of the past cannot be denied. (2006, p. 24)

They consider the continuity as consisting in “the questionable use of images that focus on the otherness of nonwhites.” They point out that these images “crystallized by different means … have, over time, caused racism to seem quite natural” (2006, p. 24). And it is because of its naturalness that it becomes unnoticed. Part of the racism can be seen as manifested in the seemingly natural “ideal of the Brazilian, created to satisfy the needs of the dominant culture and those alone” (2006, p. 24). An unnoticed exclusionary orientation means that in practice “few opportunities [are available] to the socially excluded” (2006, p. 24).

In similar vein to Bonilla-Silva, they try to unpack the dominant mode of thinking, which they see as “aimed at neutralizing the tensions produced by diversity.” They themselves see a diversity in Brazilian society along “cultural, social, economic, and political differences.” But they argue that the dominant attitude – which rules the labor market – is that “we are all ‘the products of racial mixing’, even though our ethical and aesthetic aspirations are directed toward an ideal of whiteness” (2006, p. 25). They explain the operation of this normative ideal of Whiteness in practice:

Whenever we come across the notorious “good appearance” phrase in a classified job advertisement, we know that the selection of candidates will have whiteness as a basic prerequisite, regardless of their skills and abilities. Overcoming such prejudices in a society as conservative as that of Brazil will require superhuman effort. (2006, p. 25)

In order to begin to institute a social fabric that “will have done with racism,” they suggest that:

It is essential that we substantially increase the quantity and improve the quality of the images that refer to negritude, and this means establishing a new order in the mass media that will depend on placing legal limits on the actions of corporate executives in the communications field. (2006, p. 25)

They thus recommend that legal restraints be put on those who perpetuate the normative ideal of Whiteness in the society. They suggest that insofar as it is postulated that this entails a limit of people’s “freedom of expression,” it can be counter-argued that at the moment such a concept of freedom can be seen to generate the opposite of freedom. The abstract concept in practice in this social context is “based on a way of thinking that in reality imprisons every one of us because it reduces ‘others’ (non-Caucasians) to less-than-human status” (2006, p. 25). As Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva similarly argue, “the modern Cartesian subject is not truly universal, but an idealized White, bourgeois, male, atomistic, heterosexual construct” (2008, p. 333).

Just as Bonilla-Silva (2006) tries to portray the way in which abstract liberalism functions as a frame in color-blind ideology, so Dos Santos and Da Silva likewise show how the abstract ideal of freedom of expression serves to exclude and dehumanize those deemed as “others” (with special reference to the Brazilian context).

In order to begin to address problems of racism in the society, they suggest that it is

necessary to think of alternative models of producing and distributing images that will increase the visibility of Afro-Brazilians in the communications media and no longer represent them in a negative way. (2006, p. 26)

They are aware that in making this proposal, they may be criticized by the “advocates of so-called abstract universalist thought … for considering human beings only in terms of groupings of cultural significance such as race and gender” (2006, p. 26). But they argue that although they recognize that this way of creating groupings (in terms of these classifications) can be criticized, the problem is that unless we use these terms, we become unable to “analyze the concrete (in)equality of Brazilians” (2006, p. 26). They are aware that others can criticize them for

defending skin color as an aspect of identity more important than other identifiers such as being Latin American, Brazilian, or coming from Brazil’s Northeast, South, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Bahia, or being working-class, or having a particular religion, and, above all, as something more important than just being a member of the human race. (2006, p. 26)

They indicate that “universalist thinkers” have argued that by continuing to use the categories referring to groupings along “race” lines, they “condemn themselves to perpetual imprisonment by race because they will be making an ideal of racial identity” (2006, p. 26). But again they re-iterate that “defenders of abstract equality need to develop some mechanism for seeing and understanding that we do not yet have equality among all human beings” (2006, p. 27). Or, as Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva put it, to be race conscious in orientation as an alternative to the rhetoric of abstract equality “is to be aware of the system of racial stratification, and to recognize the acts of survival and creativity of those marginalized by the racial hierarchy” (2008, p. 333). For Dos Santos and Da Silva, as for Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva, engaging in race-talk does not imply “essentializing” race, but rather, as the latter put it – citing also Collins and Ladson-Billings on this score – to acknowledge “the ‘racialized identity’ and the common history of oppression shared by people of color” (2008, p. 333).

Finally, Dos Santos and Da Silva state their proposal for the development of a dialogue around the issues that seem to be at stake:

In sum, we believe that, in order to understand racial inequality in Brazil and our indifference to it, scientists of all types, together with other individuals, social movements, and institutions, need to discuss the subject freely rather than accuse each other. (2006, p. 27)

They thus appeal on these grounds for a lifting of the taboo around race-talk. Dos Santos and Da Silva offer their word of caution when they express concern that unless people have an orientation toward “seeing” racism, they can well be indifferent to it. Although they have stated that “racial discrimination has … become something that has been expressed objectively through statistical data,” they are cognizant that the “data” can be rendered invisible in various ways (2006, p. 14). As Bonilla-Silva also has noted, it is always possible to explain the data in terms that allow people to deny continued racism (2006, p. 208). (See  Chapter 3, Section 3.11.)

How, then, might we treat any (theoretical) statements made in relation to racism in a way that can be conducive to creating some kind of social dialogue? My argument is that it is important to treat as open to continuing discursive encounter any statements made by people – whether so-called professional researchers or others – when they (retroductively) provide explanations of perceived “facts.” I suggest that it is in this way that the basis for trust earning through inquirers showing an orientation to discursive accountability, as I have outlined it in previous chapters, can become built. This, however, implies that retroductive logic is not defined as a process whereby it is hoped to arrive at “correct” accounts – as if these can be arrived at by somehow matching statements with “real reality.” Rather, it becomes understood as a process that aids co-inquirers to find ways of seeing and acting that can build what is taken to be (and discussed to be) more just and equitable ways of being together. This would tally with the definition of retroductive logic as proffered by McIntyre-Mills (mentioned in my introduction to this chapter) as well as with the implicit and explicit definitions of abductive/retroductive logic embedded in the examples of action research that I detailed in  Chapter 7.

8.5.1 Possibilities for Creating a Dialogue Around Issues of Racism

As I indicated in the introduction to this chapter, retroductive logic can be used in a “scientific realist” manner, which implies that by referring back from our observations to posited structures that explain them, we can try to develop our knowledge regarding independently existing structures (existing outside of the knowing process). But I have indicated throughout the book that it is also possible to suggest that when researchers create theoretical conceptualizations to account for what is “observed,” these conceptualizations do not have to be assessed in terms of their supposed reference to “what really is the case” independently of a dialogue involving those concerned. Nor are those involved in the dialogue required to distance their emotions/concerns/values from their engagement with the issues that they see to be at stake.

In terms of a more constructivist-oriented approach to processes of retroductive inference, I suggest that we can now re-look at Dos Santos and Da Silva’s understanding of an operative racism in Brazil as follows:

Dos Santos and Da Silva examine the patterns of employment and income levels in Brazil, and so on, which point to the disparities that can be observed between, say, Afro-Brazilians and other social groupings. From their account of these patterns of inequality, and their understanding of an indifference hereto within the overall society, they infer that:

It is as if Afro-Brazilians did not exist, as if they were not part of Brazilian society and played no role in it. Denying their existence, dehumanizing them in this way, is in fact the essence of racism. (2006, p. 21)

They thus posit the existence of racism through excavating the patterns of inequality and through noting how an ideology of dehumanization serves to buttress the system. But they also are aware that not everybody would agree with their account of “the facts” (which they may not see in the same way as they do) and not everybody would even agree that it is worthwhile to continue to analyze society using the racial categories that they have used.

They have also pointed to their concern that “few opportunities [are provided] to the socially excluded” (2006, p. 24). And they have noted that in their view it is important that:

Even when we talk about inclusion, it is important to know whom we are including, with what aim, and for what purposes, because, as a rule, the differences we see in the other tend to acquire a negative value. (2006, p. 24)

They argue that the normative ideal of Whiteness still tends to pervade (albeit in an unnoticed way) the social conversation, including conversations around possibilities for “inclusion.” Hence they call for a dialogue around the meaning of the term “difference” (which in turn relates to conversations around issues of diversity). (See in this regard my discussion of this in  Chapter 4, Sections 4.3.1 and 4.3.2.)

But how might the dialogue be conducted in a way that does not amount, in Dos Santos and Da Silva’s terms, to people “accusing each other” – either of unnecessarily using race categories or of insensitively trying to avoid “race-talk” (2006, p. 27)? McIntyre-Mills considers that retroductive logic can be used by people to gain an appreciation of patterns of exclusion through engendering a dialogue around what the terms used by various people to explain differences in life chances mean and why (2006b, p. 391). Considering Dos Santos and Da Silva’s account of the patterning of life chances in Brazil, I would suggest that retroductive logic can help analysts (professional and otherwise) to “trace” ways in which society can be argued to differentially shape life chances. The “tracing” process could involve not only a statistical analysis of survey data (on which Dos Santos and Da Silva seem to concentrate), but also other research procedures – as, for instance, I have detailed in  Chapters 3 7. Furthermore, as part of the inquiry process, as McIntyre-Mills emphasizes, a variety of stakeholders’ usage of terms needs to be explored, taking into account the assumptions underpinning their use and also the values infusing their use.

Drawing on and extending a critical systemic humanist approach, McIntyre-Mills proposes that:

We need to address and redress the Cartesian split between body and mind, and the rational and reductionist approach to do research on slices of reality and worse to split the researcher from the researched (as the expert). …. In the new millennium the challenge is to ensure that … the powerful do not silence those currently with limited access to communicate their knowledge narratives. This is not an argument for universalizing language or knowledge narratives, because the cognitive meaning maps associated with specific language, specific place, specific time and specific discourses could be a vital use for future planning. (2006b, p. 367)

McIntyre-Mills does not see that it is necessary for inquirers to try to bracket their values and emotions in processes of developing fruitful dialogue. She concurs with Collins (2000, pp. 70–71) that the (traditional Western) dualities informed by the Cartesian split between mind and body need to be revised to accommodate people as whole beings entering the (co)-inquiry process. And she echoes Collins’s view that “dialogues associated with ethical, principled coalition building create possibilities for new versions of truth” (2000, p. 38).

If we reconsider Dos Santos and Da Silva’s account in this light, they too could be argued not to be divesting their values from their own “analysis.” Thus it can be said that when they discuss problems of exclusion, they introduce their value of, for instance, admitting diversity in a way that does not impose the normative ideal of Whiteness. Also, they appeal emotionally to our sense of humanity (and empathy) when they discuss the dehumanization involved in creating “otherness” in the context of, inter alia, Brazilian social relations. Although they have not tried to clarify for readers the way in which they have brought to bear certain values (and attendant emotions) in their analysis, and the way in which they might see these as becoming part of a social dialogue, I would suggest that their approach can be extended to make this more explicit. This would allow us to open up a discussion on the standing of their (theoretical) statements and on how they believe that these can be entered into a dialogue with others around their claims and their concerns.

Furthermore, in relation to their statement that “overcoming such [racial] prejudices in a society as conservative as that of Brazil will require superhuman effort” (2006, p. 25), it is crucial to remember both Collins’s (1990, 2000) and hooks’s (1994, 2001) advice on envisioning (as well as trying to activate) forms of human relationship that manifest human caring. As indicated above, Bonilla-Silva refers to hooks’s plea to (re)activate a “spiritual and moral compass.” This is also in line with Collins’s plea to regenerate an ethic of caring, including through the way in which “knowing” is practiced.

8.6 Revisiting Bourdieu and Wacquant’s Concerns with Reference to the Brazilian Case

Before closing the chapter, I would like to comment on how the discussion above can be seen to relate back to the concerns expressed by Bourdieu and Wacquant when they lament the spread across the globe of the US way of treating race issues. (See  Chapter 2, Section 2.4.) They have expressed concern, for instance, that the “endless media repetition progressively transforms [ways of seeing issues] … into universal commonsense” (1999, p. 42). They give an example of the discourse of multiculturalism, which in the USA

refers – if in distorted and veiled forms – to the enduring sequelae of the exclusion of blacks and to the crisis of the national myth of the “American dream” correlative to the generalized increase in inequalities over the past two decades. (1999, p. 42)

They argue that the discourse of multiculturalism – with its promise of equal opportunities – can readily become employed to set the terms of (and limit) the social conversation on race issues across the globe. (See also  Chapter 4, Section 4.3.1.) They continue their argument by stating that “among the cultural products now being diffused on a planetary scale,” the most “insidious” ones are not those which are “easy to spot” (1999, p. 42). They emphasize that:

Rather, they are those isolated and apparently technical terms such as “flexibility” (or its British equivalent, “employability”) which, because they encapsulate and communicate a whole philosophy of the individual and of social organization, are well-suited to functioning as veritable political codewords and mottoes (in this case: the downsizing and denigration of the state, the reduction of social protection and the acceptance of the generalization of casual and precarious labor as a fate, nay a boon). (1999, p. 42)

Markedly, Bourdieu and Wacquant’s argument here bears some similarity to Dos Santos and Da Silva’s account of how racism becomes more or less invisible in Brazil (under code words that mask its operation) while at the same time those viewed as “other” in the labor market are subject to a precarious existence. Nonetheless, Bourdieu and Wacquant (1999) and Dos Santos and Da Silva (2006) can be seen as offering different readings of the structuring of Brazilian society. In regard to the debate around social relations in Brazil, Bourdieu and Wacquant argue that the American tradition has tended to superimpose a model of a dichotomy between “black and white” even in countries such as Brazil, where, according to them, “the operative principles of vision and division of ethnic differences, codified or practical, are quite different” (1999, p. 44, my italics). As noted in  Chapter 2, they criticize Hanchard (1994) in particular for “applying North American racial categories to the Brazilian situation” (1999, p. 44). They propose that instead of this, it is preferable to proceed by dissecting “the constitution of the Brazilian ethnoracial order” according to its own logic (1999, p. 44).

Referring to anthropologist Wagley (1965), they state that he

showed that the conception of “race” in the Americas admits of several definitions according to the weight granted to descent, physical appearance (itself not confined to skin color), and to sociocultural status (occupation, income, education, region of origin, etc.), depending on the history of intergroup relations and conflicts in the different geographic zones. (1999, p. 45)

They argue that Wagley’s understanding of varied operative definitions of race in particular social contexts implies that the meaning of “race” (insofar as the term is used) needs to be understood in its complexity. They cite the example of Brazil, where they argue that

racial identity is defined by reference to a continuum of “color”, that is, by use of a flexible or fuzzy principle which, taking account of physical traits such as skin color, the texture of hair, and the shape of lips and nose, and of class position (notably income and education), generates a large number of intermediate and partly overlapping categories (over a hundred of them were recorded by the 1980 Census) and does not entail radical ostracization or a stigmatization without recourse or remedy. (1999, p. 45)

They consider it notable that the “segregation indices” in Brazilian cities are “strikingly lower” than in the USA metropolitan areas, and it is also notable for them that in Brazil there is “no social and legal category” for people of “mixed race” (1999, p. 45). Here they suggest that mixed race is not regarded as a meaningful category because the category itself would imply that distinct races exist in the first place to later be “mixed.”30

Bourdieu and Wacquant’s contention is that race is not reified in Brazil in the same way in which it is in North America – and they argue that insofar as “stigmatization” (of those regarded as “other”) is operative, it functions differently, because “race” has a more fuzzy meaning. But as we have seen from Dos Santos and Da Silva’s account – written more recently than Bourdieu and Wacquant’s one – they find that the analytic tool of “racism” indeed still aids us in rendering visible the racialized patterns of inequality in Brazilian society – a society arguably divided along racialized lines. The debate between Bourdieu and Wacquant and their critics thus would seem to revolve to some extent around their interpretations of the complexity of the social relations in different contexts, as well as their interpretations of the way in which theoretical tools are used/applied in different contexts.31

Following Bonilla-Silva, I would argue that even if we recognize more complex forms of racism emerging in Latin America, this does not imply that the analytic tool of “racism” is irrelevant. The analytic tool is still relevant precisely in order to keep open discussions around issues of “race” – in whatever way these may be conceptualized.

8.7 Conclusion

In this chapter I detailed a view of retroductive reasoning as a mode of inference that enables us to develop analyses at the level of social structure – that is, to move beyond “middle range theorizing.” (See  Chapter 6, Section 6.1.2.) Considering the structuralist argument of Bonilla-Silva, in which he engages critically with Marxist-oriented structuralist accounts, I pointed out that we do not need to try to settle the debate around the efficacy of “class analysis” as the basic way of approaching issues of (new) racism – as would be implied in a Marxist approach. Nor do we need to define retroductive logic as aimed at grasping “real” causal mechanisms independently of inquirers engaged in co-inquiry processes to explore what they perceive to be the issues at stake. What is important is to set up the relevant inquiries so that any attendant theoretical insights can be seen as serving to create, rather than delimit, possibilities for coalition between those engaged in social justice projects as advised by Collins (2000, p. 289) – as I have tried to summarize in the right-hand column of Table 8.1.

In developing/drawing out constructivist/pragmatic-oriented understandings of the value of retroductive inquiry processes, I also pointed to McIntyre-Mills’s understanding of retroductive thinking as being a way of “redressing,” as she calls it, the traditional (Western) Cartesian-based dualities between, say, mind and body, reason and emotion, opinion and fact, and so on (2006b, p. 367). Retroductive logic then can be seen as making provision for people as “whole” people – together with others – revisiting their assumptions/concerns/values in the light of a consideration of alternatives and in the light of an orientation to co-creating different futures.

The future-oriented outlook of retroductive inference as understood by McIntyre-Mills bears out the accounts (and examples) of abductive inference that I detailed in  Chapter 7. McIntyre-Mills explains how retroductive logic can be linked to efforts at systemic intervention to “address power, empowerment, and governance needs of people marginalized in terms of conceptual, geographic and cyberspace time” (2003, p. 12). She sees retroductive inference as part of a process of “unpacking the complexity layer by narrative layer using interactive dialogue for [future] design” (2003, p. 6). This concurs with Douglas’s suggestions that I cited in  Chapter 7, Section 7.2.3, namely, that it is possible to (co-)explore “patterns of everyday incidents that sustain dynamics of institutional racism in multiple forms” as part of the process of imagining and practicing alternative forms of human being together.

Abductive/retroductive inference here is not seen as aimed at observing in a neutral (supposedly theory- and value-free) way what appears as incidents/events in social reality in order to generate apolitical theoretical understandings. Rather it is seen as a process of, as Essed notes (1991, p. 56), making sense of the “events” by considering their broader significance in relation to manifold incidences as experienced in individual lives and across lives. An admitted race-conscious starting point for theorizing as part of critical theorizing need not pose as free of concerns that are being brought to bear. But it forms, indeed, a starting point for further dialogue around both how to interpret “events” and how to consider their broader social implications. And it can be argued that without such a race-conscious starting point, due to the weightiness of color-blind rhetoric in the social fabric, concerns about racism can easily be disappeared/rendered taboo in our discourses. Hence Dos Santos and Da Silva point out that people can choose to orient themselves to not “seeing” racism and/or to be indifferent to it (2006, p. 14). Race-aware stances thus serve, at this juncture (as understood within race critical theorizing), as a counterweight to dominant discourses that serve in various ways to render “race” and its impact on people’s lives more or less invisible. However, I suggested that theorizing at the level of social structure to look into the systemic reproduction of, inter alia, racial hierarchies needs to be combined more consciously and purposively with epistemological discourses that call for inquirers to practice problematizing potential authority relations in what Douglas calls the “here and now” of the research process itself (1998,  Chapter 5, p. 8).

Ladson-Billings indicates that the “epistemological limbo – between the old epistemological discourse and the new – is a place where many scholars of color find themselves” (2003, p. 415). As I indicated in  Chapter 1, and illustrated with examples throughout the book, she follows Collins in forwarding a notion of personal accountability, combined with an empathetic expression of caring for others and an orientation to dialogue as part of the development of ethical inquiry processes. In her account, as in Collins’s (1990, 2000), these ethical issues cannot be separated from epistemological ones, because knowing is to be judged in terms of ethical considerations. Of course, “ethics” in social research here is clearly not seen as a matter of following some “codes of conduct” – the following of which renders the research “ethical.” Rather, ethics is linked to the person’s expressing an ethics of caring, connectedness, and accountability. (See also Romm, 2001, pp. 96–97; McIntyre-Mills, 2003, p. 43, 2008a, pp. 147–-149.)

I consider that linking epistemology inextricably with ethics as pleaded for expressly by authors such as Collins and Ladson-Billings needs to be explicitly taken on board in any social theorizing around new racism – in order that it can be seen to embrace exemplary (accountable) styles of both knowing and living. To activate the potential of structurally oriented theorizing to express orientations to what I call discursive accountability, I suggest that we need to focus upon the following points (which as a whole can be seen as embodying the suggestions encapsulated in the right-hand column of Table 8.1, while still appreciating the merits of retroductive logic). I suggest that inquirers become oriented so as to:
  • Recognize that at the moment of creating inferences with respect to the persistent patterning of social inequality, the inferences, and the attendant statements/analyses produced, need to be accounted for through a serious engagement with alternatives. This means that when posing analyses at the level of social structure, possibilities for rethinking the building up of the analyses need to be seriously entertained – as a matter of developing our human engagements with others as (co-)inquirers. In this way provision is made for Collins’s plea for developing an orientation where we shy away from “labeling one form of oppression as more important than others, or one expression of activism as more radical than another” – as part of the process of “creat[ing] conceptual spaces to identify some new [practical] linkages” (2000, p. 289). This is important for her because coalition building as part of the project of “fostering social justice” requires engagement with others’ understandings (2000, p. 290).

  • Exemplify a commitment to attend to (and to shift) potential relations of domination during the inquiry process – recognizing (with Douglas, 1998,  Chapter 5, p. 5) that this is a “valid research issue” in itself.

  • Explore the manner in which any proffered analyses offer theoretical resources that, however, can be revisited/extended/utilized in a novel way by different audiences as they (re)consider their relevance in helping them to work toward more human/humane ways of living.

  • Write up analyses/theoretical accounts without trying to authorize one’s accounts as referring to “realities” independently of the concerns that one is admittedly bringing to bear. This implies presenting analyses in a manner that encourages further discussion and reconsideration as part of the social process of working with alternative values and concerns toward creating viable futures. This links up with Collins’s tenet that “dialogue remains central to assessing knowledge claims” (2000, p. 276) as well as her caution that dialogue is not akin to “adversarial debate” but is more akin to a “call and response discourse” between speakers and listeners – where specific expressions of concerns are provided for without aiming to create a univocal story (2000, p. 261).


  1. 1.

    Like Chiassis (2001), Paavola comments that Peirce (1958) seemed to use the terms abduction and retroduction interchangeably – using “various names for this third mode of inference [over and above induction and deduction] throughout his long career” (2004, p. 16). While Chiassis argues that a different emphasis may be implied by the different use of the terms, Paavola sees the two terms as indeed interchangeable.

  2. 2.

    Chiassis suggests that this is because abduction implies “moving away” from observables (toward generating a hypothesis) whereas retroduction incorporates the notion of “going backwards” to provide an explanation (Chiassis, 2001, p. 2).

  3. 3.

    Paavola states that in Peirce’s argument, the event(s) do not necessarily have to be “surprising” – although a good strategy is to work from “anomalous or surprising phenomena.” As he explains, “although it is possible to start abductive [retroductive] inference from non-anomalous phenomena, it is often a good strategical point to concentrate on anomalous phenomena” (2004, p. 13).

  4. 4.

    Sayer postulates the methodological unity of the natural and social sciences, arguing that the logic of retroduction properly guides the study of both natural and social reality.

  5. 5.

    Keat and Urry put forward a similar argument when explaining their realist position as an alternative to positivism (1975, p. 54). They indicate that they do not wish to identify themselves with the positivist suggestion (including the Popperian argument) “that there is any specifiable set of logical relationships between theories and perceptual [observation] statements” (1975, p. 233). For a discussion of the debate between scientific realists endorsing Marx’s approach and Popperian-oriented authors who question the positing of unobservable entities as a way of explaining causality, see Romm (1991, pp. 64–66 and 92–93). And for more detail on the scientific realist argument in relation to various other approaches, see Romm, 2001, pp. 37–54.

  6. 6.

    Layder refers in particular to those following Strauss’s grounded theorizing approach, which shies away from making claims about the way in which structural conditions necessarily become relevant to the “interactional/processual phenomena under study” (Strauss, 1987, p. 80, as cited in Layder, 1993, p. 56). As I explained in  Chapter 5 (Section 5.2.3), Essed develops an approach that incorporates analytic induction with structural deliberation; and as I showed in  Chapter 6 via my chosen examples, ethnography can also move beyond what Layder would criticize as “middle range.”

  7. 7.

    Lincoln and Guba point to the affinity between constructivism and anti-foundationalism when they note that “constructivists … tend toward the anti-foundational” (2003, p. 273). (See also Footnote 132.)

  8. 8.
    Paavola argues that Peirce’s understanding of the status of retroduction – more so than the views of Hanson – has scope to broaden our conception of human rationality so as to encompass a “distributed cognition” approach, which emphasizes that:

    Human cognition is not confined to individuals and within individuals’ minds but is distributed in essential ways to surrounding physical, social, and cultural environments and to long-term temporal processes. (2006, p. 5)

    According to Paavola a distributed cognition approach allows us to undercut the view that making inferences is a matter of “processes within one’s mind” in which one tries to make a connection with “nature” (or some posited external extra-linguistic world); and it opens up possibilities for instead developing “new kinds of conceptualizations concerning human activity” (2006, p. 12).

  9. 9.

    Bonilla-Silva considers as “orthodox Marxists” those who “regard class and class struggle as the central explanatory variables of social life [and] reduce racism to a legitimating ideology used by the bourgeoisie to divide the working class.” He argues that neo-Marxists “share to various degrees the limitations of the orthodox Marxist view: the primacy of class, racism viewed as an ideology, and class dynamics as the real engine of racial dynamics” (1997, p. 466).

  10. 10.

    He refers for example to Segura’s (1990) work on race, class, and gender as the primary axes of social hierarchy in modern societies, and Essed’s (1991) work on “gendered racism” (1997, p. 469).

  11. 11.

    After reading a draft of my  Chapter 8 (May 2009), Susan Weil suggested to me that – besides what she saw as the need to make my storyline clearer throughout (which I believe I have better accomplished now) – she found that she could find no bases for engagement with the kinds of statements that I was making here (in citing Bonilla-Silva). She found that my way of expressing Bonilla-Silva’s argument did not seem to tally with the terms of engagement that I set out in previous chapters. She indicated that in the way in which I was setting out his argument thus far, he had not “become a human being for her” – and she found this problematic. Readers may wish to consider her commentary here. Perhaps indeed I have not managed to show up the person “behind” the statements, as I am engaging too academically with the question of how we can reconstruct the logic of his approach to theorizing hierarchy and domination (which is my focus in this section).

  12. 12.

    Bonilla-Silva makes a similar point when he suggests that the understanding of social science as a social product (rooted in political contexts) is becoming increasingly acceptable as a position (2006, p. 13).

  13. 13.

    Weil notes, though, in her response to this draft chapter (May 2009) that “we don’t always know what ‘there’ is, or what else it might mean to try to forward some vision of ‘there’”. This is why, in her view, the principles of critically reflexive action inquiry (cf. Weil, 1997, 1998) need to be made more central.

  14. 14.

    Weil in her feedback to me (May 2009) found this point made by Bonilla-Silva to be “immensely important” and suggested that it may be more important than “retroductive theory.” This fits in with her focus on rendering assumptions open via critically reflexive co-inquiry. McIntyre-Mills, however, found that my exposition of retroductive inference in the chapter (May 2009) was “splendid”; and she suggested in her feedback that she considers it very important that I was able via the chapter to highlight its relevance in social life.

  15. 15.

    See my discussion in  Chapter 4, Section 4.5, where I showed also how Morton, Hornsey, and Postmes (2009) interpret experiments suggesting that prejudiced people can invoke abstract principles of fairness and equality (and at the same time contest the meaningfulness of racial categories) especially when it is believed that White people may become excluded from a desired position for “being white.” They note, also citing the research of Lowery et al. (2006), that “people are likely to be particularly concerned about fair treatment when their ingroup may be the recipient of negative treatment, but are less concerned when an outgroup is similarly disadvantaged” (2009, p. 46). This can be seen as tying in with Bonilla-Silva’s argument that color-blind racism is slippery. (See also  Chapter 3, Section 3.4.2.)

  16. 16.

    Commenting on the way in which such arguments have also been used in Africa, Abimbola Olateju (originally from Nigeria) indicated to me in personal conversation (December 2008) that the problem is that when White people make blanket statements such as these, they fail to grant credibility to other reasons that can account for poverty – and they thus close off considerations around these possible explanations. It is in this failure that she sees their arguments as flawed. She made this point in the context of our discussing the substance of this book.

  17. 17.

    In the same survey, 50, 20, and 53% of Whites had agreed with these respective stereotypes (2006, p. 158).

  18. 18.

    In this regard, Obama indicates that when he made his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in which he stated that “there is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America,” he did not mean to imply that such a situation was already in place (2007, p. 231). He indicates that when he hears commentators interpreting his speech to mean that “we have arrived at a ‘postracial politics’ or that we already live in a color-blind society, I have to offer a word of caution” (2007, p. 232). He cautions that “to say that we are one people is not [and should not be] to say that race no longer matters – that the fight for equality has been won, or that the problems minorities face in this country today are self-inflicted” (2007, p. 232).

  19. 19.
    Commenting on Bonilla-Silva’s, as others’, considerations around the “changing color/culture-line” in the USA and the social operation of the various distinctions, Kretsedemas suggests that:

    It is not a matter of predicting which tendency will dominate but understanding how they will interact with each other, creating rationales for assigning differences and justifying exclusions that can vary by place and time. (2008, p. 827)

    He states that in this conceptualization, he follows Omi and Winant’s (1986) treatment of racial-ethnic identities as “fluid and unstable complexes of meaning constantly contested and transformed through political struggle” (Omi & Winant, 1986, p. 55, as cited by Kretsedemas, 2008, p. 828).

  20. 20.

    Collins makes similar observations when she notes that “unlike prior waves of European immigrants who could in fact become White, recent racial/ethnic immigrant groups can at best become ‘honorary Whites’” (2006, p. 47). She makes this point as part of her noting that “only White Americans can shed their racial and ethnic identities to stand for the generalized national citizen” (2006, p. 47).

  21. 21.

    Collins has also commented that “the Latino population constitutes varying mixtures of all three ‘racial’ categories” (with the three being “White, native, and Black” in her description of the triangle) and therefore constitutes a challenge to the “racial triangle.” She points out that “actual population groups have never fit smoothly” into given categories, and that the “triangle” should be seen as constituting “benchmarks against which individuals and groups measure racial categorization” – rather than offering a way of predicting how particular individuals or groups might indeed become placed (2006, p. 35).

  22. 22.

    McWhorter points out that those asking Whites to commit race treason are not pleading for them to commit treason in a legal sense. They are calling on them to commit “the much more personal and intimate treason that consists of all those subtle and not-so subtle acts of betrayal that imply a refusal to bow to the authority of the white power structure” (2005, p. 549). McWhorter comments that due to the way in which racism is built into the structures of society, “white power structures require so few gestures of fealty these days to keep themselves intact that one hardly ever gets a good opportunity to betray them” (2005, p. 549). She believes that the focus of those calling for race treason has been primarily on “negative acts of refusal on the parts of whites.” She stresses that in her view the “positive [act] of fighting injustice is more important” (pp. 550–551). Like Bonilla-Silva, she believes that a collective movement toward “justice or transformation” is crucial. (See Section

  23. 23.

    Collins also provides an example of how two students in one of her classes, one African American and the other White, “told of how they switched names on their respective papers when they suspected that the Black student’s lower grades reflected the professor’s prejudice.” She notes that when the papers were returned to them “the Black student got her same old ‘C’ whereas the White student received her ‘A’, even though they had submitted each other’s work!”. She indicates that “coalition strategies such as these become especially important in integrated settings where differential treatment is hard to detect” (2000, p. 288).

  24. 24.

    See also Flood and Romm (1996a, pp. 48–50) for a consideration of the relationship between Habermas’s and Foucault’s arguments.

  25. 25.

    The question of the kind of “socialism” now gaining more legitimacy in the USA is discussed further at:

  26. 26.
    This seems to be similar to the stance adopted by Nelson Mandela in South Africa, when he stated in his opening address at the 50th National ANC conference held in Mafikeng (December 1997) that:

    According to this thesis to which we must subscribe, success must also be measured with reference to a system of social accountability for capital, which reflects its impact both on human existence and the quality of that existence. (

  27. 27.

    Commenting on Obama’s election campaign, Shane indicates that Obama was calling for the creation of a “transparent and connected democracy” and that in terms of his innovative objectives, “Americans have within their grasp a host of communication tools that could sustain a robust democratic culture of sharing, creativity and participation. … . Senator Obama … is promising to lead a transformation in our political life” (2008). In December 2008 and January 2009, Christakis facilitated some SDDP dialogues (following the methodology that I discussed in  Chapter 7) designed to consider the challenges that might be faced in employing technology to create a “connected democracy.” Some of the most influential inhibiting factors that emerged as needing to be addressed were, for instance, the insufficient attention given by the Obama administration toward capacitating facilitators of e-democracy; the problem of corporate control of the means of democracy, and the problem of the digital divide. (See for an account of how the partipants were chosen for this SDDP and how influence maps were generated and interpreted. An account is also offered here by Christakis and co-organizer Gayle Underwood of the SDDP logic and its use in this application.)

  28. 28.

    See Romm (1998c) for my exposition of realist-oriented and constructivist-oriented understandings of processes of interpreting texts.

  29. 29.

    Nascimento concurs with this account when she argues that in Brazil, as in other Latin American societies, a covert “whitening policy” has been at play, where “a Latin or Iberian identity is routinely applied to indigenous, black, or mestizo populations with pride, as if they were European” (2004, p. 871). However, “the racial democracy ideology created a taboo identifying the unmasking of its anti-racist pretense” (2004, p. 870).

  30. 30.

    This is similar to Ali’s remarks on the terminology of mixed race that I mentioned in  Chapter 4, Section 4.7.1, where she criticizes the implication of “mixing previously singular ‘racial’ identities.” The terminology of “mixed race” itself can serve to “re-inscribe and reify ‘race’” (2003, p. 6). That is, it can be seen as introducing a language that still “constructs and maintains” the idea of “race” (2003, p. 6).

  31. 31.

    Bonilla-Silva and Zuberi indicate their concern that Wacquant (2002) made no reference in his argument to the work of authors contributing to the volume “The Death of White Sociology” (edited by Ladner, 1973). They find it “difficult to understand” why Wacquant chose not to make connections between his own work criticizing certain sociological practice in the USA and these authors’ exposition of the way in which “White Sociology” poses as science (2008, p. 16).

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of South AfricaManaba BeachSouth Africa

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