Five Questions with Professor Howard Winant on Racial Theory

Illustration by Alyssa Long

Charlotte Hovey
Contributing Writer

Dr. Howard Winant is a professor of sociology at UCSB who started teaching during the 1970s. Along with Michael Omi, Winant developed the racial formation theory: a framework that looks at race as a fluid, socially constructed identity. On the morning of Oct. 31, he answered five questions about his life’s work and findings in an interview with The Bottom Line.

What inspired you to pursue your career in sociology and racial theory and when did that inspiration occur?

Winant chalked it up to being a child of the 1960s, a period with a social and political “atmosphere of urgency” that moved many young people to action. Issues of war, racism, second wave feminism, and the environment came to the forefront. The Vietnam War loomed overhead as a huge threat. While Winant wasn’t drafted himself, he acknowledged that someone went in his place. Seeing his friends affected by war and witnessing deep racism motivated him to become involved. He lamented that unfortunately people don’t mobilize until problems personally and directly threaten them. Youth today need to be much more insistent about tackling issues like climate change, but lack that sense of urgency. Winant questioned the political involvement of today’s youth: “Okay in five years, my house is gonna be burned down and I’m not gonna be able to breathe, but right now everything’s cool, I’m gonna watch Netflix.”

How has being a white man affected your experience of studying racial issues?

Winant said he didn’t feel “100 percent white” because of his Jewish descent. His parents were Jewish refugees, and — considering World War II and the Holocaust — he felt he could identify anti-Semitism as racism. However, “all of us … even white, white, white people … have something going on in their lives which can make them recognize inequality, injustice, racism.”

White women, for example, may experience sexism. Even white men may experience aggrieved entitlement when a dominant class expects certain luxuries, and — when denied them — they blame minorities. “It walls you off, it fills you with anger, maybe fear, resentment,” Winant said. The self-limiting nature of white privilege is one reason why Winant is hopeful that white men may progress beyond the narrow mindset of entitlement. 

You have been studying race for a really long time. How much has stayed consistent in racial dynamics through the present political climate?

According to Winant, racial dynamics shift based on how much we question them and take them for granted. While the amount of questioning goes up and down, we still take very much for granted. Concepts of race and racism are highly unstable. Attitudes are surely better than they used to be, for example, in the Jim Crow era, when racial subordination was seen as normal. It was taken for granted that “people of color were naturally inferior, though this was completely unjustified.”

While the most egregious forms of racism have mostly passed, Winant noted, things haven’t gotten much better since about 1975. Racial segregation of schools, work, and neighborhoods persist. When we stop taking racial dynamics for granted and start questioning them, Winant concludes, it’s scary and disheartening, but motivating for us to see.

What was lacking in racial studies that encouraged you to make the theory of racial formation? 

Winant said that he and his co-author had only restated things that people already knew but hadn’t put together. The theory of racial formation was conceived to prevent people from reducing race to an illusion, nonexistence, or simply a cultural or class difference. Though racial distinctions lack a biological basis, race is something “that’s been around for centuries and centuries and has structured all of society.” Though it may be a “mass delusion,” it’s massive enough to shape the whole world and can’t be simply dismissed. Thus, what was missing was people’s acknowledgement of race and racism in their own right. “We have to be race-conscious,” Winant said. Only then can we overcome racial inequality and injustice. 

How can we overcome such injustices as individuals?

Winant countered, “The real question is, how can we be more political, how can we be more collective?” He recommended the creation and strengthening of groups “to fight and protest, object, and break the norms where they enforce racist or economic, sexist or whatever injustices.” There are always opportunities to collectively challenge injustices, and we must make constructive demands from the structures that maintain inequality. Winant quoted the last words of Joe Hill, a labor organizer folk singer executed for being too radical: “Don’t mourn for me! Organize!”