American Journal of Sociology, Vol 108. no. 4 (Jan. 2003).


The Souls of Sociologists: Equality vs. Freedom in the 21st Century

Howard Winant
Temple University

Problem of the Century: Racial Stratification in the United States, edited by Elijah Anderson and Douglas S. Massey. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001. 460 pp. $42.50 cloth. ISBN 0-8714-054-1.

Still the Big News: Racial Oppression in America, by Bob Blauner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. 269pp. $22.05 paper. ISBN 1-56639-874-6.

Well past Y2K, after the anxieties that normally accompany the fin-de-siecle, well launched (well, launched, anyway) into the third millennium, the 21st century, the field of sociology is still unable to comprehend the enormity of race. Ironic isn't it? The discipline arguably owes its very existence to the theme of race: its early theoreticians (think Spencer) and its early methodologists (think eugenics) were social Darwinists, especially in the United States. Of course there were important countertrends too, emphasizing the social dimensions of race and opposing biological understandings of the "problem." But these authors too (Robert E. Park, for example) were preoccupied with race. All this attention to racial themes was driven by historical change: abolition, immigration, urbanization, and industrialization all generated ferocious political and cultural struggles over the meaning of race. Du Bois's famous dictum that "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line" (1989[1903], 35) was thus both a summation of a commonly recognized reality and a challenge to the arrogant white supremacy that had been taken-for-granted for centuries.

So sociology owes its existence in large part to the problematic of race. It is not alone in this, by the way: this statement applies to the social sciences tout court, especially to anthropology and psychology, and even to modern history and economics. I cannot discuss this claim at length here, but it is argued at length elsewhere (see Chase 1977, Winant 2001, Winant 2000, Zuberi 2001, Marks 1995). Yet the field is still divided about race internally as well, as it has been since such early works as Du Bois's The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899) and The Souls of Black Folk (1903) forcefully challenged the racist norms that prevailed within sociology as much as they did within American society. We are torn between science and politics, analysis and activism. And the sociology of race is riven by two conflicting substantive concerns: equality and freedom.

 I can hear the teeth-gnashing of many liberal and progressive colleagues: they are asking how equality and freedom can be at odds. Cannot social science serve the high and worthy political goals of freedom and justice? Certainly for many years -- let us say since the maturation of Chicago sociology in the 1920s and 1930s, and since the appearance of the Myrdal study (1944) -- mainstream sociology has perceived no contradiction here (with a few exceptions such as Ladner, ed. 1973). Yet in recent years, as the US entered the "post-civil rights" era; as neoconservatism and "colorblindness" became the mainstream racial ideologies; as commitments to desegregation and affirmative action -- never much more than symbolic at their height -- flickered out; as the national racial dynamic shifted definitively from the bipolar black-white conflict that was an inheritance of slavery and abolition to a multipolar (white/black/brown/yellow/red) racial system that was linked to the globality of race..., as all this occurred the sociology of race was once again overcome by political contradictions. These were -- once again ironically --much the same dilemmas that we thought we had transcended at the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Perhaps we only flattered ourselves into thinking that we had transcended them?

 Indeed our present "American dilemma" extends to the very meaning of the concepts of equality and freedom. Radical social theorists have long questioned the meaning of equality in a society that allocates resources so asymmetrically and unfairly. What can equality mean, asked such thinkers as Marx and Nietzsche (and Weber as well) when not only wealth, but also other varieties of positive "life-chances" such as access to education, health care, and human rights remain unavailable? Such contemporary thinkers as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen have even questioned the possibility of measuring (in)equality quantitatively, arguing that it must be understood qualitatively, in terms of human capability, rather than in terms of possession of material resources (Sen 1999).

 Problems persist in understanding the meaning of "freedom" as well. The gestation of US society (and of modern world society) in the conquest, extermination, and enslavement of many millions of persons, most of them racially differentiated from those who ruled them, those who benefited from their captivity and labor, has given rise to a negative and racially inflected definition of freedom as the absence of slavery. Here too Sen's work is useful: he attempts to conceptualize freedom positively, once again in terms of capability.


 Racially speaking, though, we are presently in "normal" circumstances. Now there is more racial mobility: we have black, Latino, and Asian American cabinet members, black CEOs of giant multinational corporations. Latinos and Asian Americans too play a far greater role than they did decades ago: changing migration and fertility patterns, the shifting demography of race, indeed the new racial transnationalism that succeeded WWII (Winant 2001), has greatly transformed the US racial scene. As far as black-white dynamics are concerned, the present racial situation is often described as the "post-civil rights era." Everyday accounts of race and racism -- such as those available from the mainstream media, from political leaders, and even in university settings -- tell us that the racial crisis that engulfed the US a few decades ago has passed. This is the new "common sense": that little remains of the organized black movement that confronted Jim Crow in the South and rose up in anger in the ghetto "riots" during the mid-1960s; that reforms have been made; that racial attitudes have shifted; that far from espousing white supremacism (which was certainly the norm before WWII and far from uncommon even in the 1960s), most whites today call themselves "colorblind."

Yet at the same time, by almost every conceivable indicator researchers can bring forward, the same racial inequalities -- or shall I say the same "structural racism"? -- that existed in the past persist today: modified here and there perhaps, but hardly eliminated and not even much reduced in scope, especially in terms of black white disparities. This is not the place to inventory the data, but whether we look at wealth/income (in)equality, health, access to/returns to education, segregation by residence or occupation, rates of surveillance or punishment by the criminal "justice" system, or many other indicators that compare racial "life-chances," we find patterns strikingly similar to those of the past.

 So what can sociology make of this discrepancy between mainstream interpretation and the results of empirical investigation? Are we to join the pundits and politicians who ceaselessly instruct racially-defined minorities to "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps," and in callous distortion of Martin Luther King Jr.'s message, exhort them to accept the "content of their character" (rather than "the color of their skin") as the basic social value of the country (Steele 1990; Thernstrom and Thernstrom 1997)? Or are we to bend our efforts to the task -- almost as difficult today as it was in times past -- of undoing the inequalities and injustices our research generally documents? Can we envision our discipline contributing -- as Du Bois did - to the creation of new political organizations, new forms of study and activism, new "freedom schools," perhaps constructed within our own departments and institutions?


 The two books examined here offer quite different takes on the sociology of race at the start of the 21st century. How effectively, how deeply, do they confront the peculiar condition of today's racism: a system that has been both transformed and perpetuated in the years since WWII? How effectively do these two texts delineate and explain the condition of inequality that continues to characterize US patterns of race and racism? How can these two works be put to use -- in our classes, our research, our sociological practice -- to advance the goals of "anti-racism" and "freedom"?

 I have not invoked Du Bois by chance. Anderson and Massey place their edited volume squarely in the master's shadow. Based in a conference they organized at the University of Pennsylvania to commemorate the centenary of Du Bois's first great work, The Philadelphia Negro, and titled in homage to Du Bois's most famous dictum, The Problem of the Century seeks to survey the pattern of "racial stratification in America"; this phrase is the volume's subtitle. [Full disclosure: I was a visiting professor of sociology at Penn at that time, and took part in the conference on which the book is based.]

 Yet there are also some discrepancies between the Duboisian legacy and the attempt to emulate it in the Anderson/Massey volume. For Du Bois, the "problem of the century" was not racial stratification, as the book's title implies. Rather it was "the color-line," a far different matter: something that centrally includes politics, culture, identity; something that does not confine itself to inequality, important as that issue is. By his 1903 term "the color-line" Du Bois meant what we today mean by the term "racism." Of this there can be no doubt.

 And there is another problem too: what century are we talking about? For Du Bois, writing in 1903, it was the 20th century. For the Anderson/Massey book, launched as a project in 1999 and published in 2001, matters are quite different. Is it a fin-de-siecle review of Du Bois's "problem"? Or is the "problem" in the book's title a prospective one, implying that the book is oriented toward the new century, the future? This is no small matter.

With some small exceptions, the book address issues of (in)equality in the present. Most of the articles consider very familiar problems of socioeconomic inequality: in the workplace (Edin and Nelson, Anderson), in residential segregation (Charles, Massey, Madden), and in resource distribution (Aiken and Sloane, Kao). A few contributors raise conceptual issues that problematize the overall focus on stratification, recognizing -- sometimes consciously and sometimes seemingly by accident -- the extent to which this limited framework obscures the deeper social structure of racism and depoliticizes the issue of race.

More than any other contributor, Zuberi takes note of the "color-line" by examining the deployment of racial categories in demography as if they were "real" rather than themselves reflections of a system of domination. His work here and elsewhere explicitly challenges demographers to reinvent their approach to race in order to make freedom, not (in)equality, the central concern. Berg effectively demonstrates some of the ways that the American political system has shaped racial opportunity structures -- and the color-line -- by affording legitimate group-based rights and status to whites while systematically denying these rights to blacks and other racialized minority groups. Berg deserves particular credit for linking the racism inherent in this process to the historical rise of capitalism (notably the achievement by corporations of fictive personhood), the global dynamics of job allocation (sweatshops, etc.), and the rhetoric of "colorblindness." Looking at the racial conflicts and potentialities of the women's movement, Leidner effectively gives attention to social movement questions, almost the only author to do so in the entire collection. She recognizes the extent to which racism has plagued feminism and wrestles valiantly with various attempts to overcome it, but in my view her approach would benefit from placing this effort in historical context, where it is notably visible. Collins's historical sociology of race also laudably brings politics to the analytical foreground, but suffers from its too-easy conflation of ethnicity/nationality/race. The peculiarly modern characteristics of race, its constitutive role in constructing capitalist labor proceses, commodity chains, and indeed the "modern world-system"; as well as its centrality in enabling the emergence of concepts of popular sovereignty, cannot be reduced to a mere subset of the ethnicity phenomenon. This all-too-common error also tends to cast into doubt Collins's attempts at prediction at the end of his essay.

 Despite numerous valuable contributions, Problem of the Century does not do justice to Du Bois's legacy. By resolutely ignoring the political dimensions of US racial dynamics, by restricting itself to the parameters of stratification, the book identifies itself with an overly optimistic perspective on the "problem of the color-line." Although the editors rather effusively congratulate their own department for its supposed leadership in the sociology of race, nowhere in the book does the legacy of subjugation and disenfranchisement, the comprehensiveness of US racism, rise into view. Nowhere does the tradition of freedom struggle, of anti-racist insurgency, of political opposition among African-Americans and other "race rebels" --notably including Du Bois himself -- receive the attention it deserves.


 These problems do not affect Bob Blauner's Still the Big News, which is a retrospective collection of thirty years of the author's work on race and racism. Blauner's was a very influential voice in the late 1960s and 1970s, when ethnicity based theories of race dominated mainstream sociology. This was the seed-time of neoconservatism: in a crucial series of writings Milton Gordon, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Moynihan, Irving Kristol, Michael Novak and others repudiated the black movement, whose efforts they had formerly supported (as "moderates," to be sure). The movement was OK so long as it sought inclusion and integration, but when it went beyond "opportunity-" oriented demands to "group-" based ones, when it sought redistribution of income or other resources, when it ceased to rely on strategies based on integration and civil rights and instead began to make collective demands (like "community control") and to seek "black power," the neocons got off the freedom train immediately.

 Blauner was the earliest and most forceful critic of Glazer, Kristol, and Co. In his influential article "Colonized and Immigrant Minorities" (included in this volume) he refuted the neocons' equation of black conditions with those faced by European immigrants arriving around the turn of the 20th century. Where Kristol had written a piece called "The Negro Today Is Like the Immigrant Yesterday," Blauner noted the particularity of different "third world" peoples: "Each third world people has undergone distinctive, indeed cataclysmic, experiences on the American continent that separate its history from the others, as well as from whites," he wrote (60). With his detailed attention to the political and cultural dynamics of racism, with his open advocacy of radical anti-racist politics, with his explicit linkage between domestic anti-racist movements and global movements for national liberation and decolonization, Blauner's was for quite awhile a courageous, and lonely, voice espousing racial freedom within mainstream sociology. He was certainly one of the very few radical whites to make himself heard, and he was attacked and red-baited for doing so. In developing his analysis, and in attempting to apply it practically -- through his defense of the Black Panthers at the Huey Newton trial and his efforts to challenge an official investigation of the 1965 Watts revolt -- Blauner was definitely working in the Duboisian tradition. He combined scholarship and activism; he advocated for the oppressed: Watts for him was not a "riot" but a "revolt"; racism was best understood, not as mere prejudice and discrimination, but as "internal colonialism." He engaged the black community in respectful debate, looking early at the complex interactions of racism and sexism, and interrogating black cultural politics (see "Black Culture and Its Critics," included here).

 In the 1980s, Blauner and a group of associates produced a longitudinal qualitative study of black and white racial attitudes, based on research conducted over more than twenty years. Only a small portion of this work, published as Black Lives, White Lives: Three Decades of Race Relations in America (1989), appears here, under the title "Almost a Race War." This book transcended just about all the qualitative sociology of race that had appeared before, both in scope and subtlety. It is still a worthwhile read, and has served to inspire a host of later qualitative studies. What is perhaps most remarkable about it is its breadth: the book encompasses radicals and moderates, both white and black, captures their political orientations and racial identifications as they develop and change over time, and thereby gives a highly unusual, "bottom-up" picture of US racial dynamics from the civil rights movement to the age of Reagan.

 But since the 1980s, Blauner's scholarship on race has slowed. He has provided a few valuable articles, engaging important topical issues such as anti-racist coalition politics, disjunctures in white and black racial discourse, tensions between blacks and Jews, and the use of blatantly racist tactics by the Bush campaign to steal the 2000 election in Florida (and thus in the nation). These materials are collected here under the title "Rethinking Critical Race Theory in a New Era," but regrettably, Blauner does not actually engage the substantial body of work that goes under the name "critical race theory" (Crenshaw et al 1995; Delgado, ed. 1995; Kairys 1993). It would be particularly valuable to have his reflections on this vibrant and developing area of racial theory. Admirably, Blauner has critiqued his earlier position on "internal colonialism": this analysis, while valuable at the time it was originally presented (1969), had drawn significant criticism (including some from me) for sacrificing analytical depth to political desire.

Blauner's sociological merits derive from his sense of moral and political responsibility. He has made real theoretical contributions to the study of race and racism, and has undertaken some deeply engaged research as well. He remains, as ever, the engagé. The flaws in his work stem from the same commitment that produced its strength and insight: his dedication to the freedom struggle. On occasion the politics have overwhelmed the social science. I, for one, would rather have it that way than the reverse, but if we are to follow in the footsteps of Du Bois -- who was not free of this defect either -- we must try to walk on both feet.


 Blauner, Bob. Black Lives, White Lives: Three Decades of Race Relations in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
Chase, Allan. The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism. New York: Knopf, 1977.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé et al, eds. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New York: The New Press, 1995.
Delgado, Richard, ed. Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998 [1899].
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin, 1989 [1903].
Kairys, David. With Liberty and Justice for Some: A Critique of the Conservative Supreme Court. New York: New Press, 1993.
Ladner, Joyce A., ed. The Death of White Sociology. New York: Random House, 1973.
Marks, Jonathan. Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995.
Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper and Row, 1944.
Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf, 2000.
Steele, Shelby. The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America. New York: St. Martin Press, 1990.
Thernstrom, Stephan, and Abigail Thernstrom. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible; Race in Modern America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Winant, Howard. "Race and Race Theory." Annual Review of Sociology Vol. 26 (2000).
Winant, Howard. The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2001).
Zuberi, Tukufu. Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.