FROM: Manning Marable and Vanessa Agard-Jones, eds. Transnational Blackness: Navigating the Global Color Line. London and New York: Palgrave/MacMillan/St. Martins, 2008.

Chapter 3

The Modern World Racial System

Howard Winant

As the world lurches forward into the twenty-first century, there is widespread confusion and anxiety about the political significance, and even the meaning, of race. In this chapter I argue that, far from becoming less politically central, race defines and organizes the world and its future, as it has done for centuries. I challenge the idea that the world, as reflected by the national societies I compare, is moving “beyond race.” I suggest that the future of democracy itself depends on the outcomes of racial politics and policies as they develop in various national societies and in the world at large. This means that the future of democracy also depends on the concept of race, that is, the meaning that is attached to it. Contemporary threats to human rights and social well-being—including the resurgent dangers of fascism, increasing impoverishment, and massive social polarization—cannot be managed or even understood without paying new and better attention to issues of race. This chapter attempts to provide a set of conceptual tools that can facilitate this task.

The present moment is unique in the history of race. Starting after World War II and culminating in the 1960s, there was a global shift, a “break,” in the worldwide racial system that had endured for centuries. The shift occurred because, after the war, many challenges to the old forms of racial hierarchy converged: anticolonialism, antiapartheid, worldwide rejection of fascism, the U.S.–U.S.S.R competition in the world’s southern hemispheric nations, and perhaps most important, the U.S. civil rights movement, all called into question white supremacy to an extent unparalleled in modern history. These events and onflicts linked antiracism to democratic political development more strongly than ever before.

All around the world a centuries-old pattern of white supremacy is more fiercely contested, more thoroughly challenged, in our lifetimes than ever before. As a result, for the first time in modern history, there is widespread, indeed worldwide, support for what until recently was a “dream”—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, let us say, of racial equality.

The rise of a worldwide trend toward antiracism and democratization starting in the late 1940s was only the first phase, that is, the initiation of the shift or break in the old world racial system. A second phase, the containment of the antiracist challenge, came after several decades of fierce struggles. Thus by about 1970, despite all the political reforms and cultural transformations wrought by social movements and democratic politics around the world and despite the real amelioration of the most oppressive features of the old world racial system, the centuries-old and deeply entrenched system of racial inequality and injustice was hardly eliminated. Rather, in a postwar social order faced with an unprecedented set of democratic and egalitarian demands, racism had to be adapted. A new racial politics developed, which was a reformed variety that was able to concede much to racially based democratic and egalitarian movements, yet it maintained a certain continuity with the legacies of imperial rule, conquest, enslavement, and so forth.

Thus, white supremacy has proven itself capable of absorbing and adapting much of Dr. King’s dream, repackaging itself as “color-blind,” nonracial, and meritocratic. Paradoxically, in this reformed version racial inequality can thrive, still battening on stereotypes and fears; still resorting to exclusionism and scapegoating when politically necessary; still invoking the supposed superiority of so-called mainstream (i.e., white) values, and still cheerfully maintaining that equality has been largely achieved. It is ironic that this new, “color-blind” racial system may be more effective in containing antiracist challenges than any intransigent, overtly racist backlash could possibly have been.

Although the officially nonracial version of white supremacy has succeeded in curtailing progress toward the dream in many battles—immigration and citizenship, income redistribution and poverty, and above all compensatory programs commonly called “affirmative action”—nonracialism has hardly won the day. It has certainly not eliminated the movement for racial justice that spawned it. Rather, the racial politics that result from this synthesis of challenge and incorporation, racial conflict and racial reform, has proven neither stable nor certain. It is a strange brew, often appearing more inclusive and pluralistic than ever yet filled with threats—of “ethnic cleansing,” resurgent neofascism, and perhaps equally insidious, a renewed racial complacency.

The global racial situation, then, is fluid, contradictory, and contentious. No longer unabashedly white supremacist, much of the world is, so to speak, abashedly white supremacist. The conflicts generated by the powerful movements for racial justice that succeeded World War II have been contained but not resolved. Thus, no new world racial system has yet been created; instead, the problems of the old system have come to a head, and the outlines of what will succeed it can at least be glimpsed, if not clearly foreseen. What does such a glimpse, however preliminary, reveal? The new world racial system will struggle to adapt the rhetoric of egalitarian social movements to the exigencies of a post–imperial, post–Cold War, and post–apartheid reality. To some extent, this system succeeded in reinventing itself along nonracist lines; in fact, its capacity to redefine itself as “beyond race” is in many ways a crucial index of its intransigence. Yet there is also a widespread recognition that the reforms undertaken in the 1950s and ’60s have ossified and been derailed far short of their goals. Indeed, they may be providing a kind of cover for a reassertion of white privilege, white rule, and “northern” cultural norms—all under the banner of “post–racial” societies, which are now officially considered color-blind and pluralist.

Today’s global racial system is obviously not the world’s first. The racial dimensions of modernity itself have been widely acknowledged. The Enlightenment’s recognition of a unified, intelligible world, the construction of an international economy, the rise of democracy and popular sovereignty, and the emergence of a global culture all were deeply racialized processes. To understand how race was fundamental to the construction of modernity is of more than historical interest; it also explains much about the present. Notably it undermines the commonly held belief that racism is largely a thing of the past and the idea that, after the bad old days of white supremacy and colonial rule, the “race problem” today is resolved.

Before addressing the present, let us recall that past. What are the origins of the world racial system? How have the enigmatic specters of racial difference and racial inequality been loosed on the world?

Examining early modern history, racial patterns present ample precedents for the horrors of our own age. The tension between slavery, on the one hand, and nascent democracy, on the other, structured the lengthy transition to the modern world. Resistance against slavery was pivotal to crafting the broader redefinition of political rights for which early advocates of democracy yearned and fought. Indeed the violence and genocide of earlier racial phenomena prefigured contemporary atrocities, such as the Holocaust, “ethnic cleansing,” and totalitarianism.

How racial was nascent capitalism? Were the politics and cultural groundwork of modernity premised on racial distinctions? Did the generally limited democracy of the developed world consist, in part, of an application of the principles of colonial rule to the “mother countries”? In what ways did early forms of resistance to racialized forms of rule—as seen in abolitionism and slave revolts for example—dynamize the worldwide impetus toward democratization? In what ways did antiracism itself become an archetypal democratic movement? Did the resistance to slavery, which grew into antiracism, ultimately accomplish more than fighting for the human, social, cultural, and political rights of racially subordinated groups? Was it not also crucial in permitting the acquisition of those same rights by whites? In other words, is the modern, inclusive form of democracy to which we have become accustomed itself the product of global struggles against racism?

The abolition of African slavery was the great rehearsal for the “break” with white supremacy that took place in our own time. Abolition was made possible by three momentous social changes: the triumph of industrial capitalism, the upsurge of democratic movements, and the mobilization of slaves themselves in search of freedom. Abolition was not completed with the triumph of the Union army in the American Civil War or the passage of the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution. Only in 1888, when Brazil became the last country to free its slaves, did the first crucial battle in the world’s centuries-long war against white supremacy draw to a close. And slavery persists in many forms even today.

But abolition left many emancipatory tasks unfinished as new forms of racial inequality were implemented: Democracy was still partial. Racialization continued to define the mechanisms of authoritarian rule and the distribution of global resources. Racial identity remained distinct from the “merely” cultural framework of ethnicity because race remained linked to the body, corporeal, phenomic. Racialization stigmatized distinct types of human bodies as subordinate. It conferred immediate advantage and disadvantage. This ranking of human society by race maintained and justified modern world-systemic rule: empire would have been impossible without it. Generalized processes of racial stratification continued to support enormous and oppressive systems of commercial agriculture and mining. Right up throug the mid-twentieth century, and in many ways until now, the unfulfilled dreams of human rights and equality have been tied to the logic of race.

Although there was always resistance to racist rule, it was only in the period after World War II that opposition to racial stratification and racial exclusion once again provoked widespread political conflicts. Civil rights and antiracist movements, as well as nationalist and indigenous ones, fiercely contested the racial limitations on democracy. These movements challenged the conditions under which black and brown people’s labor was exploited in both the former colonies and the metropoles. They drew upon the antifascist legacy of WWII and the geopolitical conflicts of the Cold War. They rendered old forms of political exclusion problematic and revealed a panoply of mainstream cultural icons—artistic, linguistic, scientific, and even philosophical—to be deeply divided by race. They drew on the experience of millions who returned from military service to face a segregated or colonized homeland. Such movements recognized anew their international character, as massive postwar labor demand sparked international migration from the world’s southern to its northern hemisphere, from areas of peasant agriculture to industrial areas. These enormous transformations manifested themselves in a vast demand to complete the work that began a century before with slavery’s abolition. They sparked the worldwide break with the tradition of white supremacy.

As the tumultuous 1960s drew to a close, the descendants of slaves and ex-colonials forced at least the partial dismantling of most official forms of discrimination. But with these developments—the enactment of a new series of civil rights laws, decolonization, and the adoption of cultural policies of a universalistic character—the global racial system entered a new period of instability and tension. The immediate result of this break with past practices was an uneven series of racial reforms that had the general effect of ameliorating racial injustice and inequality. But they also worked to contain social protest. Thus, the widespread demands of the racially subordinated and their supporters were at best answered in a limited fashion. A new period of racial instability and uncertainty was inaugurated.

This shift in racial attitudes and practices was a worldwide phenomenon, but it obviously took very different forms in particular national settings. Racial conditions are generally understood to vary dramatically in distinct political, economic, and cultural contexts. In this chapter I comment, necessarily briefly, on four national case studies: the United States, South Africa, Brazil, and the European Union (considered as a whole).

In these comparisons, I argue that the post–World War II break is a global backdrop, that is, an economic, political, and cultural context in which national racial conflicts are being worked out.


How permanent is the United States’s color line? The activities of the civil rights movement and related antiracist initiatives achieved substantial, if partial, democratic reforms in postwar decades. Today, however, these innovations coexist with a weighty legacy of white supremacy that originates in the colonial and slavery era. How do these two currents combine and conflict today?

Massive internal and international migration has reshaped the U.S. population numerically and geographically. A multipolar racial pattern has largely supplanted the old racial system, which is often (and somewhat erroneously) viewed as a bipolar white–black hierarchy. In the contemporary United States, new varieties of interminority competition and new awareness of the international dimensions of racial identity have greater prominence. Although racial stratification varies substantially by class, region, and indeed among groups, comprehensive racial inequality certainly endures. Racial reform policies are under attack in many spheres of social policy and law as opponents of the policies forcefully claim that the demands of the civil rights movement have largely been met and that the United States has entered a “post–racial” stage of its history.

The racial break in the United States was a partial democratization, produced by the moderate coalition that dominated the political landscape in the post–World War II years. The partial victories of the civil rights movement were won through mass mobilization and a tactical alliance with U.S. national interests. This alliance was brokered by so-called racial moderates: political centrists largely affiliated with the Democratic Party who perceived the need to ameliorate racial conflict and end outright racial dictatorship but who also feared the radical potential of the black freedom movement.

There was a price to be paid for civil rights reform. It could take place only in a suitably deradicalized fashion, only if its key provisions were articulated (legislatively and juridically) in terms compatible with the core values of U.S. politics and culture: individualism, equality, competition, opportunity, and the fair accessibility of the American dream. The movement’s radicals—revolutionaries, socialists, and political nationalists —paid this price, foregoing their vision of major social transformation under threat of marginalization, repression, or death.

The radical vision was, as Dr. King’s dream allowed us to call it, an alternative “dream” in which racial justice was central. To be “free at last” meant something deeper than symbolic reforms and palliation of the worst excesses of white supremacy. It meant substantive social reorganization that would be manifested in egalitarian economic and democratizing political consequences. It meant something like social democracy, human rights, and full social citizenship for blacks and other so-called minorities.

But it was precisely here that the moderate custodians of racial reform drew their boundaries, both practically and theoretically.[1] To strike down officially sanctioned racial inequality was permissible, but to create racial equality through positive state action was not. The danger of redistribution—of compensating for the unjustified expropriation and restriction of black economic and political resources, both historically and in the present—was to be avoided at all costs.

Civil rights reform thus became the agenda of the political center, which moved “from domination to hegemony.”[2] The key component of modern political rule, of hegemony as theorized most profoundly by Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci, is the capacity to incorporate opposition.[3] By adopting many of the movement’s demands, by developing a comprehensive and coherent program of racial democracy that hewed to a centrist political logic and reinforced key dimensions of U.S. nationalist ideology, racial moderates were able to define a new racial common sense. Thus, they divided the movement, reasserted some stability, and defused a great deal of political opposition. This was accomplished gradually from about the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s.

This partial reconfiguration of the U.S. racial order was based on real concessions but left major issues unresolved, notably the endurance of significant patterns of inequality and discrimination. The reform that did occur, however, was sufficient to reduce the political challenge posed by antiracist movements in the United States. Certainly it was more successful than the intransigent strategy of diehard segregationists—whose tactic was encapsulated in the slogan “massive resistance” to even minimal integration—would have been. Yet the fundamental problems of racial injustice, inequality, and white supremacy, of course remained; they were moderated, perhaps, but hardly resolved.

So in the Unites States race not only retains its significance as a phenomenon for structuring society but also continues to define North American identities and life chances decades after the supposed triumph of the so-called civil rights revolution. Indeed “the American dilemma” may be more problematic than ever as the twenty-first century commences because achieving this moderated agenda requires that the civil rights project be raised. This process, which began in the late 1960s, achieved greater success in the following two decades.

This tugging and hauling, this escalating contestation over the meaning of race, resulted in ever more disrupted and contradictory notions of racial identity. The significance of race (declining or increasing?), the interpretation of racial equality (color-blind or color-conscious?), the institutionalization of racial justice (affirmative action or reverse discrimination?), and the very categories of black, white, Latino/Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American -- all these were called into question as they emerged from the moderate civil rights gains of the mid-1960s.

The argument is now made that the demands of the civil rights movement have largely been met and that the United States has entered a post–racial stage of its history. Some claim that this means racial injustice is largely eradicated. In some circles, such views have become the new national “common sense” in respect to race, gaining not only elite and academic adherents but also widespread support, especially among whites. As a result, the already limited racial reform policies such as affirmative action and the relatively powerless state agencies charged with enforcing civil rights laws (such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) developed in the 1960s are undergoing a new and severe attack. The post–racialist advocates of such trends—usually classified as neoconservative but sometimes also found on the left—ceaselessly instruct racially defined minorities to rely on their own resources rather than government support to succeed. In a callous distortion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s message, neoconservatives exhort minorities to rely on the “content of their character” rather than “the color of their skin” to propel them to success—a social value of self-reliance that discards claims that racial prejudice still impedes opportunity for some Americans.[4]

In an egregious example, the Supreme Court in April 2001 decided on the Alexander v. Sandoval case—in which a Spanish-speaking resident of Alabama challenged the state’s policy to administer driving tests in English only—to repeal even the inadequate civil rights reforms of the 1960s. The Court decided that states may offer licensing examinations in English and no other languages—and it said this provision does not violate civil rights laws. Here as elsewhere, by adding a purpose or “intent to discriminate” requirement to anti-discrimination law, the Court makes it almost impossible to get legal relief from discrimination. As critical legal theorist David Kairys has argued, this amounts to creating different equality rules for whites and nonwhites because, in situations in which whites suffer harm, the Court does not require proof of intent or purpose.

As the dust settled from the titanic confrontation between the movement’s radical propensities and the establishment’s tremendous capacity to incorporate moderate reform, a great deal remained unresolved. The ambiguous and contradictory racial conditions in the United States today result from decades-long attempts simultaneously to ameliorate racial opposition and to placate the ancien regime raciale. The unending reiteration of these conflicting and contradictory practices testifies to the limitations of American democracy and the continuing significance of race in the United States.


In the mid-1990s, South Africa—the most explicitly race-structured society in the late twentieth century—entered a difficult but promising transition. The apartheid state was committed to a race-based framework of citizenship, civic inclusion, and law in general; the post–apartheid constitution incorporates the principle of nonracialism originally articulated in the African National Congress (ANC)-based Freedom Charter of 1955. Yet the country still bears the terrible burden of apartheid’s sequelae: persistent racial inequality persists across every level of society. The legacy of segregated residential areas, combined with a highly racialized distribution of resources of every sort, force political leadership to take a moderated middle road toward reform. Because whites continue to control positions throughout the economy, white fears must be placated in order to sustain the country’s economic base and minimize capital flight. The handful of blacks who have penetrated the corporate and state elites understand very well the price the country would pay for a radical turn in policy.

Yet South Africa is officially committed to racial equality and to promoting both individual and collective black advancement. Can the post–apartheid state stabilize the process of political, social, and economic integration of the black majority? Can it maintain an official nonracialism in the face of such comprehensive racial inequality? How can the vast majority of citizens—excluded until recently from access to land, education, clean water, and decent shelter, debarred from Africa’s wealthiest economy, and denied the most elementary civic and political rights—garner the economic access they so desperately need without reinforcing white paranoia and fear?

How can the post–apartheid state facilitate the reform of racial attitudes and practices, challenging inequality, white supremacy, and the legacy of racial separatism without engendering white flight and subversion?

Both the antiapartheid movement and the new government’s policies were shaped in part by global concerns. Internal political debates reflect changing global discussions around race and politics. Just as the South African Black Consciousness Movement drew on the speeches of Malcolm X and Aimé Césaire to understand racial oppression, just as the antiapartheid movement used international antiracist sentiment to build momentum for sanctions on the old regime so, too, is the current government both guided and constrained by international pressures.

Moreover, internal politics also bring international resources to bear: Through the postwar era, the antiapartheid movement drew a great deal of support from an international antiracist movement, which was largely linked to an international trend to support decolonization. Since the 1994 election, however, international constraints have limited the sphere of action of the new democratic government. Critics of affirmative action policies, for example, emphasize the danger of undermining efficiency in the name of redistribution in the same way critics of redistributive policies deploy neoliberal economic arguments to reject nationalization; in each case, they invoke international discourses that are nonracial in form yet have racial implications in practice. The South African state continues to face considerable challenges from the political left and right: Will it be possible to reconstruct the nation by building not only a democracy but also a greater degree of consensus, citizenship, and belonging? To what degree can a policy of “class compromise” (the politically negotiated pace of reform) forestall the dangers of social upheaval and capital flight?[5]

Understanding these processes requires viewing South African racial debates in global perspective and exploring options for local actors who seek to change the terms of engagement as they restructure national politics. Although many white civil servants remain in place, the 1994 elections changed the racial character of the state; affirmative action policies, to which the ANC-led government is committed, could reorganize racial distribution of incomes, if not wealth. Yet in the context of a global debate over affirmative action, and in the face of the threat of the flight of white capital and skills, the process of reform is far slower than many South Africans, black and white, expected. This dilemma remains unresolved: how can democratic, nonracial institutions be constructed in a society where most attributes of socioeconomic position and identity remain highly racialized?


Brazil presents significant parallels, both historical and contemporary, to other American nations, including the United States. These similarities include Brazil’s history of slavery and black inequality, its displacement and neglect of a large indigenous population, its intermittent and ambiguous commitment to immigration, its inconsistent democracy, and its vast and increasingly urban underclass (disproportionately black). Brazilian racial dynamics have traditionally received little attention from scholars or policy makers despite the fact that the country has the second largest black population in the world (after Nigeria). Its post–emancipation adoption of a policy of national “whitening,” which was to be achieved by concerted recruitment of European immigrants, owed much to the U.S. example and also drew on nineteenth-century French racial theorizing.[6]

Amazingly, what has often been called the “myth of racial democracy” still flourishes in Brazil, even though it has been amply demonstrated to be little more than a fig leaf covering widespread racial inequality, injustice, and prejudice.[7] The Brazilian racial system, with its “color continuum” (as opposed to the more familiar “color line” of North America), tends to dilute democratic demands. Indeed, Brazilian racial dynamics make it difficult to promote policies that might address racial inequality. Public discourse resolutely discourages any attempt to define inequality along racial lines;  only under the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003) was the subject of  racial inequality first officially raised.. Although Brazil has now instituted certain racial reforms -- such as affirmative action in education and regularization of land titles based in quilombos (maroon communities established by runaway slaves under slavery), serious obstacles still confront efforts to challenge racial injustice.For example, politicians who do point out racial inequalitiesand thereby challenge the myth of racial democracy are subject to charges that they are themselves provoking racial discrimination by stressing difference.

Reliable research on racial stratification and racial attitudes in Brazil has only become available over the past few years.[8] A range of political questions thus remains mysterious. Consider the example of voting rights: Although illiterates were barred by law from voting until 1985, there is no reliable data on the proportion of illiterates who were black—and thus the extent to which black Brazilians have been disenfranchised through this century, though undoubtedly large, remains uncertain.

The emergence of the Movimento Negro Unificado (MNU) as a force to be reckoned with—though by no means as strong as the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement—represents a new development. The MNU used the 1988 centennial of the abolition of Brazilian slavery, as well as the 1990–91 census, to dramatize persistent racial inequalities. As in South Africa, this phase of the black movement takes its reference points partly from international antiracist struggles, often drawing on examples, symbols, and images from the civil rights and antiapartheid movements.

In the 1990s, a range of racial reforms were proposed in Brazil—largely in response to the increasingly visible movimento negro (black movement). To strike down officially sanctioned racial equality was permissible; to create racial equality through positive state action was not permissible with these reforms; to prompt the state to adopt antiracist policies, however, will require far greater support for change than presently exists. The political dilemma is familiar: Blacks need organized allies in the party system, among other impoverished and disenfranchised groups, and on the international scene. Yet in order to mobilize, they must also begin to assert a racialized political identity, or there will be little collective support for racial reforms. How can blacks address this dualistic, if not contradictory, situation? How can Afro-Brazilians assert claims on the basis of group solidarity without simultaneously undermining the fragile democratic consensus that is emerging across many constituencies? How can democratic institutions be built alongside policies designed to address racial inequalities without undermining a vision of common citizenship and equality?


The last few decades have established that indeed, “the empire strikes back.” Racially plural societies are in place throughout Europe, especially in former imperial powers, such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, and Spain but also in Germany, Italy, the Scandinavian countries and to some extent in the East. The influx into these countries of substantial numbers of nonwhites during the postcolonial period has deeply altered a dynamic in which the racial system and the imperial order had been one—in which outsiders were mostly kept outside the walls of the “mother country.” As a stroll around London, Frankfurt, Paris, or Madrid quickly reveals, those days are now gone forever. Yet the response to the new situation often takes repressive and antidemocratic forms, focusing attention on the so-called immigrant problem (or the “Islamic problem”), seeking not only to shut the gates to Maghrebines or sub-Saharan Africans, Turks, or Slavs (including Balkan refugees), but often also to define the “others” who are already present as enemies of the national culture and threats to the “ordinary German” (or English, or French, etc.) way of life. This rationale for racial exclusion and restriction in Europe is termed “differentialist.” It is distinct from the meritocratic logic of discrimination in the United States, a reflection that Europeans value the integrity of national cultures more highly than they value individual equality.[9] Thus, the particular racial issue that must be confronted in Europe is the newly heterogeneous situation, that is, the multiplication of group identities. Currently, antidemocratic tendencies such as new right and neofascist groups are widely visible, widespread, and growing. At the state and regional levels, restrictive policies that jeopardize mobility of employment or residence, and sometimes stigmatize religious or other cultural practices, are gaining popularity. Conflicts over immigration and citizenship have taken on new intensity, with crucial implications for the character of democracy.

The dynamics of integration raise a wide range of questions about future European racial logics. Conflicting principles of citizenship—jus sanguinis (where citizenship is determined by ancestry -- "blood") versus jus soli (where citizenship is determined by birthplace -- "soil")—are deeply imbedded in the distinct European national makeups, and their resolution in a common cultural or political framework has not come easily.[10] Nations’ relations with their former colonies vary, posing serious questions of immigrant access and of economic ties between the old empires and the new Europe, but also raising anxieties about security and terrorism. Particularly in the early 1980s, popular antiracist sentiments stimulated the formation of many multiculturalist and pluralist organizations. Over the past decade, however, many have ceased to function as mass mobilization initiatives in support of democracy. So, although the slogan “Touche pas mon pôte(“Hands off my buddy”) no longer summons tens of thousands of French citizens into the street in defense of the democratic rights of racially defined minorities, the transition to racial pluralism is still very much underway.


To understand the changing significance of race in the aftermath of the twentieth century, the century whose central malady was diagnosed by W. E. B. Du Bois as “the problem of the color-line,” requires us to reconsider where the racialized world came from and where it is going. In the settings studied, the break that began with movement activity after World War II and that was contained from the late 1960s onward by political reform has not been consolidated. Just as earlier stages of modern racial history failed to resolve many issues, so too does the present epoch. In the first years of the 21st century the world as a whole, as evidenced by the above national cases, is far from overcoming the tenacious legacies of colonial rule, apartheid, and segregation. All still experience continuing confusion, anxiety, and contention about race. Yet the legacies of epochal struggles for freedom, democracy, and human rights also persist. To evaluate the transition to a new world racial system in comparative and historical perspective requires keeping in view the continuing tension that characterizes the present. Despite the enormous vicissitudes that demarcate and distinguish national conditions, historical developments, roles in the international market, political tendencies, and cultural norms, racial dynamics often operate as they did in centuries past: as a way of restricting the political influence of racially, socially, and economically subordinated groups. In the contemporary era, racial beliefs and practices have become far more contradictory and complex. The “old world racial system” has not disappeared, but it has been seriously challenged and changed. The legacy of democratic, racially oriented movements such as the U.S. civil rights movement, anti-apartheid struggles, SOS-Racisme in France, the Movimento Negro Unificado in Brazil, and anticolonialist initiatives throughout the world’s southern nations, is thus a force to reckon with.It is impossible to address worldwide dilemmas of race and racism by ignoring or transcending these themes, for example, by adopting so-called colorblind policies. In the past, the centrality of race determined the economic, political, and cultural configuration of the modern world. Although in recent decades movements for racial equality and justice have blossomed, the legacies of centuries of racial oppression remain—nor has a vision of racial justice been fully worked out. Certainly the idea that such justice has already been largely achieved—as seen in the colorblind paradigm in the United States, the nonracialist rhetoric of the South African Freedom Charter, the Brazilian rhetoric of racial democracy, and the emerging racial differentialism of the European Union—remains problematic.

What would a more credible vision entail? The pressing task today is not to jettison the concept of race but instead to come to terms with it as a form of flexible human variety. What does this mean in respect to racism? Racism has been a crucial component of modernity, a key pillar of the global capitalist system, for five hundred years. So it remains today. Yet it has been changed, damaged, and forced to reorganize by the massive global social movements that have taken place in recent decades. In the past, these movements were international in scope and influence. They were deeply linked to democratizing and egalitarian trends, such as labor politics and feminism. They were able both to mobilize around the injustices and exclusion experienced by racially subordinated groups and sustain alliances across racial lines. This is background; such experiences cannot simply recur. Yet surely the massive mobilizations that created the global break following World War II were not fated to be the last popular upsurges, the last egalitarian challenges to white supremacy, to racial hierarchy. In the countries I have discussed and in transnational antiracist networks, these earlier precedents still wield their influence. They still spark new attempts to challenge racism.

At the same time, new political and intellectual leaders have come onto various national stages in recent years, arguing that the worst racial injustices (of the United States, Brazil, South Africa, and so on) are now firmly relegated to the past and that the problem of racism can now be viewed as essentially solved. Why, then, should we maintain affirmative action policies? Why direct resources toward immigrants, victims of segregation and apartheid, or the (disproportionately dark-skinned) poor? Don’t we already have equality now?

Will race ever be transcended? Will the world ever get beyond race? Probably not. But the entire world still has a chance of overcoming the stratification, the hierarchy, the taken-for-granted injustice and inhumanity that so often accompanies the race concept.

Like religion or language, race can be accepted as part of the spectrum of the human condition, recognized as human variability and difference, while it is simultaneously and categorically resisted as a means of stratifying national or global societies. Let us, then, think about race and racism, as well as a wide range of other political themes, as an ongoing encounter between despotic and democratic practices, in which individuals and groups, confronted by state power and entrenched privilege but not entirely limited by those obstacles, make choices and locate themselves over and over in a constant "reconstruction" of everyday life and social structure.


[1] . Nikhil Pal Singh. Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2004; Stephen Steinberg. Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

[2] . Howard Winant. The New Politics of Race: Globalism, Difference, Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

[3] .  “The life of the State is conceived as a continuous process of formation and superseding of unstable equilibria… between the interests of the fundamental group and those of the subordinate groups – equilibria in which the interests of the dominant group prevail, but only up to a certain point, i.e., stopping short of narrowly corporate economic interest.” Antonio Gramsci. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, eds. Quinton Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

[4] . Shelby Steele. The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America . New York: St. Martin’s, 1990; Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom. America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

[5] . Michael MacDonald. Why Race Matters in South Africa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006; Edward Webster and Glenn Adler. “Toward a Class Compromise in South Africa’s ‘Double Transition’: Bargained Liberalization and the Consolidation of Democracy”. In Politics and Society Vol. 27, no. 3 (September 1999).

[6] .  Thomas E. Skidmore. Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993 (1974).

[7] .  Carlos A. Hasenbalg and Nelson do Valle Silva. “Raça e Oportunididades Educacionais no Brasil.” In idem, eds. Relações Raciais no Brasil Contemporâneo.Rio de Janeiro: Rio Fundo/IUPERJ, 1992; Michael George Hanchard, Orpheus and Power: The Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil, 1945–1988. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994; George Reid Andrews. Blacks and Whites in São Paulo, Brazil, 1888–1988. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

[8] .  Edward Telles. Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006; France Winddance Twine. Racism in a Racial Democracy: The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997; Datafolha, 300 Anos de Zumbi: Os Brasileiros e o Preconceito de Côr. [300 Years After Zumbi: Brazilians and Color Prejudice]. São Paulo: Datafolha, 1995.

[9] . Pierre-André Taguieff. The Force of Prejudice: On Racism and Its Doubles, Hassan Melehy, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001 (1988); Michel Wieviorka. The Arena of Racism, Chris Turner, trans. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995.

[10] .  Rogers Brubaker. Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.