The Volokh Conspiracy

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Columbia University Professor Andreas Wimmer Questions "Race-Centrism"


In the course of the research for my forthcoming book, Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America (now available for pre-order!), I read several hundred books and articles about race and ethnicity in the United States, some of which turned out be directly related my book; others turned to be more peripheral. One of the more remarkable articles in the latter category is Andreas Wimmer, Race-Centrism: A Critique and a Research Agenda, published in Ethnic and Racial Studies in 2015. It's remarkable both because Wimmer questions accepted truisms among sociologists and anthropologists who write about race, and because Wimmer engaged in such questioning as a professor at Princeton (he is now at Columbia). As VC readers well-know, questioning widely-accepted academic views about race in the United States is not exactly the most direct route to academic prominence.

Here is an excerpt:

[Three prominent recent academic books on race] base their analyses on five axiomatic assumptions that together form what I call the paradigm of race-centrism. First, race is the primary principle of stratification in the USA. Second, all racial inequality can be explained by the racism (explicit or implicit, conscious or not) of the white majority and/or the state institutions that operate on its behalf. Third, racial inequality has transformed but not lessened, or even worsened over the past fifty years. Fourth, racial groups represent collective actors with shared interests and outlooks on the world. And fifth, race plays a similarly structuring role around the world.

These axioms of race-centrism, I suggest, need to be opened up to critical scrutiny and the empirical exploration of alternative possible interpretations, empirical generalizations and analytical stances. In other words, rather than treating them as axiomatic truths, to be defended against the common intellectual-political enemy of 'colour-blindness', they should be taken as argumentative tenets in search of confirmation. I will discuss each of these five assumptions subsequently, explore what empirical and analytical questions they raise, and discuss which other processes and mechanisms need to be brought into the analytical and empirical picture and properly disentangled from the ones that race-centrism focuses upon.