Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is a proponent of contemporary critical race theory. Central to his work is the idea that racism is more than prejudicial attitudes and actions. Rather, racism is conceptualised as a structural presence which has become ingrained into the very fabric of society itself. Bonilla-Silva labels this the ‘racialised social system approach’. This approach holds that in many liberal-democracies which claim to be ‘beyond’ racism, in fact ‘racialization forms a real structure’ in which ‘racial groups are hierarchically ordered and “social relations” and “practices” emerge that fit the position of the groups in the racial regime’ (Bonilla-Silva, 2015: 75). Focusing particularly on the United States, Bonilla-Silva (2015: 75) thus argues that ‘whites form a social collectivity’ and ‘they develop a racist interest to preserve the racial status quo’.
Bonilla-Silva therefore directs a lot of attention onto how whites, at the top of the US racialised social system’s order, maintain their position of dominance. One of the central ways the racial status quo is maintained is through the circulation of ‘colourblind ideology’. Bonilla (2013) sketches out this argument in his book ‘Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States’. Colourblind ideology, Bonilla-Silva argues, is framed in four main ways. Firstly, an ‘abstract liberalism’ which promotes individualism and individual freedom of choice. This is used by whites to exonerate themselves from processes that reproduce racism, for example their residential segregation is recast as freedom of choosing where to live. Secondly, there is the frame of naturalisation. Through this frame racial inequality is explained away as a natural process, for example residential segregation is seen as people gravitating towards likeness. Thirdly, there is the frame of cultural racism. This frame relies upon stereotypes of racialised groups’ cultures for understanding their inequalities, for instance that black folk are lazy, and Mexicans don’t value education. Lastly, there is the minimisation of racism frame. This is the idea that discrimination is no longer a central issue facing non-white groups, or that even if there is discrimination there are plenty of other opportunities out there for such people to succeed in the educational and economic worlds.
Bonilla also encourages us to see how the racialised social system’s ideologies have influence inside academia. This is most clearly seen, he argues, in the ‘class matters more than race’ arguments which have gained momentum since civil rights legislation in the US. Bonilla is thus critical of what he labels ‘white logic’ and ‘white methods’ in the academy. One blatant way these white logic and methods structure academia is through the view that any non-white person has a ‘bias’ in their data when it comes to race related studies, whereas the white researcher is painted as objective and disinterested. However, Bonilla’s critical race theory shows how whites do have an interest (in maintaining the racial order), but this order is presented as normal and invisible. This is what he refers to as the ‘invisible weight of whiteness’. This weight of whiteness can be seen also in everyday ‘racial grammar’ – the way that certain everyday things are coded as racial or non-racial. For instance, in the US you have Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), but do not have historically white ones even though that was the whole reason why HBCU’s were created in the first place! Similarly on the TV, you have ‘black’ TV shows such as the Cosby show, but not ‘white’ TV shows despite popular sitcoms like Friends having exclusively white lead roles.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2013) Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. 4th edn. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2015) ‘More than Prejudice: Restatement, Reflections, and New Directions in Critical Race Theory’, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 1(1), pp. 73–87.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (1997) ‘Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation’, American Sociological Review, 62(3), pp. 465–480.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2012) ‘The invisible weight of whiteness: the racial grammar of everyday life in contemporary America’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 35(2), pp. 173–194.
What does Bonilla-Silva mean by a ‘racialised social system’?
What, according to Bonilla-Silva, are the dominant frames of colourblind ideology?
What similarities, if any, are there between Bonilla-Silva’s critical race theory and Marxism?
What does Bonilla-Silva mean by ‘racial grammar’?
Submitted by Ali Meghji