Race Relations: A Critique

Race Relations: A Critique. By Stephen Steinberg (Stanford University Press, 2007).


(1) Can you tell ZNet what prompted you to write this book?


I began by asking why a paradigm invented four decades before the Civil Rights Revolution still dominates academic and popular discourses four decades after the Civil Rights Revolution. At the least, this is an indication of intellectual stasis. At worst, it suggests that the academy is still complicit in glossing over racism and justifying the prevailing racial order.


(2) Exactly what is the nature of this “paradigm” and why is it problematic?


I’m referring to the race relations paradigm forged by Robert Park at the University of Chicago circa 1920. Problem begins with the terms of discourse. “Race relations” implies that the problem between the races is one of misunderstanding and prejudice. The goal, therefore, becomes one of combating prejudice and promoting racial harmony. The term “race relations” totally obscures the structural foundations of race and racism in political economy, beginning with slavery and extending down to the present through persistent patterns of structured inequality and institutionalized racism. You know a field is in trouble when its very title is an obfuscation!


(3) Haven’t generations of Marxists argued that racism is anchored in political economy and in capitalism itself?


For sure! Even before sociology became established as a discipline at the University of Chicago, Marxists offered an alternative paradigm that saw racism as the attitudinal concomitant of a system of domination and exploitation that was rooted in capitalism, as was manifestly the case with slavery. However, Marxists were spurned as “ideologues” and banned from respectable academic discourse. Indeed, the whole idea of “objectivity” was contrived as a cover for expunging Marxist discourses from the fledgling social sciences. Nevertheless, early black sociologists with Marxist proclivities — W.E.B. Du Bois and Oliver Cox come first to mind — forged a black radical tradition that represented a critical alternative to the prevailing paradigm. Both, of course, were marginalized from mainstream social science. For example, Du Bois’s masterpiece, The Philadelphia Negro, was never reviewed in the American Journal of Sociology.


(4) How do ethnic groups fit into all of this?


Park’s great conceptual error was to lump racial and ethnic groups under the same conceptual umbrella. In my book I argue that his prediction of ultimate assimilation was dead wrong with respect to African Americans, but it has been proved right with respect to European immigrants, most of who were rapidly incorporated into the extended family of “whites.” Today there is compelling evidence that Asians and light-skinned Latinos are following in the footsteps of earlier immigrants — which is to say, footsteps leading to the melting pot. But it is another story altogether for peoples of African descent — African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Afro-Latinos, and immigrants from Africa.  In effect, we are witnessing the emergence of a dual melting pot — one for blacks, the other for everybody else.


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