Analysis & Comment

Opinion | How We Construct and Reconstruct Race

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By Jamelle Bouie

Opinion Columnist

I wrote both my columns this week on policing and democracy. My second column drew from a 2017 paper, “Police Are Our Government: Politics, Political Science, and the Policing of Race-Class Subjugated Communities” by the political scientists Joe Soss and Vesla Weaver. I tried, as much as I could, to summarize and explain the main beats of the article, but there was one important point I chose to omit and leave for the newsletter because it speaks to an idea I’ve tried to emphasize in my work at The Times, and I thought it deserved a little more time and attention than I would have been able to give in the column.

Many people understand that race is “socially constructed.” Racial categories do not reflect biology as much as they are a product of historical contingencies and material realities. The idea of a singular “white” race comprising the whole of Europe is, for example, more or less the product of centuries of trans-Atlantic slavery, colonialism, imperialism and capitalist accumulation. It is an ideology, not a part of the natural world.

But while a fair number of people may recognize the social construction of race, they have a harder time with one of its most important implications, which is that the ideology of race does not simply exist through time as a static and transhistorical ideology. It is a product of material forces and must be reproduced and reconstructed through those material forces to survive.

At the risk of some oversimplification, anti-Black racism in British North America developed in response to the introduction of African slavery to colonies like Virginia and Maryland. It is a rationalization of the existence of chattel slavery in an ostensibly Christian dominion. But this racism survives because this form of slavery survives; each generation of colonists encounters and is shaped by this social and economic force and then absorbs and often extends the ideas that make sense of it.

When the force changes, so do the ideas. As slavery seems to weaken toward the end of the 18th century — as it seems more costly and less lucrative — more and more Anglo-Americans are willing to question its utility. When, in the now United States, it begins to strengthen as a result of dramatic changes in slave agriculture and the new industrial demand abroad, the ideologies change as well. Where slavery was once a burden to an earlier generation of slaveholders, it becomes an unalloyed good to a newer one.

One of the best examples of the reproduction of racial ideologies is, in my view, the way that Jim Crow segregation helped fuel an even more virulent form of anti-Black racism after emancipation and Reconstruction had begun to weaken race hierarchy, however slight and provisional the change was. In other words, a new social and economic order — defined by peonage, labor exploitation and forced separation under threat of violence — strengthened anti-Black racial ideologies and even produced new ones.

Race hierarchy still exists. And race-making institutions still exist. As Soss and Weaver write, the American criminal justice system is one of the institutions that “construct and reconstruct race.” The disadvantaged and impoverished neighborhoods that are often sites of police abuse are, from this perspective, “actively and socially made as ‘raced’ and ‘classed’ places, built over time through government policies and public investment decisions that organize housing, education, welfare and policing; that segregate and stigmatize some while elevating and insulating others; and that deploy power to shape understandings of groups and ‘their places’ that eventually come to seem natural, given, and legitimate.”

Looked at this way, when a police department, with the support of city officials, targets an entire category of young men for enhanced police scrutiny — despite the fact that only a small fraction of the group is engaged in any illegal activity — it is both using racial thinking and reproducing racial thinking. “Police encounters in public spaces,” Soss and Weaver write, “function as daily rituals indicating who is suspicious, who can be trusted with freedoms, and who deserves the benefits accorded to citizens in full standing; in short, surveillance conveys the civic significance of being poor and black.”

I wanted to highlight this argument for two reasons. The first is that I think it’s right. I think it reflects what we know about the formation of racial ideas. The second is that it is a useful challenge to the view that the solution to racism is the transformation of individual hearts and minds, whether it’s unlearning prejudice on one hand or unlearning racial identity on the other.

People can open their hearts. But as long as race hierarchy still shapes exposure to the worst of capitalist inequality and exploitation — as long as the institutions of our society continue to make choices that both rely on and recapitulate race hierarchy — then we’re still going to be dealing with the ideology of race, and its consequences.

What I Wrote

In my Tuesday column, I argued that American policing lacks anything like real democratic accountability:

In 2020, during the weeks of protest and civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, I argued that the problem of police violence and misconduct was a problem of democracy. And this week, in the wake of yet another police killing caught on camera, I think it’s worth saying, again, that the institution of American policing lies outside any meaningful democratic control.

And in my Friday column, I looked at the ways that policing and the criminal justice system itself have shaped citizenship and distorted American democracy:

But the problem of democracy and American policing goes beyond questions of accountability. The police shape the experience of American democracy as much (or as little) as they are shaped by it. Police departments, as much as any other institution, mediate and define citizenship for millions of Americans.

In the latest episode of my podcast with John Ganz, we discuss a 1994 made-for-television movie about an asteroid impact and alien invasion. It wasn’t very good, but it gave us a lot to talk about.

Now Reading

Charlie Warzel on owning a home printer for The Atlantic.

An interview with the feminist and reproductive rights activist Loretta J. Ross in Dissent.

Meagan Day on the myth of the socially conscious corporation for The New Republic.

Mark O’Connell on the work of the writer and director Martin McDonagh for Slate.

Andrea González-Ramirez on the future of the fight for abortion rights for New York.

Photo of the Week

One of those photos that feels, to me, like it comes from another era, even though I know I took it at a storefront just a few minutes down the street from my house. I used a vintage camera as usual, which contributes to the look.

Now Eating: Almond Cake

I was cleaning out my pantry last weekend and saw that I had an orange and some almonds, which was all I needed to make an almond cake. This is a pretty good recipe, but I’ll say that if you want to improve the texture of the cake, it is worth the time to blanch your raw almonds, remove the skins, let them dry, and then grind the almonds into an almond meal. It’s a little time consuming, but it makes for a nicer cake. Recipe comes from the cooking section of The New York Times.


1 small to medium orange

1 lemon

6 ounces raw almonds

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

4 eggs

½ teaspoon salt

1½ cups sugar

⅔ cup olive oil

Confectioners’ sugar


Place the orange and the lemon in a saucepan, and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain and cool.

Heat the oven to 325 degrees, and set a rack in the middle position. Bake the almonds 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside to cool completely. When the almonds are cool, pulse them in a food processor until ground.

Set oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 9-inch springform pan.

When the citrus is cool, cut the lemon in half, and discard the pulp and seeds. Cut the orange in half, and discard seeds. Put the fruits in the food processor and process almost to a paste.

In a small bowl, whisk the flour and baking powder. Combine eggs and salt. Beat until foamy. Beat in the sugar. Fold in the flour mixture. Add the citrus, almonds and olive oil, and beat on low speed until incorporated. Pour the batter into the pan, and bake for about 1 hour. Let cool for 10 minutes, unmold and dust with confectioners’ sugar.

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