by Daniel Martinez HoSang
In contrast to keywords such as “race” and “racist,” “racialization” is relatively new to American studies and cultural studies. The term has a diverse lineage but is most often associated with the work of Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1986/1994), who helped make the concept of racialization a central analytic within both fields. Omi and Winant utilize the term to “signify the extension of racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice or group. Racialization is an ideological process, an historically specific one” (64). In contrast to static understandings of race as a universal category of analysis, racialization names a process that produces race within particular social and political conjunctures. That process constructs or represents race by fixing the significance of a “relationship, practice or group” within a broader interpretive framework. Working within this paradigm, scholars have investigated processes and practices of racialization across a wide range of fields, including electoral politics, music, literature, sports, aesthetics, religion, public policy, and social identity.
In 1976, five black women who labored on the assembly line at General Motors in St. Louis sued their employer, alleging that the auto giant’s seniority-based layoff system, in which the last workers hired were the first to be fired, discriminated against them on the basis of both race and sex. In the subsequent DeGraffenreid v. General Motors ruling, the Court rejected their claim, arguing that protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permitted them to bring forth a complaint of race-based discrimination or of sex-based discrimination, but in the court’s terms, “not a combination of both.” Because the company could prove that it had hired some women (who were all white) who did not face the same seniority-based layoffs experienced by the black women plaintiffs, as well as some African Americans (who were all men) who also did not lose their jobs, the DeGraffenreid plaintiffs found little protection under the prevailing interpretation of the law.