The Machinery of Whiteness: Studies in the Structure of Racialization

Reviewed by Michael E.

Steve Martinot, The Machinery of Whiteness: Studies in the Structure of Racialization (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010)

Steve Martinot wants to contribute to a critical tradition in race studies that goes beyond the two axes of an earlier literature, namely racism as a prejudice and racism as institutional. The first or psychological axis focuses on attitudes and the beliefs that justify them and on corresponding discriminatory practices. The second or institutional axis situates racism in the structural features of American society.

In his influential book, The Nature of Prejudice (1954), Gordon W. Allport concluded his first chapter by listing five possible reactions to the behavioral impulses set in motion by “negative attitudes.” These range from the “least energetic to the most.” The first and least energetic involves simply expressing one’s attitudes in words. The remaining four involve action: avoidance, discrimination, physical attack, and extermination. While racism was widely prevalent in the United States when Allport wrote this book, there was virtual consensus among scholars that prejudice was best thought of as a social problem requiring not only research but programs, primarily educational, designed to reduce and ultimately eliminate its more pernicious effects by modifying attitudes and correcting beliefs.

It followed that any serious attempt to understand racism would be essentially therapeutic in its approach, which meant that certain social facts were to be taken for granted as basic to social order and independent of how that order is expressed. Racially oriented beliefs and attitudes were, like blemishes on the skin, removable or could at least be effectively hidden. The proper treatment would begin by clarifying the specific intentional structure that was at the heart of the problem. Having identified and isolated this structure, therapy might involve education, which was the favored approach, or it might involve changing the conditions of association along racial lines, an approach thought to be most effective but difficult to administer. Other strategies were also tried, some of which, like those derived from studies of authoritarianism, relied on the hypothesis that racism’s sources are deep within the personalities of racists. But no matter how complex one’s view of personality and whatever one might have believed about the way in which prejudicial attitudes are situated in the psyche, there was general agreement that one could treat such attitudes, given that they could not be justified and that they were specific enough to treat one by one.

The second axis of inquiry into the causes and foundations of racism focused on the institutional forces at work in supporting and reproducing racialist logic and racist inclinations (see Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, 1967). In this perspective, the identification of “institutional racism” was a first step toward understanding the sociological and social-psychological dimensions of the problem. Society itself was seen as in some deep way racist. Racism thus threw into question many of the ordering principles that sociologists had attributed to society. It became necessary to consider the hypothesis that the inherent reproductive processes of society – seen as logically and functionally prior to racism – provided in their very generality a ground for the continuation of racism in America.

Steve Martinot’s book takes this literature a step further and makes a compelling case that racism is a necessary, unavoidable, outcome of the construction of whiteness as a standard of socialization (individual development within society) and as an identity. The problem as he sees it, then, is not race but whiteness as such, or “white supremacy” conceived of not as an extreme but as all that can be normal in a society committed to that standard and to the identity-formations justified by it. Having reviewed commonly held notions of “race,” Martinot introduces his project as follows:

Nevertheless, it is insufficient to say that race is a social construct. That statement defines not a fact but a task. The task is to describe the structure that has been constructed socially. If “race” is a structure of social activities, practices, and meanings, we have to describe how that structure conducts or directs those activities, as well as how it gives them the meanings they take. Our task is to describe the contours of this structure, beyond the well-known and well-worn ideological notions of “racism,” so we can see it (32).

But he carries the argument beyond the limits of this statement, to the point at which a number of important non-obvious implications emerge that can no longer be avoided and that challenge conventional reformist politics. Among them are that attitudes are not generally important in explaining racism. Rather, racism is evident in the sense of naturalness or normality with which white people experience their lives. This sense is confirmed moment by moment as a result of living in a society geared to validate whiteness at all cost. The intentionality of white supremacy, the way it appears as normal, morally significant, and socially relevant is, from this point of view, not something that can be separated from the personality as a whole and from the social structures in which alone individuals derive their identities, feelings of efficacy, and sense of autonomy.

As I understand Martinot, racism is immanent to our experience of individuality and to the relations that give that individuality its apparent authenticity and moral force. It is immanent because that experience is socially constituted within the frame of reference of whiteness (and, therefore, white supremacy), which, he claims, can be understood as a “cultural structure of racialization.” In this regard, he concludes that

though enacted with respect to people of color, racism is ultimately a relation between white people. That is why arguments concerning racism’s effects on its victims fall so typically on deaf (white) ears; such arguments are addressing the wrong relationship. White people apprehend how they act as natural because they see it through the eyes of other white people. To act white is to act out the elements of white racialized identity, within the ethic of white hegemony (176).

Other implications of his thesis that he examines have to do with the limits of reform, the mutually reinforcing relationship between racism and sexism, and the relationship between the culture of racialization and the current turn – especially since 2001 – toward an exclusively reactionary politics. Even without those, this is a disturbing book, in part because it is so relentless in its attempt to leave no “white stone” unturned, to leave no room for even a hint of a claim of exemption for anyone identifying as white. There is a moral aspect of this as well, in the same way certain holocaust scholars tried to sustain an idea that grew out of the 1970s, of a “holocaustal universe.”

If the argument about a “holocaustal universe” had any moral or explanatory weight in regard to the exterminations of the 1940s in Europe, Martinot’s book suggests strongly that it should have equal weight in regard to the sort of racism that continues to exist in the United States and that now appears to have left behind the language that could potentially reveal it, even to its practitioners. A prima facie case in support of this suggestion came at a talk I attended some years ago, delivered by one of our most distinguished and respected African-American scholars to a racially and religiously mixed group. I was struck by his use of the word “genocide” to describe what has been happening to young black people. The fact that no one objected, including another speaker who had defended Israel as her part of the colloquium, gave further weight to that description. The mere use of a word seemed to leave no room for exceptions, even for those among us who had been dedicated activist opponents of racism and injustice.

Similarly, Martinot pursues his reader with seemingly endless arguments aimed at showing that none of us stand outside of the culture of racialization and its effects; the very sense of being spontaneous in our decision to enter that struggle is compromised. However, Martinot does not say that such a decision is thereby invalidated or made worthless. This is part of his own approach toward writing in a morally defensible way. That approach, beyond the amount of information put forward and the rigor of the author’s argument, is a compelling feature of this book.

Michael E. Brown Northeastern University