How Eduardo Bonilla-Silva Changed Our Understanding of Racism

How Eduardo Bonilla-Silva Changed Our Understanding of Racism
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Sociology. (Design by Shaun King/Trinity Communications)

I remember first reading Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s book, “Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America,” while I was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was preparing for my comprehensive exam on race and ethnicity. I had been reading a lot over a very short period of time and was losing steam, but his book changed all that.

From the very first page, I was transfixed. I finished the book on the very same day, transformed as a scholar.

Bonilla-Silva articulates what I had been searching for in the many sociological texts that I read about race, discrimination and racism in the United States. He provides a theoretical framework and vocabulary for understanding contemporary racism, reorienting how we think about the roots of systemic racism: it comes not from individual prejudice, but from interlocking social structures and institutions that allow for and perpetuate racial inequality.

Bonilla-Silva makes clear: “Systematic racism is not about ‘the racists,’ but about the racism.” Indeed, racism’s most impactful consequences are instantiated through these systems rather than through individuals. He describes this new formulation of racism in the following way:

White supremacy…in the United States changed in nature, as Jim Crow ended in the late 1960s — early 1970s. Today more sophisticated, subtle, seemingly non-racial practices have replaced the brutal tactics of racial domination of the past as the primary instruments for maintaining White privilege. Yet these practices are as effective as the old ones in preserving the racial status quo… perpetuated nowadays in a (mostly) color-blind way.

Drawing from survey and interview data, Bonilla-Silva provides many examples of these practices and the racial logics that undergird them: racial unfairness is rationalized in the name of individualism and equal opportunity, the foundational histories of racial oppression and violence are ignored, and the myth of meritocracy is used to elide or justify racist practices.

By delineating these processes, Bonilla-Silva clarifies why racism is so pernicious and long-lasting despite some evidence of racial progress. More importantly, he shows how we are all implicated in our racist system, particularly White populations who benefit from and play a part, consciously or unconsciously, in upholding it. To be sure, people of color also participate in this system but this “…participation has never been voluntary or unconscious.”

Now in its sixth edition, “Racism Without Racists” is a foundational text of race and racism scholarship across disciplines. Like many other students and scholars of race, I have drawn upon his theoretical insights to inform my own research on the social determinants of health disparities. I also have greatly benefited from the space he has created for scholars like me to do work in this area.

Like Eduardo, I am a Black Puerto Rican sociologist. Like Eduardo, “Soy …una afroboricua guillá y con babilla,” which in English roughly translates to “I am a gutsy and self-assured” Afro Puerto Rican. Eduardo supports the work of scholars of color and scholarship in race and racism that is often pushed to the margins and delegitimated in academia. He has been a mentor and outspoken advocate for countless scholars of race even when doing so has negatively impacted his own career and well-being. He indicts racism in departments, universities and other institutions when others will not.

The concluding statement of his 2018 American Sociological Association (ASA) presidential address is emblematic of his courage:

I have talked with hundreds of sociologists of color throughout my career and can confidently, but sadly, report that very few feel fully integrated and respected in their sociological homes. … I know most White sociologists believe we do not have serious racial issues in sociology, or worse, think that whatever problems we have are caused by sociologists of color. Doubters should check the data. They should read the reports ASA has produced on diversity issues over the years and the vast literature on the status of people of color in the academy. They should ask colleagues who attended the Town Halls on diversity organized by ASA over the past few years about the things they heard. They should speak with sociologists of color (faculty and students) in their own departments about the things I discuss here. ... … Defensiveness or self-absolution will not help us address the serious racial issues afflicting sociology. White sociologists must get serious about race matters even if doing so hurts. ... The question before us then is this: will we face our racial issues and work to create a truly inclusive and multicultural sociology, or will we continue believing like Pangloss that ours is “the best of all (sociological) worlds”? I sincerely hope we choose door number one.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is one of the most important and influential scholars of race of our time. His pathbreaking book and scholarly work has reshaped how we understand race and racism in the academy and beyond. Yet, in the acknowledgments of the most recent edition of “Racism Without Racists,” Eduardo wrote that he “labor[s] mostly alone in my sociological corner.” I am privileged and honored to join him in his corner.