The Rule of Racialization

Steve Martinot – The Rule of Racialization reviewed by David Mertz

There are certain optical illusions that are extremely resistant to “demystification”; only by breaking them down into components too small for recognition of the overall form can we escape their trap. Yet as soon as we add back enough atomized material to recognize the original form, we cannot resist the illusion.

In Martinot’s archaeology, the concept of race has much of this irreducibly compelling deceit. How can racialized persons be constructed out of the raw material of people who differ only in accidental individual qualities? And how can an ideology of race emerge out of a society that previously lacked such a concept? Like all concepts, race has a history; but the concept also carries at its kernel a denial of its historicity. Martinot sees the American racial concept as emerging only after several decades of the importation of African slaves to Virginia Colony, as a refinement of economically motivated legal frameworks-and as then evolving in various ways over the next several centuries. Mere physical complexion does not race make, except in the retroactive act of its construction.

Martinot provides a fairly traditionally Marxist narrative of dominant capitalist classes molding naturalizing ideologies out of narrowly economic interests. But rather than simply accepting a base/superstructure schema, Martinot works out the evolution decade by decade, law by law, commodity by commodity. His analysis-which remains specific to a U.S. context of racialization traces the construction and condensation of racial categories. The book’s chapters progress chronologically, from the self-interest of 17th-century Virginia Colony landowners, through the whiteness “bargain” of the 19th-century “free labor movements,” to contemporary forms of racialization like racial profiling by police.

The relation Martinot holds to Marxist terminology is ambivalent. He argues, convincingly, that racialization preceded and set the horizon for the formation of (white) U.S. class identities. He rightly finds unconvincing a familiar identification of race as a mere tactic for division of an authentic working class identity. Nonetheless, the history he presents is one of economic relations, and roles in systems of production. Violence, of course, always played a central role in the maintenance of race, but even the white “intermediary control strata” are understood in generally productivist terms. Social evolution and the formation of ideological forms are understood relatively univocally as advancing the security of a mode of production-never as a counterhegemonic or orthogonal tendency.

Either Martinot is too productivist, or perhaps he is lured by the enchantment of dialectical puns, e.g. discussing the Jacksonian producer ethic:

Both white working-class roles were productive-of social wealth on the one hand and of the whiteness of corporate society on the other (111).

While his whole book is quite strong in its characterization of such economic and ideological duality, I remain wary that an equivocation hides within such doubling of the word “productive”-I am quite willing to accept the economic centrality of ideological production, but not on the basis of an attractive word-play. There are many points, unfortunately, in The Rule of Racialization where Martinot, to my mind, puts excessive weight on a nice verbal formulation; but overall, he generally adduces directly supportive historical documents and insightful analysis. As a whole, he makes a good case that…

The white working class was a product of economic (capitalist) property, yet defined by a social property (whiteness) through which it became the producer of the society of (that) property (99).

The Rule of Racialization falls in the emerging field of “whiteness studies”-of a piece, for example, with the work of Noel Ignatiev,* Theodore Allen, David Roediger, and Matthew Frey Jacobson. Perhaps because of this newish focus, there is a somewhat odd silence in the book. Throughout Martinot’s meticulous histories, almost on each page, we are left wondering how African Americans conceptualized and internalized their situation at each particular date and place. As much as blacks have been unwilling participants in the emerging system of race, and their choices have been starkly shaped by an overwhelming violence, their resistances, co-optation, and self-consciousness must have played a role in what specifically evolved. I wish the perspective of African Americans were better integrated into Martinot’s historical narrative, in parallel with the changing consciousness and self-conceptualization of whites.

I believe Martinot would offer a particular objection to my criticism, however. For him, “racism is a relation between whites for which nonwhite people are the language” (185). In this sense racism is simply not a system in which non-whites participate. Still, histories emerge, at least in part, out of the actions of individuals; and the “others” of white supremacy have always acted also.

Moreover, I think that Martinot’s theme of race emerging out of the primary construction of whiteness mandates his focus on black and white in the racial system of the United States. It is certainly not that Martinot forgets other non-whites-Native Americans, Latinos, Chinese, and so on-but emerging out of the African/European/North American slave trade, it was this particular reified juridico-legal recognition of a chromatic difference that first constructed the meaning of whiteness. Native Americans in pre-Revolution colonies, even as they might be murdered or have their land expropriated in accordance with British law, were initially conceptualized as heathen and/or lacking agency under that law, but not (yet) in explicitly racial terms.

A particular circular structure of presupposition occurs, according to Martinot, throughout the history of racialization-and provides a key to understanding its illusion. A racial ideology discovers its antecedents and necessity everywhere it looks, because its very process is the construction of race under its gaze. For example, in recent racial profiling…

Profiling is the inverse of law enforcement. In law enforcement, a crime is discovered and the police then look for a suspect who might possibly have committed it. Profiling means that a suspect is discovered and the police then look for a crime for the person to have possibly committed (168).

Likewise, in pre-Civil War “free states”:

When newly arrived refugees from slavery sought to vote, they were denied on the basis that, as former or runaway slaves, they were unfit for the franchise. If they did not seek the vote, in order to live unnoticed as far as possible, they were deemed unfit for not having participated in the democratic process (104).

This same pattern of ideological discovery is ubiquitous in white supremacy.

After all of Martinot’s analysis, the fundamental mystery still remains: how can race remain so persistent, even across changes in class systems and in the specific forms of racialization? The circular rationalizations about race provide part of the answer, but it always feels as if something is missing. This is not remotely a flaw in Martinot’s book, but is the very kernel that he moves us slightly closer towards being able to understand.

Reviewed by David Mertz
Gnosis Software

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