Essay: Los Angeles as a Case Study for Racial Formation and Stratification

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  • Published on: July 4, 2019
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What is Omi and Winant’s racial formation theory and what are racial projects?

Sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant define racial formation as a “sociohistorical construct in which the meaning of race is defined and contested through society, in both collective action and personal practice and in the process, racial categories themselves are formed, transformed, destroyed, and re-formed” (Rothenberg, 2016). Racial formation is accomplished by “historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized” (Rothenberg, 2016). Racial formation is a dialectical process with the relationship going in both directions; the idea of a certain race feeds back to everyday and is reinforced by certain practices, such as cultural differences, which are prominent due to the practices. Racial projects are examples of the racial formation theory and are “[…] simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines” (Omi & Winant, 2014).

What is stratification and durable inequality?

Stratification are the inequalities between people in socially defined categories such as race, class, and gender, characterized by differential access to scarce resources such as income, wealth, race, education, power, status, and social capital. Stratification boils down to the allocation of people and the institutionalization of processes regarding the allocation of resources. The term durable inequality comes from Tilly (1999) who states that durable inequality depends heavily on the institutionalization of categorical pairs and is reproduced by exploitation and opportunity hoarding mechanisms such as discrimination, unfair treatment, and constant practices by the wealthy to prevent others from achieving resources. Exploitation rests on unequal distribution of rewards and these mechanisms cause residential segregation, housing discrimination, prevention of education which are imbedded in institutions, economy, cultural practices, stereotypes, etc.

How does Los Angeles serve as a case study for racial formation, racial projects, stratification, and durable inequality?

While Los Angeles is a multicultural city, it serves a great example of a case study for racial formation, racial projects, stratification, and durable inequality. There are many socioeconomic processes occurring in Los Angeles that reinforces who the other is and there are many mechanisms that create durable racism. Los Angeles county was built as a racial project and built on the backs of people of sellers (Latinos, Blacks, Asians) so that whites could retain their socioeconomic advantages. We can see Los Angeles as a case study by focusing specifically on how Los Angeles has constructed Mexican Americans as the “other”.

The racial battle between Mexican Americans and whites occurred back even before California was part of the United States. Even after the war fueled by Manifest Destiny, a doctrine that claimed that the U.S. had a destiny to occupy the North American continent, basically a racial project of white supremacy, ended, racial hate continued with Los Angeles growth achieved by hating Mexicans and immigrants. White capitalists engaged in racial projects of the separation of nonwhites as different to retain power and economic power in the 1850s. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, rancheros were to be honored but the 1851 Act passed to make rancheros provide proof that they own land and the boundaries of their land. This was in an effort to cut down markers as it was very costly to divest the ranchos. The government started taxing the land and the rancheros could not pay the taxes and therefore were kicked out. The act by the government demonstrated the power of whites as one institutional mechanism of white supremacy. Mexicans were seen as inferior and Whites superior.

Another example of Los Angeles as a project of racial formation is with the Spanish Fantasy Past. Los Angeles was portrayed with many false images about their history. In marketing events, Los Angeles was seen as a beautiful and vibrant city with a nice and friendly Spanish past. The San Fernando Heights Lemon Association turned Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Ramona” to project an image of romantic, erotic, sexualized Southern California. La Fiesta de Los Angeles was created to publicly whitewash the adobe past and create distinctions that were solidified in celebratory ways and show that peace had been achieved and to celebrate the triumph of the Manifest Destiny. The Spanish Fantasy Past was a construction of Los Angeles as a racial project as a creation of people as inherently superior or inferior to retain privilege and power as part of a sociohistorical process. Human bodies were organized in certain ways as meanings of racial superiority and inferiority and marginalization. This racial project of structuring of groups was the capitalist transformation of Los Angeles.

Include in these 3 examples specific policies or institutions that demonstrate how racial projects impact the structure of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles has instituted many racial projects that have impacted its structure. Back when there were many new immigrants coming into Los Angeles, there were restrictive racial covenants enacted. As immigrants continued to migrate, they were constantly kept out of white neighborhoods due to racially restrictive covenants which were first introduced in the 1800s but widespread in the 1920s. Racial restrictive covenants were not law but written in property deeds between sellers and buyers. It was written into contracts that houses could not be sold to those not white as realtors were engaged in racially steering covenants to keep out Mexicans, Blacks, Asians, and Jews. There was an “invisible wall of steel” and it was hard for immigrants to get loans, making property ownership difficult. Property ownership became equated with race and naturalization of segregation due to durable inequality.

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