An Enduring Social Malaise: Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Seminal Text Re-Examines Racism’s Persistence

Bonilla-Silva provides a thought-provoking analysis of contemporary racial dynamics, uncovering the subtler forms of racism that exist in society.

By Earl Smith

Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, 6th ed., by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Rowman & Littlefield, 2022. 392p, 9781538151402 $90.00; 9781538151419 $45.00; 9781538151426 $42.50

Book cover of Racism without Racists

Originally published in 2003, Racism without Racists, by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (sociology, Duke Univ.), lives on into this sixth edition because it is still needed today. Despite landmark legislation and Supreme Court rulings, racism and race-based discrimination continue to permeate every facet of American society. For instance, although Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) mandated desegregation in public spaces, primarily schools, education scholars Gary Orfield and Danielle Jarvie note that American school systems today are either just as segregated as or more segregated than they were at the time of that historic decision.1 Housing segregation persists as well, exemplified by the case of a Black couple whose home was undervalued by appraisers because of their race.2 Even in the National Football League, all 32 teams, except for two,3 are owned and controlled by white men who profit off the many Black players—a dynamic former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores has characterized as operating “like a plantation.”4

The heightened visibility of this continued racism takes on new meaning when high-profile figures and politicians feed into it, such as when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump descended the escalator in Trump Tower to announce that Mexicans were a “problem” that the United States had to contain. On June 16, 2015, in a speech announcing his presidential candidacy, he said:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.5

For this reviewer, Trump’s declaration marked the beginning of a new phase of so-called color-blind racism, more pernicious than that of any other presidential campaign or administration in American history, including those of Richard Nixon6 and Ronald Regan.7

For readers who may have heard the term, but still ponder what exactly color-blind racism entails, Bonilla-Silva defines its four central frames in chapter 4: abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism, and the minimization of racism. These elements work together to reflect the dominant racialized social systems and reinforce the status quo. Bonilla-Silva writes that abstract liberalism is “the most important” element of color-blind racism and “also the hardest to understand” (p. 80) because white people often invoke liberalism to “appear ‘reasonable’ and even ‘moral’” (p. 82). The author first presents a brief history of liberalism, noting that when its tenets are applied logically, social movements like the Civil Rights Movement can produce meaningful outcomes in service to the right to “‘[l]ife, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all’” (p. 82). However, as Bonilla-Silva goes on to show, abstract liberalism rests on the notion of individual choice, according to which policies intended to correct racial inequalities, such as affirmative action, are seen as unfair preferential treatment. As a result, biological views about race—e.g., that Black people have lower IQs and are therefore less capable than white people—have been replaced by cultural perspectives that more insidiously uphold the racist status quo in the twenty-first century.

Throughout the book, Bonilla-Silva interweaves stories that support his thesis, most of which draw on two original sources of data: the 1997 Survey of Social Attitudes of College Students and the 1998 Detroit Area Study. While the stories are illuminating, one may wonder if they still accurately convey the racial attitudes held by Black and white Americans today. Given the range of social media outlets presently available, it would have been interesting to examine racial attitudes expressed more recently through those sites, given that they radicalized many white Americans who engaged in the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Moreover, the results of a revised Detroit Area Survey during the Trump era would have been interesting to examine as well. This reviewer predicts that an updated area survey would yield similar responses to those gleaned in the 1940s or 1950s: conveying deeply held and explicit racist feelings and beliefs. Although it is difficult to critique authors for what they did not intend to include, pulling in some current survey research on racism would have greatly enhanced this edition, especially since many Americans feel Trump’s administration worsened race relations.8

More damaging than any Trump tirade against President Obama was Trump’s insistence that Obama was not a citizen of the United States.

Ultimately, however, it is notable that racist America came alive during Barack Obama’s two terms as president. According to writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, the foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy. More damaging than any Trump tirade against President Obama was Trump’s insistence that Obama was not a citizen of the United States. As Coates writes, “[Trump’s] political career began in advocacy of birtherism, that modern recasting of the old American precept that [B]lack people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built.”9 Trump’s attacks on Obama were so constant and relentless that they became Trump’s signal call, used at every possible instance.

Data from sources like the Pew Research Center show that Trump brought back overt style racism.10 He reimagined it in his fashion and threw it out there for his base and others to use at will. In discussing how Trump built his political playbook, Coates contends that before Obama was elected president individuals were the primary targets of racial slurs or racialized denigrations, exemplified by Bill Clinton’s denunciation of Sister Souljah or George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton attack ad. However, as Coates writes,

Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire [n—-] presidency with [n—-] health care, [n—-] climate accords, and [n—-] justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being White. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a [B]lack president.11

(Note: Coates uses the N-word throughout, in this case for stylistic emphasis.)

Although it is still unclear how far the white supremacist reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency will go, it is evident that despite the election of the first Black president, the United States still has a race problem. Bonilla-Silva’s analysis in this new edition is spot on in addressing the issue. He even includes a newly updated chapter on the very timely topic of color-blind racism and the COVID-19 pandemic, in which he provides evidence to demonstrate that Black Americans and other communities of color were disproportionately impacted by the disease because they occupied predominantly low-wage jobs on the front lines (e.g., working in grocery stores, meatpacking plants, restaurants, and public transportation) and not because of medical pre-conditions. By contrast, more affluent, mostly white Americans—those labeled “knowledge workers”—could afford to work from the safety of their homes because they were being served by those same frontline workers.

To be sure, the United States is most certainly not a so-called post-racial society, and because of this, Bonilla-Silva’s expertise is still needed to explain the new forms of racism that emerge and to reveal how they operate. This sixth edition of Racism without Racists is a powerful update, nothing short of the excellence readers have come to expect from Bonilla-Silva and the work he produces.

Notes

1. Gary Orfield and Danielle Jarvie, Black Segregation Matters: School Resegregation and Black Educational Opportunity, The Civil Rights Project, 2020, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/4jp1z62n.

2. Debra Kamin, “Home Appraised With a Black Owner: $472,000. With a White Owner: $750,000,” New York Times, August 18, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/18/realestate/housing-discrimination-maryland.html.

3. The only non-white owners are Shad Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Kim Pegula, who co-owns the Buffalo Bills with her husband Terry, who is white.

4. Steve Almond, “The NFL is a billion dollar ‘plantation,’” WBUR, February 9, 2022, https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2022/02/09/nfl-superbowl-race-norming-brian-flores-steve-almond.

5. “Transcript: Donald Trump announces his presidential candidacy,” CBS News, June 15, 2016, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-donald-trump-announces-his-presidential-candidacy/.

6. See Nixon’s “southern strategy” proposals, which played into the racism of white southerners, stoking their resentment of civil rights to garner conservative votes in the South.

7. Most notably, Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign speech in Neshoba County, Mississippi, the place where three civil rights workers were murdered, in which he praised states’ rights, a dog whistle meant to appeal to white supremacists. For more on the notorious murders of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, see Les Bayless, “Three who gave their lives: Remembering the martyrs of Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964,” People’s Weekly World, May 25, 1996, http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/046.html.

8. “Most Americans Say Trump’s Election Has Led to Worse Race Relations in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, December 19, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2017/12/19/most-americans-say-trumps-election-has-led-to-worse-race-relations-in-the-u-s/.

9. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The First White President,” The Atlantic, October 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/the-first-white-president-ta-nehisi-coates/537909/.

10. “Most Americans Say Trump’s Election Has Led to Worse Race Relations in the U.S.”

11. Coates, “The First White President.”

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Advanced undergraduates through faculty.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – Sociology

Be sure to also check out Racism without Racists in “A List of DEIA Resources for Higher Education,” featured on Toward Inclusive Excellence.


Earl Smith is professor of women & gender studies at the University of Delaware, as well as emeritus distinguished professor of American ethnic studies and sociology at Wake Forest University. He received his PhD in sociology from the University of Connecticut.