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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

The Schematic State: How Nations Create Conditions that Perpetuate Racial Inequalities

How are racial boundaries defined, and who decides where they lie? What aspects of power and privilege are at work in designing the rules that rule race? Why do states make and manipulate racial classification schema, and with what effects? Northwestern University Associate Professor of African American Studies Dr. Barnor Hesse was joined by Dr. Debra Thompson, Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University, for a dialogue about “the racial state” and the structures that create, shape, and maintain it during a Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs webinar. Here are three key takeaways from the discussion:

Racial boundaries are constructed by states. Through institutionalized mechanisms such as the census, states are able to envision and set racial categories, which change over time. “We see countless examples of governments using state institutions to very purposely create conditions of inequality for certain groups of people,” Thompson said. That is not to say the actions of states are always sinister, but that states provide the schematics for conditions that perpetuate racial inequality through their institutions.  “Even as we find ourselves in the first decades of the 21st century, we still have a state that is founded on white sovereignty, and that actively schemes to maintain circumstances of racial inequality, whether or not it appears to be doing so,” she said.

Today’s racial classification schematics are inextricably linked to the legacy of colonialism.  Both Thompson and Hesse argue that, while we know today that there is absolutely nothing biological about race, the legacy of the historic pseudo-biological construction of race persists as an underlying justification for social stratification. Race is a socially constructed global formation, and the “deep underlying categories of what gets to be called race always emerge from the colonial European marking of the world, which demarcated Europeans from non-Europeans, which later becomes white versus non-white. “These are not biological categories, but rather they are colonial categories,” Hesse said.

The state acts as a mediator between transnational and local ideas about race. The state plays a role as a mediator “between global racial formations and domestic-level manifestations of racial classification and identification,” Thompson said. The global protests against the murder of George Floyd this past summer were in many ways a reaction against the role that states play in perpetuating the global construction of race.  “It’s not that people in Great Britain or Canada or Germany are marching in outrage against the murder of George Floyd alone, they’re also marching in response to their own experiences of police violence and the ways in which the state they happen to be in is frequently involved in creating and maintaining these circumstances of racial inequality,” Thompson added.


 This webinar is part of Northwestern Buffett’s "Building Sustainable Futures: Global Challenges and Possibilities" webinar series. The series will focus on a different United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) each quarter, beginning with UN SDG #16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions—an examination of how existing infrastructures uphold and promote violence, and what we can do to build more effective, accountable institutions.