UC Berkeley News: Michael Omi: How asking questions can lead to empowering others

As a child who grew up in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco, Michael Omi had a gift for chemistry. The way molecular structures are used to design new drugs so fascinated him that he wanted to become a pharmacist.

As a child who grew up in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco, Michael Omi had a gift for chemistry. The way molecular structures are used to design new drugs so fascinated him that he wanted to become a pharmacist.

But upon arriving at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate student in 1969, Omi was immersed in a tumultuous time in American history, where street conflicts between student organizers and the police were a daily occurrence, and National Guard blockades were commonplace on a campus plagued by Vietnam War protests.

I remember a helicopter that came down around the campus spitting out tear gas to disperse the crowds, ”Omi said. “As a student, I say to myself, ‘What is this? Why is this happening? ‘”

Omi found the answers to his questions in the first ethnic studies classes at Berkeley, which the Third World Liberation Front – a coalition of ethnic student groups – fought for implementation on college campuses in California.

This knowledge, Omi said, was “incredibly stimulating” and would ultimately lead to a distinguished 35-year of career as an educator at Berkeley, activist and pioneer researcher. In 1986, with Howard Winant, professor at UC Santa Barbara, Omi is co-author of the book Racial training in the United States. The text became a seminal work in the study of race in America, and is still taught in universities across the country.

Omi recently retired from the Department of Ethnic Studies at Berkeley and will be honored by faculty, friends and students at a one-day commemoration held at the Berkeley Faculty Club on Friday October 1st. Part of the festivities will also be held virtually.

“I have had the opportunity and tremendous satisfaction working with students,” said Omi, who still plans to stay connected to the Berkeley campus community.As an educator, watching them rethink their place in the world and ask important questions that help them see society from a different perspective has been a real pleasure. “

Berkeley News recently spoke to Omi about how his theory of racial formations has stood the test of time, what ethnic studies researchers need to focus on moving forward, and why the public discourse on the impact of race race on American society is still important.

Berkeley News: Your theories about racial formation in America were considered by many to be revolutionary at the time. From the introduction of the very real racial hierarchies that exist, to the conception of the concept of race only as a social construct. Is it sad to see some of the same racial issues you identified over 35 years ago still present in American society today?

Michael Omi: Yes it is. Howard Winant and I really wanted to suggest how the concept of race takes root and unfolds across time and space.

But to say that race is a social concept is also quite insufficient. We must say how we gave it meaning: what are the ideologies attached to it? How is race used as a principle of stratification to determine people’s access to employment, housing, health care, etc. ?

Since then, we’ve learned a lot from academics who have used some of the basic concepts of racial training theory and really applied and extended them in ways we hadn’t even imagined. And in some cases revealed its limitations.

There is enormous continuity between yesterday and today. And it really reaffirms the centrality of race in American politics and culture. If you think about everything that’s going on, the pandemic has certainly highlighted the structure of racial disparities in terms of who our frontline workers are and who can get vaccinated.

The murder of George Floyd, among other black men and women, continues to raise issues regarding law enforcement and mass incarceration in the United States. We now have voter suppression laws underway in many states, diluting the voting power of colored groups. And you have Asian Americans who go from being a “model minority” to being a racial threat.

All of these things – including the Capitol uprising – reaffirm the centrality of race in contemporary politics.

What is the connection between the Capitol uprising and race in America?

I think it was really a response to the unprecedented scale of contemporary human migration and the national and global impact of neoliberalism on economic policies.

And it is motivated by fears of cultural disintegration and the alleged “loss of national identity and solidarity”. There’s a lot of talk about the fear of the “white replacement”, and I think it’s really important for us to pay attention to that given the increasingly diverse racial demographic trends.

What will it look like for white people? Throughout the history of the United States, fears of replacing whites have generated major political movements like the Know-Nothing Party and various incarnations of the Ku Klux Klan. Current groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Boogaloo Boys are just the most recent expression of this political backlash, driven by white men’s fear of falling into status and grace.

Looks like history is repeating itself. Do you think anything has changed this time around?

Yes. There has been a much wider acceptance of the concept of systemic racism than before, and we actually have big companies talking about it. This is a significant discursive shift in some ways, although I doubt “big business” really knows what systemic racism is.

We have also moved from seeing racism as mere individual expressions of hostility, violence or prejudice, to understanding the institutionalized and structural ways in which race and racism manifests itself.

You have taught so many courses over the years. What research or program do you hope ethnic studies academics will continue to focus on?

I think a lot of times we look at different groups in isolation from each other. It is therefore very important for breed specialists to take a more relational approach to understanding how groups are differentiated by race and how these groups continually shape each other’s conditions of existence.

This is an important discourse in which we must engage with our students.

For the past few years, I have taught an undergraduate seminar focused on the racialization of Black and Asian American communities and how they can be complicit in mutual oppression.

In a racial hierarchy, we are all positioned differently and have different powers in society, so it is sometimes difficult to identify with each other, let alone forge coalitions with other groups. In the course I offered, I got to see students from all walks of life thinking more deeply about how to build solidarity between and among different communities of color.

How can researchers advance the study and discourse around acts of racial violence against these communities of color?

I think it’s really important that researchers look more at the impact of racial dynamics at the macro level on the micro. And by that I mean the relationship between institutions and structures to individual interactions.

How do you explain, for example, what motivates someone to violently attack an elderly person of Asian American origin in the street? What is the connection between broader ideological beliefs, structural context, and individual motivations?

I hope something is getting more attention as well, and that is this notion of what anti-racism is. We might need to define this concept for people because I think it is a bit underdeveloped in terms of what we mean by an anti-racist practice or policy. What would an anti-racist movement focus on and define? I think we need a lot more specificity.

What should this specificity be?

At this point, we may be on the verge of realizing the limits of the civil rights paradigm. The continued pervasiveness of racism in the United States suggests that civil rights reforms may be insufficient to challenge entrenched models of racial inequality.

It’s not enough.

So, we must collectively ask ourselves: what would a movement do that seriously considers structural racism? And what types of institutions need to be transformed to achieve this? How could answering these questions impact our economy? Our policy? Our health system? And so on.

All this must be reflected in order to fight effectively against systemic and structural forms of racism.

As you say goodbye to Berkeley, how do you think campus has helped you grow over the years?

Berkeley is an amazing place and it has helped me grow and mature as a teacher and as a person.

I have had the opportunity and enormous satisfaction to work with students. As an educator, watching them rethink their place in the world and ask important questions that help them see society from a different perspective has been a real pleasure.

I also learned a lot from the work of academics from different departments, schools and institutes on this campus. Getting in touch and being engaged in conversations with them over the years has been a real joy and a continuous learning experience.

Often times I have learned a lot from people I disagree with. And it allowed me to appreciate opinions different from my own. It is important to be able to cross the divide and think deeply about the positions of others.

And whether you agree or not, these conversations and questions will help you grow in more ways than one.

This press release was produced by UC Berkeley News. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.

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