After a Career of Challenging Racial Myths, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva Isn't Slowing Down

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's body of work has shaped academic and popular discussion of race and inequality.

In 2003, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva published what would prove his seminal work of academic scholarship: Racism Without Racists. In it, the sociologist – then at Texas A&M University – challenged the notion that the United States existed as a color-blind society.

The book made a splash within academia and beyond, setting the table for countless conversations about race, systemic racism and many of the divisions that continue to plague society in the US and elsewhere.

Bonilla-Silva came to Duke in 2005 and since has continued to hammer away at structural racism. Among his most recent publications, a 2020 article – just a few months into COVID-19 – that examined how the pandemic broadened inequities for people in marginalized communities.

A giant in his field, Bonilla-Silva will be honored later this summer with the W.E.B. Du Bois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association.

“While many agree, and some may disagree, with his work, the truth is that his racism theory has become canon – often required on preliminary/area exams and used as the theoretical scaffolding on countless research papers,” said David Embrick, a professor of sociology and Africana Studies at the University of Connecticut who nominated Bonilla-Silva for the award. “Part of the reason is that Bonilla-Silva doesn’t want people to just cite his research, but also to engage with it critically in ways that allow for new racism theories to emerge, to think deeply about any shortcomings and address them, and to take his theories to the next level. So, he’s always encouraging scholars to do more, think bigger and go beyond.”

Bonilla-Silva will receive the award in August. He recently talked with Duke Today about his career and research. Here are excerpts:

 

In July of last year, just months into the pandemic, you published a paper examining inequality in ways minorities and people of color working ‘essential’ jobs were treated. In it, you take issue with the ‘we’re all in this together’ rhetoric that was quick to emerge when the pandemic began. Why?

Bonilla-Silva: I was critical in that paper of this notion that we’re all in this together because social divisions, whether based on race, class or gender, do not disappear just because we have a pandemic. The pandemic created this mythology.

The truth is, a year later, the data is in. Race, class inequality, if anything, increased in the pandemic. Women were significantly more likely to suffer economically. Think about domestic violence. And in terms of class inequality – the people we talk about essential workers, they didn’t get an essential wage. So now we’re talking about bringing the minimum wage up to 15 dollars; but in the pandemic, there was no talk about that. We just expected them to work. We talked about them like Superman and Super-Woman, but Superman shouldn’t be dying.

 

And that gets right to the root of inequality?

Bonilla-Silva: We have been having this color-blind racism as an ideology organizing how people talk, think and navigate the difficult waters of race. Any ideology, whether it’s about race class or gender, has to accommodate new events and sort of move with history. In this case, the pandemic provided a critical juncture that forced us to deal with the new reality.

Look at bus drivers. They were forced to take essential workers to work because the rest of us stayed home. The essential worker had to go to work, and many of them had to take public transportation. So if you’re a bus driver, you’re more likely to be exposed to the disease.

 

 

“Everyone was praising the [pandemic] heroes. But on the other side not doing anything practically to help the heroes do well and thrive and survive the pandemic. It was sort of faking the funk.”
-- Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

 

How does the media and popular culture portrayal of ‘pandemic heroes’ differ from the reality of it?

Bonilla-Silva: We frame them as heroes. At the beginning of the pandemic, every program and commercial, everyone was praising the heroes. But on the other side not doing anything practically to help the heroes do well and thrive and survive the pandemic. It was sort of faking the funk. ‘We love you, but we aren’t going to do absolutely anything to make sure you’re safe.’

Now we know a year later, we have better data now, that not only were they exposed physically, but the mental stress was overwhelming. Day in and day out. Going to work in a hospital full of people dying. Having to be an essential worker whose job now is to be a counselor, a mom, a dad because we’re dealing with a person dying alone. So they had to fulfill this spiritual work. Who gives them therapy? Who gives them time to relax and have breaks?

And again, these were jobs staffed in large part, by women, minorities and people on the lower end of the pay scale.

The race angle here is: If you don’t understand that women and people of color are over-represented in these jobs, you think we’re a united family and all in it together. In truth, the essential workers are working every day, under duress.  We love them, theoretically. Except that we don’t follow through by saying ‘you’ll have a decent salary, retirement, vacation and access to mental health.’

 

So how is this all solved or improved?

Bonilla-Silva: Why don’t you tax people a little more? It’s public policy 101.

But it’s not solvable until we accept first that racism is systemic. We need to do deep interventions to remove race as a system of practices that produce inequality. Advantages for some (Whites) and disadvantages for others (nonwhites). For most people, racism is something performed and enacted by bad people. But the more we look at bad actors, the less we understand how systems of inequality operate. All systems of inequality operate by becoming systemic, that is, by incorporating most people into the game—some as beneficiaries and some as subordinated actors.    

Then you analyze what the practices are that produce differences in outcomes. Incomes. Neighborhoods, etc. Then you try to undo the practices, practices that are carried out by regular folks following their racially prescribed script.

But how can we undo contemporary practices when the country hasn’t been able to deal even with the legacy of discrimination? It doesn’t have to be a check for every person of color. But it may be collective things; collective reparations if you will. Baby bonds or things like that to make sure the inequality, the legacy of the system, is reduced if not eliminated.

Now the beginning, like in therapy, is recognizing we have a problem. And unfortunately, that is not where we are. Where we are at is in denial. People saying racism either isn’t that bad or it’s in reverse. Or, for the liberals and progressives, racism is done by the others – by the uneducated working class of America. I make the argument that racism is systemic and collective, and we all participate in it in different ways.

 

Your paper on pandemic-related inequality came out last July. How does the situation look now, close to a year later?

Bonilla-Silva: What did we learn now? The data on differential mortality has been empirically verified. That pattern that began even before the pandemic – because health inequalities are not new – was clearly exposed during the pandemic and now we all know.

And now we know these inequalities even apply to vaccinations. We see a continuation to the practices we saw in the pandemic. The data on vaccinations is clear. People of color in America are significantly behind on vaccinations. It is not just, as the media portrays, a matter of hesitancy.

We know poor people, in particular poor people of color, are less likely to have cars. We tell them to get the vaccine they need to come twice.

Companies should incentivize workers to get the vaccine. Otherwise, for those people living on the margins, the idea they’d lose two days of work and may get sick for a day, it doesn’t work for them. We knew better because this isn’t new. We know people without access to cars are less likely to get access to healthcare. We knew that.