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The Machinery of Whiteness: Studies in the Structure of Racialization by Steve Martinot

by Jasbinder Nijjar
7 May 2016 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [10] | Review

Book Review: Steve Martinot (2010) The Machinery of Whiteness: Studies in the Structure of Racialization. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

If, as Mike Davis mentions, the Rodney King episode in Los Angeles was a “test of the very meaning of citizenship for which African-Americans have struggled for four hundred years”,[1] then Steve Martinot paints a picture of contemporary race relations in the United States which reveals that those with darker shades of skin all but remain excluded and disintegrated from its socio-political arena. Martinot ventures to expose what he calls ‘the machinery of whiteness’, that is, a relation of social practices that are (re)produced in the U.S. from the operations of socio-political institutions and serve to racialise whites as superior and blacks as inferior. The book begins by describing an incident in Jena, Louisiana in 2006 which saw a black unarmed student who was defending himself from a white armed student charged with theft and assault. This leads Martinot to assert that “‘racism’ names the damage, leaving us to ponder the machinery that gives permissibility and legitimacy to such an egregious inversion of justice” (p.1). Hence, Martinot aims to “discern the outline and nature of that machinery so that we can see it and figure out how to stand in its way” (p.3). Indeed, in the subsequent chapters of the book, Martinot meticulously illuminates how a broad range of issues including the instrumentalisation of black motherhood to control the black populace, the racialisation of American society through the prison and policing systems and anti-immigration as popular and political discourse operate to manufacture a general consensus among white Americans about their supposed racial superiority.

An admirable quality of the book is its attempt to conceptualise racism in the context of wider socio-cultural processes, namely gender relations concerning motherhood and the criminalisation of women. For instance, in a chapter titled ‘Motherland and the Invention of Race’, Martinot takes a sophisticated multi-disciplinary approach that is composed of historical, legal, sociological and political analysis to recount the case of Regina McKnight. McKnight, a black woman from South Carolina who had a drug habit, was convicted of homicide in 2001 after giving birth to a stillborn baby under the judicial concept of ‘viable fetus’. That there was no evidence to suggest that drugs played a role in the death of her child renders the McKnight case, for Martinot, a pertinent example of the evolution of the instrumentalisation of black motherhood and the criminalisation of black women for the purpose of quantitatively and qualitatively controlling the black populace and ensuring a general consensus among white society regarding its supposed superiority. As he outlines, “Whereas under slavery African women were punished for not producing children, recent policies towards women of colour have reversed this, punishing them for getting pregnant” (p.37). Martinot concludes the chapter by reaffirming that ““Gender” and “race” remain hierarchal social structures that have never been independent of each other” (p.65). Thus, as part of his attempt to outline some of the mechanisms that operate what he calls ‘the machinery of whiteness’ – here judicial devices for racialised population control and criminalisation – Martinot draws on the intersection between race and gender and, as such, offers an elaborated analysis of how racial injustice is tied to broader socio-cultural issues.[2]

This effort to tie racism to wider struggles of social injustice, however, also leads to one of the book’s weaknesses. While Martinot acknowledges that “For women (both the violated and the inviolable), escape from these boundaries required doors of resistance” (p.54), he outlines an anti-racist agenda in the concluding section of his study which leaves one to ponder if/how black feminism fits into his bid to challenge aspects of racism that intersect with sexism, as the book thoroughly details, to instrumentalise black women and preserve hierarchies of race and gender. To exclude the insights on racial and gender oppression offered by black feminism means that Martinot overlooks the capacity for black women to see things from the “unique angle of vision concerning Black womanhood”[3] which they occupy as a consequence of the material conditions that accompany the changing social constructions of race and gender. Correspondingly, Martinot misses a fundamental opportunity to incorporate into his framework of anti-racism a body of thought based on the experiences of those at the receiving end of racial and gender discrimination which could aid in developing specific tactics for resisting that discrimination.

That aside, the book carefully reveals how contemporary racial injustices in the USA are tied to a history of similar circumstances of racism in the country and how those links underpin the agendas of a cultural structure which operates to preserve a sense of white superiority. For example, Martinot highlights that the equality enjoyed by non-whites following the abolition of Jim Crow laws meant that “White society found itself without its impunity, without its control over its black/white border, and without its unity or consensus as white” (p.69). However, he adds that, “all dimensions of white racialized identity under Jim Crow have been reconstructed in the wake of the civil rights movement” (p.75). As such, Martinot exhaustively uncovers how, in Omi and Winant’s terms,[4] the ‘unstable equilibrium’ of the U.S. racial order has been gradually rebalanced to favour whites and subordinate blacks so that the former can re-imagine itself as the superior racial group. The police-prison complex has, for Martinot, been central to this political counterbalancing process. He highlights how the racist application of autonomous policing procedures including profiling, victimless crime laws and the demand for obedience and punishing of disobedience have stimulated racial segregation (non-whites comprise 75% of America’s incarcerated) and developed cohesion among white America (based on ‘black criminality’). The book, thus, outlines that determinants such as white impunity, segregation and populism which upheld the notion of white supremacy and cohesion during slavery and Jim Crow have, rather than being suppressed by race equality laws, been reconfigured in accordance to the terms of post-civil rights USA to continue providing the foundation on which political policies and institutional operations that preserve a white racialised identity rest.

A particularly crucial element of The Machinery of Whiteness is its capacity to cautiously uncover how white American society is implicated in reconstituting some of the components that racialise white people as collectively ‘white’ and deduce white identity as racially superior without essentialising white Americans as racist. For instance, Martinot draws on Oscar Handlin’s[5] account of nineteenth and twentieth century European immigration to the USA to argue that the material effects of political policies which have mostly benefitted white Americans have established in the U.S. a nebulous internal social border (in addition to a visible, geographical and national one) that operates to guard “a white exclusionist sanctity” (p.143). Furthermore, Martinot highlights that while their skin colour has made it easier for Europeans to cross this secondary border and integrate into the fabric of white American culture, the persistence of popular racism towards African-Americans and Latino immigrants – usually fuelled by a government/media/police tripartite which identifies them as ‘illegal’ or criminal – is the outcome of a continuing effort by white Americans (including those of European ancestry) to defend the boundaries of a socio-political space, in which they perceive themselves as first-class citizens, from those who are non-white and deemed external to the socio-political spectrum. Behind this process of racialisation and alienation, Martinot (p.137) observes, “is a single complex social structure that materializes through its performance of border defense: the structure of whiteness.” The book, thus, delicately reveals how a history of racialised political partisanship towards white Americans has constituted ‘borders that are not on maps’ whose defence by white American society, in turn, serves to produce practices and perceptions of white social solidarity and racial superiority.

Steve Martinot’s The Machinery of Whiteness represents a highly important, informed and well-rounded contribution to the vast literature on whiteness that has and continues to emerge from the United States and Britain. The book draws on fields of knowledge as diverse as history, sociology, politics, philosophy and law to offer an intricate yet accessible account of “the modes by which one dominates or oppresses simply by being white” (p.186). Furthermore, it picks up where classic texts such as Stuart Hall et al’s Policing the Crisis,[6] A. Sivanandan’s A Different Hunger[7] and Charles W. Mills The Racial Contract[8] left off in the sense that it identifies the determinants that produce race and racism as interrelated and holistic rather than isolated and detached. As such, Steve Martinot offers the anti-racist movement a potent reminder that instances of racial injustice in contemporary USA are complicated phenomena that are part of a broader apparatus which produces racial meaning and, thus, efforts to challenge them must endeavour to transform a wider cultural structure which operates to legitimise racialization by preserving a general consensus that distinguishes white identity as racially superior.


1. Davis, Mike. 1998. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. New York: Metropolitan Books, p.371. [↑]

2. Back, Les, and John Solomos. 2000. Introduction: Theorising race and racism. In Theories of race and racism: A reader., eds. Les Back, John Solomos, 1-28. London: Routledge. [↑]

3. Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, conciousness, and the politics of empowerment. 2nd ed. Abingdon: Routledge. p.35 [↑]

4. Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial formation in the united states: From the 1960s to the 1990s. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge. [↑]

5. Handlin, Oscar. 1951. The uprooted: The epic story of the great migrations that made the american people. New York: Grosset and Dunlap. [↑]

6. Hall, Stuart, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts. 1978. Policing the crisis: Mugging, the state, and law and order. London: Macmillan Press. [↑]

7. Sivanandan, A. 1982. A different hunger: Writings on black resistance. London: Pluto Press. [↑]

8. Mills, Charles. W. 1997. The racial contract. London: Cornell University Press. [↑]

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Jasbinder S. Nijjar is a PhD student at Brunel University London, examining the relationship between institutional racism and the militarization of policing in London. He is the editorial assistant of the online open-access darkmatter Journal, and has written for academic journals including Sociological Research Online and Popular Communication. He also has an upcoming article in the journal Social Justice.
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