I met Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in the fall semester of 1998 while I was an undergraduate sociology student at Texas A&M. At the time, I had no interest in going to graduate school and, to be frank, I had no idea what it meant to be a graduate student. I did not see myself existing in that world. Eduardo’s timely arrival to Texas A&M University would be the catalyst that completely changed my life, both in the way that I understand the world and in understanding who I was and who I wanted to be. I am certainly not unique in this regard as he has dedicated (and continues to dedicate) a large part of his life and energy to working with countless students, young and senior scholars, and even staff. Many of my colleagues in the field of racial stratification have told me he is the reason why they went to graduate school and decided to dedicate their careers to better understanding racism in order to dismantle it. And while mentoring takes a lot of his time, Eduardo has managed to profoundly shape the sociological landscape with his many theoretical and empirical contributions and has managed to do so with integrity. He is, in many ways, who we want to be—a dedicated scholar who “keeps it real.”
Black Puerto Rican and Proud: Who Is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva?
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva established his roots first at the University of Puerto Rico—Río Piedras Campus, earning a BA in sociology and economics in 1984. As a student in Puerto Rico, Eduardo would engage as a scholar-activist, putting theory to praxis. Among the professors who influenced him deeply in his early years are Arturo Torrecillas, Juan José Baldrich, Myriam Muñiz, and the late Carlos Buitrago.
Eduardo would continue his education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, earning his MA and PhD. His dissertation was titled “Squatters, Politics, and State Responses: The Political Economy of Squatters in Puerto Rico, 1900-1992.” At Wisconsin, many people, such as Erik Olin Wright, Russ Middleton, and Pamela Oliver influenced his sociology, but in his own words Eduardo has noted on more than one occasion, “I could not have finished my PhD without the incredible support of Professor Charles Camic.” To this day, Eduardo states further, “Camic believed in me and told me, just before graduation, that I should stay in the states as I would contribute greatly to American sociology.”
Eduardo began his academic career as a Marxist scholar following in the heels of his primary intellectual influence in Puerto Rico, Professor Torrecillas. In his courses, he read the work of Nicos Poulantzas, Louis Althusser, Karl Marx, Ralph Miliband, and other scholars. But in the late 1980s, after participating in a student movement demanding racial justice at UW, he changed his path and began transitioning into what he is today—a “race scholar.” However, he did so mostly on his own as he never took a course on race and ethnicity, wrote a thesis that had nothing to do with race, and took prelims in political sociology and development instead of in the field of race and ethnicity.
After receiving his PhD, Eduardo worked at the University of Michigan from 1993-1998, Texas A&M University from 1998-2005, and since 2005 he has labored at Duke University, where he served as Chair of his department from 2012 to 2016.
Beloved Mentor, Advisor, Colleague, and Friend
Talk to any of Eduardo’s students and they will all echo the same sentiments about him: he is the reason we went to graduate school; he is the reason we wanted to study racism; and he is the reason we stayed the course in graduate school through thick and thin. They will also state that he is one of the toughest mentors around, challenging his students constantly to think beyond the existing sociological canons. And Eduardo challenges us to be better than him. His ego is under control and he has no qualms when we challenge his research and ideas. His goal is to make us scholars and not his clones.
Echoing these sentiments, Robert Reece, Assistant Professor at University of Texas-Austin, noted, “Eduardo is the reason I chose to get a PhD in sociology. Racism Without Racists changed my life, and as I applied to graduate programs, he was the only person I wanted to work with. I was fortunate that his personality and mentoring were just as dynamic as his writing, and his generosity was almost limitless. He has been instrumental in my development as a scholar.”
Sarah Myorga-Gallo, Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, made similar observations stating, “On a personal note, Racism without Racists was the book that inspired me to become a sociologist as an undergraduate. His research and theoretical framework helped forge my sociological imagination, as I made connections between my personal experience and structural realities.” Sarah also stated that Eduardo’s mentorship is “an invaluable resource to his students, especially students of color” and added that “his combination of honest, constructive criticism, and heartfelt encouragement are what I aim to emulate in my role as an advisor.”
Victor Ray, Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee, mentioned a special component of Eduardo’s mentorship: “Perhaps the hardest thing for a mentor to do is handle the inevitable personal issues that influence their students’ work while remaining professional. This may be especially true for students of color, who may not have many professors who understand the particular issues they face in graduate school. During a period of minor personal crisis, Dr. Bonilla-Silva made sure I was ok, calling me at home on a Sunday afternoon to check on me.”
Eduardo’s generosity is not limited to his students. Talk to any of his colleagues and they will tell you the same: Eduardo is selfless, brilliant, caring, hard-working, and has a knack for inserting humor in everyone’s lives.
Amanda E. Lewis, Professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, noted the following about Eduardo: “I have known Eduardo for over 20 years since he was a newish junior faculty member. He has, over the last several decades, always been simultaneously both intellectually generous and relentless in pushing me and others to make sure our work is as careful and thoughtful as possible. He is easily one of the smartest people I know and one of the hardest working. He reads constantly, forever on the hunt for better and more nuanced explanations of the social world. I feel lucky to have gotten connected to him very early in my career as a sociologist. He has been a wonderful mentor, colleague and friend.”
Rogelio Saenz, Dean of Public Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio remarked, “This fall marks the 20th year since I met Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. At the time, as head of the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University, Eduardo was the first faculty member I recruited to Texas A&M. We quickly became very good friends and colleagues. I have been thrilled to see Eduardo become a star in the discipline and one of the most influential race scholars. He is a very passionate sociologist who is set on uncovering the structures of and dismantling white supremacy. Eduardo is one of the funniest people I know and he puts his exceptional sense of humor to good use in his teaching and scholarship.”
David L. Brunsma, Professor at Virginia Tech, echoed similar sentiments: “Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is a passionate, formidable, and deeply generous human being. Since my first introduction to his work, in his foundational and now critical classic article in ASR, “Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation,” through his recent intellectual forays into race, affect, and emotions, I have been amazed (and thankful) for his generosity of theoretical insight, conceptualizations, and interpretations – the discipline is a better place for his scholarly generosity– the discipline is a better place for his interpersonal generosity. Saludos a mi hermano Eduardo!”
Theoretical and Empirical Contributions
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva began his career with a splash as his very first publication, his 1997 “Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation,” appeared in the American Sociological Review. This article, in combination with his 1999 reply to a response to it written by Mara Loveman (“The Essential Social Fact of Race: A Reply to ML,” also in American Sociological Review), provided a radical theoretical shift in the field of racial stratification. His structuralist interpretation of racism pushed analysts to abandon the sterile prejudice problematic and instead focus on racism as a materially-based system of racial domination. He coined the concept racialized social system as an alternative framework, which refers “to societies in which economic, political, social, and ideological levels are partially structured by the placement of actors in racial categories or races” (1997: 469).
In 2001, Eduardo published White Supremacy in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Lynne Rienner Publishers), a study that received the ASA Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities Oliver C. Cox Book Award, which included an outline of the shortcomings of previous race theories, his conceptualization of the racialized social system, and his early take on “color-blind racism.” This book, in the opinion of many of his former students, is his best book to date.
In 2003, Eduardo published his Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, a book that changed the way many social analysts and commentators talk about “prejudice.” Racism without Racists, currently in its 5th Edition, has added many new areas of inquiry to the race field. For example, documenting and studying the “white habitus,” the politics of race in the Obama era, the Latin-Americanization of the racial stratification in the U.S., the grammar of whiteness and “race talk,” and the cognitive cartography of racism. This book won an Editor’s Choice Award in 2004 and its impact in the field of race and ethnic relations and in sociology can be seen in the success that this book has had in the academic market where it has sold well over 50,000 copies.
Although Eduardo has received many accolades—for example, in 2007 he received the Lewis A. Coser Award for Theoretical Agenda Setting from the ASA’s Theory Section—he has trudged on in pursuit of refining and expanding his previous conceptions of race and racism in America. Shortly after completing the second edition of his Racism without Racists book, he pursued with vigor his research on the “Latin Americanization of Racial Stratification in the USA.” In this work, he argues that the United States is moving from a Black and White racial order to a system that is more “triracial” and seemingly fluid. This research has fueled debates about the future of race relations in America—for example, in a special Race and Society in 2004 and a debate in the pages of Ethnic and Racial Studies. Later, Eduardo joined with Professor Tukufu Zuberi (University of Pennsylvania) and published an important edited volume, White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology¸ to address the pervasiveness of whiteness in the logic and practice of the social sciences. As an aside, Eduardo has taken his research to the streets. That is, similar to the desire of Cox, Frazier, Johnson, and other major scholars of color, he has produced knowledge for all and has, in the last 10 years or so, become a “public intellectual.” In an effort to engage non-academic audiences to think about how pervasive racism is in America, he lectures to religious organizations, Chambers of Commerce, the Council of Foundations, and colleges and universities across the nation, and he is quite often cited in newspaper articles and interviewed on radio shows.
A Sense of Justice; A Public Intellectual Who Keeps It Real
I have known Eduardo Bonilla-Silva as his student, advisee, research collaborator, co-author, the person who taught him how to drive, and friend. The one main thing I can say about him is that he is real and keeps it REAL! The Eduardo of today is the same Eduardo I knew 20 years ago. His sociological weight has increased by a few pounds, but his style and passion for doing the right thing are the same. He is unwavering in his pursuit of knowledge not for the sake of prestige, but for understanding of how race continues to fracture the world and for devising analyses and theories that can help us change the world.
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva represents the best of sociology. As the 2018 American Sociological Association President, we can be sure he will represent the discipline with both integrity and brutal honesty, paving the path for a more inclusive ASA.
For more information on the theme he has selected, “Feeling Race: An Invitation to Explore Racialized Emotions,” see www.asanet.org/annual-meeting-2018.