Racism as a governing apparatus: A Foucauldian analysis



Note: Given recent political and social events, I want to bring back a favourite article of mine that didn’t make the cut when I decided to revamp my blog. I wrote this originally as part of one of my graduate class’s final term paper. Foucault’s social theories are very complex and difficult to fully grasp. It is with the utmost humble respect for his work that I attempt to expand his work on biopower in relation to racism.

Michel Foucault’s concept of “biopower” has received very little focus within the race literature, which rely heavily on critical race theory, and specifically as it relates to the issue of blackness and racism in America.

During my graduate studies, I found Foucault’s idea of “biopower” and “biopolitics” increasingly intriguing and compelling. I felt that it was time for a much-needed departure from the business-as-usual theoretical model of critical race theory to a Foucauldian analysis of race and the racial subject to adequately discuss racism.

In following sections, I situate racism within Foucault’s concept of “biopower” to offer alternative ways of looking at racism, including its causes and consequences.

.   .   .

What is “biopower”?

Around the 19th century, there began a shift in the form of governance from sovereign power based on punishment and death to control and discipline its population to a new form of power.

Foucault identified this new form of power as “biopower,” a governance technique focused on various mechanisms that subjugated individual bodies for population control [1]

According to Foucault, biopower is a form of power that was concerned with the administration, optimization, and fostering of life by promoting the care for and well-being of its population under the state’s control [2].

From biopower emerged “biopolitics,” a second form of biopower ‘focused on the species body’… of reproduction, mortality, health, life expectancy, and so on [3]

Under this new form of power, the population is managed through knowledge. For example, the emergence of demography via the evaluation of the relationship between resources and inhabitants was one way this modern power was able to achieve population control [1]

The state no longer  managed its population through punishment, i.e. physical death, but rather through political rationality for precise control and comprehensive regulations. 

In this sense, biopower moves from a sovereign power with the right to ‘kill and let live‘, to a biopolitical governance concerned with to ‘make live and let die[2, 3].

.   .   .

Biopower and racism

Within this modern power’s desire to administrate, optimize, and foster the biological makeup of its population was “the latent potential to eliminate that which is perceived to threaten the vital health of the population” [4].  

Biopower’s ability to be preoccupied with the care of its population, and to ‘make live,’ while at the same time exercising the elimination of certain sectors of the population by ‘let[ting] die,’ is what Foucault regarded as the paradoxes of biopower.

Foucault was interested in how biopower can justify its killing (killing here is metaphorical) “if it is true that its basic function is to improve life, to prolong its duration, to improve its chance, to avoid accidents, and to compensate for failings” [2]

In other words, if biopower’s function is to maximize the wellbeing of its population, how do we account for the part of the population that slip from the care of the State? What are the mechanisms by which, if any, biopower can justify its power to make some live, while it let(s) others die?

For Foucault, the answer was racism.

Foucault regarded racism as the mechanism by which biopower exercises the right to ‘make live and let die,’ and contended “racism is inscribed at the basic mechanism of power, as it is exercised in modern States” [2].  

For Foucault, racism is a governing apparatus that establishes the racial subject as a threat to the social body that needs to be removed from society via means of institutions, such as prisons, residential segregation, and so forth [2]

In fact, Foucault goes as far as to assert that this kind of racism is not “a truly ethnic racism, but racism of the evolutionist kind, biological racism” to “justify the exercise of the sovereign right to kill in an economy of power concerned with the life and well-being of the population” [2 (p. 261)]. 

The historical construction of the black body, which I will discuss in detail below, greatly illustrates this argument.

.   .   .

The racial subject: A genealogy of racism and the black body 

The historical construction of the black body can be traced back to the 17th century when the development of the global market and trade between continents laid the foundation for racial classifications to emerge.

The growing industrialization of America’s economy in the 17th century called for a large labor force to produce goods to meet the market demand. During that time, highly civilized West African societies were engaged in trade relations with Europeans, and these West African nations had a ready supply of slaves to trade with Europeans in exchange for weapons and other resources [5]

The new power that emerged around the same time, concerned with the protection of its population, needed a justification for the enslavement of black bodies. This, in turn, led to the fabrication of a new type of categorization for humanity, i.e. racial categories.

Thomas Jefferson was the first to suggest the natural inferiority of black people, bringing science to the support his race ideology, as a rationale for the enslavement of blacks . A scientific explanation of race fought to assert the natural superiority of whites and the inherent inferiority of blacks. In the early 20th century, intelligence tests became the dominant way in which scientists tried to document significant differences between black people and whites [5].

As Enoch eloquently put it, “medical discourse served to create biologized subjects through the establishment of racial norms and their application as part of a statewide regulatory apparatus.” [4 (p. 70)].

.   .   .

Around the turn of the 20th century, biological explanations for racial difference were deemed inadequate and unscientific. Various medical experts denounced racial differences as biological, which changed the social discourse on race and racism.

Nonetheless, despite the lack of any scientific evidence to prove its validity, the 18th century ideology of race as something that is natural and biological continues to have a lingering influence on contemporary social realities of different racial groups.

Biopolitics ability to construct biological explanations, i.e. racial differences, for a host of social problems has greatly increased the potential for biopower to divide human beings into competing races, normalizing the view that the ‘death’ of the inferior race will make life in general healthier [4].

Death in this sense is symbolical— the inferior “Other” is left to ‘die’ through segregation, isolation, and eventually eradication from the broader society.

The killing of the inferior subject is exercised and then justified, through the discourse on the biologized black subject that is continuously conflated with the discourses of inferiority and criminality implicated in a host of social ills.

Simply put, the construction of the black body as a threat to society justifies their punishment, whether it is through segregated neighbourhoods, police brutality, and the prison–industrial complex.

As black people continue to be presented as a threat to the social body, their elimination from the broader society through segregation, isolation, and eventually eradication becomes to be rationalized and justified under the protection of the social body deemed worthy of protection by biopower governance [3, 4].

.   .   .

To conclude, a critical analysis of Foucault’s work on racism, the racial subject, and biopower reveals the constructedness of our racialized world that, nonetheless, have real and devastating consequences for racial minorities [6]

Foucault’s idea of racism breaks away from the common understanding of racism as a form of irrational prejudice, social discrimination, and political ideology, and encourages us to rethink racism as a form of biopolitical government that impinges on individuals in their most basic relationship to themselves and others [6].

Evidently, racism should be re-conceptualized as a governmental rationality that is central to the apparatus of biopower in the 21st century.


[1] Foucault, Michel. 1984. “The Foucault reader.” Pantheon, 257-273.

[2] Foucault, Michel. 1975. “Lecture: 17 March 1976.” in Society Must be Defended: Lectures at Collège de France, 1976.

[3] Erlenbusch, Verena. 2017.“From Race War to Socialist Racism: Foucault’s Second Transcription.” Foucault Studies, 134-152.

[4] Enoch, Simon. 2006. “The contagion of difference: Identity, bio-politics and National Socialism.” Foucault studies, 1: 53-70.

[5] Smedley, A. & Smedley B. D. 2005. “Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real.” American Psychologist 60 (1), 16-26.

[6] Su Rasmussen, Kim. 2011. “Foucault’s genealogy of racism.” Theory, Culture & Society 28(5): 34-51.