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Racial formation emerged in opposition to the dominance of the ethnic model in U.S. sociology. For post-1968 ethnic studies, race is the defining subject matter of the field and racial formation is the theory that best explains race. The theory holds that race, while a social construction, is a central, irreducible feature of U.S. history and society. Economic, political, and social forces give rise to race and racial meanings, and in turn race and racial meanings influence those economic, political, and social forces.

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