There Is No Race in Organizations

I continue to work on a comparative case of organizational structures in higher education. T’is what I do. Central to my theorizing and empirical work is that organizations reproduce racial, gender, and class inequality. You would think that goes without saying but race is seriously under-theorized and researched in organizational studies. For a long time, the prevailing organizational theories assumed that organizations are rational, neutral organisms. Oddly enough, we have done a better job of theorizing gender in organizations. The work of feminist scholars like Acker and Kanter and today Dana Britton keeps an empirical focus on how organizations reproduce gender. Not so with race. I have a few theories about that for another time and place. Granted, org theory eventually discovered race but it is still not treated as a serious analytical framework. Now rather than explicitly assuming race neutrality in organizations, race is eraced  mostly through implicit oversight of how race functions in and through organizations.

This sounds boring, I know. Let me see how I can help.

If you are raced as a minority in the U.S. you may get the feeling sometimes that, for instance, all the black TV shows are on non-descript (“bootleg”) TV networks. That’s an organizational process! There’s a long theoretical argument about how complicated TV syndication rules and the consolidation of media networks (i.e. organizations) made black programming a non-starter for TV executives. So that feeling you have is grounded in some organizational processes and in the reproduction of racialized norms.

Similarly, in my own work, I am explicit that there is a reason that so many of the ads you see for online colleges and for-profit colleges feature images like this:

What do black babies with blue eyes have to do with college?

And this…

Sure, it could be a coincidence but coincidence is not an analytical framework in social science. So, I invariably have to try to connect organizational theory that ignores race with the observational data that says race is salient to the organizations I study. It’s not…easy.

It is also lonely.

So, I’m always on the look-out for scholarship that can help. I follow regularly. Of late, they’ve made a turn towards discussing race. It’s been illustrative of problems I think are endemic to organizational theory and research generally.

In his proposal that America may not be post-racial but is “post-racist”, Fabio Rojas is being audacious:

I suggest the term post-racist because while race still exists, we don’t build racism into our laws and culture. We definitely past a time where a law can simply say “Blacks can’t do X.” But race is still around and it’s all over the place. At least we can talk about.

As I said in a comment to the post, we could use some clarification of terms.

Racism has been reduced to some weird metaphysical experience of hurt feelings. If a person hurts your feelings and they are raced or you are raced or they once said the word race then, apparently, that exchange can be called racism in today’s parlance. If we accept that operationalization of racism then maybe this “post-racist” frame holds.

But in his own examples for our post-racist evolution, Rojas offers some very structural examples. The dismantling of legal segregation is the dismantling of a structural process of racism. So, is racism an individual perversion or a structural process? Are we post-racist at the individual level or at the structural level? If we’re understanding racism as a structure, per the example, then how we can ignore things like the incarceration rates of black men or the difference in criminalization between crack and cocaine or the criminalization of poor black children for school infractions (often called the school-to-prison pipeline)? How do we reconcile these clear examples of some kind of structural process that shapes organizational processes which feel awfully racist and that certainly have a differential effect on minority “raced” people?

There’s no resolution that I can see to that tension. But examining it could go a long way towards understanding how the organizations that rule our social life in a Weberian society are reproducing inequality and racism. By focusing on structure and individuals to the exclusion of organizations, we miss a key mechanism for understanding racism. That is how we find ourself with pronouncements about ours being a post-racist society.

I’d argue that nothing could be further from the truth. Not having the right framework to understand racism is not evidence of there being no racism.

8 thoughts on “There Is No Race in Organizations

  1. “If you are raced as a minority in the U.S…”
    I am unfamiliar with the term “raced” being used in this manner. Is this a commonly accepted term in your field or your very own neologism?
    How does organizational theory deal with issues of “Institutional’ or “structural” racism? (I don’t know a thing about organizational theory).
    It would occur to me that at some point competitive disadvantage would necessitate a dismantling of organizational racism. What am I missing?

    1. Maybe a few major debates in econ and sociology? Being raced or racialized is a thing, yes. It is a nod to the social construction of race being the issue in inequality and not some inherent quality of the phenotypical expression of race. It matters. For example, being black is not the reason for inequality; racism is. It’s often conflated methodologically because of the limits of individual level data to explain structural processes but it is an important theoretical distinction.

      Org theory doesn’t deal with institutional racism. That’s an oddity I have pointed out before:

      And discrimination as a competitive disadvantage persists as a utopian rational choice idea but there isn’t much empirical support. In fact, discriminating can be a competitive advantage precisely because organizations are embedded in larger social institutions. There’s almost too much work here to name. I’d start with work by Collins on the black middle class, Stainback, Tomaskovic-Devey, and Skaggs on Orgs and Inequality, etc.

  2. Post-Racist seems to me to be wrong in such a way that it’s almost perversely right. A saying I picked up from Russel T. McCutcheon that he got from James Clifford goes that “post- is always followed closely by neo-” So maybe we could say that we have a “neo-racist” society.

    What is true is that in general public discourse, we agree that it is “bad to be racist.” but, as you well know, and are one of many people to point out, how racism is reproduced includes removing most of the structures and even attitudes of how race operates from the label “racist.” Part of that is to, as you say in the post, recast racism as an individual perversion rather than a set of social structures. But even lots of attitudes are removed from the label.

    It of course goes further. This “neo-racism” also tends to stick lots of attitudes and practices that aren’t part of reproducing racialized power structures into the racism box. Which ones? Generally the attitudes seem to be opinions of people of color (and to much lesser extent white people who agree with these PoC) that condemn racialization or racism. The practices or structures that “neo-racism” tries to insert into the category of “racism” structures that acknowledge the realites of racialized society in an attempt to combat it.

    Most prominently in the US context this leads to (some of the) White Supreme Court Justices categorizing Affirmative Action and the Voting Rights Act as racist policy. Which is likely to result in Section V of the VRA and considering race in order to benefit PoC in College admissions unconstitutional in current cases before the Court.

    And this “neo-racism” which really is just a neologism I made up for “colorblind racism” or “colorblind ideology” because it let me jump off of the “post-racist” idea is also how you get contemporary libertarian whites who claim that laws against private businesses discriminating against PoC simultaneously claiming that they stand with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    As Anna Marie would no doubt remind me, drawing on Focault, what I seem to be describing is how Power, in order to continue operating must continue to mask exactly how it operates.

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Towards A Critical Org Theory

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