Thursday, April 7, 2011

Should Whites be Held Responsible for Their Racial Prejudice?

An Alternate Analysis of White Racism
   Some race scholars blame white individuals for racial oppression and for embedding racial prejudice into the nation's institutional framework. When accused of racial oppression, whites become defensive and develop strategies to avoid being labeled racist. Accusing whites has become counterproductive to the goal of ending racism. In this article, I develop a new theoretical framework to understand white racism. My thesis is that whites are not solely responsible for their racial prejudice rather they are a product of a racially prejudiced culture that has embedded negative racial ideology in all parts of its system.

   I first frame American society as a bureaucracy. Second, I explain why the two perspectives of power used to frame white racism are inadequate. Last, I present a third view of power that situates white racism within the structure of a bureaucratic society. Focusing the cause of racism on the bureaucratic system, instead of on individual whites, may lead to a better understanding of white racism and improve the racial dialogue between whites and blacks.

   American society is a product of bureaucratization. Robert Jackall (1988) explains how bureaucratization, being "always a system of power, privilege, and domination," has affected "the whole class and status structure, the whole tone and tempo of society" and has touched every occupation and profession (Jackal 1988, 10). In Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, Jackall analyses how bureaucracy determines how middle and top managers deal with power, credit, and accountability. In a bureaucratic organization, top managers have the power to make plans and they receive credit for success. Middle managers implement the plans but receive blame for the plans failure (Jackall 1988, 10). In a bureaucratic society, politicians have the power to pass civil rights legislation and they receive the credit for increased minority graduation rates and median incomes. Individual whites are expected to adhere to the legislation but receive the blame for continued racism. In a bureaucratic organization, middle managers develop "complex cognitive maps" of co-workers expertise, social slights, embarrassments, battles won and lost, vices, standards of dress, insider language, and the likes and dislikes of immediate managers. The cognitive maps are the foundation for how middle managers judge their colleagues even when the judgments are based on the "flimsiest of evidence."(Jackall 1988, 23, 24) In a bureaucratic society individual whites develop cognitive maps based on stereotypes, personal interactions, media representation, and strategies to avoid being labeled racist. The cognitive maps are the foundation for how whites judge blacks even when their judgments are based on little or no evidence. Cognitive maps help middle managers and individual whites respond to the expectations bureaucratically defined roles and it is within these bureaucratically defined roles that white racism must be understood.

   Race scholars often ignore the bureaucratic determination of white racism and credit whites for continued racial oppression. This is consistent with the first and second-dimensions of power discussed in the book; Power: A Radical View (Lukes 1974). The first-dimensional view of power stresses how individual preferences are revealed through political participation. Power in this first-dimension is concrete and observable so white racism can be measured by observing voting behavior and attitudes towards issues such as welfare, health care, and affirmative action. Although the first-dimensional view offers a clear-cut way to study behavior, "it inevitably takes over the bias of the political system under observation and is blind to the ways in which its political agenda is controlled." (Lukes 1974, 57) Lukes states that the second-dimensional view of power improves the first-dimensional view because it accounts for the unequal weight given to individual's preferences and allows for preferences to be revealed in direct and indirect ways. An example of racism within the second-dimension of power might be a white that supports affirmative action legislation but refuses to live near blacks and performs racist jokes in the company of all whites. Scholars will point out how whites are attempting to not appear racist while continuing to reinforce the systems of inequality. The first and second-dimensional views of power fail to account for how the bureaucratic structure of society creates the racism that white individuals perpetuate.

   Lukes' third-dimensional view or radical view of power is more effective for the analysis of white racism. The radical view accounts for the possibility that white racism is not a conscious choice rather it is a product of the bureaucratic structure that dictates the roles of individual actors. Lukes states that an individual's wants "may themselves be a product of a system which works against their interests, and, in such cases, relates the later to what they would want to prefer, were they able to make the choice." (Lukes 1974, 34) Using Lukes' theory, whites, under the bureaucratic power structure, may be unconsciously engaging in racist acts. Lukes explains that individuals may exert power while being unaware of the real meaning of their actions, how others interpret their actions, and consequences of their actions. Because whites are embedded in a systematic structure of racism, they may be unaware of the real meaning behind what they say and do; naïve to how blacks interpret their actions; and unaware of the consequences of their actions.

   Focusing the attention of racism on the bureaucratic nature of American society may have profound effects on how race scholars approach the concept of white racism. If whites lack the ability to choose whether or not to act according to racial prejudice, then blaming whites for their racist actions is ineffective. Maybe it is time that race scholars to stop villianizing all whites for the systematic nature of racial oppression and start realizing that whites are also victims, not of racism, but of the bureaucratically defined roles of racism that are imputed onto them. This paper is not intended to pardon racist behavior. This is an attempt to develop a new theoretical framework about the power that social systems exercise over all parts of society. We need to develop theories of racial understanding that place everyone within the bureaucratically defined roles that are imposed upon them. After we develop new theories of racial understanding, maybe we can then develop new vocabularies that enable whites and black to dialogue about real ways to create a just society. Maybe.

Always Looking For a New Angle,


No comments: