It’s All of Us: The Practice of Inequality
The people must know before they can act. —Ida B. Wells
Race like sexuality, is a place where power masks itself as nature. —Anthony Farley
“To identify the practice of racial inequality, we must also have a framework for understanding what race is…. Anthony Farley offers a revision of the implied spectrum theory of sexuality to be applied to race, one that understands its structure as contingent upon situs and power. Race, like sexual orientation, is produced by social arrangements and political decision making. And these arrange ments, along with self-identification, are generative of the persistence of certain conceptions of race and the introduction of new conceptions of race. All of this is to say that we should take a phenomenological approach to race. The meaning of that is simple: race is something that happens, rather than something that is. It is dynamic, but it holds no objective truth.”
“As Appiah and Gutmann note in Color Conscious:
‘Once the racial label is applied to people, ideas about what it refers to, ideas that may be much less consensual than the application of the label, come to have their social effects. But they have not only social effects but psychological ones as well; and they shape the ways people conceive of themselves and their projects. In particular, the labels can operate to shape what I want to call ‘identification’: the process through which an individual intentionally shapes her projects—including her plans for her own life and her conception of the good—by reference to available labels, available identities.'”
“For people of color, many, most, or all major life events have a significant likelihood of being shaped by the practice of racial inequality. This means neither that all people are making choices that disadvantage people on the basis of race nor that people who do make such choices do so all the time; nor does it mean that every person of color necessarily experiences this disadvantage all the time, most of the time, or at any time. These practices are not absolute, but they are ubiquitous.”
“‘Positive’ stereotyping can have an ugly underside for the groups positively stereotyped. The positive stereotype about African American athleticism diminishes academic expectations for black male students. The contemporary sexual politics of Orientalism in the United States, in which Asian women are ‘idealized’ (and assumed to be nonfeminist and subservient) is tied to particular kinds of gender discrimination against Asian American women. The romanticization of Native American culture comes with an imagery that Native Americans are noble primitives, an ancient people, spiritual and yet not ‘real,’ and therefore the poverty and disenfranchisement of Native Americans in real time and space go disregarded.”
“Rather than relish the notion of race as biological, however, I believe Americans experience a constant sense of uncertainty and perhaps fear that there are some biological differences attributable to race, fear that is titillated by the sporadic outbursts of biologists like James Watson who don’t believe that race is a social construct. This is especially troubling in the United States because it lies contrary to our professed democratic ethos. The idea that everyone has a fair chance in a competitive world as well as our belief in the appropriateness of electoral democracy presumes, at least in some arenas, that we are appropriately seen as and treated as fundamentally equal.”
“To read race phenomenologically is partially about the social construct of race. It insists upon a further step, a step of the sort taken by Appiah and Gutmann. Race is not simply created; it lives. And so, for example, with it come certain associations found in expressive culture: language, dress, style, and regional affect ‘associated with’ racial groups. Race acquires meaning through and with all of these things….
“There is no clean line between nature and nurture, although politics demand that we often speak as though there is. Rather, we might distinguish between that which can be impacted by the environment and that which cannot. And the category of that which cannot be impacted by environmental forces seems quite small. In short, biological or physiological phenomena can occur more frequently within certain racial groups without having any genetic basis. This is all because of the myriad ways in which race is lived, acted, performed, diagnosed, and treated.”
“In the field of cultural studies, much work has been devoted to developing an understanding of power not merely as structural or governmental but as something that permeates social interactions, institutions, and personal lives. Individuals have power, some much more than others. Wealth and position translate into greater power over other individuals and over the operation of society, both for groups of people and for individuals. However, people all along the economic and social spectrum exercise power in their interactions with others. Race is a key terrain for the exercise of power. The choices of how and when to exercise power over people are influenced by race and by people’s drawing every day upon the culture’s racial toolkit. This toolkit is, of course, shaped by a historically rooted philosophy of race. However, it is not bound to that philosophy in simplistic terms. Even though the most powerful fault line of race in U.S. history has been that of Black/White, a descendant of the slave/free split in the antebellum era, it is important to theorize racial architecture in a more complex fashion, in ways learned from Patricia Hill Collins’s essay about the “matrices of domination.” It has often been noted, for example, that non-Black people of color are often cast as being either “like Blacks” or “like Whites.” But that is not the entire story. In fact, there are multiple categories of racial difference into which people are cast, determined by nationality, exceptionalism, class, hybridity, geographies, and contingent physiognomies. As well, there are many metanarratives of race [(Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham)], a number of which will be discussed here.”
“Insider/outsider status and whether one is of high status or low status are two axes of race, and many others could be mapped. But, with nothing more than a rudimentary discussion of those two, we can see how inequalities exist between groups of people of color and that the nature of those inequalities can vary. It is not enough to identify Whites as an in-group and everyone else as a member of the out-group, even if we acknowledge that we practice preferences for Whiteness in our society. In fact, the perception that all non-Whites suffer inequality in identical ways obscures a good deal of the practice of inequality. There are distinct relationships to privilege and access between, among, and within groups of people of color. What is consistent is that being financially secure and White almost always is the location of the greatest racial privilege. But, as the nation gets ‘Browner,’ it is also worthwhile to observe how the category of Whiteness itself is changing.”
“As Patricia Hill Collins writes: In this context, one can not only celebrate racial and ethnic mixtures of all sorts. One can even develop positive feelings about the music and dance styles of impoverished Black American youth. Privatization masks these relations. By making the marketplace the final arbiter of all social relations, the segregation and racial hierarchy that does remain can be attri buted to the good and bad qualities of people who compete in the marketplace. Collins makes an important point. While we can delight in our ethnic and racial admixture, that public celebration obscures the way race functions. It makes race and its attendant features appear to be far more a matter of choice than they are. The facts that the general public tends not to be overly concerned with the genealogy of a racially ambiguous public figure, at least not as a matter of negative interest (multiracial young starlets are often fetishized for their exotic admixtures) and that we don’t witness the same obsessive worry about racial admixture that existed in previous generations are further indications that we are abandoning notions of biological determinism and intentional racial animus….
“And yet, even if the category of Whiteness itself expands dramatically, it does not necessarily mean that Whiteness and other structures of racialization have decreased significance. So, what I am describing is a change in the terms of membership, not a change in the relevance of membership.”
“People engage in practices of racial inequality in a wide range of contexts, including individual, interactive, collaborative, and administrative decision making. Often it boils down to choices made in the context of asymmetric power relations, where one party must choose how to distribute resources or opportunities that impact others. In contexts such as employment, health care, education, law enforcement, housing, and more, the evidence demonstrates that, in the aggregate, people make choices that tend to advantage Whites.
“The race-neutral justifications offered in each of these contexts are often accepted as legitimate despite the collective evidence that suggests that bigotry drives behavior. This legitimation derives from two factors. First, in our late capitalist culture, we have a conception of choice and preference rooted in consumption as a foundational right. Although we have a very long history of fetishizing property in the United States, in our recent history we have also come to fetishize choice. We assume that choice is good. However, race is influential and embedded in the process of making those choices.
“The other legitimating force is the way that decision making is quantified and therefore seen as neutral. This quantification (either anecdotal or professional) takes place in the form of assessing risk, value, odds, and likelihoods and ultimately supports the static state of inequality, because a member of a privileged group is almost always presumed to be the ‘safer bet.'”
“There is a danger in the language of unconsciousness, even as researchers pursue such work with great skill and integrity. For the nonacademic or nonsocial scientist who adopts the language of unconscious bias, there may be an inclination to identify all bias as unconscious rather than to connect the very conscious and present discourses about people of color to unconsciously biased practices. Lawrence’s critique of the intent standard in antidiscrimination law in this seminal article was important particularly because it provided a means for people to think about how racial discrimination had shifted since the days of open animus. Although the intent standard remains in antidiscrimination law, Lawrence’s work provided a model for thinking about the practical application of cognition research as a way to move the society toward greater racial equality.
“In ‘Trojan Horses of Race,’ Kang quite compellingly connects unconscious bias to conscious discourses about people of color by advocating media policy that expands opportunity for people of color to decide what we see in mainstream media. As Ulf Hannerz notes, ‘The defining feature of the media is the use of technology to achieve an externalization of meaning in such a way that people can communicate with one another without being in one another’s immediate presence; media are machineries of meaning.’ The challenge of thinking about both the media and the unconscious as sources of the practices of inequality is that they both easily nurture a sense of impotence. But, in truth, there is agency to be had. Although the consolidation of corporate media has diminished the possibility of all but one-way communication in their ‘machineries of meaning,’ there are democratic possibilities that abound as the world goes digital; the scarcity of ‘space’ on the airwaves is not an issue, and the Internet has become ubiquitous and more democratic than the traditional media. Likewise, one way we can respond to the unconscious biases is to identify the choices that they motivate, with the goal of changing our behavior.”
“If we are focused upon how present and decisive discourses and practices and choices regarding people of color produce and re-produce bias, then we can imagine individual and collective demands to undo that work. Unlike some advocates of the theory of structural racism, I argue that the individual decision maker’s role in inequality is extremely important….
“An academic conflict between two important race scholars is useful to illustrate the point I am attempting to make. One scholar, David Theo Goldberg, criticized another, Jennifer Hochschild, for locating responsibility for responding to the ‘plights and problems of the racialized poor primarily with those closest to the problems: the individuals directly in touch with those whose values are seen to need transforming. These include parents, schoolteachers, social workers, police, potential employers and local politicians.’ He negatively contrasts Hochschild’s work with that of Elijah Anderson, who is interested in structures of inequality. Goldberg identifies this line of thinking with the ‘individual responsibility account.’
“I am sympathetic to Goldberg’s concern that we may neglect large social forces when we focus on individual actions. And I find his and Anderson’s work to have been critical for my own scholarly development. However, Hochschild is correct in observing that individuals make choices that sustain inequality. The problem is that individual roles are often assumed to translate to individual responsibility or blame. I am arguing that recognizing individual roles is not about assigning responsibility and blame; rather, it allows us to recognize that we have a cultural practice that is diffuse….
“The accumulation of practices of inequality, internal and external, must be confronted. The problem is not that we disregard material consequences if we attend to individual action. There is a problem if we imagine only individual solutions to material problems. Solutions must also be pursued in and through the political process and in communities.”
“All of these things I have identified are the product of choices made by individuals in response to other individuals. Doctors choose which tests to order, Juries choose whom to convict, producers choose which news stories to run, studio executives choose which projects to greenlight, teachers decide which kids go into accelerated classrooms and which go to special education, social workers choose who stays with their families and who doesn’t, restaurateurs choose to exploit cheap labor and hire undocumented people who cannot risk complaining when they are cheated and abused. Choices, choices, choices. Chances are the individuals making these decisions would not identify themselves as bigots even though we can see the racial preferences embedded in their choices. Many are likely to be people who identify themselves as victims of discrimination themselves. This story about the inequality encountered in the life journey and the data that I have cited is offered as evidence that there are cumulative patterns to be found in the choices that individuals make, patterns that are often not readily identifiable if one looks at the actions or beliefs of an individual but that emerge when one looks at how many individuals choose to act in the same way….
“By focusing on the accumulated effects of individual decision making, I invite a consideration of the practice of inequality as an interactive reality. It rarely happens outside an interaction between the decision maker and the decided-upon. There is a substantial body of literature describing how people misread physical and linguistic cues depending on their race. In the following chapters, I will consider how racialized speech, style, and other cues operate in practices of inequality. However, because I am specifically con cerned with how choice and power translate to inequality, rather than with questions of cross-cultural communication, I think the interpretive value of the literature on cross-cultural communication is to consider it part of the pragmatics of race, by which I mean that not only do people misunderstand each other, but much more is communicated than what is literally said, and, in those communications, both spoken and unspoken, we ‘read’ actions in order to fit our preexisting racial frameworks.”
“There may be some fundamental conflict between the way members act in the interest of their group, and their proclamations of egalitarianism. In particular, it may demonstrate why White Americans, when surveyed, may acknowledge the existence of racial inequality and yet be resistant to remedial measures for their ‘unfairness.’ In addition to what George Lipsitz has described as a ‘possessive investment in whiteness,’ it reflects, as Bobo says, a laissez-faire attitude toward inequality that is motivated by feelings of group competition that trump the national ethos and that is compounded by an easy reliance upon ‘neutral principles’ in making evaluations of what should happen to groups of people.”
“In theoretical treatments of sociological patterns such as Bobo’s laissezfaire racism, Gaerter and Dovidio’s aversive racism, and Michele Lamont’s symbolic boundary formation (which is discussed in greater detail later), we see how racialized concepts of “us” and “them” shape interactions among the “we” of the nation. This us-them vortex doesn’t have to be based in broad racial categories in order to be racialized. It could be middle-class-assimilated-Black as us, poor-Black-and-ghetto as them, native-born as us, immigrant as them, light-skinned South American Latino as us, dark-skinned Caribbean Latino as them. In each case, the distribution of power makes those who are closer to the position of the insider/high status person (the financially secure White citizen) better able to have their preferences translate to material benefits or losses.”
“Our decisions are shaped by what we know, what we think we know, and what we choose to learn or choose to use in a given moment. I would argue that the process of decision making that leads to the practice of racial inequality is influenced by visceral responses to assumptions that operate within the process of reason and analysis and that insidiously lead to inequitable and illegitimate discrimination. Certainly, practices of inequality cannot explain all intergroup disparities, but they cannot be discounted as a huge influence upon people’s opportunities and outcomes. For example, research shows that physicians treat Black patients worse than they treat White patients. 58 At the same time, hospitals serving poor populations have less money and fewer resources than those with largely White clienteles. So there is a resource gap in health care, as well as differential treatment in individual interactions. However, then we must also consider how poverty itself is reproduced as a function of practices of inequality in employment and education. It is hard to think of a context where a present inequality isn’t, to some greater or lesser extent, sustained by practices of inequality….
“The problem with the discourse around structural racism is that it codifies the stasis of inequality in such a way that it appears impossible to challenge it without revolution or at the very least, massive reform. The discourse of structural racism in my mind has lost much of its usefulness. It absolves responsibility and dampens activism. The language I have chosen, “practices of inequality,” may not ultimately be embraced, but it is my hope that, in whatever new terms we choose, we deliberately shift our attention from thinking about personal versus institutional racism to focusing on how the accumulation of practices of inequality—engaged in by professionals, average citizens, and residents, as well as by groups acting in a common interest—translates to large-scale institutional, social, economic, and political inequalities.”
To illustrate further Perry’s point, consider this segment from MHP on MSNBC, 26 April 2015: