Research Findings

What is a racialized organization?


June 26, 2019

Scholars of race and scholars of organizational theory have long lamented the lack of a structural theory of race and organizations. Acker’s classic work, which argued that gender is a constitutive element of organizations, concluded with a series of questions about how race shaped organizational formation and continuity. Similarly, Nkomo called for a structural theory of organizations that moved beyond understanding race as a simple demographic characteristic. More recently, scholars such as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Melissa Wooten have repeatedly called for a theory that integrates the sociology of race and organizational theory.

In an article recently published in the American Sociological Review, I outline a theory of racialized organizations with the aim of bridging the sub-fields of race and organizational theory. To make my case, I draw on Sewell and Bonilla-Silva, scholars who are concerned with how social structures arise, how structures become stable, and how they constrain or enable human agency in oftentimes in taken-for-granted ways.

I argue that organizations are a type of racial structure combining the rules of social interaction with material and social resources. In Sewell’s classic article, he argues the rituals surrounding gender relations help reveal the underlying schema of the gender binary. Sewell says that the many surface expressions of gender relations— separate bathrooms, clothing differences, the division of household labor—all combine the rules of gender differentiation and social resources to reinforce the underlying principle of difference. The basic schema of gender difference generates many different social mechanisms that, when combined with resources, reproduce the gender structure. Many inequality-producing mechanisms can arise through this basic principle of gender differentiation as agents remix combinations of rules and resources. Further, structural stability arises as these mechanisms can (and do) shift over time when actors adapt and exercise agency in new historical conditions.

Because Sewell has little to say about race, I draw on Bonilla-Silva’s racialized social system theory to show how organizations shape racialization processes—the ascription of racial meanings to people, places, and things—and the broader racial order. I argue that meso-level organizations are key actors in connecting the rules of racial interaction to social and material resources. Many roles in organizations are race-typed; expectations of deference and emotion management are built into jobs, and even basic access to work (and therefore broader life changes) are deeply influenced by race.

Racialized organization theory connects theories that focus on the macro-policies of the racial state and the micro-politics of racial interaction. Both state policies and individual prejudice may be filtered through (and changed by) their implementation in organizations. Similarly, individual prejudices can be magnified or curtailed by organizational resources that enable discrimination, job sorting, or racial animus. Organizations also help produce racial ideologies that justify the broader racial order.

Seeing organizations as racial structures moves beyond models that see organizations as race-neutral bureaucracies and race as a simple demographic characteristic of individuals. Organizational formation and continuity are often premised upon access to resources–including free assembly, the protection of contract law, and access to education–that have historically been unequally distributed along racial lines. Once formed, organizations are central to the reproduction of racial inequality, the broad distribution of social and emotional resources along racial lines, and the social construction of race.

Seeing organizations as racial structures also gets at core sociological questions about structure and agency. Race arose—through colonization, slavery, and conquest—to explain why the agency of certain groups should be curtailed. Organizations help to legitimate this constrained agency, as they make segregation and racialized hierarchies appear natural and fair rather than contested and contingent. I define racialized organizations as: 

“meso-level social structures that limit the personal agency and collective efficacy of subordinate racial groups while magnifying the agency of the dominant racial group. The ability to act upon the world, to create, to learn, to express emotion—indeed, one’s full humanity—is constrained (or enabled) by racialized organizations. All organizations are racialized and “inhabited” by racialized bodies; yet the specific distribution of resources, the degree to which organizational dynamics rely on explicit racial criteria, the deployment of racialized schemas, and patterns of racial incorporation are variable.”

For organizational theorists, racialized organization theory moves beyond race-neutral or colorblind theorizing about organizations, helping to show that at least in the U.S., organizational formation has long been unequally distributed along racial lines, and the often-mundane and “non-racial” practices of organizations can nonetheless distribute resources by race. For race scholars, this theory centers the meso-level reproduction of racial inequality in many mundane aspects of organizational procedures. Organizations set the parameters for social interaction between racial groups. They structure how one uses both work and non-work time (often redistributing time from non-whites to whites). Organizations help to create or undermine neighborhood segregation. Organizations distribute healthcare and education, and they organize policing and public safety. In short, organizations are central to the reproduction of the racial order as a whole. And in response to pressures from activists or markets, organizations are central to the changes in the racial order.

Seeing organizations as racial structures is descriptively more realistic than views that see race as present only when people of color are included. Because organizations differentially shape the agency and ultimately the life-changes I see scholars using this theory to show how, for instance, organizations reinforce what Herbert Blumer called, whites “sense of group position” which makes access to work and resources seem like white prerogative. This theory also calls for more attention to the ways that organizations shape the policies of the racial state and expressions of individual animus.

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Victor Ray, “A Theory of Racialized Organizations,” American Sociological Review 2018.

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