Race and Work
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Race and Work

Karyn Loscocco

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eBook - ePub

Race and Work

Karyn Loscocco

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About This Book

This book provides a reasoned, unflinching description of how race and paid work are linked in U.S. society.It offers readers the rich conceptual and empirical foundation needed to understand key issues surrounding both race and work.

Loscocco trace current patterns to their historical roots, showing that the work lives of women and men from different race and ethnic groups have always been interrelated. The chapters document the U.S.'s multicultural labor history, discuss how labor markets and jobs became segregated, and analyze key racial-ethnic patterns in work opportunities. The book also addresses common misconceptions about why women and men from some racial-ethnic groups end up with better jobs than others. It closes with a look at contemporary developments and suggests steps toward a future in which race-ethnicity will no longer affect work opportunities and experiences.

Race and Work deepens understanding and elevates the discussion of race, racism, and work in an engaging, accessible style. It will be an essential resource for anyone interested in work, race-ethnicity, social inequality, or intersections among race, gender, and class.

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Race and Work: Laying the Conceptual Groundwork

What is work? If you ask most Americans they would likely say something about employment. Yet there is plenty of work that goes unpaid, such as volunteer work and family work. During the 1970s researchers pointed out the illogic of considering activities done mostly by wives and mothers to be work only when women were paid to do them for someone else’s family (Hall 1994).
The key thing that distinguishes work from other kinds of activity is that it results in something of value to other people. Whether you do something meaningful or menial, whether you define it as work or pleasure, if others gain from it, you are doing work. One of the clearest signals we are doing something useful is when someone pays us to do it.
Work done for pay is organized into specific jobs or occupations, and professions. Sets of work tasks and skills are bundled into occupations and we have a sense of what a person does when we hear that they are a doctor or a web designer, a child-care worker or a home health aide. Yet most jobs require a variety of types of activity and people with the same job title in different companies may be doing somewhat different things; this can happen even within the same organization. Professions are more formalized sets of activities and often require certification or advanced degrees. Careers typically refer to job sequences for which there are increases in pay and responsibility. These may unfold within occupations and professions or across companies.
The jobs we do and the careers we pursue serve as key mechanisms sorting us into “haves” and “have not’s.” Occupations vary not only in wages and salaries, but also in the value society accords to them. When we hear what kind of work a person does we know more than what they do, because occupational groups are also status groups, sharing lifestyles and viewpoints.
The focus of this book is work done for economic gain, because it has been tied to race throughout U.S. history. In addition, working for pay is the central way that most people try to achieve the American dream of a comfortable life; if not for themselves, then for the next generation.
Keep in mind that jobs are vitally important not only as a source of income and the route to a better life, but also as a social anchor and a major potential source of self-worth and meaning. That is why people who are fired, chronically unemployed, or pushed to retire suffer not just a loss of income, but also blows to social status and well-being.
Our chances of getting the best jobs – or any job at all – may seem to depend on our own initiative. That is partly true. But volumes of social science research also demonstrate that our chances depend a lot on our race group membership.
What is race?
Many of us have been taught some version of “there is no such thing as race – there is only the human race.” To eliminate the racial prejudice still very much on display during the Civil Rights Movement, there was an emphasis on universal humanity. Phenotype (e.g. facial features, hair type, and skin tone) or country of ancestry was deemed irrelevant. That was an important corrective. As careful scientific research has shown, people from diverse countries of origin are far more similar biologically than they are different.
It is also common to confuse race and economic or social class, because they are strongly associated with one another not only in the public mind, but also in statistical findings. Yet race exists outside of social class, as Omi and Winant’s (2014) important analysis of racial formation demonstrates. Race has a separate meaning from class and is intertwined with social institutions in distinct, though often connected, ways.
Race is a pigment of our imagination
(Ruben Rumbaut)
Even though it seems that race has something to do with our physical selves, its meaning was, and continues to be, created by people. The ways we define and think about race and racial identities derive from political and cultural actors with conflicting interests and worldviews (Omi and Winant 2014; Bonilla-Silva 1997; Feagin 2004).
The illogic of racial categorization abounds, supporting the DNA evidence that race is not biologically based. For example, it is common to write and talk about skin color as a marker of race, but the skin color of Americans from India is often darker than that of African Americans; the first group is not classified as black while the second always is. It is common to view race as rooted in ancestry – but people with features that suggest some African heritage are classified as black even if many of their ancestors hailed from European countries. In the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case, which made it legal to preserve public spaces for whites only, the plaintiff Homer Plessy was 7/8 European, but his 1/8 African ancestry mattered more. The “one-drop rule” that governed race categorization applied: a person with even a tiny amount of black or indigenous blood was never considered a kind of white person but always a person of color.
Some people reason that if race is a social construction then races are equivalent, and inconsequential, categories. However, race groups have never been equivalent. Race is vitally important because it has been woven deeply into the fabric of U.S. society and is used to pre-judge people. Race is one of the first things people know (or think they know) about others, because it has physical markers associated with it. The meanings given to race are in play all the time. Here is the bottom line: we made race up, and we made it matter. Once the concept of race was created, and people were sorted into different racial-ethnic groups, they did not have the same work opportunities and experiences

Race Hierarchy as an Engine of Economic Privilege

There was an economic motivation for race categorization. In competition for resources and rewards, there are always some groups who have an advantage. A society in which one racial-ethnic group benefits at the expense of others has a racist social structure (Feagin and Vera 1995; Bonilla-Silva 1997). The dominant group has the power and resources to create a race hierarchy that reflects its preeminence, ordering groups from best to worst, from valued to de-valued, from human to “other.”
The most important thing about the social construction of race is that it took a hierarchical form. The notion that there were different human types, called races, that could be classified on the basis of physical characteristics “was not invented until the eighteenth century” by Europeans (Frederickson 2002: 53). The idea to rank people by race came out of pseudo-scientific work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Scientists applied their assumption that the natural world is hierarchical to their understanding of race, creating a race-based ranking system with white (European) at the top. Racial classification studies lent legitimacy to whites’ colonization of people in Africa and Asia, and the subjugation of people of color in the United States (Wander, Martin, and Nakayama 1999). The groups “white” and “non-white” were defined as opposites and the notion of intellectual and moral superiority was a crucial component of the construct of “white.”

The Racial Other

The group at the top of the race hierarchy maintains or improves its social and economic position by oppressing, or literally, keeping down (Frye 1983) people who have been relegated to the “other” racial-ethnic groups. The concept of “the other” is central to academic writing on inequality. The “racial other” is feared, exoticized, rendered invisible, and yet “sticks out like a sore thumb.” The reaction of the dominant race group to the “racial other” tends to be full of suspicion, unease, and confusion. Perhaps most consequential is that the “racial other” is seen first and foremost as a racial group member, while their humanity and individuality are ignored (Madrid 1988). Whether it takes the form of hostility or avoidance, white reaction to the “racial other” leads to disparities in the world of paid work. People of color can also have these reactions to different race and ethnic groups, and even to people within their own group. That is the power of the race hierarchy, embedded at the core of U.S. social life.
The socially constructed notion of race conceived and imposed by whites began as a white/non-white binary in the United States (Corbas et al. 2009). People with roots in Asian and Latin American countries were racialized in relation to whites and blacks, and placed somewhere in between them on the race hierarchy. In the earliest days of immigration, most racial-ethnic groups began – socially and economically – somewhere near the bottom of the race hierarchy. Because race is a fluid social construct (remember, we made it up), not all of the groups assigned to the bottom of the race hierarchy stayed there. As succeeding chapters show, the Asian racial position has been a wedge between the top and bottom positions on the hierarchy, preserving white advantages (Kim 1999).
The privileges and oppression of the race hierarchy were built into all U.S. structures early on. They were expressed mostly in the realm of paid work though, because working for pay is so important, especially to the U.S. version of capitalism (Blauner 2001: 26). Work relationships are central to race processes such as how black and white America developed as connected but separate entities (Bennett 1975: 236). To grasp the connection between race and work, it is useful to know that jobs were also ordered on a hierarchy from best to worst. Then the two hierarchies were transposed onto one another. In any sorting of jobs or occupations, the best were reserved for whites at the top of the race hierarchy and the worst jobs were assigned to the “racial other”: at first African Americans and American Indians, then immigrant groups such as the Chinese and Mexicans, who began at the bottom of the race hierarchy. The merging of race and occupation hierarchies helped it all seem natural.
Throughout history there have been people from every race group, including white, who have contested the organization of people into a hierarchy of unequal groups based on phenotype or country of original ancestry. It has also been typical for groups and individuals defined as the “racial other” to contest or reject that identity. Furthermore there are people from each and every one of the country’s racial-ethnic groups who have achieved the American dream. Some descendants from the most oppressed groups enjoy work roles and standards of living that only the most optimistic of their ancestors could have imagined.
Yet the seeds of a race-based economy that were planted and nourished early in U.S. history bear fruit even today. In order to understand current race-based work inequalities, we have to uncover how and why race became essential to the American economic system. That is the subject of the next chapter.
Though many people think about individuals when they hear the term racist or racism, focusing on systems leads to deeper understanding of how work and race are connected. Replace the images of a hate-spewing malcontent who leaves nasty messages in a co-worker’s locker, or even the mild-mannered vice-president of operations who doubts that Asians make good supervisors, with this: racism is a system of white advantage (Wellman 1993). This definition promotes much better insight into how race and work are intertwined than focusing on individual racists would.


Theories are sets of ideas that help to answer both the why and how of racial-ethnic patterns of work. It is at the theoretical level that key concepts are developed, as well as hypotheses about how phenomena such as race and pay are linked. Theories guide analyses of historical and contemporary patterns of race and work, influencing what questions researchers ask, how they go about answering them, and what interpretations they give to their findings.
Any analyst must make choices from among the many theoretical perspectives available. Some key theoretical perspectives on work have not highlighted the importance of racism and white privilege, while theories of race and racism do not always give central emphasis to work. There are commonalities in the best sociological theorizing about race, as scholars build on the work of others, using a different focus or creating a new concept to expand or deepen understanding.
What follows is but a brief overview of the theoretical and conceptual tools guiding this analysis of how and why race and work matter to one another. These will be illustrated further in the coming chapters.

Systemic or Structural Racism

The central sociological insight into how race affects work is that race is an ongoing system or a structure built directly into society. Race categories are created and reinforced as an explicit strategy for gaining material advantages for some by exploiting others. Those with the power to do so claim more resources for themselves, manipulating ideas and messages to justify their dominance. Both because race is not natural and because it matters so much to work and other opportunities, its social construction is continually contested. Though structural theorists accentuate the oppression of people of color by whites, they also recognize the agency and resistance of those whose labor was exploited. Finally, theorists emphasize that racial inequality is created at all levels of society, from macro level institutions to micro-level interactions between individuals.
The capitalist economy that served as the engine of U.S. economic development is a significant part of the race and work story.

Marxist and Neo-Marxist Perspectives

Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism, developed during the transition to industrialization in the 1800s, continues to influence research on work and employment today. Volumes have been written on Marx’s theory of the labor process and it has been thoroughly critiqued, amended, and revised. Here I touch briefly on some key ideas.
In a capitalist system the goal is to maximize profit, or what Marx called surplus val...

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