Law Partner Tracks & Asian Americans: Struggles to Affirm Positive Self-Identity

Helen Wan’s The Partner Track is a newly published novel that paints a vivid picture of life inside a corporate law firm and the internal struggles and challenges of a female, Asian-American lawyer seeking to become partner. The book illuminates the ways in which minorities and women are still viewed within hierarchical, white male-dominated organizational structures and highlights the particular embarrassment that can result from being singled out to personify the firm’s diversity initiatives. In situations of high competition, minority and female status can even be seen as a threat, since some may mistakenly presume that such status confers advantage.

Ingrid Yung, the protagonist in the novel, is a descendant of immigrant parents from Taiwan, who knows how to speak Mandarin, but prefers to separate herself from identification with her ethnic roots in the presence of a competing, yet socially awkward attorney from mainland China. The nuances of her relationship with her parents are delicately portrayed. Ingrid’s mother addresses her on the phone as “Ingrid-ah”—perhaps reflecting the difficulty in enunciating the syllables in American names. Ingrid’s parents sacrificed much for her success, and are justifiably proud of her groundbreaking accomplishments. As her mother declares, “Nobody bosses my Ingrid around.” It is this unmistakable sense of pride and independence that accompanies Ingrid as she confronts repeated incidents that question her identity, her right to be at the firm, and her competence.

Without revealing the twists and turns of the plot, the most telling revelation comes when Ingrid realizes that it was not hard work that would land her a partnership and that her mistakes would count more heavily than for others. As Ingrid reflects (p. 238):

I had completely bought into the myth of a meritocracy. Somehow I’d actually been foolish enough to believe that if I simply kept my head down and worked hard, and did everything, everything that was asked of me, I would be rewarded. What an idiot.

The novel also chronicles with subtle humor Ingrid’s interactions with the firm’s diversity consultant who has been hired after a tasteless, racialized skit at the firm’s corporate outing. Later when Ingrid is singled out at the firm’s diversity event designed to repair the damage from the skit at the outing, she is unwittingly made the poster child for the diversity initiative and later suffers consequences for her required participation.

Ingrid describes her valiant efforts to stay at the corporate law firm for eight years, hoping that “all of these little humiliations and exclusions amount to something.” As she reflects,

More than anything, I wanted, once and for all, to shake that haunting suspicious that, while my record impressed and my work made the grade, I was ultimately not valued (p, 164).

The themes of the book underscore the research perspectives shared by Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin in Two-faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage.

This study identifies the spatial nature of modern-day discrimination based on the review of the diary accounts of 1000 college students. Based on this extensive research data, Picca and Feagin conclude that performances or comments made by white actors in the frontstage when diverse individuals are present significantly diverge from closed-door backstage performances that occurred when only whites are present. Similarly, Ingrid struggles with her own identity as she gains glimpses of the backstage while she is simultaneously paraded as a model of diversity in the frontstage.

Yet at the same time, there are hopeful notes sounded in Helen Wan’s beautifully narrated story. The novel has much to offer in terms of charting the progressive pathway toward a self-affirming identity for women and minority professionals and leaders. And as Alvin Evans and I highlight in The New Talent Acquisition Frontier, from an organizational perspective, talent is the most important strategic asset necessary for success and survival in a globally interconnected world. As a result, empowering diverse and talented employees and eliminating the spatial separation between frontstage and backstage performances are essential steps in the attainment of social integration and genuinely inclusive workplaces.

Racial/Gender Homogeneity in Corporate Board Leadership

In response to criticism from two major shareholders about the lack of diversity in its board of directors, Apple Inc. recently added language to its governance charter committing to seek women and minorities for consideration. The board currently consists of seven white males under the age of 50 and one Asian American woman. In an industry known to be built on the need for innovation, the singular homogeneity of Apple’s board is surprising, although far from unusual.

Other Silicon Valley companies have faced similar questions about their male-dominated leadership including Facebook and Twitter who were criticized for not having female directors prior to their initial public offerings.

The biannual report of the Alliance for Board Diversity reveals that both women and minorities are underrepresented in Fortune 500 boardrooms. Only about 17 percent of the 5,488 board seats are held by women. And minority women comprise 3.2 percent of these positions, while minority men hold 10.1 percent. The report also notes that African Americans, Hispanic/Latinos, and Asian/Pacific Islanders have experienced losses or only small gains in corporate board representation in the past year.

In our new book, The New Talent Frontier: Integrating HR and Diversity Strategy in the Private and Public Sectors and Higher Education , Alvin Evans and I argue that talent is the primary strategic asset needed for organizational survival in a globally interconnected world. As a result, organizations need to optimize their talent resources by building synergy between HR and diversity programs. Maximizing organizational capability requires that organizations respect, nurture, and mobilize the contributions of a diverse and talented workforce.

In an article entitled, “Does a Lack of Diversity among Business Leaders Hinder Innovation?” Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin share the results of a survey conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation of 1800 men and women in white-collar professions that also included Fortune 500 executives. The authors found that due to homogeneity in the leadership ranks, the majority of companies fail to realize their full innovative potential. Fifty-six percent of the respondents indicated that leaders at their firms failed to find value in ideas that they have difficulty relating to or don’t see a need for. As a result, senior leaders lose revenue-generating opportunities when they do not create a “speak-up culture” in which employees can contribute innovative or out-of-the-box ideas. The findings appear to support a strong correlation between inclusive behaviors and acquired diversity.

As Joe Feagin eloquently observes in Racist America:

When Americans of color are oppressed in this country’s institutions, not only do they suffer greatly, but the white-controlled institutions and whites within them often suffer significantly if unknowingly. Excluding Americans of color has meant excluding much knowledge, creativity, and understanding from society generally. A society that ignores great stores of human knowledge and ability irresponsibly risks its future.

In this sense, the exclusion of minorities and women from the board rooms of American corporations indeed irresponsibly risks the future of American entrepreneurialism by overlooking the innovative contributions of diverse leadership.

Prescriptive Racial Stereotypes of Asian American Leaders

In an article entitled “Why So Few Asians are College President,” Dr. Santa J. Ono, President of the University of Cincinnati, indicates that he finds himself among a very small group of Asian American leaders in higher education: only 1.5 percent of college and university presidents are Asian American and 3.4 percent are administrators in higher education. By contrast, Hispanics comprise 3.8 percent of presidents and African Americans hold 5.9 percent of these roles. This pattern also holds true for the corporate sector, such as the low representation of Asian Americans as corporate officers and members of corporate boards.

Why are Asian Americans so underrepresented in leadership roles? Ono suggests two major factors at play: cultural differences deriving from home environments that value preferences for indirect communication, emotional restraint, and an egalitarian view of power as well as contradictory perceptions about Asian Americans such as being conspicuous but self-effacing, hyperambitious but timid. Frank Wu, Chancellor of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, similarly points out that the model minority myth transforms positive qualities into negative attributes: intelligence is seen as lack of personality, family-oriented as clannish, and hard-working as unfairly competitive.

Ono, however, points to significant new research by Jennifer Berdahl and Ji-A Min at the University of Toronto that sheds light on the particular barriers Asian Americans face in leadership roles. Berdahl and Min distinguish between descriptive stereotypes or generalized beliefs about what members of different racial groups are like and prescriptive stereotypes which, when violated, are likely to provoke social disapproval and backlash. Since East Asians in North America are often descriptively stereotyped as relatively competent, cold, and nondominant, Berdahl and Min identify “nondominant” as a prescriptive stereotype that, when violated, causes negative consequences in the workplace. As a result, when East Asians remain in subordinate, nonleadership roles, and do not try to assert their own viewpoints or ideas or take charge, the competitive threat to valued resources they pose is neutralized. Through a series of four studies, the research findings reveal that not only did East Asians report more racial harassment at work than other employees, but, more importantly, those individuals that violated racial stereotypes were more likely to be the targets of such harassment. Berdahl and Min report that the negative responses to dominant East Asians did not depend on gender and appeared to be unique to this racial minority group.

This promising line of research on prescriptive stereotypes helps explain the hurdles faced by Asian Americans in their efforts to attain leadership positions and how these stereotypes can influence their ability to break through the so-called “bamboo ceiling” or what Sylvia Ann Hewlett calls “the marzipan layer” just below the upper rungs of power.

The notion of prescriptive stereotypes can also apply to the challenges faced by other racial minorities and women when they violate expected stereotypical behaviors and experience backlash. As Santa Ono notes, unconscious bias may be more difficult to address in academe where intellectual fairness and rigor are already presumed to be present. In this regard, he aptly suggests that academe focus some of its energy, acuity, and empathy toward tearing down existing social and psychological barriers to success, “particularly those all the more imposing for being invisible.” Perhaps greater understanding of the influence of prescriptive stereotypes will provide the opportunity for reexamination of the impact of subtle, unconscious bias on organizational processes and allow us to develop truly inclusive definitions of leadership capabilities.

The Myths around White “Merit”

Systemic racism persists and flourishes in this country because of an extensive set of racial myths created long ago and aggressively perpetuated by whites in major institutions of this society, decade after decade.

Given this white myth-making, empirical data on what is actually the case often become “radical.”

Consider this pervasive belief. Whites publicly assert that they get most of their jobs over their lifetimes only or mainly because of their merit and abilities. They pedal this fiction to everyone they can, and indeed get many folks of color also accept it as true.

The problem is that it is mostly a grand fiction.

For example, recently conducting hundreds of white interviews, sociologist and university dean Nancy DiTomaso has demonstrated well the important social networking patterns that reproduce great racial inequalities in U.S. employment patterns. Her many white respondents reported that they have long used acquaintances, friends, and family–their personal networks–to find most of the jobs secured over lifetimes of job hunting. That is, they use exclusionary networks. DiTomaso calls this a societal system of “opportunity hoarding.” It is, more bluntly, institutionalized racial privilege and favoritism.

These empirical findings flatly contradict the colorblind view of our employment world propagated by many Americans, and especially most white Americans– that is, the view that in the U.S. economy jobs are secured mainly or only because of personal “skills, qualifications, and merit.” Yet, wherever they can, most white job seekers admit that they typically avoid real job market competition and secure most of their jobs by using their usually racially segregated social relationships and networks.

And, even more strikingly perhaps, most whites do not even care that they benefit so greatly from such an unjust non-merit system—one that exists because of the 400 years that systemic racism has created a huge array of white material, social, and psychological privileges. In her many white interviews DiTomaso did not one white respondent ever openly expressing concern about their use of this highly unjust non-merit system.

Her data also flatly refute other common notions of white virtue. Whites contend that they are now the victims of “reverse racism” and “reverse discrimination,” two white-crafted terms and notions–in more recent versions of the dominant white racial frame–that are primarily designed to deflect attention from the society’s fundamental and foundational white racism.

In her white interviews Ditomaso found that the persisting opposition by most whites to affirmative action is not so much about fear of “reverse discrimination,” but much more about the way in which effective affirmative action programs have sought to weaken these centuries-old patterns of institutionalized favoritism for whites–including institutionalized bias favoring whites in competition for society’s better-paying jobs.

She found In the nearly 1,500 job situations that her respondents talked about in detailed interviews, she found only two situations where a white person might have conceivably lost a job because of an affirmative action effort on behalf of black Americans. Empirical demonstration of yet another white fiction.

The real societal worlds, when it comes to jobs and much else in the way of white wealth, assets, and privileges, are not those fictional worlds of distinctive merit and white disadvantage propagated by many, and especially conservative, whites—including those “well-educated” whites who serve on our high courts and in our legislatures.

Empirical data on how white-generated racism operates in the real world, once again, are themselves radical.

Capitalism and Systemic Racism: Oliver Cox’s Pioneering Work



In doing some research on capitalism and racism lately, I have been rethinking Oliver C. Cox’s pioneering and excellent Caste, Class, & Race; A Study in Social Dynamics book, which was first published in the late 1940s. It is still very much worth reading and learning from. It is available for free in various pdf and ereader formats for the Monthly Review Press edition here. (I use the Kindle formatting in quotes below.)

Oliver Cox was one of the few early black sociologists in the United States, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1938. He was a student of Robert Ezra Park, yet provided some of the deepest and most insightful critiques of Park, the early Chicago school, and Gunnar Myrdal’s famous An American Dilemma in this book, Caste, Class & Race. I highly recommend his analysis, both for its penetrating assessments and importance in sociological history.

One of the key figures historically in the Black Radical tradition, Oliver Cox was probably the first to argue in some detail that racist framing and exploitation arose in the various stages of modern capitalism:

Racial antagonism is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits. It may be demonstrated that racial antagonism, as we know it today, never existed in the world before about 1492; moreover, racial feeling developed concomitantly with the development of our modem social system. Probably one of the most persistent social illusions of modem times is that we have race prejudice against other people because they are physically different—that race prejudice is instinctive. (Kindle Locations 461-487)

Modern race prejudice and framing is not instinctive but develops in the material context of early capitalism. Cox added that

The interest behind racial antagonism is an exploitative interest— the peculiar type of economic exploitation characteristic of capitalist society. To be sure, [a white person] might say this cannot be, for one feels an almost irrepressible revulsion in the presence of colored people, especially Negroes, although one never had any need to exploit them. It is evidently the way they look, their physical difference, which is responsible for one’s attitude. . . . [However] the individual is born into it and accepts it unconsciously, like his language, without question.

Racist prejudice and framing are learned in the broad material context of racial exploitation, and is generally accepted by most whites without question, even those who see themselves as uninvolved in exploitation. In this negative white racial framing black Americans

must not be allowed to think of themselves as human beings having certain basic rights protected in the formal law. On the whole, they came to America as forced labor, and our slavocracy could not persist without a consistent set of social attitudes which justified the system naturally. Negroes had to be thought of as subsocial and subhuman. To treat a slave as if he were a full-fledged human being would not only be dangerous but also highly inconsistent with the social system. (Kindle Locations 461-487).

Once put into place in the U.S. case, this racial prejudice and broader racial framing spread globally:

Our hypothesis is that racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that because of the world-wide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America. (Kindle Locations 8327-8329).

Later on, he summarizes this way:

Race prejudice in the United States is the socio-attitudinal matrix supporting a calculated and determined effort of a white ruling class to keep some people or peoples of color and their resources exploitable. In a quite literal sense the white ruling class is the Negro’s burden; the saying that the white man will do anything for the Negro except get off his back puts the same idea graphically. It is the economic content of race prejudice which makes it a powerful and fearfully subduing force. . . . However, it is the human tendency, under capitalism, to break out of such a place, together with the determined counterpressure of exploiters, which produces essentially the lurid psychological complex called race prejudice. Thus race prejudice may be thought of as having its genesis in the propagandistic and legal contrivances of the white ruling class for securing mass support of its interest. (Kindle Locations 11973-11982).

. . . . [Whites] should not be distracted by the illusion of personal repugnance for a race. Whether, as individuals, [they] feel like or dislike for the colored person is not the crucial fact. What the ruling class requires of race prejudice is that it should uniformly produce racial antagonism; and its laws and propaganda are fashioned for this purpose. The attitude abhors a personal or sympathetic relationship. (Kindle Locations 11990-11997).

Some 65 years ago, Cox vigorously argued that racial prejudice and framing are the results of concrete social and material contexts, not some psychological gremlins inherent in all human beings. And they destroy personal and empathetic relationships. These early classics are indeed well worth reading again today.

The Black Counter Frame: Critical for Much Racial Change



In my The White Racial Frame book I not only discuss this age-old white racial frame, which accents both white virtue material and anti-others material, but also the important counter frames to this dominant white frame that people of color have developed. In the U.S. case African Americans have developed an especially strong counter frame over centuries, perhaps because they have had the longest period of time situated firmly within this systemically racist society.

This counter frame has for centuries been an impetus for many important black protests, and thus in large part for the few major changes that have been made in this country’s racist system over the centuries.

One feature of U.S. systemic racism involves a rather intentional collective forgetting by whites of key African Americans who articulated and often organized around a strong counter frame. Let me remind our readers of a few of these great Americans.

One of the first to put counter frame down on paper was David Walker, a young African American abolitionist working in Boston. In 1829 he published a strong manifesto, entitled Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Demanding full equality, he wrote to his fellow African Americans with revolutionary arguments in an anti-oppression framing, so much so that slaveholding whites put a large cash bounty on his head. (He died young, probably as a result.) Walker analyzes slavery and racial segregation for free blacks quite bluntly. Most whites are “cruel oppressors and murderers” whose “oppression” will be overthrown. They are “an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings.” Whites seek for African Americans to be slaves to them

and their children forever to dig their mines and work their farms; and thus go on enriching them, from one generation to another with our blood and our tears!

He then quotes the words “all men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence and challenges whites:

Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us–men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation! . . . . I ask you candidly, was your sufferings under Great Britain one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you?

A little later in the 19th century, an admirer of Walker, the African American abolitionist Henry Garnet, gave a radical speech, “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America,” at a National Negro Convention. Garnet’s counter framing is very assertive and to the point, and it is also an address to those enslaved. He offers a structural analysis of “oppression,” arguing too that the white “oppressor’s power is fading.” African Americans like “all men cherish the love of liberty. . . . In every man’s mind the good seeds of liberty are planted.” He calls on those enslaved to take revolutionary action:

There is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather die freemen, than live to be slaves.” He concludes with a strong call to rebellion: “Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties.

One of the most brilliant of the 19th century analysts of systemic racism was the great abolitionist, Martin Delaney, who among other actions worked in revolutionary efforts to overthrow the slavery system. (In May 1858, he and John Brown gathered black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary meeting in Chatham, Canada. Four dozen black and white Americans wrote a new constitution to govern a growing band of armed revolutionaries they hoped would come from the enslaved US population.) Directing a book at all Americans, Delaney emphasizes the

United States, untrue to her trust and unfaithful to her professed principles of republican equality, has also pursued a policy of political degradation to a large portion of her native born countrymen. . . . there is no species of degradation to which we are not subject.

His counter framing is one of resistance and extends the old liberty-and-justice frame beyond white rhetoric:

We believe in the universal equality of man, and believe in that declaration of God’s word, in which it is positively said, that ‘God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.’

Delaney attacks whites’ stereotypes of African Americans with a detailed listing of important achievements of numerous free and enslaved African Americans and emphasizes how enslaved workers brought very important skills in farming to North America that European colonists did not have. African American workers were the “bone and sinews of the country” and the very “existence of the white man, South, depends entirely on the labor of the black man.” Delaney emphasizes that African Americans are indeed very old Americans:

Our common country is the United States. . . . and from here will we not be driven by any policy that may be schemed against us. We are Americans, having a birthright citizenship.

Let us bring these and other important 19th African Americans back into our contemporary history, as they were both thinkers and activists in the long tradition of people fighting for liberty in the United States. Note too essential elements of the black counter frame in these and many other black thinkers and activists too often forgotten writings from the 19th century: a strong critique of racial oppression; an aggressive countering of white’s negative framing of African Americans; and a very strong accent on the centrality and importance of liberty, justice, and equality for all Americans. African Americans have been perhaps the most central Americans in keeping these liberty and justice ideals constantly alive and imbedded in resistance organizations over four long centuries of freedom struggles in the racist history of the United States.

Sacrificing Their Own: Republican Abandonment of the White Poor in the Obama Era

Congressional Republicans, through their mean-spirited political agenda, are increasingly abandoning many of their loyal supporters at the time of their greatest need.

In the prolonged economic crisis that has devastated so many lives in its path, victims of policies to cut food stamps and unemployment benefits, nullify Obamacare, and shut down the federal government go beyond those who have been traditionally relegated and abandoned on the margins of society, namely folks of color.

Increasingly rank-and-file whites are being crushed by Republican miserliness. These are individuals who have long identified with the Republican party — people who have always seen themselves as the salt of the earth, people who made America what it is, people who played by the rules.

The white poor and near-poor represent collateral damage in Republican efforts to satisfy its voracious appetite to sink the Obama presidency.

Whites represent the majority of U.S. adults who stand to lose through Republican-led policies designed to gash the safety net in opposition to Obamacare in these trying times. For example, according to the 2011 American Community Survey, whites represented 53 percent of households receiving food stamps, 57 percent of adults without health insurance, 59 percent of the unemployed, and 57 percent of the adult poor. Whites also accounted for nearly two-thirds of federal workers, a group comprising a large chunk of the 800,000 workers laid off and the more than a million who will be asked to work without compensation as the federal government is now shut down.

To make matters worse, whites in red states are more likely than those in blue states to draw food stamps, to lack health insurance, to hold a federal job, and to be poor. Put simply, the white poor in red states are being hurt by the folks that they helped put in office.

It is obvious many Republicans, especially those in the House, are more interested in sabotaging the Obama presidency, making sure that Obamacare is halted, and in supporting the interests of the rich and powerful than they are in assisting needy whites — not to mention poor people in general — during a period that has put many in deep financial straits.

Just as Democrats have long ignored the interests and needs of their African-American, Latino and poor constituents, it is clear that Republicans are taking their strapped white supporters for granted.

This commentary was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News.

Charles Darwin’s Racist Framing



For some time now, there has been new attention to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, including the controversy generated by conservative religious groups who reject his theory and the extensive scientific evidence supporting much of it. Darwin is often listed as one of the ten most influential thinkers in Western history (a parochial listing, as the list makers leave out the rest of the world), and probably deserves that designation. There is much use of the concept of evolution, too, these days–and even a type of discipline called “evolutionary psychology.”

Religion and evolution get the attention most of the time when Darwin is publicly debated, but his racial views are also getting a little attention as well. They should get much more attention. To his credit, Charles Darwin was opposed to slavery, and this got him into trouble a few times, but he shared many of the anti-equality racist views of his day. In The Independent Marek Kohn notes the shift in thinking during Darwin’s life about the monogenetic origin of humanity:

When Charles Darwin entered the world 200 years ago, there was one clear and simple answer to the slave’s question. All men were men and brothers, because all were descended from Adam. By the time Darwin had reached adulthood, however, opinions around him were growing more equivocal. During his vision-shaping voyage on the Beagle, he was able to consult an encyclopedia which arranged humankind into 15 separate species, each of a separate origin.

Reviewing a new book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Kohn summarizes thus:

Evolutionary thinking enabled [Darwin] to rescue the idea of human unity, taking it over from a religion that no longer provided it with adequate support, and put the idea of common descent on a rational foundation. . . . [However, as he aged and] As attitudes to race became harsher, sympathies for black people in the Americas more scant, and the fate of “savages” a matter of indifference, Darwin’s own sympathies were blunted by the prevailing fatalism.

As he got older, especially in his famous, The Descent of Man, Darwin fell in line with much of the racist thinking of his day and even developed an early version the perspective later called “social Darwinism”:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

In his view, the “civilized races” would eventually replace the “savage races throughout the world.” Darwin’s earlier and most famous book was entitled: The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In such influential and momentous writings Darwin applied his evolutionary idea of natural selection not only to animal development but also to the development of human “races.” He saw natural selection at work in the killing of indigenous peoples of Australia by the British, wrote here of blacks (some of the “savage races”) being a category close to gorillas, and spoke against social programs for the poor and “weak” because such programs permitted the least desirable people to survive.

By the late 1800s a racist perspective called “social Darwinism” extensively developed these ideas of Darwin and argued aggressively that certain “inferior races” were less evolved, less human, and more apelike than the “superior races.” Prominent social scientists like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner argued that social life was a life-and-death struggle in which the best individuals would win out over inferior individuals. Sumner argued that wealthy Americans, almost entirely white at the time, were products of natural selection and as the “superior race” essential to the advance of civilization. Black Americans were seen by many of these openly racist analysts as a “degenerate race” whose alleged “immorality” was a racial trait.

Though some have presented him that way, Darwin was not a bystander to this vicious scientific racism. In their earlier book, Darwin, Adrian Desmond and James Moore summarize thus:

‘Social Darwinism’ is often taken to be something extraneous, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwinian corpus after the event, tarnishing Darwin’s image. But his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start–‘Darwinism’ was always intended to explain human society.

Why has his racist thinking received so little attention in the recurring celebrations of Darwin and use of his major ideas and celebrations of his impact?

Illusions of Meritocracy: Does It Favor Certain Groups?

The notion of meritocracy hinges on the belief in a just system, or what researchers have called “system justification theory.” As theorists John Jost and Masharin Banaji explain, system justification theory is a psychological process by which people justify existing social arrangements as legitimate and fair, such as the belief that hard work, effort, and motivation lead to success. This theory locates the cause of events within personal attributes, and indicates that individuals should take personal responsibility for outcomes. For example, a recent article by John Jost, Brian Nosek, and Samuel Gosling notes that stability and hierarchy provide both structure and reassurance, in contrast with social change and equality that imply unpredictability and greater chaos, especially in large social systems.

The irony of system justification theory is that members of minority groups can view the locus of individual success or failure as solely due to their own efforts and discount the impact of socially-mediated forces of discrimination. We have seen examples in the recent press where minority leaders themselves emphasize personal responsibility while remaining silent on the impact of the forces of systemic discrimination. As Alvin Evans and I point out in Diverse Administrators in Peril , this viewpoint can undermine self-esteem when individuals impacted by discrimination internalize contemporary forms of oppression and become their own oppressors through self-blame and inappropriate attributions of instances of everyday discrimination to their own dispositional or personal inadequacies. It heightens what Wesley Yang calls “self-estrangement” by removing the factor of difference from the equation.

A study conducted by Frank Samson at the University of Miami highlighted in a recent article in Inside HigherEd clearly demonstrates the fluidity of the notion of meritocracy when applied to different minority groups. When one group of white adults in California was asked about the criteria that should be used in admissions processes, a high priority was placed on high school grade-point averages and standardized tests. Yet when a control group was told that Asian Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates in the University of California system compared to their representation in the state population, the participants then favored a reduced role for test and grade scores in the admissions process. They further indicated that leadership should be given greater weight.

Since Asian American scores on the SAT topped white average scores by 1641 to 1578 this year and the leadership abilities of Asian Americans tend to be unrecognized , the shift in criteria by study participants shows that meritocracy means different things when applied to different groups. Samson attributes this shift to “group threat” from Asian Americans and suggests that key Supreme Court decisions based upon the framework of meritocracy might have been decided differently if different groups had been involved. Samson notes the exclusionary rhetoric that emphasizes “qualifications” applied in discussions of opportunities that can exclude African-Americans and how this framework shifts when applied to Asian Americans. In an earlier post, I cited a June 14 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Stacey Patton that explains how the frequent argument about “lack of qualified candidates” for top roles becomes a loaded and coded divergence—a smoke screen that feeds stereotypes of minorities as less capable, intelligent, or experienced (p. A4).

Certainly the road to attainment of meritocracy will require consideration of the many detours we have taken in the course of American history. Perhaps we need to be reminded that a true meritocracy is still an aspirational goal and in the words of Martin Luther King, represents “a promissory note” that will “open the doors of opportunity” to all Americans.

Whiteness, Structure, and the Royal Baby Obsession

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now (how could you possibly miss it?), a baby was born in Great Britain, considered to be the third in line to the monarchy.

 

A story that came to receive almost as much attention as the birth itself was the media coverage of the royal birth, much of it by comics and, thus, not meant to be taken all that seriously (e.g., John Oliver’s criticism). Despite complaints of the coverage, the general attitude was to shrug your shoulders and accept it, like it or not.

There are any number of reasons discussed for the obsession with the royal birth. Some suggest that the death of Princess Diana sparked interest in the royal family in recent years, while others point to the “special relationship” between Britain and the U.S.  Still others point to the appeal of the vivacious young Duke and Duchess (i.e., not as stuffy as Prince Charles). Ultimately, it may be that the royals’ lives speak to some of our deepest cultural mythologies about “fairytales.”

 

(image from This Charming Mum)

 

One particular factor that received little if any attention was the role of whiteness in the media coverage.

While Dutch immigrants to the U.S. are among the earliest white settler-colonialists in this country, the standard-bearer of whiteness has always been white Protestants of Anglo-Saxon heritage (or WASPs). The churches that many Americans attend have fairly direct links to the monarchy in Britain, such as Episcopalians, or are denominations with origins in the British Isles, such as Presbyterians.

Of course, this fascination with the royals here in the U.S. is not new. Prince Williams’ birth in 1982 was another royal birth that received much attention. And, Prince Williams’ entire life has been chronicled by the tabloid press, including the U.S.-based People magazine which features his “biography.”

One thing that seems clear with the media surrounding the birth of Prince George Alexander-something or other is how at least some of those covering the story seem to be at least partially critical their own complicity in the spectacle hype.  For instance, many news casters were assigned to watch a door of the hospital awaiting the official announcement of the birth and more than one that I saw seemed chagrined at such a “news” assignment. Of course, plenty of the backlash has as much to do with anti-royal sentiment as with the ridiculous media stunts, but I wonder if there’s something else at play here.

In my new book, White Race Discourse, I discuss how the sample of whites I interviewed seem trapped by a structure that limits their ability to talk rationally and reasonably about race matters and even their own racial experiences.

 

I see this same concept at play here with the coverage of the royal birth. In other words, for both producers of the story’s coverage as well as its consumers, people are locked into a given structure that limits their possibilities to think and act in rational and reasonable always. It was clearly irrational to be sitting around and waiting for a hospital door to open, but they did it anyway, and for what reasons exactly? This isn’t our monarch (at least not anymore), is it? Or, is there something else afoot here?

As Joe Feagin points out in his book, Racist America, there is a growing sense of insecurity among at least some white Americans over the increasingly majority-minority nation of ours. Whites like Pat Buchanan warn of the coming white minority due to declining birthrates for white women and the ongoing “invasion” of mostly brown people into this country.

Perhaps what the image of the royal baby conjures is white power and wealth, as well as the fertility of white women necessary to maintain white supremacy and dominance. These signifiers of white supremacy continue to proliferate in the U.S. mass media and throughout society. We watch in part because we want to, but we also watch in part because we are compelled to do so by the way white dominance is built into media events, such as the royal birth.