Organizational Structures and Institutional Racism

By R.L. McNeely, Ph.D., J.D., Attorney and Professor Emeritus: Bader School of Social Welfare University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Just recently, I was struck when watching, pursuant to a friend’s request, a panel discussion focused on the concept of institutional racism. That discussion took place on a college campus in front of a large audience. The discussants were three youngsters who were or had been enrolled as students in that private liberal arts college, or were employed therein. The fourth discussant was a senior social scientist from a research university who had just published an important study on disproportionate treatment by race.

Why was I so struck? I was struck because it was amazing to hear the statements of the three youngsters. None of them were able to articulate a definition of institutional racism and their comments were so murky as to be incomprehensible; at least they were murky about the topic at hand. Their jumbled thoughts revolved around notions of white supremacy, residential segregation, uneven access by the races to public resources, and the residual effects both of slavery and of the Jim Crow era following Reconstruction. But none of the youngsters could connect their thoughts into a coherent definitional or explanatory framework. To make matters worse, their comments consistently revealed an abiding belief that individuals were responsible for the racism meted out by institutions. Indeed, and on the other hand, one of the panelists also seemed fixed on who had been attracted to whom, in their neighborhoods of origin, and on the discriminatory treatment afforded to fat black women.

Finally, the senior research social scientist was asked what her definition was of institutional racism. She simply said that she defined institutional racism as laws and other policies that have a disparate adverse racial impact on people. To myself I said, “Well that was a very good and succinct answer to the question.”

As I continued to think about the baffling performance of the three other panelists, though, I remained transfixed by the clumsiness of their ideas and their inability to express themselves crisply. I thought: “Gee, by the time I was their age I had read many important race-related historical volumes and other works about racism.” In contrast, the youngsters talked in terms of impressions and opinions, not in terms of research studies or of the works of knowledgeable historians, etc. But, then, a sharp image came into focus. That image was of me sitting over dinner at the home of my “Evolutions of Democracy” professor, Ms. Barbara Dobyns, when I was a senior in college. I can remember fervently espousing my strong belief that “Open Housing” would solve this country’s racial woes because white folks would finally see that there were no differences between whites and blacks when all of us lived in the same neighborhoods. It then occurred to me that, by the yardstick of my past belief, the three young panelists were far ahead of me when I was of similar age! I can remember my professor looking at me with great disappointment and reticence while being transfixed by my youthful ignorance!

When discussing my reactions to the college panel discussion with the friend who asked me to watch that presentation, I mentioned that one deficit of the program was that no one seemed to talk about how the manipulation of organizational structures was a form of subtle institutionalized racism. My friend said to me: “What do you mean?” I responded by saying that certain organizational structures produced people who had the requisite psychological attributes that suited them best for our society’s leadership roles, while those in other structures internalized traits that suited them best for middle-range (non-leadership) roles in society, and still others were exposed to structures that suited them best for society’s servile roles. Then I said, guess what race gets consistently exposed to the latter structure? I said to her: “Think about schools.” Before I knew it, I then found myself pressured by my friend into writing a short piece on the topic, which is what you are reading.

If you think about schools, you would, of course, agree that there are significant differences to being a student on the campus of a Princeton, Harvard or Yale, versus being on the campus of a technical college, junior college, or four-year state school. I said to my friend that she should think about a Princeton model where everyone gets assigned to a breakfast club (for discussion, robust thought, interpersonal skill development, and future contacts after graduation) versus what you have at a school like UWM or MATC. I also said, guess which cluster of schools do minority students tend to populate? Yes. poor students, regardless of race, tend to populate the latter campuses, technical schools and junior colleges, although the percentages of “disadvantaged” minority students in these schools still fall woefully short of their representations in the general population.

That thought, of woeful disparities, then, shifts our thinking to the preparatory vehicle for college which, of course, would be the public schools, some form of voucher or charter school, preparatory schools, or Montessori schools. The question is, how do some of these schools produce people who are more likely to ask the self-effacing question, “Who am I to question” (whatever it is), versus other schools that produce students eagerly engaged in healthy exchanges based on internalized feelings that their opinions matter. Could it be that schools that offer students (and staff) opportunities to participate in decision making end up enhancing their self-esteem?

Indications of Alienation

Another way to think about it is whether some schools are more likely than others to produce reactions by students of situational retirement, dropping out, side-payment adaptation or rebellious adjustment. Situational retirement is being physically present but mentally absent. Dropping out is as it sounds. Side-payment adaptation is where a student does not come to school for educational reasons, but comes for other reasons like participation in sports or opportunities to meet the opposite sex. Rebellious adjustment is the blatantly overt rejection of the school through problematic behavior. All of the reactions, including the “Who am I” reaction, indicate alienation.

It should be borne in mind that some schools are organized like militaristic custodial institutions that tend to generate alienation among many. These schools have what is called a “weberian” administrative style, so named for the renowned sociologist, Max Weber, who first described this organizational style. Salient features include the hierarchical arrangement of relationships among school members, with those at the top having decision making authority over those at the bottom; the establishment of a priori rules as performance guidelines; a stress on the need for impersonal interpersonal relationships among organizational members; and a division of labor requiring specialization.

Faculty and students in schools adhering strongly to these principles find themselves largely or entirely divorced from decision making. They are likely also to find abundant efforts by central administrators seeking to codify precise ways of responding to problems, as evidenced in extensive a priori rules (policy manuals), often relegating even principals simply to following the rules rather than to engineering specific solutions particular to a given problem. Consistent with these conditions is the presence of social distance in interpersonal interaction, particularly between administrators and teaching staff, but evident also in the relationship among students and members of the school community. Simply put, the exalted position of the administration, i.e. of the school board, superintendent, and principal, place them far removed from the ordinary teacher who, more often than not, has little or no voice in making decisions. School systems operating under these conditions do not attract and/or retain teachers who are the best and the brightest. And, arguably, conditions that demean teachers are bound to foster undesirable consequences for the students they serve. Another characteristic often associated with this sort of school is “specialization,” as in routinized education, meaning the notion that students must be moved through school in batches, like so many eggs on an assembly line, and cannot be assigned to school grades on the basis of individual achievement. Such schools tend to prepare students for conformance, obedience to authority, relegation to repetitious work, etc., and, thus, they inculcate attributes more associated with the assumption of servile roles in society.

Encouraging independence

Conversely, schools that encourage independence, assurance of self worth and individual creativity, among both teachers and students, inculcate the requisite psychological characteristics among students that make them better prepared for leadership roles in adulthood. How is this done? It can be achieved in schools offering more respect-enhancing opportunities for teachers to be involved in deciding matters of importance to the school. Students, too, and parents, should be allowed opportunities to consider many matters and to discuss their ideas. This, however, is a time-consuming practice as parents often will need exposure to information that can lead to a rational decision. For them to consider the information, though, sufficient trust must first have been established between the school and the community. In communities where there is little trust, it will require a member of the school, likely the social worker, to go into the homes of parents for face-to-face dialogue. Or, meetings at neighborhood churches may be advisable. Too, in these schools, utilization of a priori rules is de-emphasized. After all, a priori rules work only in settings where problems can be anticipated. But when dealing with people, students and staff, the subtle contours of problems are infinite. So, it is more effective for a school’s morale to make individual decisions that fit the particular circumstances of a problem.

Finally, the social distance between persons of authority and ordinary teachers, students, and parents, is de-emphasized in settings that produce graduates who are likely to become society’s leaders. Studies have shown that interfacing through meaningful decision-making participation is related to decreased feelings of powerlessness, improved self-image, increased overall happiness, and increased tolerance of divergent attitudes. Studies also have shown that opportunities for students to participate in school decision making is related to increased reading and math scores, enhanced (non-bullying) interaction, a heightened sense of mastery over their environment, and the acquisition of attitudes related strongly to subsequent academic success, especially if following their parent’s participation in school policy development.

Now, here’s the question: Which of these two organizational styles do you think will be deliberately applied to poor neighborhoods, especially those disproportionately populated by people of color? Would it be the custodial militaristic model or the other model? Is any intentional manipulation of these models institutionalized racism? Does the weberian model, itself, embody institutionalized racism in an educational setting? Here’s another question: Which do you think is most likely to produce academically successful students: Public schools, voucher schools, charter schools, preparatory schools, or Montessori Schools?

Ed. Note: When asked how changing American history textbooks to reflect the fact that American founding fathers who were slave owners obviously believed that not all men were created equal, thus launching institutionalized racism in USA from the beginning, McNeely replied: “I do think a more accurate history would be a very useful thing to do. But as long as economic motivations lie at the base of things, I do not think institutionalized racism will be eliminated, even with the more accurate history. Virtually every other group in the country finds Blacks, especially lower-income Blacks, to be a fertile source of revenue, despite their poverty or near-poverty status. And others feel that we are in a zero-sum game wherein if a Black person gets a job then that amounts to one less job for a White person. Somewhere along the line people will need to recognize that it is in everyone’s best interest to root out racism. Only then can it be expected that there will be a meaningful change, in my view.”

For more expansive discussions, see:

R.L. McNeely, “Organizational Patterns, Work and Burnout in the Public School,” Urban Education, Vol. 18, No. 1 (April) 1983: 82‑97

R.L. McNeely, “Organizational Patterns for Pragmatic Humanism in Public Schools,” Educational Review, Vol. 34, No. 1, 1982::35‑46.

R.L. McNeely, “Master Teachers as Master Workers,” Social Policy, Vol. 14, No. 3, 1983: 57‑60.

R.L. McNeely, “Conceptualizing Models of Linkage for Community Involvement in Educational Desegregation,” Urban Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1983:165‑176.

R.L. McNeely, H.J. Meyer and M. Sapp, ”Conflict, Cooperation, and Institutional Goal Attainment in Diversity: Improving Relationships Between Urban Organizations and Neighborhood Residents,” Pp: 176–190, in A. Daly (Ed.), Workplace Diversity: Issues and Perspectives, Lanham, MD: NASW Press, 1998.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on June 01, 2018

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