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Criminal Justice and Social Change

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
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Plausible Answer 2: Institutional Racism and Intersectionality

Source materials for the following questions will be found in Images of Color, Images of Crime, Roxbury Publishing, 1998, Chapter 1.

Answer by e-mail to
Subject: cjexercise - racism
Be sure to include your name!
Try to answer in 25 words or so. Make each answer integral, so that I can read it without reference to the exercise or the question itself.

  1. In what way does Derrick Bell's statement (that "if black people had not existed, America would have invented" them) relate to Ernest Gaines' story of three black men? (p. vii and Dear Habermas piece on "They ain't us.")

    Both Bell and Gaines are referring to the process of identity formation that depends on defining oneself as "not X". We often depend on group solidarity for definitions of self, enjoying the "privilege" of being a member of the group and differentiating ourselves from those who are "not members of that group." This suits some people's need to explain their right to be heard in terms of stereotyped traits they have avoided, instead of positive traits they have developed. Thus, I might be proud of myself as a "not inhaler" instead of for having found creative alternatives to drugs in college. (No reference to real persons intended.)

  2. What is the problem with defining "racism" as the prejudiced behavior of another? (p.4)

    In the 1990s the most extensive effects of racism and sexism are not initiated by a perpetrator. The institutional rules and schedules have developed over time in ways that favor some groups over others. No intentional prejudice is any longer needed. An example: the discrimination against working students, who must come at night. Often, university offices, like Financial Aid, are more accessible to day students. That doesn't necessitate someone in the Financial Aid office being prejudiced against night students. The rules and scheduled hours simply have the same result. Then, when night students complain, there is no perpetrator, and confusion defuses the night students' attempt to be heard. See, Covaleskie on disciplinary power.

    The fact that disciplinary (or rule-based) power is so subtle makes it much more difficult to rebel against than naked sovereign power. Joe Feagin call this kind of racism "institutional racism." So do Mann and Zatz. Institutional racism is increasingly recognized as being enabled by the wicked little unstated assumptions that make up the structural foundation for the rules. This is one of the by-products of using extrinsic rewards instead of cultivating intrinsic motivation. The extrinsic rewards pave the way to inflexible rules.

  3. What is intersectionality? (p.6)

    Intersectionality is the interaction of the institutional oppression subtly imposed by all sources of oppression: race, gender, and class. Identities are complex and contextual. It is sophistry to suppose that we can view our position as women separately from our class position and/or separately from our color. One may be more dominant at given times, but all matter, both individually as we gather experience and shape it into a personal perception of and interaction with the world in which we exist, and socially, as we take our place in the community.

  4. What do social constructionists mean when they say that identities are interdependent?

    I can't account for them all. But here's what I mean. What I experience shapes what I think of myself and of others, of my community. At the same time, my actions become part of the sum of the community's perception. Then I am in turn affected by that reflection to me of the community action. Who I am and who the community is are part and parcel of a contextual whole. For most of us, there is no existence apart from the human communities of which we are a part. Even if we find such an existence, a fantasy or spiritual community shares in the interdependent structuring of the identity. John Donne. "No man is an island."

  5. How does this explanation of interdependence relate to the social construction of reality? See the Koster essay under the Chomsky Celebration at MIT Press, for a conservative critique of this interdependence. jeanne believes Koster is dead wrong. He is exaggerating the position of those who see an active role for the self, and he is doing so in the name of reason, which has very little to do with the formation of the self. For the social constructionist view, go to the Virtual Faculty site.

    To recognize the role of interdependence in identity formation is a far cry from saying that we socially construct reality, with the addendum that reality consists solely of that interdependent construction. The existence of reality, rather like the existence of God, is a matter of belief, since it is beyond our present means of proof. The recognition of interdependence is a philosophical position which regards humans as active participants in their universe, not as passive to an objectively determined external force.