A Justice Site
CSUDH - Habermas - UWP - Archives
California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: October 2, 1999
Latest update: June 23, 2004
October 22, 1999
This lecture jumps to Chapter 6 of Images of Color, Images of Crime of Mann and Zatz: "Reflections on Black Manhood," by William Oliver, starting on p. 81.
William Oliver, whose work we will return to in The Violent Social World of Black Men, focuses in this section of Mann and Katz on the damage done to black identity by the image of black people that was socially constructed out of slavery. "One of the great tragedies associated with prejudice and racial discrimination against black people is the negative effect it has had on how black people view their worth as human beings." (at p. 81.) Oliver describes the Million Man March on October 16, 1995, as a political and social statement by black men that they are going to assume the responsibility of caring for themselves, their community, their family, and undoing the social harm that has befallen them and their community, acknowledging that "an increasing number of black people have lost faith in the belief tht the white majority will ever commit themselvesto the ideals of justice and equality for all." (At p. 82.)
I would like to review that concept: that individuals can take on personal responsibility and take charge of their own lives when the infrastructure reflects bad faith and fails to maintain legitimacy through a good faith consideration of their validity claims. That perspective assumes that the American values of self realization are in fact available to all. But that is not true. It wasn't in the Old West, and it isn't in the New West. If you were going to shape your own reality with the help of a six shooter, you had to be a darned good shot, lucky (so other gunfighters didn't get you first, and preferably charismatic enough to hold a group of fellow westerners together to support your efforts. And if someone with faster and/or more guns came along your social reality would still fall to the sovereignty of whoever had the most power (guns and people who could shoot straight).
Yes, by standing united, as our labor movement made so clear in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, those without power can alter dominant discourse, and alter the outcomes of power. But it's minimal. The Million Man March provided an important visual opposition to the dominant discourse vision of the black male. But such a single instance of cognitive dissonance does not alter the dominant discourse in any meaningful way. The urban ghetto, with its lack of jobs, lack of respect for the young male, lack of opportunity and access, is more likely to be changed when we collectively accept our complicity in labelling the black male, and actively attempt to make good faith changes to our assumptions - all of us - and hold each other to that commitment to listen and look in good faith for the first time in the history of the black male.
The social construction of dominant discourse includes all of us; not just those who are open to listening in good faith as a component of governance discourse and social justice. The concept of standing together in acceptance of our individual and group responsbility to eliminate false labelling from our dominant discourse is strange to us. For we have never thought of our dominant discourse as the product of our individual interrelationships. We need to learn from the efforts of the labor movement how hard it is to charismatically lead individuals distracted by their daily lives to dynamic social change. It was hard for the labor movement. It will be hard for us. But change happens at the level of dominant discourse.
William Oliver is trapped in the same dominant discourse in which we all find ourselves dysfunctioning. So I understand that in his doctoral research he found his subjects in local bars in the inner city. Local bars are one of the few place young black men have to hang out. He had come from the neighborhood, and saw himself as one of them, albeit one of them who had escaped the maws of the inner city.
Social constructionism is an important concept in narrative and identity research and theorizing. Classic source: Berger, P. L. and Luckman, T., The Social Construction of Reality. The social construction of identity refers to the idea that so much of modern life is controlled by advertising, by our social institutions of school, finance, work, that there is little freedom for the individual to try on narratives that fit, find unique stories and formulate his/her own identity. As Kenneth Gergen puts it, the self today is "saturated." Further readings on social constructionism.
But the views that others have of us, the ways the dominant discourse describes us, those are social constructions. People have agreed that they believe those views because they hear them over and over, and they seem to be just something "everyone knows." What the million man march was saying that what all those people know is not what really is, and we can change that by our own social construction of who we are. That doesn't mean that the march suddenly altered peoples' perceptions of black men. It didn't. As Gergen points out, the culture saturates us with so many messages, one march isn't going to change much. But the march is one instance of changing the reality as portrayed in dominant discourse. By showing a different perception in such numbers, black men were socially constructing a new and different reality of who they were.
How does that fit into social justice? Consider that some people are ascribed their status in the dominant discourse just on the basis of the group they belong to: white male. Others have to continue to prove, as with the march, through achieved status, that they are worthy of the same level of respect. And they have to keep proving it over and over and over until cognitive dissonance with our dominant discourse causes us to begin to substitute a new perspective of the outsiders, the -NOT white males-, whether they are people of a different race or gender or class or religion or whatever.
It is demoralizing and diminishing to constantly have to prove your worth over and over and over. But if you want to be included where dominant discourse has excluded you, that's what you have to do. That is the essence of social construction. We must disrupt the construction with which the dominant group is satisfied, until we disrupt that construction enough that it is deconstructed and reconstructed. This is not a conscious, reasoned process. This is "social" construction. It depends on good faith with which we listen to one another, and self-reflect on the constructions we accept as natural, normal, and not harmful to others in our dominant discourse.
The privileging of subjectivity is the (often unstated) assumption that your perspective is the only or the primary perspective and allows you to perceive the "truth" of the context or situtaiton. Subjectivity is always present. We cannot perceive the world from a neutral or unbiased perspective, for our experiences have shaped our perspective. That is simply the dilemma with which humans are faced because we are each unique. The problem does not lie in the subjectivity, but in the privileging of that subjectivity, in the assumption that somehow our perception is the "true" one.
Of course, during slavery the subjectivity of the white master was privileged. Because so much of that privileging is done at an out-of-awareness level, the privileging continues long after the overt causes for that privileging have disappeared. Compare Minow's work on unstated assumptions of privilege. Even though slavery ended many, many years ago, the unstated assumptions of privilege have lingered and form an important part of the narrative of identity. These assumptions linger because they are built into our institutions, our patterns of behavior, and our expectations. Joe Feagin speaks of such lingering assumptions as evidenced in institutional discrimination.
One of the concepts of social constructionism that applies here is the idea that individuals really have far less control over their identity development than we have presumed, in that so many of these unstated assumptions have been supported by privilege that they continue to shape much of the situatedness of our everyday lives. One way out of this dilemma, to return control to the individual and to re-emphasize uniqueness and difference, which we have come to recognize as important to us all, is to bring these unstated assumptions to awareness. This is Minow's thesis.
Institutional discrimination is that discrimination that occurs simply because the rules and expectations were set when some privileged group was in control. Those not belonging to the privileged group find that they are harmed by the rules and expectations, but that it is "not personal," in the sense that no person is discriminating against them as individuals. The discrimination of the past simply led to rules that now do the same discriminating, but without a perpetrator. (Institutional racism is institutional discrimination based on race.)
A practical example to help you understand: night classes. At CSUDH nearly half our students come at night. But most of the offices that students need to access for forms, applications, petitions, are open from 9 to 5. This discriminates against the person who has to work from 9 to 5, but it does so through patterns developed over time, through expectations that serious students go to school full time, during the day, through expectations of many college workers that their jobs should be from 9 to 5. No one has to discriminate against any individual student who comes to night classes. The rules and traditional patterns do that. There is no human perpetrator who is discriminating against any individual.
Institutional discrimination is far more complex and more difficult to combat than overt discrimination where there is a perpetrator. In law, we used to refer to "de facto" discrimination, as opposed to "de jure" discrimination. Covaleskie discusses power as consisting of two major types: sovereign and disciplinary. Sovereign power goes with titles and overt authority to dictate rules and regulations. Disciplinary power resides in the rules, norms, and expectations for traditional performance. Institutional discrimination relies on disciplinary power. Since disciplinary power seems to apply the same rules to everyone, there seems to be little discrimination. But when the rules grew from contexts in which there was discrimination, the unstated assumptions carry those discriminatory contexts right along with the rules in present contexts.
An important attribute of critical race theory, as we studied it in Arrigo, Chapter 9, was the importance of bringing the race issue up front and personal. The importance of telling the story of what racism feels like. The stories have been suppressed by the positivist concern for the neutral and unbiased position of scientific method. Problem is, there is no unbiased perspective. Critical race theory recognizes the importance of the narrative to bring the underlying assumptions to awareness, where the unstated assumptions can be held up to the false premises that have preserved them for so long.
There are many more theoretical pathways down which we could wander with this theme. But, for now, I've exceeded my 200 words, so we'll continue this as threaded discussions. At least this will give you some idea of what Susan and I mean about linking the basic concepts of discourse and fairness to the issues we explore.
On Institutional Racism