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Bureaucracy, Discrimination, and the Racialized Character of Organizational Life

Race, Organizations, and the Organizing Process

ISBN: 978-1-78756-492-3, eISBN: 978-1-78756-491-6

Publication date: 20 May 2019


Research on racial inequality in organizations typically (1) assumes constraining effects of bureaucratic structure on the capacity of powerful actors to discriminate or (2) reverts to individualistic interpretations emphasizing implicit biases or self-expressed motivations of gatekeepers. Such orientations are theoretically problematic because they ignore how bureaucratic structures and practices are immersed within and permeated by culturally normative racial meanings and hierarchies. This decoupling ultimately provides a protective, legitimating umbrella for organizational practices and gatekeeping actors – an umbrella under which differential treatment is enabled and discursively portrayed as meritocratic or even organizationally good. In this chapter, we develop a race-centered conception of organizational practices by drawing from a sample of over 100 content-coded workplace discrimination cases and analyzing both discriminatory encounters and employer justifications for inequality-generating conduct. Results show three non-mutually exclusive patterns that highlight the fundamentally racial character of organizations: (1) the racialization of bureaucracies themselves via the organizational valuation and pursuit of “ideal workers,” (2) the ostensibly bureaucratic and neutral, yet inequitable, policing of minority worker performance, and; (3) the everyday enforcement of racial status boundaries through harassment on the job, protection afforded to perpetrators, and bureaucratically enforced retaliation aimed at victims. The permeation of race-laden presumptions into organizations, their activation relative to oversight and bureaucratic policing, and the invoking of colorblind bureaucratic discourses and policies to legitimate discriminatory conduct are crucial to understanding the organizational dimensions of racial inequality production. We end by discussing the implications of our argument and results for future theory and research.




The authors are grateful for the American Sociological Association’s Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline and Southwestern University’s Faculty-Student Projects grant funds awarded to the lead author. The authors also thank undergraduate students of Southwestern University’s sociology program (including Bethany Lewis, Deidra McCall, Madeline Carrola, Brielle Read, Veronica Ciotti, Molly McConnell, and Zac White) for their help with content coding for the larger project from which these data are drawn. Finally, the authors also appreciate the constructive feedback from the anonymous reviewers and editor of this volume.


Byron, R.A. and Roscigno, V.J. (2019), "Bureaucracy, Discrimination, and the Racialized Character of Organizational Life", Race, Organizations, and the Organizing Process (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 60), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 151-169.



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