But How Do Inequality Regimes Actually Work?

In making sense of the desegregation trajectories that have developed since passage of the Civil Rights Act, the book makes highly creative use of social closure theory, applied alongside the shifting American political landscape. The book finds that racial and gender segregation has remained especially pronounced in higher paying industries and occupations (much as closure theory would predict). But the book also finds that organizations that rely on formal professional credentials exhibit a much more level playing field than do firms that rely on less formal markers of skill and expertise. This finding calls for important modifications in social closure theory, since it suggests that educational credentials can enable (and not merely block) access to job rewards among historically excluded groups. This is a vital and important finding. But in presenting these results, the book does not always show us why this pattern is the case. Did the class or racial advantages that white women enjoy give them easier access to credentialing institutions? Was the effect of meritocracy also apparent in industries that rely heavily personnel in STEM fields? Or are the leveling effects of educational credentials limited to professional contexts such as law, accounting, social work and teaching? Arguably, heavily feminized professions account for much of this meritocracy effect. My point is that the nature and sources of the meritocracy trend need more discussion than the authors provide.

The authors use the concept of “inequality regimes,” and use it to unpack the increasingly heterogeneous nature of the racial and gender contexts that exist in various industries, regions and urban locales. I think this concept is terribly important –so much so that I want to press them to think about the types of inequality regimes that exist. What do inequality regimes look like? What do qualitative studies suggest about the meaning that organizations give to “diversity,” and what effects to these constructs have on job assignments and promotion ladders? I’m thinking of past work on the “managerialization” of civil rights concepts by Ely and Thomas (see their 2001 article in the Administrative Science Quarterly) and of work by Lauren Edelman (especially her 2001 ASR piece). It’s not enough to speak of the inattention of HR departments to prejudice, or of the organizational inertia that has come about in the wake of racial backlash. It may not be the absence of a social justice frame, in other words, but the presence of certain types of regimes that may underpin the reproduction of status hierarchies. I wonder if inequality regimes may have involved racialized career patterns of the sort that Sharon Collins identified many years ago (see her 1997 Social Problems article), in which the hiring of African American men happened, but in ways that only peripheralized black men within the corporate opportunity structures.

The authors also demonstrate that white men have derived substantial benefit from equal opportunity initiatives in highly counter-intuitive ways. But the authors never quite explain the organizational mechanisms that underpin this trend. What are the organizational processes or pathways through which this effect occurs? Is it linked to organizational restructuring –to downsizing, outsourcing, globalization, plant shutdowns, or what? Does this “racial promotion” effect obtain equally in both expanding and contracting industries? These are important questions that are left unaddressed.

As I’ve said, I admire the authors’ ability to unpack the political dynamics that governed the effects of the civil rights act. Their political history is powerful and enlightening. But their treatment of shifts in US political culture omits one part of the post-Reagan drama that I think is important, and one in which sociology is itself implicated. I have in mind the 1990s debates over “the underclass,” which led to the abolition of AFDC. This whole episode is a good example of ‘myth and ceremony’ about the value of the work ethic that operated (I believe) in ways that reproduced racial and gender segregation, symbolically and organizationally.

A final point: The authors place much emphasis on the uncertainty generated by the civil rights and women’s movement, and by the enactment of the Civil Rights Act itself. But was it really “uncertainty” that prompted corporations to act? Or was it the very certain (for a time anyway) disruption of corporate control that was at issue? It’s not so much certainty that managers and executives prize –but rather, the certainty that they will indeed be in control of their own fate. A conceptual quibble? Perhaps –but the concepts we use are not innocent, and may betray our inability to stand outside of managerial discourse as such.

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