Linking Race and Organizational Theory to better understand organizations

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Reviewed by Drisana Hughes


This study marries racial and organizational theory to better understand how racialized organizations limit personal agency of racially minoritized groups.  Under a new theory of racialized organizations, the study tackles how organizations themselves reproduce racialized structures and patterns independent of conscious coordination of individuals. This new theory illuminates trends in resource allocation, depicts the true power of whiteness in an organization, and reveals how every process and procedure can be linked to race. Beyond the identification of trends and findings, this theory also offers  opportunities to combat patterns in racialized organizations in addition to spotlighting areas for further research. 

This study is important because it connects race and organizational theory as both theories have traditionally operated independently of one other. Without understanding how racism and organizations are fundamentally intertwined, we, as a society, neglect the fact that organizational formation was partially created on the basis of excluding racially minoritized groups and should be analyzed as such. 

The author of the study, Victor Ray is the F. Wendell Miller Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology and African American Studies at the University of Iowa. His work applies Critical Race Theory to classic sociological questions. He has been published in Sociological Theory, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Journal of Marriage and Family, and Contexts.

Methods and Findings

In order to effectively create a theory of racialized organizations, Ray focuses heavily on two models of understanding mechanisms that produce racial inequity: Jung’s (2015) Reformulation of Bonilla-Silva’s (1997) Racialized Social System Theory and Sewell’s (1992) notion of Dual Structures. 

  • Within the three levels of analysis of Race and Ethnicity (Individual Level – Micro, Organizational Level – Meso, and Institutional Level – Macro), this study focused on the meso-level in order to assess the multiple mechanisms that reproduce inequality organizationally. These mechanisms include how organizations are formed, hierarchies within organizations, and processes that guide organizational functions. 
  • The dual social structures used from Sewell’s study are schemas and resources. Schemas refer to unconscious assumptions or an “unwritten rulebook.” Resources are anything used to gain, enhance or maintain social position. Schemas and resources together are durable structures that underpin organizations. Furthermore, they both help to create, perpetuate, and grow racial structures and segregation within organizations. 

Schemas, Rules and Resources, and Racial Ideology all relate to one another allowing us to understand racial structures as schema-resource couplings at the meso-level. The racial etiquette of Jim Crow, for example, was a schema of racial subordination expressed through social interaction. When these schemas are connected to rules and resources, like specific state laws in the South and sharecropping practices, they become durable structures. Racial structures become institutionalized (macro-level), when they are replicated across many organizational forms. Using this model of racial structure helps explain the mechanisms that recreate racial inequality independent of any conscious discriminatory intent. Furthermore, Ray describes the growth and development of these ”novel mechanisms” as organic externalities that form from working in racialized organizations. A good example of the emergence of a novel mechanism is the development of private schools during the post-Brown v. Board era as a way to express the schema of segregation via allocating organizational resources in new ways.  When using these frameworks of study, Ray finds racialized organizations (1) directly affect the agency of racial groups, (2) distribute resources unequally, (3) treat whiteness, in and of itself, as a credential, and (4) decouple certain formal processes and procedures from organizational practices in an inherently racialized way.  These findings are unique in that current race scholarship lacks a theoretical way to explain these mechanisms without individual conscious coordination.


First and foremost, the author suggests that we should no longer assume that organizations are race-neutral and instead assume that discrimination, racial divisions, and inequality are foundational to any racialized organization. This directly affects the fields of race research and organizational research and asks them to fundamentally reexamine their goals and scope. This reframing should help researchers put greater  emphasis on how organizations react to changes in policy that increase or decrease the agency of racially minoritized groups as opposed to whether or not this is the case. For example, instead of trying to prove hiring discrimination exists, consider it a general organizational process and examine how to combat it within that framework. 

Ray also recommends research focused on the credentialing of whiteness and white emotional reactions to organizational change.  From a policy perspective, this research challenges us to understand what policies and practices whites carry with them into the workplace and which of those policies remain in strong use today. Once we view organizations as fundamentally racialized there are a host of questions that open up about continuity and change to the existing racial order. Ray references immigration policy, organizational reliance on the state, and social movements as vehicles to begin to enact organizational change. 


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