Reviewed by Margaret S. Hrezo, Department of Political Science, Radford University. mhrezo [at] radford.edu
It has been 34 years since the United States Supreme Court decided Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The 35th year after Bakke may find the Court requiring an end to college admissions practices that take race into account. If, as many court watchers and scholars predict, the Court overrules Grutter v. Bollinger and rules against the University of Texas-Austin in Fisher v. Texas, efforts to increase diversity in educational settings will be hindered and there is likely to be spillover into workplace programs. However, controversy over the nature of affirmative action, its effectiveness, and its place in American public policy will not end – no matter what the court decides in Fisher. It is the continued controversy surrounding affirmative action that makes Jennifer Pierce’s Racing for Innocence an important book for scholars in this field.
Pierce is a sociologist and professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her most recent book is an ethnographic study of cultural and personal memory related to the backlash against affirmative action between 1989 and 1999. In it she examines the attitudes of lawyers in a large legal section of a California company. When she began her fieldwork the company was operating under a court-ordered consent decree to increase the diversity of its workforce. At that time she gathered work histories on the department’s 43 lawyers. In 1999 she located and re-interviewed 33 of those lawyers. In addition to these interviews, she also investigated treatment of race and gender affirmative action in the news media and portrayals of race relations in Hollywood films during the period from 1989-1999. Presentations in the media, she maintains, helped to shape both individual and cultural memory and, thus, strongly influenced attitudes toward affirmative action in a negative direction. Finally, Pierce gives her readers a short story that attempts to develop understanding of the complexity of intellectual and emotional responses to affirmative action in the individuals she interviewed. Her discussion of the short story highlights several issues related to empirical research in this area and the need to develop more nuanced research methods. She concludes that race remains “a fundamental organizing principle of structural inequality in the United States” (p.147). Further, based on her research, she argues that white males engage in the practice of “racing for innocence” in which they “disavow accountability for racist practices and, at the same time, practice racially exclusionary behavior” (p.9).
In the chapter on the news media, Professor Pierce uses content analysis to argue that the media not only helped shape the meaning of affirmative action, [*564] but also helped create white males as a class of victims. The overall narrative that emerged from these media accounts was one of white male innocence and victimization. She also maintains that this narrative was used to support “neoconservative and neoliberal political agendas” (p.21). The focus of these articles tended to be that affirmative action hurt white working class and middle class men particularly during the recession in the 1980’s (despite statistical evidence that people of color were hurt far more than white males by the recession). In these stories fairness and innocence were seen in purely individual terms. Although there were stories that supported affirmative action and developed a broader understanding of fairness, the total number of stories slanted against affirmative action from 1990 to 1999. During that time period negative stories always outnumbered those supporting the policy, usually by a ratio of 3:1 or 3:2. Headlines, the presentation of polling data, and an emphasis in stories on racial division, Pierce argues, reinforced the story of white male victimization. Interestingly, the news media did very few stories on gender and affirmative action.
The chapter on the film industry from 1989 to 1999 reinforces Pierce’s argument and adds another layer to her interpretation of affirmative action during this time period. She sampled almost 60 Hollywood films with receipts ranging from four million to 184 million dollars. In this chapter she argues that the dominant theme of these films was racial progress and the redemption of white Americans from past racism. These movies usually portrayed white, elite, and male experiences. People of color were background figures who supported the protagonist and “anointed” him as a savior (p.45). Over the course of the film the protagonists move from “innocence to consciousness” concerning racism. The antagonists in these films most often were racist working-class white men. A Time to Kill, Mississippi Burning, Amistad, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Long Walk Home, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Dances with Wolves receive particular analysis in this chapter, and her examination of them leads Pierce to conclude that they infused a myth of racial progress into America’s cultural memory. White experiences of race are the focus and contemporary forms of racism are underplayed or omitted. Further, these films stereotype both working class and elite white males, and underscore the neoliberal emphasis on individualism.
Professor Pierce then moves to the stories elucidated in her interviews with a set of elite lawyers. The stories told by the lawyers emphasize merit as the reason for their success and assume existence of a color-blind society in which any hard working lawyer with initiative would succeed as they had. These stories, just as do those in the media and the film industry, construct a cultural memory – this time of the workplace. These same interviewees questioned the ability of men of color to “fit in” and expressed concern about being forced to hire unqualified individuals. If an African American lawyer left the department (and both of the males of color Pierce interviewed did leave the department), it was because they got a better job (untrue) or did not want to work hard enough. Beneath the discourse of color-blindness these interviewees expressed a more subtle [*565] form of racism and expressed nostalgia for a time when the workplace was mostly white and male and they could make comments or jokes without fear of offending anyone. As one interviewee maintained, “affirmative action is a government regulation that gets in the way of the good work we do here” (p.73). Pierce concludes the chapter by suggesting that the narratives about affirmative action developed by the white male lawyers become memories of events that did not occur and are strikingly similar to media and film narratives concerning white male innocence and victimization.
According to Pierce, the female lawyers’ experiences in the department were both similar and different. In their interviews the female lawyers described instances of both subtle and overt discrimination during their legal careers. In their interviews, however, the male lawyers denied the existence of any gender discrimination and again used the language of merit and initiative to describe the career trajectory of everyone in the department. In speaking of female lawyers, the males did not suggest that the females were unqualified. Instead, they questioned the women’s commitment to their career and profession. They denied that any change was needed in the way the workplace was organized and maintained that whether a female stayed or left was a matter of unconstrained choice. The women, on the other hand, felt that the men were suspicious of their competence, ambition, and commitment. At the same time, several of the white female lawyers Pierce interviewed expressed ambivalence about affirmative action, often because of what they perceived might be its impact on their spouses or sons. And a few of them opposed affirmative action and held the same absolute commitment to moral individualism (the idea that as a free and independent individual I am responsible only for my own actions and for the obligations that I choose) as did the white male lawyers. They too told a narrative of choice, effort and ambition.
The concluding chapter is a short story by the author about a black female candidate for a position with a prestigious law firm. In the story, the candidate has done an excellent interview and now is having dinner with two of the firm’s partners (both male). It is an interesting story of the difficulties of social interactions between African Americans and whites. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the candidate is female. This story is important to her research because through it she can express underlying factors that fill in gaps presented by the results of her empirical research. The characters in the story all have ambivalent and amorphous (Pierce uses the term ambiguous) feelings about each other’s motives, personalities, competency, and character. It highlights how difficult it is to interact with the “Other,” whether that Other is male or female, white or a person of color and how easy it is to lose the nuances of an experience when using only traditional research methods. The story complicates her results, but does reflect the “truth” of her research experiences. Further, it leaves the reader with a good deal to consider.
Overall, this is a very good book that raises questions that are not going away no matter how much white America wants to believe that racism is dead and [*566] no matter how much we cling to John Marshall’s dissenting words in Plessy v. Ferguson, “There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens” (at 559). In the end, Pierce’s work reinforces what we know – that America used class and caste to privilege white male citizens in the past and now uses the tropes of moral individualism and a color-blind society to do the same thing. This book allows the reader to consider the fact that America now is a society composed of victims. Every demographic group now feels injured in one way or another. That is not a comforting thought, nor does it bode well for the law or public policy formation.
The greatest strength of Pierce’s work is its ability to elucidate the opinions and beliefs of an elite group in American society – the group most able to obfuscate true feelings and opinions because of facility with language and ability to exercise power. In so doing Pierce unveils important structural factors in American society and institutions that privilege some groups to the detriment of others. In addition, the ethnographic approach to the topic adds layers of insight that most forms of political science research are unable to reach. Racism is part of the story America has written about itself. It is very useful for a political scientist to understand that story in all is complexity and nuance. Finally, the comments Pierce makes concerning the conduct of sociological research also apply to research in political science. She recommends a variety of research strategies. As important as empirical research is, it tends to focus on either/or responses. It produces a wealth of data, but that data remains isolated from the larger picture or story in which that particular research project is embedded. We need strong qualitative methods as well if we are to develop an understanding of the overall story.
Racing for Innocence, however, is not without weaknesses. It is repetitive and overly long. In addition, Pierce’s belief that much of the opposition to affirmative action is grounded in neoconservative and neoliberal political agendas goes too far. She needs to remember that the American story always has had a strong element of moral liberalism. Where we balance the competing claims of individual choice and responsibility and of what Sandel calls obligations of solidarity changes over time. This book highlights the clash between the two and shows us the contemporary balancing point. Periodically, Pierce gives the impression the current trend is some sort of organized conspiracy when actually it is part of the ongoing conversation of a deliberative democracy about what story that society wants to tell about itself. Her book is valuable in that it deepens and enriches our understanding of the differences between our official histories and the stories we tell about ourselves to one another, but its tone is sometimes ideological. Weaknesses aside, this book is useful for anyone who teaches and conducts research in race relations.
Sandel, Michael. 2009. Justice: What’s the Right thing to Do? New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.CASE REFERENCES: [*567]
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).
Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, 631 F.3d 213 (5th Cir. 2011); Supreme Court Docket No. 11-345.
Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).
Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).
Copyright 2012 by the Author, Margaret S. Hrezo.