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How does race inform professional identities?

Did you know that while blacks comprised 10.9 percent of the total labor force in 2006, they constituted one-fourth of the workers determining eligibility for individuals applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, unemployment benefits, social security, public housing, and other state assistance (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2007)?

I have written extensively on the increased racial diversity within the employee ranks of street-level bureaucracies. This focus gives us a window into the lives of public workers (a group that has gotten a lot of attention in light of the efforts to reduce their collective bargaining power); and research in this area also encourages us to think about the elements of professional identities.  In the abstracts that follow, I point you to articles written by yours truly that take up the questions, “How are professional identities of workers within organizations informed by their racial, class, and gender identities, and how do these intersecting social and professional identities shape events on the ground?”

ABSTRACT: The substantial incorporation of people of color into government and quasi-government employment raises previously unexplored questions about the significance of race, class, and gender in street-level bureaucracies. Relying on interview data collected from black and Latino supervisors and caseworkers implementing welfare reform, I look at whether and how race and other social group memberships are deployed as tools in the delivery of casework services to black and Latino clients. Contrary to our assumptions about the level of impersonality entrenched in public bureaucracies, I find that most caseworkers and supervisors of color conceptualize and operationalize welfare reform in ways that link their goals and experiences as agency employees, members of racial communities, and implementers of social policy. They identify with the circumstances of their clients, but interpret the politics of welfare through not only racialized but also classed and gendered lenses. Consequently, they support and challenge clients of color in a variety of ways. In order to trace the origins of these strategies, I explore how the combination of institutional politics, environmental phenomenon, and black and Latino bureaucrats’ personal histories contribute to their understanding of how they should do their jobs. This article suggests that not only inter-racial but also intra-racial politics inform institutional processes within street-level bureaucracies.

Watkins-Hayes, Celeste. 2009.  “Race-ing the Bootstrap Climb: Black and Latino Bureaucrats in Post-Reform Welfare Offices.” Social Problems 56(2): 285–310.    

ABSTRACT: Racially representative bureaucracy theory suggests that black and Latino clients of street-level bureaucracies will uniformly experience the benefits of a racially diverse staff within these institutions and perceive it as working to their advantage. Conversely, street-level bureaucracy theory suggests that racial minorities working within these organizations are under massive constraints that significantly hamstring their efforts to exercise discretion in ways that might benefit minority clients. Using in-depth interviews of both recipients and providers of public cash benefits and food stamps, I find that the majority of black and Latina clients interviewed in a racially diverse welfare office do not view staff members who share their racial status as operating in ways that are distinctly informed by racial group commonality. A strong bureaucratic structure creates institutional boundaries that often restrict meaningful engagement between these groups despite social group commonality. In those instances in which black and Latina clients do have a racialized interpretation of their encounters with bureaucrats from their racial groups, they are not monolithically understood. Clients can read them as either pointed but welcomed interventions by racemates who offer wisdom on how to navigate the welfare system or heavy-handed maneuvers by more privileged members of their racial communities. Ultimately, this article argues that racial diversity among the workforces of street-level bureaucracies is important and can have positive effects on organizational dynamics as racially representative bureaucracy theory suggests, but organizational context and intragroup politics within minority communities greatly inform how race is mediated within these institutions.  

Watkins-Hayes, Celeste. 2011. “Race, Respect, and Red Tape: Inside the Black Box of Racially Representative Bureaucracies.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 21: i233-i251.

United States Department of Labor. “U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment and Earnings.”January 2007 issue. Data extracted from Table 598, US Census Bureau 2006 American Community Survey. http://www.bls.gov/cps/home.htm. (accessed December 15, 2010).

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Written by Celeste Watkins-Hayes

June 17, 2011 at 3:52 am

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