Archive for the ‘culture’ Category
My new book, The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press), is officially out today. Yay! The book is about diversity—that word, diversity—the organizational politics that coalesce around it, and the implications for the struggle for racial justice. I’m going to paste some excerpts here that highlight the main (empirical) argument. I’m working on a variation of this for an op-ed. Reactions welcome!
Talk of “diversity” is ubiquitious in the twenty-first-century United States, from the Oval Office to celebratory neighborhood festivals. A national sociological survey found that nearly all respondents said they valued diversity in their communities and friendships. Popular diversity interventions include affirmative admissions policies, mixed-income housing programs, and corporate training.
I have spent more than a decade answering these questions through ethnographic and historical research. My investigation has taken me to various settings—a university, a neighborhood, and a corporation—that all proactively identify as diversity champions. There, I found that some of the most passionate advocates of diversity are CEOs, university presidents, elected officials, and other leaders with stature and power. This presented a riddle: what, exactly, do decision-makers accomplish when they take on the goal of diversity?
In the post–civil rights period, many decision makers face a new race problem: racial representation and the potential stigma of not representing race properly. They confront a widespread expectation that some people of color, especially African Americans, will be present in a predominantly white context, measured either numerically or by racial minorities’ visibility or authority. Having at least one token person of color on a governing board has become, in many places, crucial for an organization’s legitimacy. Just as racial representation has become an issue—and, in part, because racial representation has become an issue—the representation of other marginalized groups has become important as well, particularly that of women.
The decision makers in this study have responded by advocating diversity. They have constructed identities for their organization or community as distinctive for its diversity—as one of its distilled, essential features and compatible with other fundamental characteristic of that locale. University administrators, for instance, touted the University of Michigan as “excellent and diverse.” At Michigan and elsewhere, leaders have deliberately cultivated a diversity image in hopes of shaping other people’s views and experiences of cross-racial interaction. They may be sincerely trying to improve intergroup relations and increase minority representation or just creating the appearance of such. These leaders certainly hope to create the impression that they, themselves, can manage group differences successfully.
There are both promises and pitfalls in treating race as diversity. The drive for diversity disavows discrimination. It helps to justifies some organizational policies, like affirmative action, that are proven to be effective at moving racial minorities and women up the economic ladder. It also affirms a basis of commonality—a shared, self-reinforcing commitment to social cohesion—across group-based differences that normally divide Americans deeply.
But diversity advocates’ efforts to minimize group divisions and expand the bounds of social membership have focused on symbolism more than on social causes. They have resisted fundamental change in the structures, practices, or cultures that guide day-to-day interactions and shape determinations of merit and value. The push for diversity is, by and large, a mechanism of containing and co-opting equality, as it largely leaves untouched persistent racial inequities and the gulf between rich and poor. This is the taming of the civil rights movement’s provocative demands for racial justice.
Hi all, I’m Ellen Berrey. I’ll be guest blogging over the next few weeks about inequality, culture, race, organizations, law, and multi-case ethnography. Thanks for the invite, Katherine, and the warm welcomes! Here’s what I’m all about: I’m an assistant professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo-SUNY and an affiliated scholar of the American Bar Foundation. I received my PhD from Northwestern in 2008. This fall, I jet off from the Midwest to join the faculty of the University of Denver (well, I’m actually going to drive the fading 2003 Toyota I inherited from my mom).
As a critical cultural sociologist, I study organizational, political, and legal efforts to address inequality. My new book, The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press), is officially out next Monday (yay!). I’ll dive into that in future posts, for sure. I’m writing up another book on employment discrimination litigation with Robert Nelson and Laura Beth Nielsen, Rights on Trial: Employment Civil Rights in Work and in Court. These and my articles and other projects explore organizational symbolic politics, affirmative action in college admissions (also here and here), affirmative action activism (and here), corporate diversity management, fairness in discrimination litigation, discrimination law and inequality (and here), gentrification politics, and benefit corporations.
I’ll kick off today with some thoughts about a theme that I’ve been exploring for many years:
How can powerful, elite-led organizations advance broad progressive causes like social justice or environmental protection? I’m not just referring to self-identified activists but also corporations, universities, community agencies, foundations, churches, and the like. Various arms of the state, too, are supposed to forward social causes by, say, ending discrimination at work or alleviating poverty. To what extent can organizational decision-makers create positive social change through discrete initiatives and policies—or do they mostly just create the appearance of effective action? Time and again, perhaps inevitably, top-down efforts to address social problems end up creating new problems for those they supposedly serve.
To the point: Have you come across great research that examines how organizations can bring about greater equality and engages organizational theory?
I think this topic is especially important for those of us who study organizations and inequality. We typically focus on the harms that organizations cause. We know, for example, that employers perpetuate racial, class, and gender hierarchies within their own ranks through their hiring and promotion strategies. I believe we could move the field forward if we also could point to effective, even inspiring ways in which organizations mitigate inequities. I have in mind here research that goes beyond applied evaluations and that resists the Polly Anna-ish temptation to sing the praises of corporations. Critical research sometimes asks these questions, but it often seems to primarily look for (and find) wrongdoing. Simplistically, I think of this imperative in terms of looking, at once, at the good and bad of what organizations are achieving. Alexandra Kalev, Frank Dobbin, and Erin Kelly’s much-cited American Sociological Review article on diversity management programs is one exemplar. There is room for other approaches, as well, including those that foreground power and meaning making. Together with the relational turn in the study of organizational inequality, this is a promising frontier to explore.
More soon. Looking forward to the conversation.
Critics charge that Simchowitz often preys on vulnerable young artists without gallery representation — some say without talent — and buys up huge quantities of their work, then flips the pieces back and forth at escalating prices among a cultivated group of buyers: a network of movie stars, professional poker players, orthodontists, nightclub promoters, financiers, football players and corned-beef magnates, many of whom hold Simchowitz in such high esteem that they’re willing to purchase the pieces he acquires for them sight unseen, artist unnamed. In March, in an online screed for New York magazine, the art critic Jerry Saltz tore into Simchowitz with unusual ferocity, dubbing him a “Sith Lord” and the Pied Piper of the “New Cynicism.” Simchowitz’s artists may enjoy a temporary surge in prices, his critics argue, but they typically see little of the upside; in any case, or so the story goes, once their bubbles pop, they’re left for dead.
Many important galleries have blacklisted Simchowitz as a buyer, forcing him to take extreme measures to secure desired work, including using consultants as undercover mules. Simchowitz told me about a recent scheme in which he had a consultant buy three pieces from Essex Street, a Lower East Side gallery. The purchase was nominally on behalf of another client, but the ultimate recipient was Simchowitz; by the time the gallery suspected the ruse, money had already changed hands, but the pieces had not been delivered. The gallery requested that Simchowitz not only cancel the purchase but also return another piece by the same artist that was already in his possession, which he did. Moreover, the gallerist, furious over what happened, called the other client to inform him that he was colluding in fraud, an accusation that heartily amused Simchowitz. (Asked for comment, the gallery responded, “Essex Street has never done business with Stefan Simchowitz.”)
I am a lot less alarmed by Simchowitz and even delight in his irreverence and trash talk. Aside from the trash talk, one reason that he draws controversy is his embrace of the market side of art. He thinks “flipping,” which is just another word for “quickly selling at a profit,” is great and has argued that it indicates strength of an artist. Another source of the controversy is patronage of young artists. One could argue that being so dependent on one person creates too much risk.
I tend to think these arguments, for the most part, are misplaced, or overblown. For example, almost all relationships in the art world have ups and downs. People can get traditional gallery representation and then have stalled careers. There are routinely lawsuits filed against galleries because of shady business deals. Artists can get burned as well. Private “dealers” like Simchowitz have no monopoly on good, or bad, business decisions.
If an artist strives to be in the “right” collections, Simchowitz, and flipping in general, may not be optimal, but he’s still preferable to not having a career at all. He’s probably equivalent to having a good, but not elite, dealer behind you.
On a deeper level, I have to give Simchowitz a thumbs up simply because he puts his money where his mouth is. If he likes it, he pays in cash. The trade off is that you are locked in. But, so what? That’s a standard way to reduce uncertainty. Also, he’s like a good business manager in that he provides personal support to help younger people who may not know how to deal with the business side of things. And worse comes to worse, if you hate him, it seems like you can “paint your way out of it,” in the same way a musician can finish a contract by just chunking out the last few records.
He may be crass and direct, and he may embrace practices the art world deems inappropriate. At the end of the day, there’s some artists who stayed in the game and succeeded because he gave them a room and ten thousand bucks. I wonder if he’ll take my calls?