Racism revised: Courts, labor law, and the institutional construction of racial animus

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How should we understand and explain individual acts of racism? Despite extensive debate about the broader place and importance of racism in America, there is surprisingly little theoretical or empirical analysis of what leads individuals to commit racist acts. In contrast to most political scientists who understand racism as an individual psychological attitude - an irrational prejudice - I argue that individual manifestations of racism are the result of a complex set of factors, and that latent psychology is less helpful to understanding them than are the maneuverings and behavior of strategic actors following rules and incentives provided by institutions. We need to examine the ways in which institutions encourage racist acts by motivating people to behave in a racist manner or behave in a manner that motivates others to do so. To further explore and compare institutional and individual-psychological approaches to understanding racism, I examine manifestations of racism in labor union elections. I analyze and contrast more than 150 cases in which the National Labor Relations Board and U.S. federal appellate courts formally responded to reported violations of racism in a union election. The principles of this approach can easily be applied to other contexts and suggests that racism in society is less intractable and innate than malleable and politically determined.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)373-387
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican Political Science Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2005
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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