Working Together: How Workplace Bonds Strengthen a Diverse Democracy

By Cynthia Estlund | Go to book overview

4
WORKING TOGETHER ACROSS RACIAL LINES
How Much Does It Happen and What Difference Does It Make?

Who are the co-workers with whom we cooperate, communicate, commiserate, and sometimes militate? As we have begun to see, they often come from different neighborhoods and from different cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. In particular, the workplace is the single most frequent site of close and ongoing interaction between black and white adults. That is not to say that most workplaces are highly diverse. On the contrary, many workplaces are overwhelmingly white or thoroughly segmented along racial lines. Discriminatory hiring, firing, evaluations, and placement, as well as harassment and social isolation, persist and plague the work lives of the underrepresented and less powerful minority group members. But the claim advanced here is a relative one: Integration appears to have proceeded further and more smoothly in the workplace than, for example, in neighborhoods and schools. I suggest some possible explanations for that relative success before turning to the consequences of interracial interaction at the workplace for social attitudes and social relations outside the workplace.

The primary focus here is on black-white interactions. Once we look beyond the black-white divide to the increasingly varied mix of racial and ethnic groups in American society, the picture becomes much more complicated. The extraordinary and increasing heterogeneity within American society, and even within nominally unitary subgroups such as “Hispanics” or “Asian Americans,” multiplies the number of different intergroup interactions and defies concise analysis. So at some risk of oversimplification, I will take interaction between black and white Americans as my paradigm case of intergroup relations. It is not the only important line of social division, but it has historically been the most troubled, as well as the most studied, line of division. If “working together” works for black– white relations, we can be reasonably optimistic that it can work across other lines of racial and ethnic identity as well.

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