1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Kum-Kum Bhavnani

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

‘Race’, Women and Public Policy in the United States and the United Kingdom
‘Race’ persists despite attempts to eliminate it through public policy measures. While it is commonplace, due in part to previous United Nations meetings, to argue that there is no sound evidence from the natural and biological sciences to justify the assumption that the human species can be divided up into separate ‘races’, both ‘race’ and racism persist as economic, political, ideological and cultural sources for inequality. Thus, ‘race’ is not an empirically defined social category; rather it is created, reproduced and challenged—as well as contested—through economic, political and ideological institutions.

Ethnicity, similarly, is surrounded by a plethora of discussions about its trajectory within social, economic and political institutions. To encounter critical commentaries on the relationship between ‘race’ and ethnicity is no longer uncommon, as may be seen in the proposal for this very conference.

The academic analysis of ‘race’ and ethnicity often acknowledges the historical specificities of inequalities through the discussion of ideas such as ‘differential racism’, yet approaches for integrating gender into such discussions often fall short of their desired goals. Thus, women are often viewed as either being racialized, ethnicized or gendered, but it is rare to see these categories of inequality explicitly interconnected within public policies. Along the same lines, many have argued that public policy is developed without explicit regard to the institutional power inequalities which frame the development of such policies, with the consequence that such power inequalities are actually made invisible through the creation of policies to mitigate their impact.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is clear that ‘race’ and ethnicity are self-evidently central to public policy discussions, and the centrality of gender for such discussions is often argued as follows: gender allows entry into a critical assessment of the relationship between production and reproduction; gender opens discussions of how women, in particular, are located in public and private spheres simultaneously; and gender also quickly leads to discussions of how sexualities may be negotiated and policies developed that take account of such negotiations. Finally, all discussions of gender within the sphere of public policy quickly lead to an explicit engagement with the agency of women, given women’s actions in demanding changes and transformations in public policy.

In this paper, I examine three areas of public policy in the United States and the United Kingdom to suggest how gender, ‘race’, ethnicity and racism could come to be explicitly interconnected within public policy. To do this I shall:
· examine affirmative action/equal opportunity policies in the United States and the United Kingdom with a view to seeing if they mitigate the multivalent effects of racism and xenophobia or if they make invisible the power inequalities that necessitate those policies;
· discuss my collabourative empirical research data on incarcerated women to suggest possibilities for how to re-imagine criminal justice systems without recourse to privatization and the reproduction of racism;
· assess the ways in which women of colour have organized to bring about changes in public policy in the United States and the United Kingdom.