A Different Kind of Broken Windows Theory

By Adia Wingfield, co-author of “Maintaining Hierarchies in Predominantly White Organizations,” (found in Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World)

When we think about work, it’s easy to imagine someone sitting at a desk, working with their hands, or doing some other sort of immediate task. But the fact is that the nature of work is changing, with many aspects of it becoming increasingly invisible to customers, supervisors, and even other workers. Retail workers do the aesthetic labor of dressing and presenting themselves in a manner that is consistent with the store’s image. Call center workers provide labor that is never seen by those on the other end of the phone. And significantly, there are racial underpinnings to the way that much of this invisible labor operates.

My coauthor Renee Skeete and I write about this in our chapter “Maintaining Hierarchies in Predominantly White Organizations,” out now in Marion Crain, Winnie Poster, and Miriam Cherry’s anthology Invisible Labor. We make the argument that these organizations are undergirded by largely unseen “racial tasks” routinely performed by workers of color. These tasks vary depending on where workers are situated in the organizational hierarchy, but they usually involve maintaining systems of racial segregation and white advantage. Workers at the top levels of an organization complete racial tasks such as maintaining an organizational culture or conforming to norms that otherize workers of color. Those at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy may find that racial tasks become less centered on establishing culture and more focused on maintaining and upholding physical structures that subtly (or overtly) reinforce racial messages.

Take the case of Corey Menafee, an African American dishwasher recently fired from Yale University for breaking a stained glass window. On its surface, this appears to be a story about simple vandalism and destruction of property. But the window Menafee broke was a stained glass window that depicted an image of slaves picking cotton, in a dining hall named for a white supremacist who supported slavery, on a campus where racial tensions were high after students of color cited repeated of overt hostilities that rose to a boiling point when a residential dean suggested minority students simply ignore white peers who dressed in blackface for Halloween. This broader context highlights the way that racial tasks vary depending on a worker’s role in the organizational structure, as well as the ways these tasks reinforce whites’ superordinate position relative to people of color. Maintaining a physical structure that depicts an overt image of black inferiority is an example of the sort of racial tasks with which those at the lower rungs of the organizational hierarchy may be charged. As Menafee describes, his frustrations with doing this task on a routine basis eventually reached a breaking point.

Renee Skeete’s and my chapter in Invisible Labor discusses other similar examples of racial tasks. One key argument that we wanted to make here is that the existing models for work do not necessarily include the ways that there are aspects of labor which are racialized, covert, and often overlooked for people of color. We theorize racial tasks as implicit requirements that are expected of these workers, and often go unnoticed unless they are not completed—such as when Corey Menafee broke the window. In order for workplaces to become more equitable, they will have to take into consideration not just the ways that racial disparities exist in certain professions and occupations, but also how workers of color take on additional responsibilities in the form of racial tasks.

Adia Wingfield is a Professor of Sociology at Washington University. She specializes in research that examines the ways intersections of race, gender, and class affect social processes at work. In particular, she is an expert on the workplace experiences of minority workers in predominantly white professional settings, and specifically on black male professionals in occupations where they are in the minority.