Race, respect, and red tape: Inside the black box of racially representative bureaucracies

Celeste Watkins-Hayes*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Scopus citations


Racially representative bureaucracy theory suggests that black and Latino clients of street-level bureaucracies will uniformly experience the benefits of a racially diverse staff within these institutions and perceive it as working to their advantage. Conversely, street-level bureaucracy theory suggests that racial minorities working within these organizations are under massive constraints that significantly hamstring their efforts to exercise discretion in ways that might benefit minority clients. Using in-depth interviews of both recipients and providers of public cash benefits and food stamps, I find that the majority of black and Latina clients interviewed in a racially diverse welfare office do not view staff members who share their racial status as operating in ways that are distinctly informed by racial group commonality. A strong bureaucratic structure creates institutional boundaries that often restrict meaningful engagement between these groups despite social group commonality. In those instances in which black and Latina clients do have a racialized interpretation of their encounters with bureaucrats from their racial groups, they are not monolithically understood. Clients can read them as either pointed but welcomed interventions by racemates who offer wisdom on how to navigate the welfare system or heavy-handed maneuvers by more privileged members of their racial communities. Ultimately, this article argues that racial diversity among the workforces of street-level bureaucracies is important and can have positive effects on organizational dynamics as racially representative bureaucracy theory suggests, but organizational context and intragroup politics within minority communities greatly inform how race is mediated within these institutions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)i233-i251
JournalJournal of Public Administration Research and Theory
Issue numberSUPPL. 2
StatePublished - Apr 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Marketing

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