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A Consciously Complicit Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tia Sherèe Gaynor
August 5, 2016

“Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor.” – Ginetta Sagan

In preparing to write this column, I considered all of the varying topics in which I could focus. I am, however, unable to shift my mind away from the most recent images of violence that are playing on a repetitious loop in the media and thus, in my mind. The pressing nature of these vivid images prevent me from focusing on other (and for me, less important) issues. Honestly, how can I write on co-production or municipal level performance reporting when I live in a country where people cannot live their lives without fear of unnecessary violence?

It is unrealistic, for me, to consider these other, less dire, topics of public administration when men and women of color cannot walk through their neighborhood with a bag of Skittles, reach for their wallet, lay peacefully on the ground with their hands raised, sell loose cigarettes or CDs, attend a pool party in their neighborhood or play with a toy gun in a public park or local store without experiencing violence.

TGThe term privilege, for many, is an uncomfortable one and is often met with responses related to merit and hard work. Yet, when related to issues of justice and equity, privilege refers to the entitlements, advantages and dominance conferred upon advantaged groups (male, white, heterosexual, Christian, upper and middle-class/owning, formally educated, able-bodied etc.) by society. These privileges are granted solely as a birthright, not because of intelligence, ability or personal merit. Privilege can be seen as financial reliability not being linked to your race or being able to shop alone, freely, without being followed.

The field of public administration is historically privileged. Traditional theories and application are overwhelmingly grounded within Euro-centric, male and heteronormative perspectives that exclude large segments of the U.S. population. The society in which Woodrow Wilson (the father of public administration) and others wrote, and thus the substance of these writings, put white male landowners at its core. These texts, for which modern public administration is grounded, perpetuates white, male privilege and dominance.

As a field of educators and practitioners, we have been inculcated with privileged ideologies and offered little critique regarding who these theories were (not) written. Thus, we have continued to perpetuate the privilege embedded within the intellectual history and practice of public administration. The instruction and training of traditional public administration (PA), without the inclusion of counter narratives and critical inquiry, have normalized privileged perspectives and preserved a status quo of injustice and inequity. The maintenance of the status quo is key in upholding social privilege. Without it, a critical examination would counteract normative conceptions of meritocracy revealing that those benefiting are no more superior, talented, hardworking or entitled than oppressed marginalized groups.

Now more than ever, it is imperative that PA educators and administrators understand the existence of normativity and privilege within the field. More importantly, it is essential that the connections between the privileged teachings and practices of the field and today’s inequities be illuminated. Embedded within PA are social norms and cultural products that express the perspectives of dominant groups via values, goals and achievements. Consequently, these perspectives are deemed representative of all, despite variance in an individual’s lived experience or background. As a field, PA perpetuates these norms irrespective of their representation of viewpoints or social groups.

Although making these connections will inevitably be uncomfortable and threaten the benefits and entitlements that privileged communities are accustomed, they are necessary to begin addressing inequity and injustice in the United States. An unwillingness to acknowledge is a willingness to be consciously ignorant and complicit in the marginalization of communities. The silence of those benefiting from privilege at the expense of marginalized populations needs to end.

This column is a call to all those within PA, particularly those with privileged identities, to cease their silence. Even for those who believe that Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Charles Kinsey, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Dajerria Becton, Tamir Rice and John Crawford (to name only a few) were treated unjustly, it is important to recognize the existing connection between the privilege you receive and these unjust incidents. This column is a call to end the overwhelming silence of the most powerful social groups in public administration. For silence is conscious compliance. If you are appalled, yet, silent, then you are complicit in the perpetuation of inequality.

If you choose to be accountable for your personal privilege and are willing to explore avenues to foster equity and justice, I encourage you to seek sources that help dismantle mechanisms of privilege. Some places to begin are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

We must all work to reform the oppressive processes within our field, specifically and society, generally. We must all do our part.

Author: Tia Sherèe Gaynor is an assistant professor in the department of public and nonprofit administration in the school of management at Marist College. Dr. Gaynor’s research seeks to examine issues of social justice and equity within a U.S. and global context. Her scholarship can be categorized in three research streams: resident participation and engagement; public and social policy analysis and implementation and pedagogy, learning and instruction.

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