Paternalism is evidenced by a pattern of gift giving (or sponsorship) from a more powerful or higher status group or individual to a lower status group or individual that is consistent with a system designed to maintain privileged positions. It usually occurs in situations where there are sharp differences in power and status between groups or individuals. The ”benevolence” associated with the actions of those in the more favorable position is usually reciprocated by acts of dependency or accommodation by those in the less favorable position. It is manifested in the different configurations and levels of race and ethnic identities, such as between national groups and groups and individuals within nations. Fanon (1963) provides an incisive analysis of paternalism in the relations between some of the former European colonial powers and the formerly colonized nations of Africa, Asia, and South America. Much more discussion has focused on paternalism within the nation state, in countries where slave or apartheid systems developed as in the US and South Africa (DuBois 1903; Frazier 1939, 1957; Myrdal 1944; Thompson 1944; Cox 1948; Stampp 1956; Ruef & Flecther 2003). This discussion illustrates how paternal ism has functioned in the US.

In the relationship between African Americans and whites, paternalism was most fully developed under the system of slavery, where the status difference between blacks and whites was most clearly defined. The power and status of the slave owner over the slave was institutionalized by custom and law. But not only did the slave owner have dominion over the slave, the system required him to assume responsibility over his welfare, whether adult or child, man or woman. In this system, paternalism was legitimated by the racial ideology of the time, and it emerged as a way of “normalizing” the associations between the two status groups. It was not a means for changing the inferior status of the slave.

A form of paternalism was perpetuated after slavery and became embedded in the cultural milieu of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The most visible occurrences of it were associated with the liberalism of leaders of white Northern philanthropic, religious, and political organizations whose prime consideration was to improve personal and material conditions of blacks under the Southern system of segregation. Many of the educational and religious leaders in the segregated, black communities of the South viewed these organizations as a source of funds to establish and advance their organizations within the context of the black community; their primary goal was not to prepare black folk to go outside their communities to compete directly with whites for nontraditional social, economic, and political positions.

Paternalism continued to be a part of the social conventions of the 1950s and 1960s. For example, Frazier (1957) noted that black churches in big Northern cities were often the beneficiaries of contributions from large corporations, which were made to persuade workers not to join unions. In small towns of the South, a black worker who encountered difficulties with the law could frequently rely on his white employer to extricate him from the legal system simply by providing testimony about his character; the same would have been true if this man had attempted to get a loan from the local bank. A domestic worker, living in the North or South, oftentimes rode the bus home from work across town carrying a large shopping bag filled with old clothing for her family given to her by her white employer, who most often referred to her by her first name, “auntie,” or “girl.” With respect to this last example, scholars (Clark Lewis 2003) are beginning to provide in depth historical analyses of the life and work culture of domestic workers, particularly on how they negotiated this paternalist system. The vignettes above illustrate the extensiveness of paternalist exchanges marking the decades of racial segregation and that came to structure many of the relations between blacks and whites.

In contemporary America paternalism has become more difficult to identify as the historically entrenched segregated institutions and ideological foundations have weakened. Blacks, who predominantly live in cities or urban metropolitan areas, increasingly work in white collar occupations in state and federal agencies, industrial enterprises, private corporations, and unions, occupying positions no longer considered along racial lines. Increasingly, other blacks work as newly transformed, high wage technology workers, bus drivers, policemen, firemen, printers, athletes, actors, etc. In these occupations paternalism may or may not be overtly expressed. But it continues to exist in the hierarchical arrangement of power and authority in the work environment. Whites, who occupy most of the top management and supervisory positions in the organizations and institutions mentioned above, continue to make decisions about hiring practices, salaries, job assignments, and promotions. Most black workers, therefore, continue to be involved in relations with white supervisors, who by virtue of their authority, control the relationship. In this situation many blacks mask their true attitudes and feelings about the relationship, or about values and issues expressed by supervisors, even when they are resentful of what is being expressed; they fear to do otherwise might be interpreted as disrespectful and lead to subsequent loss of sponsor ship. Thus, interpersonal contact between white supervisors and black workers can easily develop into paternalistic relationships.

Let us examine briefly two conditions under which paternalism occurs in contemporary society: the glass ceiling and affirmative action. The glass ceiling phenomenon, a form of institutional discrimination without official sanction that functions to exclude members of certain racial, ethnic, or gender categories from positions in the institution’s upper echelons, is another basis for paternalistic relations. Black workers, meeting required credentials, skills, and work habits, begin their jobs with high expectations of moving up the ranks in competition with their white counterparts to gain entry into upper level positions. However, a large majority run into the glass ceiling, which contributes to low morale among many black government workers, who more frequently receive small annual bonuses than promotions to middle management and senior level positions. As their white co workers move up, the build up of anger, frustration, and disappointment about not moving up the ranks themselves often becomes a morale problem and leads to poor or only average work performance. This then becomes an official reason to deny them promotions. The magnitude of this problem becomes apparent when we note that in some government agencies about 30 percent of the workers are African Americans. While some of these black workers challenge such conditions by joining unions and filing suits in the courts against their agencies, many other workers refuse to engage in such actions, and concentrate on ways to mitigate this situation by cultivating paternalistic relationships with their white supervisors and managers.

Affirmative action policies, the benign race conscious laws that were enacted to undo and correct past and present discrimination against African Americans and other minority groups, constitute a form of state sponsored paternal ism, despite the fact that it took the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement to pressure the government to introduce these reform measures. But these reform oriented policies in universities, government agencies, and industry have only partially eliminated racial barriers encountered by blacks, mainly because the enforcement of the laws continues to favor those in power. Affirmative action has created many more opportunities for blacks to participate in organizations of mainstream society (Herring 1997), but not without unfavorable consequences. One baneful side of affirmative action is in the frequent stigma that high achieving blacks feel when their successes are demeaned by those opposing affirmative action and when recognition is denied for their hard earned achievements.

Paternalism is one of the complex aspects of the relationship between blacks and whites, and a scientific theory of it is needed to elaborate and connect the elements of gift giving and sponsorship by whites occupying superior statuses and the patterns of accommodation or non compliance by blacks. Three questions form the bases for a beginning in this direction. First, for whites, what are the material benefits or psychological consequences associated with paternalism? Second, what is lost or gained when blacks hide behind the mask, conceding dignity, honor, and pride as they act in ways that help to sustain the paternalistic system? Third, what social and political actions from the wider community are likely to diminish the significance of such behavior? Social scientists appear to have left such concerns to novelists, poets, playwrights, and comedians. They interpret and manipulate the associated cultural stereotypes derived from paternalism, but their handling of the subject is usually shallow and insufficient to explain the complex questions that need to be clarified.


  1. Alexander, R. (2003) A Mountain Too High: African Americans and Employment Discrimination. African American Research Perspectives 9(1): 33 7.
  2. Bell, D. (1992) Race, Racism and American Law.
  3. Little, Brown, Boston. Clark-Lewis, E. (2003) Community Life and Work Culture Among  African  American Domestic Workers in Washington, DC. In: Norton, M. B. & Alexander, R. (Eds.), Major Problems in American Women’s History. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  4. Cox, O. C. (1948) Caste, Class, and Race. Monthly Press, New York.
  5. DuBois, W. E. B. (1903) The Souls of Black Folk.A McClurg, Chicago.
  6. Fanon, F. (1963) The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, New York.
  7. Frazier, E. F. (1939) The Negro Family in the United States. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  8. Frazier, E. F. (1957) The Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise ofthe New Middle Class. Macmillan, New York.
  9. Herring, C. (1997) African Americans and the Public Agenda: The Paradoxes of Public Policy.
  10. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA. Myrdal, G. (1944) An American Dilemma: The Negro
  11. Problem and Modern Democracy. Pantheon, New York.
  12. Ruef, M. & Fletcher, B. (2003) Legacies of American Slavery: Status Attainment among Southern Blacks after Emancipation. Social Forces 82(2): 445 80.
  13. Stampp, K. (1956) The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South. Knopf, New York.
  14. Thompson, E. T. (1944) Sociology and Sociological Research in the South. Social Forces 23(3): 356 65.

Back to Sociology of Race