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RACING THROUGH THE HALLS OF CONGRESS: The “Black Nod” as an Adaptive Strategy for Surviving in a Raced Institution

  • James R. Jones (a1)

Although there is an impressive body of research on the U.S. Congress, there has been limited discussion about the central role race plays in the organization of this political institution. While some scholars have documented Congress’ racist past, less is known about the present significance of race in the federal legislature. Throughout the day, African Americans routinely nod to one another in the halls of the Capitol, and consider the Black nod as a common cultural gesture. However, data from over sixty in-depth interviews suggest there is an additional layer of meaning to the Black nod in Congress. From the microlevel encounters, I observed and examined, I interpret the nod as more than a gesture that occurs in a matter of seconds between colleagues or even among perfect strangers in the halls of Congress. The Black nod encompasses and is shaped by labor organized along racial lines, a history of racial subordination, and powerful perceptions of race in the post-Civil-Rights era on the meso-, and macrolevels. Using this interpretive foundation, this article will show how the nod is an adaptive strategy of Black staffers that renders them visible in an environment where they feel socially invisible. The nod becomes an external expression of their racialized professional identity. I argue that the congressional workplace is a raced political institution and that the microlevel encounters I observed delineate and reproduce its racial boundaries. This article represents perhaps the first sociological study of Congress and provides an unprecedented view into its inner workings and the social dimensions that organize workplace relationships.

Corresponding author
* Corresponding author: James R. Jones, Department of African American and African Studies, Rutgers University-Newark, 175 University Avenue, 410 Conklin Hall, Newark, New Jersey, 07102. E-mail:
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Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race
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  • EISSN: 1742-0598
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