Quality of Critical Public Policy Scholarship

Public Policy Scholarship

Despite significant progress in addressing institutionalized racism and other public policies that operate to the disadvantage of oppressed and marginalized groups, the recent upsurge in race-related incidents across the country underscores the fact that much more remains to be done to eliminate these oppressive and inequitable policies from American society. This paper provides a critical review of the assigned readings to assess the extent to which the concepts, assumptions and arguments that are presented are an example of public policy scholarship and a critical assessment of the extent to which the arguments presented in readings reveal the social justice impacts of public policy on groups that are excluded and marginalized. Finally, an explanation concerning how the argument that minority inclusion programs are ineffective in really assisting black women in the oil and gas sector based on the readings is followed by a summary of the research and important findings concerning assessing critical public policy scholarship in the paper’s conclusion.

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1. Critical assessment of the extent to which the concepts, assumptions, and arguments presented in the readings are an example of critical public policy scholarship

Although public policy scholarship can involve a wide array of social, economic and political issues, Smith and Larimer (2013) maintain that critical public scholarship must be focused on the types of major problems that are currently having a positive or negative impact on society. In this regard, Smith and Larimer (2013) point out that, “The research questions at the heart of the subdisciplines that make up the field of policy studies are big ones, with large, real-world consequences. If there is, or ever is going to be, such a thing as a field of policy studies, those important questions have to be pushed to the forefront” (p. 15).

From this perspective, then, the readings can all be regarded as critical public policy scholarship given that they were all focused on these types of “important questions.” This varied focus and use of different conceptual models to develop a better understanding of public policy issues, however, is highly congruent with the primary goals of engaging in public policy scholarship in the first place. As Smith and Larimer (2013) point out, “Public policy is such a diffuse topic that it is hard to even imagine a single, broad conceptual model that all policy scholars could practically adopt and apply” (p.16).

The readings made it clear that power can be applied in ways that marginalize women and minorities, including the draconian sentencing laws that have incarcerated a significant percentage of an entire generation of African-American males. For instance, Roberts (2004) reports that, “Penal institutions have historically been key components of social policy aimed at governing marginal social groups” (p. 1298). In fact, among the several readings, the journal article by Roberts (2004) stands out as an exemplar of public policy scholarship because she specifically focuses on these types of important questions and supports her assertions with hard evidence. A good example of this can be discerned from her observation that, “The extraordinary prison expansion involved young black men in grossly disproportionate numbers. Achieving another historic record, most of the people sentenced to time in prison today are black” (p. 1272).

Indeed, Roberts (2004) stresses that at any given point in time, almost 33% of young African-American males are actively involved with the criminal justice system in some capacity, including incarceration or community-based alternatives such as probation or parole, an increase from a still-alarming one-in-four rate in 1990. Not only does Roberts (2004) provide recent statistical data concerning incarceration rates for African-Americans, she explains how the war on drugs has been used to target this segment of society in ways that have vastly enriched an entire criminal justice system, including private prisons and a growing horde of criminal justice lawyers. For example, Roberts (2004) points out that, “The percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences has quadrupled, resulting in a prison-building boom the likes of which the world has never seen” (p. 59).

Yet another good example of this level of public policy scholarship was the article by Alexander (2010) who reports that following the launch of the ill-conceived “war on drugs” in the U.S. during the end of the 20th century, law enforcement authorities failed to receive any training that would facilitate their identifying drug suspects versus ordinary citizens but the training they did receive “guarantees precisely the opposite” (p. 69). During the 30-year period in which the war on drugs has been prosecuted, the number of African-American males that have been incarcerated has skyrocketed by more than 1,100%, and it is clear that the purported goals of the war on drugs have operated to unjustly target these minority members. In this regard, Alexander (2010) reports that, “Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the war on drugs” (p. 69). More troubling, the vast majority of young African-American males have been incarcerated for drug-related crimes only, and fully four-fifths of these were for possession only (Alexander, 2004).

The implications of these disturbing trends have been profound and broad-based, and as noted above the adverse effects of having an significant percentage of African-American males incarcerated or otherwise involved with the criminal justice system at any given point in time extend to their families, friends and entire communities. The fact that these trends have been allowed to persist for so long and to become even more pronounced clearly indicates that additional critical public policy scholarship of this type is required in order to address the underlying causes which extend far beyond sentencing practices

Some of the other readings, however, made it clear that mainstream American society tends to largely ignore or disregard these types of oppressive public policies, especially those that are longstanding or insidious, particularly when they are not personally affected by them. It is a fairly straightforward matter to understand how many white Americans might not be especially troubled by the massive incarceration of young black men whom they already view as a potential threat, and it is even easy to understand how young African-American men can internalize these outcomes as being a natural and inevitable part of their lives.

In fact, one of the more perplexing aspects of identifying public policies that result in oppression and inequities is the powerful messages that marginalized segments of society receive throughout their lives concerning their “proper place in society,” lessons that eventually have a subversive effect on the thinking of these groups to the extent that they accept these spurious arguments even if they do not consciously realize it. For instance, according to an early essay by Collins (1989), “Black women’s everyday act of resistance challenges two prevailing approaches to studying the consciousness of oppressed groups” (p. 746). The first approach, Collins advises, posits that minority groups such as African-American women tend to “identify with the powerful and have no valid independent interpretation of their own oppression” (p. 746). The second approach is even more severe in its assumptions, claiming that oppressed peoples are “less human than their own rulers and, therefore, are less capable of articulating their own standpoint” (p. 747).

This constraint has resulted in a growing sense among marginalized segments of society that they must organize to raise public awareness. For example, according to Crenshaw (1991), “The process of recognizing what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual has characterized the identity politics of African-Americans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians, among others” (pp. 1241-1242). Indeed, even in otherwise enlightened Canadian public policy, laws can operate to oppress marginalized peoples in ways that might not readily be apparent to mainstream society. As Hankivsky and Christoffersen (2008) point out, in a healthcare context, “typical approaches do not systematically incorporate analyses that capture mutually enforcing effects of various social locations and experiences of domination and oppression” (p. 272).

Moreover, Hankivsky and Christofferson (2008) also emphasize that other factors besides race such as gender can introduce serious inequalities in public policy. For example, Hankivsky and Christofferson (2008) conclude that, “Among many women’s health researchers, differences between women are merely paid lip service, and a good number of leading experts resist moving forward, in a meaningful way, on the issue of intersecting axes of oppression that affect health” (p. 273).

2. Critical assessment of the extent to which the arguments presented in readings reveal the social justice impacts of public policy on groups that are excluded and marginalized

The readings were consistent in underscoring the manner in which social justice impacts of public policy adversely affected marginalized and excluded groups in the U.S. today. For example, citing the enormous impact that current “lock ’em up and throw away the keys” sentencing regimens that inordinately affect African-Americans, Roberts (2004) emphasizes that not only are the inmates being harmed, their friends, families and communities are being affected by these policies as well. In this regard, Roberts advises that,” By damaging social networks, distorting social norms, and destroying social citizenship, mass incarceration serves a repressive political function that contradicts democratic norms and is itself immoral” (p. 1304).

Indeed, even thoughtful and well-intended public policies can have unintended and unexpected consequences for excluded and marginalized groups, and these consequences can become even more severe when there is any latitude allowed in the manner in which they are implemented and administered. As Schneider and Ingrams (1997) emphasize, “Policies usually serve several different purposes and interests simultaneously and therefore have consequences on several levels. Many of the consequences depend mainly on the meanings and interpretations that constitute the social construction of the policy in value dimensions” (p. 3).

3. Explanation concerning how the argument that minority inclusion programs are ineffective in really assisting black women in the oil and gas sector

According to Schneider and Ingram (1997), the affirmative action programs targeted at negatively viewed minorities and women were intended to provide them with a voice and opportunities. In this regard, Schneider and Ingram (1997) note that, “Rehabilitation programs, welfare, civil rights, and affirmative action programs are some of the types of policies that benefit the powerless groups who are negatively viewed” (p. 140). The mixed results of affirmative action programs to date, however, have included a growing sense of resentment among mainstream society concerning these types of entitlement programs for minorities and women.

Therefore, because critical public policy scholarship must be focused on the “important questions” of the day, identifying ways to effectively facilitate the entry of black women into previously white male-dominated sectors such as oil and gas will require reformulating these issues into a moral question that will compel the American public and political leaders to effect meaningful change. As Roberts concludes, “The demise of past regimes of racial repression-slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the urban black ghetto-required the conversion of normal social arrangements into a moral question” (p. 1304).

Unfortunately, even the progress that has been achieved in overcoming Jim Crow segregation has not been complete, and the legacy of slavery and racial stereotypes continue to haunt the American consciousness despite nearly a century and a half of efforts to address them head-on. Taken together, the lack of progress in assisting black women in gaining entry into male-dominated professions and sectors represents a timely and important public policy issue that deserves more attention from public policy scholars.


The research showed that critical public policy scholarship must be focused on the important questions that affect society, and from this perspective, all of the readings rose to this level despite being focused on different issues. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the concepts, assumptions and arguments presented in these readings represent legitimate examples of public policy scholarship. The research was also consistent in showing that the readings served to reveal the social justice impacts of public policy on excluded and marginalized groups. Finally, the research also showed that despite their otherwise laudable goals, the overarching effects of affirmative action programs targeted at African-American women have not only been mixed, they have been harmful in many cases due to the heightened sense of resentment from white Americans concerning this seemingly inappropriate entitlements that are designed to address problems in which they believe they had no active role in creating or sustaining. Consequently, it is also reasonable to conclude that unless and until these issues are presented to Americans as moral questions, the barriers to fully participatory and democratic processes will remain firmly in place, with minorities and women being further marginalized and oppressed in the process.


Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Cho, S., Crenshaw, K. W. & McCall, L. (2013, Summer). Toward a field of intersectionality. Signs, 38(4), 785-810.

Collilns, P. H. (1989, Summer). The social construction of black feminist thought. Signs, 14(4), 745-773.

Crenshaw, K. (1991, July). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43, 1241-1299.

Hankivsky, O. & Christoffersen, A. (2008, September). Intersectionality and the determinants of health: a Canadian perspective. Critical Public Health, 18(3), 271-283.

Roberts, D. E. (2004, April). The social and moral cost of mass incarceration in African-American communities. Stanford Law Review, 56, 1271-1305.

Schneider, A. L. & Ingram, H. (1997). Policy design for democracy. University Press of Kansas.

Smith, K. B. (2013). The public policy theory primer. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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