Ideological Hegemony: A Precursor to Institutional Racism

Photo of Emeritus Professor Stuart Hall (on right) shown at his memorial, February 2014, The Open University (Flickr)

Intellectuals advanced the concept of ideological hegemony, which is applicable to the establishment and change of relationships between Caucasians and African Americans. Marxist theorists Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, and others expounded in regards to ideological hegemony, the ideas and structures wherein individuals without access to power reinforce instruments of action of the powerful despite their potentially harmful and silencing effects. Marxism analyzes the relationship between the powerful and the powerless. The writings of Karl Marx, a German sociologist, historian, and economist, who published in 1848 with Friedrich Engles the Communist Manifesto, heavily influenced the intellectuals. The celebrated Manifesto pamphlet concluded that the creation of a society with one class of people would end problems between the haves and have nots. 

Hall, the Jamaican-born British Marxist sociologist, cultural theorist, and political activist articulated his view of ideology. The concept is more than a belief system or a way of thinking. Ideology is an actionable principle enabling the organization of political or economic functions in a society or a sector of a populace. Ideology aims to create public annunciation of policies for the realization of a set of beliefs. Communism, capitalism, liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, and multiculturalism are examples of ideologies. During the modern Civil Rights Movement, academics and activists recognized Hall as one of the first scholars to articulate the ideology of multiculturalism, which represents the development and organization of institutions and societies that include on an equal basis African Americans and their culture in white-dominated societies. Multiculturalism included other ethnicities and people of color. Ideology is relevant because the concept significantly explains the materialization and perpetuation of white supremacy. The ideas of white supremacy diffuse from powerful individuals and settle upon subordinates. The theory of white supremacy began with imperial, national, or intellectual leadership and percolated down to the masses. 

In the United States, the framing of ideology applicable to race relations originated at the top of the political structure and diffused to the bottom social realms of the population. The writers of the U.S. Constitution codified Black inferiority during the mid-1770s to late 1780s. Instead of legislation requiring states to take the census of 100 percent of the Black population, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution authorized states to count enslaved people as representing only three-fifths of the total Black population. Other early constitutional provisions were also racist. Congress prohibited states from outlawing the trade of enslaved Africans, required white people to return the captured escaped-enslaved to their masters, and embedded the federal government with the power to suppress insurrections by the enslaved. State legislatures and federal courts undergirded white supremacy with the enactment or support of racist laws, such as the separation of Blacks and whites in public spaces. White supremacists committed murder, physical violence, rape, political oppression, and psychological abuse against Black people. As racial integration began to emerge, anti-Blackness gradually became less overt, but African Americans were denied favorable treatment and access to decision-making positions.

The theory of ideological hegemony materializes when a populous takes part in reinforcing power structures and societal ideas willingly, even when the structures and ideas only marginally benefit those without meaningful access to power. Social groups embrace ideological hegemony despite its capability to harm or silence dissent. Gramsci wrote in one of the sections of the Notebooks that the government is responsible of hegemony. 

“…to gain the upper hand, to propagate itself throughout society… and thus creating the hegemony of a fundamental social group over a series of subordinate groups….. It is true that the State is seen as the organ of one particular group, destined to create favourable conditions for the latter’s maximum expansion…”1

In colonial America, the political and military elite established dominant domestic power and held onto it in part by convincing the masses to accept their versions of reality, among which were proclamations of an exploitative British monarch, victimized colonists, superior white men, and inferior people of color. The ideologies disseminated in written form but mostly orally and consistently. Over time, white people and Black people interpreted the ideas of race relations as commonplace. By then coercion of the white masses was unnecessary. Authorities used intimidation and force against Black people to accept white supremacy. The elite continuously encouraged the ideology of the superiority of white people and their culture and the inferiority of people of color and their ways of life. 

Hall said the government is not always the reason the public adopts certain belief structures. Ideological hegemony often originates with the elite private sector. “It is quite easy to see why the only ideology that gets reproduced is the dominant one. But the far more pertinent, but difficult, question is how a society allows the relative freedom of civil institutions to operate in the ideological field, day after day, without direction or compulsion by the State.”2 

When assessing the validity of a claim, the enlightened might say that a scholar’s intellectual viewpoint should be considered separately from his or her personal beliefs. Intellectualism includes well thought out propositions, sometimes based on the results of an analysis of empirical data. To the contrary, beliefs are rooted in cultural practices that are personal, deeply felt, and sometimes unprovable. Gramsci’s views on the distribution of power and influence changed the formulation of a wave of scholarship concerning ideological hegemony that evolved between the 1850s to the 1960s. Gramsci proposed that the ideas of the powerful are diffused and maintained among groups who are oppressed or otherwise powerless. Ideological hegemony is also applicable to race relations in the late 1960s and early 1970s during which racial integration began to occur in American institutions.

With that said, one might argue that Gramsci’s personal viewpoint on Black people too should be separated from his intellectual analysis. Gramsci’s Eurocentrism contained some of the same negative views of Africans and African Americans as the segregationists in the south.3 Gramsci’s writing included his personal expression of ideological hegemony applicable to the relationships between powerful white men and the formally enslaved African Americans whose lineage Gramsci suggests was backward.

One further phenomenon in the United States is worth studying, and that is the formation of a surprising number of negro intellectuals who absorb American culture and technology. It is worth bearing in mind the indirect influence that these negro intellectuals could exercise on the backward masses in Africa, and indeed direct influence if one or another of these hypotheses were ever to be verified: 1. that American expansionism should use American negroes as its agents in the conquest of the African market and the extension of American civilization.4

Gramsci’s position on the then-modern relationship whites foisted on Blacks coincides with the views of critics of race relations in the United States. Gramsci also wrote that powerful white Americans reserved decision-making authority for Caucasians, who limited the progression of Black people. “It seems to me that, for the moment, American negroes have a national and racial spirit which is negative rather than positive, one which is a product of the struggle carried on by the whites in order to isolate and depress them.”5 Gramsci also wrote of his interpretation that Africans, Black people in the United States by extension, that they were devoid of intellect. He said Africans lived in a state of ignorance that Europeans discovered upon their first encounters with them on the African continent. “One got the impression that it was all rather like the first contacts of English merchants and the negroes of Africa: trashy baubles were handed out in exchange for nuggets of gold.”6

In other words, Gramsci suggests that African Americans, the decedents of ignorant Africans, existed devoid of intellectual prowess. Therefore, Caucasians were justified with excluding Black people from realms wherein white people practiced ideological hegemony: the superior Caucasians and inferior Black people. The concept of racism employed the same mechanism as ideological hegemony wherein the purveyors of dominant idealistic power transferred racists ideas from the upper-class to the lower-classes.

At the level of the upper class, systemic racism represents a series of actions of interacting mechanisms wherein white leadership made available opportunities exclusive of Black people. Institutional racism, on the other hand, refers to leaders of organizations or operations that distribute opportunities and services inequitably based on race. Institutional racism is the mechanism by which systemic racism functions. Education, healthcare, financing, and justice are among the institutions providing societal resources that Caucasians reserved for white people. The concept of ideological hegemony preceded that of racism, but it laid the foundation on which racism rested and explains why white leaders drastically delayed opening institutions to Black people to work at professional functions.

  1. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, (London: Electbook, 1999). p. 406.
  2. Stuart Hall, “Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 2 (June 1985), p. 100.
  3. Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,” Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 10, no. 5, 1986, p. 27.
  4. Hall (1985), p. 158.
  5. Ibid., p. 159.
  6. Gramsci (1999), p. 636.
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Bala James Baptiste

Bala James Baptiste, Ph.D., a professor of mass communication and the chair of the Division of Communications at Miles College, earned the doctorate at Indiana University. The University Press of Mississippi published in 2019 his book, Race and Radio: Pioneering Black Broadcasters in New Orleans. American Journalism, Journal of Radio and Audio Media, Louisiana History, and New Review of Film and Television Studies published his scholarship. Contact him at bbaptiste@miles.edu.

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