Institutional racism is defined as a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions. It is reflected in disparities regarding wealth, income, criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power and education, among other factors. In the play, Fences by August Wilson, institutional racism occurs as a theme due to certain characters, scenes, and dialogue. Fences is a 1983 play, but was set to be in the 1950s. The play focuses on an African-American family living in the era of segregation. The family struggles with racism, relationships, employment, finances, and dreams for the future during that certain time period. It is part of August Wilson’s ten-part series, “Pittsburgh Cycle” otherwise known as the “Century Cycle”, which defined each part by decade. August Wilson was an African-American playwright who was born on April 27, 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother came from an African-American heritage and his father was a German immigrant. Fences earned him a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award in 1987. August Wilson brings to life the issue of discrimination against African-Americans through this play. He does this by creating characters and including conflict and dialogue to educate the audience on the certain obstacles people of color had to overcome during the era of the 1950s.
Throughout the play, the theme, institutional racism, reveals itself numerous of times. To start off, the audience learns that Troy and Bono are garbage collectors. However, Troy files a complaint with their boss, Mr. Rand, about the fact that all the garbage truck drivers are white men. Troy further complains about how the black men are only assigned to carry the garbage. It is expressed through the dialogue that the other black workers are afraid that Troy’s complaint is going to get them fired because he is a black man who is stepping out of line. This whole situation shows that the black workers are struggling with racial equality and equal opportunity in the workplace. On page 2 of Fences, the dialogue between Troy and Bono informs the reader about the institutional racism that goes on in their workplace. To elaborate, Bono says, “ Well, as long as you got your complaint filed, they can’t fire you. That’s what one of them white fellows tell me.” Troy replies, “ I ain’t worried about them firing me. They gonna fire me cause I asked a question? That’s all I did. I went to Mr. Rand and asked him, “Why?” Why you got the white mens driving the colored lifting?” Told him, “what’s the matter, don’t I count?” You think only white fellows got sense enough to drive a truck. That ain’t no paper job! Hell, anybody can drive a truck. How come you got all whites driving and the colored lifting?” The theme of institutional racism reveals itself during this dialogue. Troy argues how he is just speaking his mind therefore there’s no reason for him to get fired, yet Bono explains how it is still a possibility due to the fact that he is questioning the “white fellows” and how that type of attitude and action is not acceptable when coming from a black man. According to author of the book, Institutional Racism against African Americans, Madonna G. Constantine claims that White applicants tend to be favored five times more than Black job applicants with equal qualifications. Not only that, but the rate of unemployment among African Americans is often twice than that of White Americans.
Furthermore, the theme once again reveals itself during the conflict between Troy and his son Cory. The dialogue between Rose and Troy elaborates on the conflict. Rose informs Troy that Cory was recruited, “Cory done went and got recruited by a college football team.” Troy responds, “I told that boy about that football stuff. The white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with that football. I told him when he first come to me with it. Now you come telling me he done went and got more tied up in it. He ought to go and get recruited in how to fix cars or something where he can make a living.” This becomes a serious conflict between Troy and Cory throughout the play. Troy goes as far as to tell Cory that he isn’t going to sign to permission papers from the recruiter. In the dialogue, Cory says, “Hey, Pop…you can’t do that. He’s coming all the way from North Carolina.” Troy responds firmly, “ I don’t care where he coming from. The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with the football noway. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something. That way you have something can’t nobody take away from you. You go on and learn how to put your hands to some good use. Besides hauling people’s garbage.” This conflict reveals Troy’s outdated perspective on race relations. As a reader, we learn that Troy’s view is based off the different circumstances he had to deal with growing up. For example, Troy grew up in a different time where people of color experienced discrimination in the sports world. As a result of this fact, the theme of institutional racism reveals itself once again. Although times have changed, he is unwilling to adapt his views and is not open minded about the fact that black players now have more opportunities. Another reason why Troy’s character reveals the theme of institutional racism is because Troy grew up in a time where skin color counted more than actual talent. According to the article, Baseball as History and Myth in August Wilson’s “Fences”, author Susan Koprince explains how black baseball players were being treated unequal compared to the white players. “The black ball players also had to contend with racism in the United States and were unable to stay at hotels that catered to whites or to eat in whites-only restaurants.” The article also has a quote from George Giles who was a first baseman for the St. Louis Stars. He claims, “The racism we faced while I was in the Negro Leagues was one of the things that eventually pushed me out of baseball…I was treated like a second-class citizen in my own country by people who knew they hated me before I could even say ‘Hello’”. August Wilson uses Troy’s experience in the Negro League to demonstrate racial discrimination and how the opportunities for a black man in sports was different from the opportunities of a white man.
Furthermore, Troy’s upbringing has a lot to do with the views he has on “White America”. Not only that, but it is also the reason behind why Troy wants Cory to make a life for himself through a white-owned store where he will seek a better opportunity to make a living for himself. According to the article, Black Men Fenced in and a Plausible Black Masculinity, by Gregory J. Hampton, “Possessing a blue-collar job and supporting a family is what white men in America have been expected and encouraged to do since America was founded. Unfortunately, black men have historically been disallowed to participate in such performances of masculinity.” Troy Maxson is accustomed to the way black males are treated in racist America. This is where the theme reveals itself once again. Troy has been a victim of institutional racism and doesn’t want his son to go through the same thing. Troy is trying to make the point that this is how America is and always will be. He elaborates on the fact that a black man has a better chance at making a living by working for a white man because that is the way “White America” works.
August Wilson made it a point to show inequality and the discrimination people of color had to go through during the 1950s by incorporating the theme of institutional racism in Fences. To start off, the play was titled Fences intentionally to incorporate the theme. The fence that Troy builds throughout the play serves as a symbol of segregation. August Wilson uses the fence to represent the fencing-off of blacks and to furthermore elaborate on the basic social division affected by white political and economic power. He includes institutional racism in the play to inform the audience that institutional racism was a huge issue in the 1950s. The setting of the play was purposely made to be in the 1950s to further elaborate on the point Wilson was making. Wilson also incorporated most of the character’s dialogue to rely on pointing out their status as people of color in order to describe their position in relation to white power. Wilson made it a point to incorporate this theme in his play to give the audience an insight on what truly went on in the lives of African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. August Wilson made a huge impact through the play Fences, thus causing his point to be strong enough to still be relevant today. According to the book, Racist America by Joe R. Feagin, racism is still a major issue today. The author argues, “One of the great tragedies today is the inability or unwillingness of most white Americans to see clearly and understand fully this racist reality. Among whites, including white elites, there is a commonplace denial of personal, family, and group histories of racism.” The author continues to argue, “The oppressive situation of African Americans is the number-one problem of racism in the contemporary world. If the problem of white racism cannot be solved in the U.S., it cannot be solved anywhere.” The author is expressing how racism is still an issue that occurs today. He elaborates on the fact that racism in America will never fully end due to the denial of white Americans. Due to this fact, the theme, institutional racism, is still relevant today.
In conclusion, August Wilson uses characters, dialogue, and conflict to reveal the theme of institutional racism throughout the play. Wilson created Troy Maxson to show the world a black man doing his best to honor his family obligation all while being filled with frustration and anger due to racist America. Wilson created conflict between characters in order to inform the audience how African-Americans were affected by the discrimination against them. Overall, due to August Wilson’s point and the recurring theme he decided to include throughout Fences, the play is still relevant today and is used to educate the world on what went on in the lives of African-Americans during the 1950s.