Racism and Communication: How the Message Gets Obscured
by Paul Dutton
The Social Justice Warrior movement, at its most charitable reading and basic core, seeks to abolish racism, queerphobia, sexism/Patriarchy, and the like. Believing these forces are wrong and/or unfounded, its adherents seek to explore ways these forces display themselves in society, and look for remedies to their presence. In my interactions with the movements, I see massive failures of communication, usually centered around the incapability of recognizing the difference between individuals, and institutions. If we allow the mistake of letting discussions about racism in America devolve into personal attacks, then we can expect more and more people to become disillusioned with the idea of social justice altogether.
The discourse of privilege speaks to how individuals, due to certain identities, are treated different in institutional settings. A white person, for instance, is said to have privilege due to historical white supremacy, as well as areas where persons who are white are still treated better than persons of other races. A common example might be within the criminal justice system, where the #BlackLivesMatter movement attempts to highlight perceived disparities in police violence and court system sentencing against blacks, particularly black males. The SJW Left seeks to remedy these disparities as a way to promote justice.
The statement that “the criminal justice system is racist” does not necessarily imply that all of its constituents are racists. It is entirely possible for a system to be racist, without any of its members being actively racist. The crack laws of the 80’s created a large disparity in sentencing for freebase cocaine (crack) vs. powdered cocaine, the former being heavily associated with black communities, and the latter with (upper class) whites – a well accepted belief at the time, and often supported by both black and white leaders. Enforcing these laws means racialized outcomes, even if that’s not what the members of the criminal justice system want. Every cop, judge, and jury could be against these implicitly racist laws, but the existence of such laws leads to racial disparities that are almost certainly unjust regardless of intent of those cops, judges, and juries.
Now, to be clear, if one actively engages in the enforcement of prejudiced institutions, then they are certainly responsible for racist activity, and that should be fought. So while these individuals may consider themselves non-racist, they are supporting the continuation of racism. Your “uncle who is a cop”, to appropriate a common trope, might indeed be a loving, warm hearted, well-intentioned member of society, but if he actively enforces biased laws through activities such as drug arrests (I won’t argue here that drug laws are racist/racialized, though I suggest the reader to seriously investigate these claims) or enforcement of speeding tickets in poor neighborhoods (where flat rate tickets act regressively as a function of class), they are guilty of racism and classism.
The anti-SJWs similarly often confuse the institution with the interpersonal. “What do you mean my uncle is racist and classist? He’s a great guy, and really wants to help improve these communities.” The Left is not directly indicting your uncle, per se. They just see him as a member of a more deeply flawed system. Regardless of his inclinations, those racist laws and practices are still on the books (though again, as stated above, he does play an active role in racist outcomes, which is racist behaviour). Super Awesome Mega Justice Warrior McGee could become a cop, and still be complicit in problematic actions such as racism due to the institutional setting in which they operate. And on the flip side, Flippant Racist McGee could work at an institution where they are not able to express their biases. Perhaps they’re fulfilling orders in a warehouse, and thus has to provide service to all customers ordering from their company, no matter the race. In this case, they are unable to express their preferences, due to conditions of their work environment. Institutions are not individuals, and individuals are not institutions.
We must make vigilant moves to not reduce our ideas so far that they lose context and efficacy. In order to stem the rise in reactionary movements against social justice, we must be vigilant in not falling into antagonism and inaccurate portrayals of ideas. Honest discourse is the best way to develop our ideas, and this requires active compartmentalization of the different ideas of the discourse we navigate. By clearly denoting interpersonal bigotry apart from institutionalized bias, as well as understanding how the two interact, we can avoid alienation in these movements that seem to often exist more to denigrate the other, rather than to allow for serious, insightful intellectual commentary.