Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Institutions of Inequality

Blacks Lives Matter is already starting to splinter. The core groups of the movement, the ones who control the website and fundraising, are repeating the same strategic and tactical mistakes that have destroyed other reform movements in the past. Two articles ago I noted that reform movements need clear strategy that allow them to set goals, and also need to adopt tactics that will allow them to reach those goals. BLM has the latter, but is still missing the former because of their inability to understand what they’re fighting against.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t groups marching under the BLM banner who are doing their best to end the victimizing of the black community, because there certainly are. Unfortunately, these groups are the minority and their actions are at best ignored, or at worst derided. All the core BLM groups, whom I can only assume are staffed by some of the most learnedly ignorant people academia could produce, are trying to plan a campaign around the abstract concept of systemic or institutional racism. The terms are interchangeable, but I’ll stick with institutional racism for the purposes of this article.

Don’t mistake my meaning, institutional racism is real, but it is insane for BLM to target because it is the product of a convoluted history and even messier characteristics of human psychology. In this sense it is an abstract; it is a thing that is literally drawn out of history and exists within the mind. Institutional racism can be challenged by breaking it down into its component parts, but in order to do that BLM and its supporters need to actually sit down and analyze its component parts.

Racism is a prejudice, which simply means it is a prejudgment about someone based on their ethnic heritage. Racism is the prejudgment that an entire, or even a majority, of an ethnic group are predisposed to specific behaviors because of biological differences. If you believe a majority of blacks are predisposed to specific behavior because blacks are simply born that way, then that’s a racial prejudice. Similarly, if you believe the majority of whites are predisposed to specific behavior because they are born that way, then that is also racial prejudice.

I’m sure many of you have heard the nonsensical phrase, “racism equals power plus prejudice,” and found yourself growing irritated. That phrase, often shouted by BLM and its supporters in an attempt to drown out their opposition, is the attempt by some critical theorist in academia to redefine the very clearly defined idea of racism. Renaming and redefining concepts is a veritable industry in our society, and careers can be made if a redefinition is widely accepted. Unfortunately, this redefinition actually does a disservice to ending the victimizing of the black community. Effectively, by saying that racism equals power plus prejudice, BLM and its supporters are saying that racism equals power plus racism. Racism is a form of prejudice, and it isn’t even the major prejudice of the American elite. That dubious honor goes to classicism. If BLM wants to deal with the consequences of power combining with racial prejudice, which is called institutional racism, then it needs to clearly define racism and institutionalism. Those two subjects are targets of substance that can be struck by individual effort and organized communities.

Institutions are those things that are created to stand with an intention or purpose. A religion is an institution, as is a government, business, bureaucracy, law, or a tradition. All these institutions were set up to accomplish specific ends. Prejudices are customs and are thus institutions, because they are set up to distinguish one part of society from another. Political and economic power are also institutions because they are systems established to give groups or individuals the ability to create laws, levy and distribute taxes, commit acts of violence, secure land and other forms of wealth, or set up more institutions. Now, say that group or individual also happens to subscribe to the idea that other groups or individuals are inferior to themselves. That is to say they have prejudices, in the case of the US that would be the white community’s prejudices against the black community. Then you have a situation where institutions are built to deny the weaker community privileges that the powerful enjoy.

Historically, the most blatant form of institutional racism was slavery, which turned blacks into livestock that could be owned. When southern slave owners were defending slavery they would often refer to it as “our venerable institution,” because that’s exactly what it was - a series of laws designed to deny personhood to blacks, and a great deal of organized violence to hold them in bondage. The abolition of slavery only slightly improved conditions, because the laws of non-personhood were replaced by laws such as Jim Crow, which turned blacks into second-class persons. The violence never went away, it just became unofficial. Jim Crow and other similar laws were abolished only in the 1960s, but by that time the effects of the laws were imitated by the private sector. As a matter of official policy many businesses across the US would deny banking, realty, and other vital services to blacks. Redlining wasn’t banned until the late 1970s, but by that time the cumulative damage to the black community’s prosperity had already been done. This pattern is institutional racism, the creation of systems designed to prevent one community from achieving equality with another. 

A community's prosperity is accumulated generationally, each generation building on the hard work and success of the previous. The process is quite simple: individuals work hard and contribute to the prosperity of their families. The family belongs to wider communities and contribute to the institutions of the community, such as education and health care. These institutions allow other members of the community to prosper and then make their own contributions, and so on. Any community that is denied access to wealth for a prolonged period of time will find it difficult, if not impossible to create the institutions that make the prosperity of the next generation possible. Institutional prejudice places barriers of law and violence between a community and the ability to accumulate wealth or power. The elite of our country who held political and economic power literally denied the black community access to equality for generations, and many of those injustices were only abolished a mere forty years ago. It should come as no surprise that blacks are still mired in poverty because it takes generations for communities to develop institutions of ascension, and even that can only occur if the national economy is sound, which it clearly isn’t.

The strategy to overcome the economic consequences of institutional racism is straightforward: help build the prosperity of the black community. Tactics such as creating communal education programs, financing small businesses, providing health, and other welfare services were successfully used by the Black Panthers before they were violently suppressed by the US government. It is staggering that BLM’s core groups no longer even have the reflective capacity to study their own predecessors. The strategy to overcome the political consequences of institutional racism grow from overcoming the economic consequences, because one cannot gain power in this country without access to wealth. Understandably these strategies and tactics are easier said than done, but no one should expect change to be easy. History tells us society changes when people change, but to understand how people let go of old prejudices we must first understand how the human mind deals with change. To understand that we must delve into the mess of human psychology, and overturn the myth of rationality that dominates our conception about the human mind, but that is a discussion for next week.

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