Thursday, October 09, 2014

What's Under The Surface? Thoughts On Social Justice Work.

That's a wussy headline if there ever was one, but the question about what might be under the surface is not at all wussy.  I follow various discussions on Twitter and on blogs etc., and the one thing I don't see which is needed is going under the surface of opinions, emotions, protests, discussions of white privilege, male privilege, all sorts of privilege concepts.

Think of this inadequate parable:  You are floating on the surface of a lake, with others, and then you decide to make waves.  You create enormous waves, the surface is moving, something is happening.  You affect other swimmers, you share ideas, you create a movement.

But because of the nature of water, the waves settle down, the surface returns to calmness and all the swimmers are exhausted.

That's a little of what I see online.  The conversations can be necessary and interesting about how we talk about things, how we feel about things, how we define the way others are.  And perhaps opinions are altered, new movements created.

But what I fear is that the stuff below the surface remains as it ever was, or almost as it ever was.

That's because we need to dive deeper.  The institutions and the economic frameworks are what maintains the current systems, and it is those institutions and frameworks that need remodeling.  The surface level of the water depends on how much water there is and what the shape of the lake's bottom is.

I'm not arguing that talking about the way we talk about things wouldn't be useful.  But it's not sufficient.

To take an example from gender, it can be eye-opening for some to learn what the average earnings of Latinas are in comparison to, say, the average earnings of white Anglo men in the US.  But knowing those figures is not telling us anything about the causes of the differences.  For that we need to analyze discrimination, education differences and barriers to education, rates at which people from the two groups are first generation immigrants (with possible language problems or educational mismatches caused by moving from one country to another), gender roles within the overall US, the white Anglo parts of it, the Latino part of it and so on.

Mostly what I see online stops at that first sentence of the above paragraph, and that is true of many, many other topics.  Now, that approach is not without value and just getting people informed about something is tremendously important (and this is happening with respect to police brutality and race right now).  But that should only be the first step in a long staircase we need to climb.  The other steps must be about practical politics, about institutions and how to change them, about creating changes under the surface waters.