This article appears in the April 9, 2012, issue of The Nation magazine. Read the full text of the article here.
Following a lecture I gave once, a student with a vaguely libertarian perspective asked, Is it possible to end discrimination without building up government? She didn’t like discrimination, but she also disliked interference in people’s lives. Ingrained in an organizing tradition that relies on government as the main locus of change, I actually had to think. Could we win racial justice without much government?
Fighting discrimination requires setting standards for both individual and collective behavior, educating everyone about those standards and ultimately creating some consequence for violating them. This young woman’s question implied that a society can generate compliance with such standards through volunteerism, an individual embrace of colorblind or gender-neutral ways of dealing with neighbors, students and employees.
But government provides critical pathways to participation in setting such standards, as well as to recourses when they are not met. Those pathways allow us to bring equity efforts to scale through specific policies. Without that system, we would have to rely on the good intentions of people within the private sector who are largely unaware of their biases and who would have neither the incentive nor the capacity to set or enforce high standards. Influencing intention doesn’t give us enough leverage over how institutions run. What’s more, white supremacy and patriarchy go back a long way. The human brain has, over many generations, wired itself to accept a certain amount of subjugation. This is why, many years after the end of slavery and the enfranchisement of women, Americans taking the Project Implicit test, which was designed to reveal our biases, will find their reactions to images of black people and women far less favorable than they expect. It is entirely possible to disadvantage particular groups of people without explicit animus.
Government represents a huge number of institutions and sets the rules for a huge number more. These institutions are key to closing discrimination gaps based on race, gender, sexuality, national status, disability and age. Such institutions reflect the power relations of a society, but they also provide important leverage points for changing those relations. The change process is iterative. The dominant trends of a society change as a result of organized pressure. When government changes some, it fuels more change in society, and the government then changes a bit more. This is why, throughout our nation’s history, fighters for equity have worked to gain access to and influence all forms of local, state and federal government.
One such fight led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex, color or religion. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established in this clause, but initially it had only education, outreach, technical assistance and mediation to work with. In 1972 Congress granted the EEOC the power to sue discriminatory employers. Over subsequent decades, disability and age were added to the list of causes. Today, the EEOC handles some 100,000 complaints per year. No employer welcomes its attention—nor do local governments. In Minneapolis, an alliance called the Educational Equity Opportunity Coalition convinced its school board to conduct a racial economic and cultural assessment of a decision to close two schools that served Somali children. The schools were consolidated and as a result one kept open.
Some argue that government is so corrupt that it will always betray us, citing the fact that we are forced to defend “things we won forty years ago” like abortion, affirmative action and voting rights. But what makes us think that the beneficiaries of privilege will live happily with its loss? We have to play defense and offense at the same time. Whether we win a change in the rules at City Hall or in the boardroom, we will always have to defend it. At least in the realm of government, we have victories to defend.