Solving America’s problems will take a new kind of bravery

Lately as I’ve watched protests against racism and police brutality spread across the U.S., a bit from one of my favorite songs has been ringing through my head:

I contemplate

Believin’ in karma

If those on top could just break

We’d be eatin’ tomorra’

That’s from rapper Nas’s 2001 track, What goes around, which takes the listener across a landscape of injustice, hearbreak and despair: the drug dealer who meets his violent end, the poor who are preyed upon by fast food and beverage companies, the white suburban teenager trying in vain to meet the impossible standards of female beauty, the deadbeat dad who’s ultimately rejected by his adult children, and on and on. The message that ominously rings throughout this collection of vignettes is stated bluntly in the song’s final stanza: “What goes around comes around.”

This song probably doesn’t make anyone’s top ten list for an artist who is, arguably, his genre’s greatest-ever lyricist. Yet I have always found it irresistibly electric.

The problem with it is that its ultimate conclusion is wrong.

Embedded in the song, and in many other forms of art, is the notion that justice comes simply from the vanquishing of those who perpetrate injustice. If only those who are good could triumph over those who are evil, then justice would be restored. This message is as ancient as the Bible and as ubiquitious today as Star Wars. I think its ubiquitousness in art is due to the fact that it is easy to understand and even easier on our egos. With each of us believing that we are in the “good” category, it demands no difficult internal struggle, no uncomfortable self-reflection. On the contrary, it gives us a sense of comfort in knowing that no change in our own character and behavior is necessary. The responsibility for all change and effort is external.

The tendency to put everything in such simplistic, Manichaen terms removes the need for critical thought, and boils complex human problems down into more comfortable, self-aggrandizing one-line assertions.

Racism exists; we must stand up to the racists.

Environmental degradation is rampant; we must confront the fossil fuel companies.

Police abuse keeps happening; we must protest the police.

Women are debased and disrespected; we must shame those who are guilty of doing so.

And on and on.

The reality is that most forms of injustice are not simply solved by defeating the right people, no matter how convenient that is to believe. These problems arise from enormous systems of interactions that involve millions or billions of people; those we see as the perpetrators are often the figureheads of those problems, but not their architects.

It will take a special kind of bravery to admit that we — all of us — are in fact the architects.

The issue of police brutality in America against blacks and other ethnic minorities, which is the subject of recent protests across the U.S., is itself far more complex than we would like to admit. Among the societal problems upon which this horrifying reality rests are, in no particular order:

1) An adversarial system of negotiation between unions and employers, with the former seeing oversight and exposure to discipline as a chip at the bargaining table.

2) The seemingly perpetual under-funding of state and local governments, which among other things means police departments must hire from pools of less educated applicants.

3) The ghettoization of whole portions of American society into poorer, higher-crime areas, meaning the residents of those areas have far more interactions with police, with each interaction carrying with it the chance for a deadly mistake.

4) A private prison system which incentivizes over-policing, over-prosecuting, and over-incarcerating, with ripple effects throughout communities and across generations.

5) A level of income inequality that is at its worst in a century, including a stagnancy in wages for the poor and middle class which exacerbates social problems such as addiction, depression, and stress among people of all backgrounds.

Regardless of what we tell ourselves, none of these problems can be eradicated by shouting louder and protesting harder. They require nuanced thinking, reasoned debate, and good faith collaboration.

The very effort to confront such problems with force and competition against some “other”, in fact, risks making them worse. We raise our voices louder, while those on the other side retreat to their ideological bunkers, with each of us entrenching ourselves deeper in our comfort zones. Occasionally we succeed in defeating our enemies, giving us a fleeting sense of accomplishment and a paper-thin veneer of justice. We feel like we’ve accomplished something, and we relax until the next crisis. Yet the systems remain intact, like gnarled roots under the soil.

As I’ve written before, there must be an alternative to this competition-based, power-obsessed, us-versus-them approach to problem solving. We Americans are thankfully waking up to longstanding injustices, but our own sense of self-righteousness limits us only to the easiest of responses. Few are ready to sit down and talk; even fewer are ready to listen. Narcissism is rife, and someone else is always to blame. Principles like love, unity, understanding, peace, forgiveness, brotherhood, spirituality — which had their rightful place in the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s — are now seen as quaint and naive. My greatest fear as an American is that after yet another generation’s worth of protesting, shouting, and demanding, our ultimate despair will be the realization that we’re right back where we started.

Now would be a good time to remind ourselves that the concept of “race” is mostly nonsense

faces-2679755_960_720Gillian Tett in the FT wrote a short-and-sweet piece on Franz Boas and his groundbreaking work on race one century ago. It serves as a refreshing reminder of a now ancient finding of science: “race”, for all intents and purposes, is little more than a social creation.

In the early 20th century, Boas was commissioned by the US government to study the physical traits of recent immigrants to New York. At the time, the country was in the midst of a wave of immigration, and with it, a rising feeling of xenophobia. The prevailing view of scientists at the time was that there were not only distinct “races” within the human species, but a natural hierarchy in their state of evolution and refinement, one that could actually be measured physically by things like head size.

As it turned out, Boas found no such natural differences between the races; immigrants’ physical characteristics were more closely linked to their place of upbringing than their place of ancestry. Among his conclusions was that “every classification of mankind must be more or less artificial”, a radical thought at the time. The obsession with finding difference in the “other”, according to Boas, was based in prejudice, not in science.

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