This week hit me like a ton of bricks. Or a Mack truck. It hit me hard enough that I can’t even locate the appropriate cliche, for God’s sake.
Anyway. I’m not complaining; I love to be busy. But I’ve been neglecting everything but work, food, and sleep this week, for the most part, and that doesn’t make me feel like a very good girlfriend or cat-mom or friend. Or blogger! Need… long… weekend…
Oh hello, Patriot’s Day! *bats eyelashes*
Busy or no, one of the highlights of my week was Tuesday, when I spent most of the day at a conference on Structural Racism to learn about ways legal services attorneys can try and make combating it more of a priority. (As promised, here’s your write-up, RunningAwayWiththeSpoon! *grin*)
The keynote speaker was professor john a. powell, who was amazing. He was funny and touching and on-point and very, very so much very smarter than I could every hope to be, and he repeatedly utilized one of my favorite methods for presenting abstract and sometimes hard-to-follow material, which is to tell lots of stories. The purpose of his keynote address was to outline for us the concept of structural racism, to set the stage for our many small-group conversations throughout the rest of the day. Structural racism, as he presented it, is something more than the concept of individual racism (which is how most people tend to think of racism – as regarding the motives and actions of individuals). It’s also more than institutional racism (which shifts focus from individuals to the practices and procedures within insitutions). Structural racism is concerned with inter-institutional arrangements and interactions, and how they are arranged – deliberately or not – in ways that result in racial inequality.
Because Americans often take individual people to be the main vehicles of racism, we fail to appreciate the work done by racially inequitable structures. But, in fact, all complex societies feature institutional arrangements that help to create and distribute the society’s benefits, burdens and interests. These structures are neither natural nor neutral, as Harvard Law Professor Roberto Unger argues. And just as we cannot account for or address the impact of institutional racism by only considering a given individual’s actions or psychological state, we cannot adequately understand the work structures do simply by looking at the practices and procedures of a single institution, as political philosopher John Rawls underscores. Iris M. Young uses Marilyn Frye’s bird-in-the-birdcage metaphor for illustrating the works of structures. If we approach the problem of durable racial inequality one “bar” at a time, it is hard to appreciate the fullness of the bird’s entrapment, much less formulate a suitable response to it. Explaining the bird’s inability to take flight requires that we recognize the connectedness of multiple bars, each reinforcing the rigidity of the others. In confronting racism we must similarly account for multiple, intersecting and often mutually reinforcing disadvantages, and develop corresponding response strategies.
(Shoutout to Marilyn Frye!) Ahem. Anyway. So for professor powell, what’s most important in combating structural racism is outcome. A social system is structurally racist to the extent that it promotes racially unequal outcomes; thus, the goal of any change should be outcome-oriented. In the context of legal services, he focused a great deal on the social opportunities afforded our clients, where they are socially situated, and how structurally racist systems affect them in multiple ways.
For instance, take health care. In MA, we have nearly universal healthcare – health insurance is mandated by the state. This is a plan that is meant to be universal – it should, the thinking goes, result in the same outcome for people of color that it would for white people: improved healthcare. However, the healthcare institution is only one part of a much larger structure. If you look only to that, you most likely wouldn’t see anything particularly racist in MA’s healthcare mandate. However, the outcome is racially inequitable. This is because the universal healthcare system isn’t taking the whole structure into account – that people of color in MA are more likely to lack reliable transportation, for instance. If you can’t get to the doctor, it doesn’t matter how fantastic your health insurance is. Well-meaning people injected change into an institution, without trying to create a racially inequitable outcome. However, because of the structure of inter-institutional arrangements (healthcare + city planning) the outcome was, nonetheless, racially inequitable. Structural racism, ta da!
(I would like to note here what may or may not be clear from my blogging thus far regarding my own social situatedness: I am a young white educated middle-class lesbian woman. And about a million other things. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that in any discussion of race. I’m doing my best to summarize professor powell’s thoughts, and I am very much simplifying what is a pretty huge concept. I freely admit that I don’t know what it feels like to be racialized, marginalized because of my race, or to struggle in my daily life against structural racism, so to the extent that this is or is not ringing true to any of you as you exist in your own social situatedness, I can only hope you will speak up, because I’d love to hear reactions.)
So that’s the (incredibly pared down) gist of professor powell’s address. Unfortunately, there’s obviously no easy solution to the problem of structural racism, so we continued our day by breaking up into smaller groups and trying to work out ways in which we as attorneys could incorporate this concept of structural racism into our own work. They weren’t easy discussions – again, there are no easy answers – but I think we all left feeling as though we at least had a much better framework for understanding the challenges many of our clients are facing. It was helpful to have some language to use in articulating why so often a one-size-fits-all “solution” so often doesn’t help clients who are socially situated within racially inequitable structures. I think for myself, I walked away with a commitment to watch for opportunities to advocate for clients for whom universal plans are not working. In other words, I’m excited to sue some people.