Fighting Inequalities Through Existing Channels Often Fails

Institutional power frequently struggles to solve huge, systemic issues. All sorts of obstacles and shortcomings are baked into the current tools citizens have at their disposal to combat injustice. Existing privilege, the political climate, and even geography are all factors that can limit the success of methods such as political protest or elections.
December 4, 2020Updated 1 month ago
Fighting Inequalities Through Existing Channels Often Fails
12 reasons
For the most part, protesting fails to cause change. The long-term effects of protest are often limited by chance, longevity, and existing power structures. The political climate has to be exactly right for protesting to succeed. Even then, some of those gains can be reversed because of subsequent shifts in political power or social trends.
Protesting has been happening for decades to demand social justice.
Racist incidents continue. And they show no sign of slowing down. If anything, developments in technology have only showed the insidiousness of racist violence in the U.S.
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The Cleveland Indians refused to change their name. Even under increased pressure, the Indians name remained unchanged. This is just one symptom of a broader disrespect for Native American tribes.
For years, there were ongoing protests against the Indians’ team name, mascot, and common game chants. They recently removed their mascot, Chief Wahoo, but they have opposed changing the team name. Despite this, owner Paul Dolan said in 2019: “Not only are we adamant about keeping the name Indians, but the Commissioner (Rob Manfred) is similarly supportive of the name.” In July, Dolan agreed to meet with Native American groups to discuss the name, but he did not make any promises to change the name. Many indigenous people have been pressuring the stakeholders for years to change the name they say is offensive. In August, some 80 businesses and organizations signed a petition asking for a name change. Even with mounting pressure, the Indians have yet to announce an official name change.
Hundreds of Confederate statues remain. They are displayed in 31 states and Washington, D.C. Even states that were never in the Confederacy bear the marks of that uprising.
There are at least 700 Confederate statues spread across 31 states and Washington, D.C. Other estimates put the number of Confederate memorials as high as more than double that, or nearly 2,000. The statues exist far outside of the former Confederate states themselves. The Confederacy itself was only 11 states. Virginia and Texas continue to have the highest number of Confederate statues of any state. Virginia has well over 100 Confederate statues—with more than 41 dedicated to General Robert E. Lee alone. For every Confederate statue that has come down in the past few months, ten still remain.
The "All Lives Matter" slogan was acceptable for a long time. That slogan was widespread throughout the United States. Even the vice president used it.
Among certain groups of Americans, saying "all lives matter," or being actively against the Black Lives Matter movement was still acceptable. As recently as June of this year, Vice President Mike Pence refused to say "black lives matter." Instead, he repeated again in a TV interview: "I really believe that all lives matter." "All lives matter" might seem like an innocuous term, but its meaning is ignorant at best and racist at worst. Activists have often used the metaphor of a house on fire: if a neighbor's house is on fire, there's no sense in saying "All houses matter" and spraying water on the house that is not on fire. "No one's saying that your life doesn't matter," blogger Ayanna Lage told CBS news. "What we're saying… is all lives can't matter until black lives matter."
Confederate flags and symbols have continued to be permitted in many places. They adorn everything from private property to public land. They even fly in state houses.
Confederate iconography continued to be displayed in spite of concerted efforts by protesters. In parts of the South, both in former Confederate states and otherwise, Confederate flags, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia are ubiquitous. They can be seen flying in front yards or hanging off the back of a truck. Craft sites like Etsy even sell Confederate flag masks and candles. Confederate flags even fly worldwide, as a sign of rebellion, white supremacy, or even just American kitsch. They can be seen in Ireland, Brazil, and Germany, among others.
Police reform efforts failed. Dozens of plans to retrain police have been costly and ultimately, ineffective. Even the notion of police reform is unwieldy in a justice system comprised of so many different departments.
Five years after Eric Garner's death, the Justice Department announced it would not levy any criminal charges in connection with the murder. Then New York Deputy Attorney General Alvin Bragg argued in The Washington Post that the decision "highlights the urgent need to reform the federal criminal law governing excessive force. Congress needs to do away with the requirement of proof that officers have acted 'willfully' when they use excessive force." Garner's case was just one of many where police who killed Black civilians did not face legal repercussions. Even with the addition of body cameras, implicit bias training, and other attempts at reform, the continued lethal force against Black people proves that those attempts for reform have failed. Even after protests reoccurred since Kaepernick's initial protest, no significant state or federal legislation was enacted. The efforts on the local level were often piecemeal or superficial. Some have argued that the idea of police reform itself is "fundamentally flawed." Law enforcement in the U.S. is. comprised of 15,000 separate agencies, meaning each reform would need to be enacted independently. Experts on police violence such as Alex Vitale have suggested that the problem of excessive force goes far deeper than reforms can touch: the scope of policing has simply become far too vast. Police today are asked to deal with issues such as mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness—all things that they have no expertise in. If we want real change, we need to vastly revise what police officers are asked to do. “At root, they fail to appreciate that the basic nature of the law and the police, since its earliest origins, is to be a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo. Police reforms that fail to directly address this reality are doomed to reproduce it," Vitale wrote.
Colin Kaepernick’s efforts failed. He couldn't garner even half the country's support. And he has never been able to play professional football again.
It's difficult to point to any concrete change catalyzed by Kaepernick's protests. His choice to kneel certainly caused a lot of conversation, but for some people it only seemed to create more animosity for the Black Lives Matter movement. That criticism only intensified after the election of President Donald Trump. The president has strongly criticized both Kaepernick and the other protesters. Though some NFL players and members of the public supported Kaepernick, a 2018 Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that only 35% of Americans agreed with Kaepernick's right to protest. By 2020, that percentage had climbed to little more than half of Americans. His protest also seems to have tanked his promising football career. By 2017, Kaepernick found himself unsigned, with many suggesting he was being blackballed. He went on to score a major publicity deal with Nike, but he has never again played professional football.
Similarly, elections don't always right legislative wrongs. The right to vote is a cherished freedom that can make major changes in American society at large. But voting alone can't end inequalities. Not only is it limited by the political climate at any given moment; elections are only one piece of a much larger picture when it comes to combatting broader discrimination.
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The rallying cry to "go vote," imparting the necessity of participating in elections, grows louder during every major campaign. Politicians talk about how "every vote counts," or how "one vote can make a difference." But that isn't always the case. In presidential elections, for instance, because of the electoral college, individual votes often matter very little in certain states. And the ability of a single politician or a handful of legislators to make a difference can be limited. Even well-meaning, motivated politicians often fail to make long-lasting change. For instance, the widely-supported Equal Rights Amendment was proposed in the 1920s. Since then, it languished in Congress, only being ratified by the House of Representatives and the Senate in 1972. It still has yet to be added to the Constitution as it has failed to garner a majority of the states needed to ratify it. Even this simple legislation, aimed at preventing discrimination on the basis of sex, has failed to make it into the Constitution after nearly a century. Legislators of course have some power to make more just and equal laws, but they are often faced by these internal slowdowns. They also have to deal with the checks and balances that exist within the political system and can slow down change. As one journalist wrote for the Boston Review, "without pressure from social movements, [elections] won’t produce meaningful and deeply needed reform."
And court cases don’t always end up serving justice either. There are myriad reasons why civil and criminal courts often fail to adequately punish perpetrators. A disparity in resources between defense attorneys and prosecutors can contribute to this fact, alongside other issues such as bias, privilege, or even just sheer incompetence. Many criminals walk free, and many victims are left unsatisfied with their outcomes.
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While court cases can sometimes bring consequences to criminals and closure to victims, that's not always the case. There's many cases where perpetrators are found not guilty or just get off with minimum sentencing. With rape especially, for instance, only a fraction of cases are prosecuted, and even fewer perpetrators serve jail time. To take an example, Stanford student Brock Turner was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. And yet, perhaps because of his privilege, Turner was sentenced to only six months in prison (of which he served three). The judge cited the adverse effects a prison sentence might have on the man's life when he doled out the judgment. "Obviously, a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him. And that may be true in any case. I think it’s probably more true with a youthful offender sentenced to state prison at a – at a young age," the judge wrote, adding "If you had someone who wasn’t in the fortunate circumstances that Mr. Turner had found himself in his youth, that they shouldn’t – it shouldn’t count against them." The proper channel for punishing perpetrators often fails.
Lastly, nonprofit organizations, while they can do a lot of good, have a limited scope. Their operational capacity is limited by local laws, regulations—and their own internal issues. Their in-house structure can sometimes limit them. Many have pointed out that non-profits must often move at a glacial pace in order to conform to both their own institutional guidelines and those of the communities in which they operate.
Non-profit organizations can do a lot of good. From delivering medicines to those in need, to working on issues such as climate change, NGOs and entities in the private sector are an integral part of making the world more fair. But they are limited both in their jurisdictional scope and their impact. Nonprofits are often treating the symptoms of an issue like poverty or racism, without necessarily being able to get at its roots. A food bank, for instance, that gives free food to the needy, is certainly providing an important service. But that work is treating the problem far downstream from its initial causes: such as systemic racism, redlining, or corrupt corporations that don't pay their workers a fair wage. Additionally, many nonprofits suffer from impractical business models or too much overhead cost. Sometimes only a fraction of the money they take in goes toward achieving their social justice goals. "Too many nonprofits are constrained by a slow-moving, institutional, and self-interested model," reads an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The article goes on to note how much money non-profits spend on their staff and on lavish fundraising events rather than the communities they serve. Between their limitations in scope and the obstacles to the highest level of functioning, nonprofits are not always the sharp tool for social change that we might like them to be.
Protests, elections, court cases, and non-profits can all contribute to reducing inequality. They all have their limitations, however, and often fail to solve the thorny and far-reaching problems they try to tackle. Perhaps those very systems were designed to remain in stasis, to maintain a certain status quo.
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