First Minneapolis and now Portland have become icons of the renewed struggle for racial and economic justice, but it’s far more complicated than this side and that side, one of which must be morally right and the other morally wrong. The added matter of working our way through a pandemic sans informed and competent leadership from the White House raises the level of complexity. The ongoing protests have unleashed a struggle for redistribution of political and social power and influence, particularly in major metropolitan areas. I can’t pretend how to fully understand what’s going on, but have a few observations to offer that help me, and may help you.
The nation has too long ignored systemic racism and intentionally designed economic inequities. Stubborn opposition is one reason the struggle has taken so long and seen such slow progress. Another is the inertia of people, mostly white, who value the stability and predictability of the way things are over the challenges of dramatic change. This summer’s eruption of protests signals the end of patient waiting. Yet entrenched opposition and deep seated inertia are hard to overcome, especially when national leadership endorses both.
Nevertheless, protests about issues of social justice are spreading, and with them increasing apprehension from self identified conservatives who believe things are spiraling out of control. What things? What control? For them, what’s spiraling are the generally accepted ways of a stable, predictable society in which one knows one’s place, and expects others to know theirs. What’s out of control are the established patterns of setting and enforcing standards and boundaries to maintain stability and predictability. The evidence is what they are told are rioting mobs committing wanton property damage .
Apprehension about civil unrest and property damage allows social justice issues to be hidden or ignored. It encourages some to deny there are social justice issues worthy of protest. It makes incidents of property destruction to be the important issues of justice. Some believe protesters are the issue regardless of how they protest or what they protest about. Some are willing to admit social justice issues exist, but demand an end to the protests as the price for their willingness to consider change. Taken together, they make protests and property rights the subject. Questions about racial and economic justice are shelved out of view.
It angers protesters that serious matters of political, racial and economic injustice corrupting human lives are subsumed under the greater value of property rights and social order that maintain the status quo and keep things in their proper places.
On the other hand, it angers conservatives that from their vantage, liberal protesters disrespect legitimate property rights and the American value of hard working self sufficiency. Protesters should be working for a living instead of throwing rocks and behaving like spoiled brats. There is no difference in conservative eyes between peaceful protesters and perpetrators of property destroying violence who often follow in their wake.
It is wrong to say that one side values property over human life and the civil rights non whites, while the other uses accusations of racism to promote unwanted socialism in America. Liberals and conservatives alike are steeped in American individualism. Protesters are determined that individual rights and privileges enjoyed by the white population can no longer be denied to people of color. Conservatives insist rights have not been denied, and in any case are to be earned, not given. Their unspoken fear is that more rights for others will mean fewer rights for them.
American individualism is often seen as antithetical to a communitarian focus on the greater good, but they overlap in many ways. Conservatives are often more community minded than they’re given credit for, but define community at the local level with an emphasis on voluntary associations, distrusting state and federal interference. Liberals are less community minded than they claim. This summer’s protests display liberal distrust of local governments that systematically deny equal rights to people of color, and of the current administration’s violent use of federal law enforcement against them. Both are happy with government programs that benefit their interests. Conservatives simply deny that it is socialism. They’re not really for smaller government, just government providing fewer services that don’t go to them.
Conservatives and liberals are bordered by right wing libertarians and left wing neoMarxists (not Cold War communists). Both engage in protests, and both use social media to amplify their ideologies. Each is inflexible, unwilling to negotiate, and prone to belief in conspiracies. Far right libertarians distrust government in any form and consider taxation to be theft. They believe property rights outweigh human rights, except for their own. Ironically, they willingly enjoy every benefit government sends their way. They just don’t want to pay for it. Their ideology of rugged individualism oddly gravitates toward authoritarian oligarchy. Neo marxists are romantics who refuse to recognize that experiments with Marxism always end in Leninism, Maoism, or something chaotically destructive of the society and its economy. Full of contradictions, they dislike capitalism, but favor private enterprise and honest markets. Both right wing libertarians and left wing neoMarxists wallow in conspiracy, and label as enemies anyone not in their camp
There are two more overlapping groups in the mix. One consists of the angry and disaffected who seize opportunities to destroy other people’s property. Protests create the right opportunities for them to act, as do athletic victory celebrations, New Year’s Eve, and any gathering giving them cover and excuse. The other consists of criminal gangs taking advantage of general mayhem to score as much profit as possible. They’re not on anybody’s side and disinterested in the issues. One cannot ignore the possibility that, for a small remuneration, they will act as agents provocateur on behalf of the highest bidder.
A conglomeration like this disallows a simple us against them explanation of what’s going on. It makes it too easy for important issues of social justice to be buried. Facebook and twitter are filled with conservative demands that restoring order is the most important thing to do. Issues of racial and economic justice have disappeared from their view.
Liberal protesters, I believe, don’t realize how easily they’ve played into the hands of the right wing. Protesters committed to social and political change that redress racial and economic injustice too often want results that cannot be achieved in one giant step. True as it is that progress has been too late and too little, it remains equally true that needed change takes place one step at a time. The steps can be speeded up, made larger, and obstacles removed from their path, but they remain steps. I believe the bulk of the American public is not indifferent to the need for change, but bulky things are hard to move. Once moving, the arc of their turning radius is large. That’s reality. And the path to real change is paved with realism.