When the “enemy” is a structure

My oldest son is really, really cognizant of bad guys.

Everyone in his world, really, is either a “good guy” or “bad guy”–even though he can recognize gradations in his own moods and behaviors, he seems perplexed, at times, by the idea that someone can be simultaneously good and bad, in that very flawed, very human kind of way we all live, and see, every day.

And, you know, I think we see advocacy, and our quest for social justice, in much the same way sometimes.

People, and institutions, are either “with us” or “against us”, as much as we might like to pretend that we don’t categorize that way.

Yes, as social workers, we have an ethical obligation to respect the dignity and worth of every individual, but, really…how often do you hear social workers talk that way about politicians? Or bureaucrats?

I see it in my students, and I feel it in myself: somehow, everyone who isn’t as committed as we are to seeking justice for those we serve (as we define it), is our enemy–an obstacle to be surmounted and a target for our advocacy.

I know. It comes as a shock that I can be sanctimonious. I know.

And, so, part of what was, for me, so morally and intellectually challenging about dr. john powell’s presentation, and the work of his with which I have familiarized myself since, is his insistence that we need to move beyond calling each other racists.

And I have kind of a problem with that, because, well, some people are racist. It’s not just the legacy of racism–it’s still alive and flourishing, and it can’t live except in people’s hearts.

But, after a lot of reflection, I think I understand more about what he means.

Pinpointing the root of racial inequity in this country–or any other–in the structures that perpetuate racially unjust outcomes isn’t about letting racists off the hook. If anything, it heightens the tension, because when we think about racism as only existing in marginalized pockets of “fringe” outcasts, it is trivialized, in some ways, as compared to locating it properly among those who set up the rules of the game and rig it in their favor.

And identifying the racialized nature of the system brings more of us–those who would never consider ourselves racist but nonetheless benefit in very tangible ways from the injustice of the status quo–into the ranks of the “guilty” too. Because even good intentions can’t excuse racialized outcomes.

And that means that even the “good guys” share responsibility for transforming our systems–economic, political, social–so that they work for everyone.

And that means that even the “bad guys” aren’t really, in the final analysis, all that much worse than the rest of us, just as that pesky “dignity and worth of every individual” clause would have us remember.

Analyzing structures this way isn’t always easy; it can be harder to walk a client through the process of dissecting the systems that impact his/her life to identify the root causes that perpetuate problems than it is to nod when someone talks about caseworkers who have it in for her, or those bums in Washington who only look out for themselves.

And it’s more fun to throw darts at a face than a structure, for sure.

But it’s far more accurate, and ultimately more powerful.

Because we can’t hope to win if we’re not fighting the right fight.

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2 responses to “When the “enemy” is a structure

  1. I always love reading your posts, Melinda. You are always spot on! Very inspiring…

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