Humans were once hunters and gatherers. If the food became scarce in one region, the humans would have to move to another to feed themselves. This process changed during the agricultural revolution, which allowed humans to settle in areas and cultivate the land.
Among the consequences of this revolution, beyond the obvious societal advances, is the use of slavery to work the lands. The freedom granted by the agricultural revolution that allowed people to stop scouring the countryside for food meant that humans found themselves tied to the land. Landowners enslaved others to work the land cheaply (to say nothing about the other abuses associated with slavery).
Slavery in the United States came to a sort-of end with the Industrial Revolution. While some of the ruling class opposed slavery on moral grounds, the advent of widespread industry seems to have more to do with the abolition of slavery.
Racism was certainly not a phenomenon restricted to the American South, and this perhaps lends credence to the belief that the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery – to inherently and institutionally racist Southerners, the conflict might have felt like it had more to do with an industrialised North’s disregard for a Southern economy propped up on the back of slaves in a nation where American whites believed in a natural Anglo-Saxon superiority in the North and South alike.
The point once again though is how this Revolution shaped our society. It created new opportunity and Americans welcomed new industry for this – but it would not be long before industrialisation so permeated society that we reorganised the whole of American society around it.
Take for example the structure of residential America through the middle of the 20th century. Industry grew most pronounced in urban areas, especially in the North and along major seaports: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, and so forth. It shifted the land-value and drove up residential prices significantly in urban areas. This, along with the advent of the automobile for private use, leads to the rise of the suburb and commuting.
Here again we see a notable shift. Americans could afford automobiles and that meant the freedom to move to cheaper areas outside the cities and then commute to areas where work was prevalent. It began, as so many other things, as a boom in personal freedom.
However, the freedom became so prevalent that society reorganised itself once again. Gas and service stations began to appear everywhere out of necessity. Highways and freeways began to dissect the countryside. Motels, tourism, rest areas…American life embraced the car and oriented around it (for a funny take about American capitalism and the auto boom, see “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”).
The idea of the American dream with home ownership, a white picket fence, and cars became a fixture in society. However, as with the other revolutions, this imaged belied how the new freedom came to imprison at least a significant portion of Americans.
Jobs were plentiful in urban, industrialised areas. Living in the relatively-limited amount of residential housing in areas dominated by commercial properties became prohibitively expensive for many. Moving to the suburbs, however, required access to transportation. Car ownership was no longer an optional freedom because of the societal shift – it became a practical necessity for many.
The result: people who lived in more affordable housing who struggled to afford transportation to where jobs existed and people who lived in areas where they required fewer transportation expenses but housing costs soared.
Pairing this societal shift with overtly racist policies that forced people into specific neighbourhoods that lacked proper investment (jump forward to contemporary issues regarding gentrification). Debt, rather than wealth, transitioned between generations and worsened the income gap as time progressed. While many new pieces of legislation in American history would seek to level the current playing field for individuals, they fail to address the historical and institutionalised inequities such as this and are therefore racist/sexist/ableist/etcetera in the way they perpetuate those inequalities.
Discrimination need not be overt or explicit to be discrimination. Even the best intentioned individuals operating with a poor understanding of history help to perpetuate the institutionalised aspects of inequity, and this is why the recognition of privilege is so important.
We see the trend starting anew today in the area of information technology. While computers revolutionised our lives and have made many things convenient and easier, we have begun to orient society around its existence. Internet access is becoming a social necessity like transportation or running water. As we continue to develop these tools and orient other aspects of society around them, it will become difficult to the point of disenfranchisement for certain people to participate effectively in society. Again, there’s a historical context of racism, sexism, and the like that will cause this to target certain people more severely than others – if not the deliberate aim of those behind the policies.
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What the world needs, and has needed, is an abundance of empathy. Arguments that things like racism and sexism do not exist today need not necessarily have a basis in the overt racism or sexism of the individual; the arguments might arise from ignorance, from lacking the empathy necessary to see the world from any perspective other than their own.
The perspectives are accurate from that particular point of view and is therefore difficult to overcome through discourse if that person is unwilling to see things from the other side. They attribute the perspectives advocating for the continued existence of these social inequities as whining, weakness, laziness, or some other deficiency in the character of the individual (or often entire group) – in this way perpetuating the very discrimination and prejudice they purport no longer exists.
One can argue the causes and potential solutions for problems, but what we cannot afford is to pretend that these problems do not exist or are not as severe as our fellow citizens report them to be. There is a tendency to view them from a personal context that belies the historical and institutional context through which the other person may view them, and proposals of solutions from the personal context of the privileged individual may be unviable.
For example, when black friends discuss the trouble they have finding work, I have seen people helpfully* suggest trying a different area. It fails to understand that if they move where the jobs exist in numbers, the housing is prohibitively expensive. If they move to where the housing is affordable for them, the jobs are fewer, less diverse, and lower paying. The alternative is commuting, but infrastructure does not always support public options and private transportation can be prohibitively expensive.
We can ask why they do not cut expenses to the minimum, to adopt personal austerity measures in order to dig themselves out of their debtors prison, but this too ignores the systemic and institutional inequality of lived experience.
Minor offenses like jaywalking or parking offences see a disproportionate level of enforcement in “those areas” because society expects the offences to occur there. When they do occur, the incident is not isolated to the individual but generalised to the entire population as evidence that “those areas” are indeed bad.
Moreover, the penalties do not consider the personal circumstances of the individual. While a $100 fine for parking improperly would be a nuisance to me, it can be devastating to someone living pay check to pay check or worse. Options to “assist” people in those situations often wind up saddling them with even more debt as they service the immediate need but demand repayment plus interest.
I see this in areas such as sexism as well. Some argue that companies do not discriminate against women when it comes to compensation, for example, stating (accurately from a perspective) that it has to do with the relative inability of the candidate or worker to negotiate better compensation for the job.
However, when one regards the skills associated with effective negotiation, they are skills generally discouraged in women from a young age as “masculine” or “not lady-like”. The same assertiveness in a professional woman appears as “bitchy” and works even more against her intentions than if she were to embrace the traditional gender role. The options for women in far too many situations today are still “bad” or “worse” with women opting for the lesser of the two evils. Society can then hold their lack of conviction against them.
Is everyone equally guilty of all of these things all the time? Of course not. It has nothing to do with the “identity politics” that some allege. The morality is nuanced, complex, and relative, even for one person across different situations. Everyone fails to some degree when it comes to this though, and some people, like myself, fail or succeed in a vacuum of privilege.
I have personal struggles in life, but none of my personal characteristics have a bearing on them. Other people have struggles in life that are the result of their poor decisions or even rotten luck that is specific to that one person – these do not discount the systemic and institutional struggles that many people face. The specific counterexample does not discount the general experience of people with a shared characteristic – pointing to the success of one black man does not mean systemic racism is absent from the lives of most.
Equally false is the notion that our conscious support and ally-ship of specific persons excludes our role in perpetuating systemic and institutional challenges towards the larger group. Our unconscious biases show through in our actions and conversations. The absence of deliberate prejudice against individuals sharing a characteristic does not excuse unintentional prejudice against the general group – one must listen and understand when others indicate how a behaviour unfairly targets people based on a characteristic.
The point is that society is bigger than any one person, and who we are today is as much a product of our cumulative history as it is the current zeitgeist. Even if we pretend we are perfect angels of tolerance, we must acknowledge that our actions to promote civil rights have, to date, not addressed the historical inequities passed between generations – but we have not overcome our inherent biases either.
The mechanisms of society do not care about the individual. The agricultural revolution made sense for society. The Industrial Revolution made sense for society. The technological revolution makes sense for society. But these take place in a society that has a long history of discrimination, malicious and unintentional, based on the inherent characteristics of people.
We cannot progress as a society when our systems and institutions disadvantage citizens unfairly. While we have progressed in some areas, the progress remains incomplete so long as we have to rely on artificial supports applied consciously to overcome the systemic inequities; and while privileged people remain silent, deeming the supports to be “enough”, the more insidious elements of society will make our fellow citizens victims.
Humans have differences. We need not pretend differences do not exist – in fact, we can celebrate them. We owe it to ourselves and to our fellow citizens to combat systemic inequities that restrict their ability to live a productive life of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.