R&W: Power Structures in Society

My wife is going to kill me for this. We have a running joke about how I always talk about “power structures in society”. Whenever I get talking about broad issues surrounding education, racism, equity, and opportunity, you could almost make a drinking game out of those words. For those who are not familiar with this term, come along with me for a quick journey.

I’ve been reading This is not a Test by Jose Luis Vilson. Vilson is a force to be reckoned with in the world of education right now. Just look for #educolor on Twitter and Vilson will be close by. I’ll get a chance to hear him talk in person at our Knowles fellowship summer meeting in July. So, I’m about 2/5ths of the way through his book and, as is happening more and more these days, when I read things, my mind starts to run. I decided to put the book down and write a few things of my own. R&W. Reading and Writing. Back to the basics.

We tacitly condone what we do not speak up against and we blindly allow what we do not choose to see.

So, power structures. (drink). First, let’s talk about social views of education and what that means for us. The social constructivism paragidm for education describes school, in its entirety, as an inherently social endeavor. By that, they mean that every action, interaction, and piece of knowledge is rooted in the socialization that occurs directly and indirectly when we grow up in a particular culture. The first time I heard this idea, I kind of thought it was wonk, but now, I'm on board – mostly. Even self-study from Khan Academy or a textbook embodies biases and social conceptions of what is important, what is valued in our current time and culture, how to write, how to spend our time, and what is important for young people to learn about our society.

So, what are "power structures in society"? They have everything to do with who has access to power, opportunity, and influence in a given society. They’re the visible and invisible norms, rules, conventions, expectations, and consequences that serve the dominant group in a society. Power structures include things that are put in place intentionally (think banning women from voting) and many, many small and un-intentional actions that serve to re-inforce the status quo.

There’s lots of ways to slice this pie. You could talk about income-based power structures. These are fairly easy to see everywhere from cash day loan businesses to the intimate link between money and status in our society. You can talk, as many people have lately, about gender-based power structures. The tech industry is currently confronting and grappling with some of these gender-based power structures that have kept women under-represented and under-paid in technology. Are you with me so far? Good. I want to stop here for a moment.

These two types of power structures, gender and income, are fairly palatable for me and most people I know. They’re the communion cracker that doesn’t taste that great, but we all eat it anyways and we don’t really complain about it. By contrast, if recent reactions to the #blacklivesmatter movement are any indication, acknowledging power structures about race are much more contentious, and I don’t quite know why.

Power structures around race are ingrained in our society as deeply as the constitution. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about these ideas quite often for the Atlantic and other publications. Coates represents a strong opinion, but one that needs to be heard. Even if someone fundamentally disagrees with him, I doubt they could, with any degree of logical or historical accuracy, categorically discard his work. Yet, as we extend months into our public processing of black death by police, evidence is showing that largely, we’re not choosing to increase our awareness of race-based power structures in American society.

I’ll tell you why we should know that detrimental race-based power structures a.k.a. systemic racism exist: You'd be hard pressed to find a single person of color over the age of 10 in this country who doesn’t know it to be true. They may or may not have the words for it, but they know it’s there. The option to deny the existence of systemic racism in America is just another privilege of being white.

Vilson describes his own experience with this quite eloquently, stating how even before he knew what terms like micro-agression and privilege meant, he felt the anger and frustration that comes from them. Meanwhile, he tried to make it in society and figure out his own place in it.

Let’s be clear, systemic racism does not mean that people are actively out to get black people. As I’ve tried to describe here before, systemic racism is something altogether different. It is invisible in its boundaries, it is innocuous when disguised through well-intentioned rationalizations, and most importantly, it is a constant pressure down on the heads of people of color.

The option to deny the existence of systemic racism in America is just another privilege of being white.

The problem with race-based power structures, and white people’s ability to choose to ignore them, is that we can’t really talk about meaningful change in the equity of education until we address, or at the very least, try and publicly acknowledge them. I'm using the term "white people" to talk about those of us who have access to more power in society. The two terms are not quite synonymous, but the choice is semantically important.

Here-in lies the problem. Countering these power structures probably will take more than conversations. Civil rights leaders in the past saw that there was a need for some level of disruption for a message to be received. Frankly, I’m white, and this scares a part of me. I’ve grown up living and benefiting from our power structures and now we’re talking about changing them? We’re talking about saying that racism still exists even though the Civil rights movement was 50 years ago? Martin Luther King Jr. described the biggest barrier to progress to be the “white moderate,” not those of us who are clearly racist (whatever that means), but those of us who un-intentionally yet consistently defend intolerant viewpoints and actions. Those of us who "are more devoted to 'order' than to justice". We tacitly condone what we do not speak up against and we blindly allow what we do not choose to see. I'm feeling challenged to not let myself be part of this. Being a social activist is not something I have ever imagined for myself, but I guess by writing this, I'm jumping into the fray, ever so slightly.

Anyways, I’ll try and keep reading and writing. Thanks to Jose Luis Vilson for some thought-provoking stuff! Pick up his book and join the conversation.

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