A Different Paradigm, A Different Philosophy

By: Randy L. Langford
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Persons of color, lower socio-economic status, and non-male/non-masculine sex and gender have long experienced oppression by the more powerful.  Such injustice transcends time, locale, and ethnicity.

The structure, systems, institutions, and culture of a society are the product of the social philosophy on which it’s built. My study of, and experience in, our society's "justice" system has led me to believe it’s not broken, as some contend. I think it’s operating precisely as designed and in alignment with our society’s hierarchical social philosophy. I'm not alone in this view. A growing number of researchers, academics, and practitioners share this perspective.

In her book The New Jim Crow - Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness, Michelle Alexander provides a plethora of evidence and anecdotes to explain and establish that nothing less than a bottom up redesign of our society, based on a non-hierarchical, relationally focused social philosophy that celebrates and supports our interdependence, will address the egregious injustice we observe on a daily basis and throughout history.

Statistics indicate African American males and other ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by interdiction and oppression resulting from societal norms, governmental edict, and law enforcement prejudice.  I believe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his ideological confederates intentionally focused their efforts on freedom and the elimination of oppression of persons (e.g. African Americans, Mexican Americans, poor immigrants, poor white sharecroppers, the North Vietnamese, etc.) rather than limiting their message to advocating for civil rights for a particular ethnic or cultural group (i.e. Dr. King’s shift near the end of his life to speaking out against the Vietnam War, which was fought primarily by underprivileged white, African American, and Mexican American draftees who did not have the financial means and opportunity to attend college to avoid conscription).  I think Dr. King recognized the core issue to be that of the more powerful oppressing the less powerful, rather than prejudice of whites against blacks.

It may be that one of the primary reasons the civil rights movement of the 1960’s did not effectively abolish systemic discrimination against people of color is because the second tier of civil rights proponents abandoned Dr. King’s strategy and made the controversy of civil rights and discrimination an issue of ethnicity rather than the more powerful (wealthy, privileged authoritarians, etc.) oppressing the less powerful.  By doing so, I think the movement ostracized many persons of lower socio-economic status and actually created opponents out of those non-African Americans who Dr. King was gathering into the fold.

Likewise, couching the current conversations about police brutality as racially or ethnically motivated makes the same mistake as those second-line leaders who emerged after the assassination of Dr. King.  Oppression requires power, and those in control of the hierarchy of power establish societal norms, government edicts, and police forces which are used as tools of oppression by the more powerful to strong-arm the less powerful into action or inaction that benefits and maintains the status quo.  

Our “founding fathers" authored the documents and legal instruments that are the impetus for our society’s norms and conventions. When the notion of American exceptionalism is set aside and those writings are read with the mind of a disinterested third party, it becomes evident that when Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence "All Men are Created Equal" he used the word "Men" to specifically describe the persons declared to be equal. He could just as easily have stated that all human beings regardless their sex, ethnicity, or social class are created equal. Jefferson was an intellectual and a thoughtful person. His choice of words was intentional.

The "Men" Jefferson referred to in the founding document were those who had legal standing to own property and vote. At the time, that class was made up primarily of white males. So, contextually, and supported by the historical record (Jefferson and many of the other white male founders owned slaves, which were legally regarded as sub-human, and women were viewed socially as chattel not permitted to vote), it seems evident the social philosophy on which our society is based is one of hierarchical power distribution emanating from wealthy white males ("trickle down economics"?). And, since our society is based on a philosophy resulting in laws created by the hierarchy, change over the past 250 or so years has been, for the most part, in form not substance. Even the title of the declaration is based on a relational fiction - Independence, that’s only regarded as a possibility among those who buy into the fallacy of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps (a notion as metaphorically preposterous as it is physically impossible).

As previously stated, disenfranchised social classes and ethnic minorities, especially African American males, are disproportionately affected by the oppression of the less powerful by the more powerful. In my opinion, making the ethnicity of those most adversely affected the point of the conversation is a monumental mistake.  “Black Lives Matter” may be a good protest chant, but it’s a poor slogan on which to construct a conversation about oppression and prejudice. 

I think the oppressors want the conversation to be race-based.  I believe history has shown that as long as the conversation on oppression is focused on the ethnicity of the oppressed the actual cause of prejudice and oppression will continue to flourish unexposed and unscathed. If, instead, the focus of the conversation is the oppression of the less powerful by the more powerful, the audience to which that topic may have appeal is exponentially larger because that message transcends ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and socio-economic status.

The elimination of particular actions of hierarchical oppressors is not necessarily evidence the root issue has been addressed. If we don’t disabuse ourselves of the notion that passing laws and changing policy will transform society then I think we will continue to waste resources treating symptoms rather than the disease. Dialogue is essential. However, dialogue about how to "fix" a system that isn’t broken is futile. 

If conversations focus on incidents of oppression, the oppressors triumph.  I think actual and sustainable dissolution of the oppression of the less powerful by the more powerful will only occur when “we, the people…”  embrace a relationally focused social philosophy on which the structure, systems, institutions, and culture of our society are based.

Societies, like individuals, can start anew. Humanity is crying out for social rebirth. Maybe it’s time for a Declaration of Interdependence.

Randy Langford