Race, Gender, Shirking, and Social Change

glass ceiling

I recently was having a wonderful conversation with good friends. The discussion turned to our friend’s experience as a woman in a male-dominated field and shortly turned to the other friend’s experience as a black American in a white-dominated field. I was struck how, despite the fact that discrimination based on race and gender are illegal, women and black Americans still face barriers at the individual level. I came away from that conversation with new insights.

Focus on the structure of our social and economic systems is important. We should never be afraid of making changes when the benefits are high and the costs low. The effect of public policy on social outcomes is an important consideration.

But what about the moment when policy does not come into play, or when governments really have little or no ability to effect a change?

These are especially important when thinking about two concepts:

1) The combating messages we send; and

2) The equilibrium of social policy.

Combating Messages: Empowerment vs a “Rigged” System

I’ve written about this before. I am often uncomfortable when people talk about how the system we have is “rigged.” I always end up asking, “By whom? Against whom? Can we quantify that rigged-ness?” Difficulty to achieve success does not necessarily mean someone has been cheated. I’m especially wary when those making the statement do so in a political context, because they are usually among the politically powerful and well-educated. Something does not sit well with me when those who have had success in the system (often from the very same demographic background) are telling those working their way up that the system is rigged against them enough to prevent their success, even though they were successful at navigating the same or a similar system (if not worse).

Those who see the system as rigged often claim that our institutions need to be torn down and rebuilt. This is the classic Thomas Paine perspective. But when have we ever created a system that could please everyone? Who designs that system? How do we measure success in that system, and how would that be better than what we have? And finally, what are the costs to rebuilding a system? I don’t have answers to these questions.

Along with that comes this thought: human nature is human nature, regardless of race or gender. Human beings are great at finding excuses and coming up with cop outs. We are shirkers whenever we can find reasons to be.

On one end, we talk about the need for structural change in order for people to be successful more equally. But at the same time, reminding people of their “otherness” tends to harm performance. These are the countervailing messages that individuals receive: 1) that you are what you are and what you are tends to lead to these outcomes because “the system”; 2) in order to be successful, you need to work hard, perhaps harder than others around you do.

But you don’t empower people to be successful by focusing on disadvantages and give individuals, whatever their background, reasons to slacken their efforts. You empower people by telling them they are powerful beyond their situation. It helps in lifting even psychological burdens.

If you focus too much attention on circumstances, you perpetuate a continuation of the same circumstances. If you focus on power and ability beyond circumstances, you create outcomes beyond the current circumstances.

Real social change comes from individuals changing over time. It comes by experience, not legislation or argumentation. It is effected by individuals granting privilege to people where privilege might be out of reach despite ignoring the voices telling them to shirk. It is magnified in focusing on what we can do with what we are given (like Jesus’ Parable of the Talents) rather than lamenting what we do not have. It is developed in realizing that the State cannot eliminate every social ill, nor is it wise to try. It is strengthened by communities picking up whatever tools are at their disposal when States hit their limits of wisdom.

It comes by empowerment of the person, not granting power to soulless institutional halls.

Next time, I’ll discuss what I mean by the equilibrium of social policy: that point at which we begin to be okay with some outcomes.

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