2020: It’s a Mad, Mad World

I am quite perplexed by everything that is going on in the world and in our country right now.  First, COVID-19 shut the whole world down and I don’t think we are getting very many straight answers from anyone.  It’s difficult to know what sources to believe and we all just sort of feel like victims, whether we are truly affected by the virus or not.


Then, there is the social unrest that began a week or two ago. Truth is, we have been in a state of social unrest for quite some time and, honestly, I think everyone needs to shoulder some of the blame or responsibility.

Technology and social media are wonderful things.  Both are instrumental in keeping us in touch with family and friends and both are key factors in how interconnected we are able to be. But there are unintended consequences as well. As good as these things are at uniting us, they are also great for dividing us or segregating us. Not through a sinister plan or conspiracy, but just because of our own human nature. For example, without these things, we are much more likely to interact with people who live near us. Without the technology to easily reach across miles or even oceans, we would be more likely to associate with, befriend, and more frequently interact with people that simply live near us. And so, as a matter of circumstance, we would be more likely to have some diversity in the resulting circle of friends and acquaintances. Each of us, as people, have a capacity for several dozen friends and associates in our lives. Some more than others, but it’s not an infinite number and very few people are ok with just a couple. 

This isn’t because anyone set out to create this circumstance, it just happened organically. Hanging out with, and interacting with people that agree with us, like the same music as we do, root for the same sports teams, enjoy the same hobbies, etc…. Gravitating towards that is natural and, for the most part, a good thing.  But, it’s not without a cost. And that cost may be much higher than any of us could have ever predicted.

With all of our social technology, the geographic constraint is gone and we can be much more selective. So, through no conscious effort of our own, we gravitate to people that look and think like we do.  We do that under proximity constraints too, but not quite as dramatically. The result is that each of us ends up existing in an echo chamber of sorts. We talk almost exclusively to people that agree with us and seldom hear thoughtful positions that differ from our own.  And, the same is true for people that disagree with us. They also exist in their own echo chambers. For all of the power of technology to unite, then, it is also a tremendous enabler of segmenting us even more and sectioning us all into our own philosophically warring “tribes”.

So, here we are.  We are living in a world that is more and more segmented and divided. It’s a trend that is unlikely to get better by accident. I honestly have no idea what to do. I do know that I believe we need to pay close attention to the words we use. Not from a PC standpoint, but from a “what does it mean” standpoint. Systemic Racism is a great example. When I hear this term, I am instantly defensive. To me, this phrase is specifically crafted to tap into raw emotion, to be “accusational”, and to assign blame. To me it is largely, if not entirely, inaccurate.

I have done some reading the last week or so trying to understand what the phrase is referring to. I was pretty sure I knew, and it turns out I was correct. But, those two words are not at all the words I would choose. The problem is, those words fit much of our current criteria for bumper sticker or tweetable wording.  For one, they speak volumes. One sided, but volumes nonetheless.  For another, it’s just two words.  So, short and easy to remember.  Accuracy is not all that important, in that context. 

But I just don’t think we can move towards actually solving the underlying problems until we have an accurate definition of what they are.  To me, Residual Cultural Consequences is a much better definition.  If you must have race in there, then Residual Racial Effect or Residual Racial Consequences would also be ok.  I like Cultural better because there are poor people of all races living in inner city, poverty areas and much of what is labeled as Systemic Racism affects them as well.

Systemic Racism, from my perspective, implies purposeful discrimination against a specific group of people based on the color of their skin. It implies that this discrimination is willful, on-going, and baked into the very fabric of our laws, systems, and norms.  It also implies that it is “current”.  Or, rather, that the blame for it is current.

My definition, although it doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly as well for a headline or a tweet, gets much more to the reality. Residual Cultural Consequences readily admits that the deck is stacked against minorities. That’s the “consequences” part.  There is no question that many policies and procedures in the past helped to create some of the difficulties faced by minorities today. Racially based denial of access to education, neighborhoods, and jobs 50 years ago was an early step that put minorities on a slippery slope down a path towards poverty and limited opportunities.  

“Cultural” is further acknowledgement that much of this inequity is borne by minorities or those that find themselves in that cultural setting.  And by that I mean, “living in the hood”.  I know that is mostly Blacks and Hispanics, but others are in that boat as well.

But “residual” takes the necessary step, in my opinion, of removing the “blame”.  The current generation did not create these inequities.  The redlining practices and discriminatory admissions policies at universities, and discriminatory hiring practices of the past… Those were not perpetrated by anyone that is around today.  We don’t need to “blame” anyone and use terms like Racism or Systemic Racism to cause one group to put their guard up and become defensive because they feel attacked or accused.  We need definitions that accurately describe the problem or challenge.  Then, and only then, can we begin the difficult process of crafting new systems and policies that will address these challenges.

What are those solutions? I don’t have a good grasp on that yet. But it is something I think about. I just don’t think a whole lot of meaningful progress towards good solutions will happen until everyone involved gets on the same page when it comes to defining the problem.

— Greg Martin

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