Taste the Appeasement. Mmm, Bitter.
We should never settle for justice we can't measure.
Rest in Peace to the Corporate Chief Diversity Officer (2020-2023). The Wall Street Journal reports that C-suite level DEI officers—positions hastily created across corporate America in the wake of the Black Lives Matter uprisings—are already fading out of existence. Job listings for Chief Diversity Officers have plunged by 75% in a year, and “Thousands of diversity-focused workers have been laid off since last year.” Before you go to bed tonight, take a moment to light a candle for this most American of creatures: The empty gesture, born in crisis, that disappears the moment that it outlives its public relations usefulness.
At least you can say this for all of those DEI positions—they (momentarily) existed. That is more than you can say for defunding the police, which was a more concrete and therefore harder to bullshit goal of the BLM movement. Never in my life have I witnessed a more rapid retreat than that of the Democratic Party from the idea of police reform that can be tangibly measured. In June of 2020, the top Democrats in Congress were taking a knee in the Capitol while draped in kente cloths; just a few months later, the party’s leaders were tripping over themselves to tell any reporter in hearing distance that they absolutely disavowed “defund the police” as both slogan and substance. “We want more police!” the Democrats screamed in unison. “We love cops! Look at our budgets!” It turns out that every Democratic electoral loss for the next two years was due not to anything that the honest and hardworking Democratic politicians did, but rather to the simple existence of the words “defund the police,” an idea coined and promoted by activists. Black people who were tired of mass incarceration found themselves somehow blamed for everything. It was a familiar position.
Defunding the police—which every honest person in government knows means “put more resources into social services to address the underlying problems rather than pouring all of our money into cops who do not solve any of the underlying problems”— is a completely coherent and wise social policy. The Democrats who hollered themselves hoarse disavowing it are cowards who threw their closest allies directly under the wheels of a prison bus as soon as they were faced with bad faith smears. But I have written about that before, and that is not the point I want to make today. There is a bigger, more timeless process unfolding here. We can learn from it, although it seems like we rarely do.
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Great moments of opportunity for social and political change arrive at irregular, unpredictable intervals. Movements and parties and institutions are permanent, and their work is constant, but the reality is that much concrete progress is made in great leaps forward rather than steady, incremental change. The Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were a perfect illustration of this. There have been organizations working on civil rights and police violence issues for many decades, and cops have been abusing black people forever, but somehow that particular incident sparked the biggest protests in American history. It was a moment powerful enough to make powerful institutions scared. That is when real opportunity appears—when those who benefit from the status quo detect a level of public anger or unity so strong that their fear overcomes their intransigence. They accept the need to do something, because not doing anything becomes untenable. We were there in 2020. For a brief, tantalizing moment.
What is the tendency of powerful institutions in these moments that demand change? Their tendency, their preference, their nature is to offer the most minimal change that they can possibly get away with. If they can satisfy their critics with purely cosmetic changes, they will happily do so. This is how we got professional sports teams with “END RACISM” written on their jerseys. And this is how the Chief Diversity Officer position, became, overnight, de rigeur in corporate America. The demand in the streets was for profound change: an end to inequality that would require vast shifts in material resources, and consequently would require corporations to sacrifice a measure of their wealth and power. They are the power structure; you can’t have social change without taking power away from them. The prospect of giving up real wealth and power is distasteful to those who already have it. So, like someone backed into a corner by an angry dog, they start desperately tossing out baubles in an attempt to lure them away. Go chase this toy! Go chase this treat! We hear your concerns and we share them. Can we interest you in… a ceremonial position in which public relations is designed as structural change? Ehhhh?
Congressmen and cops take a knee in simulation of protests. Press releases of concern and solidarity are issued. “Black Lives Matter” is painted on streets. People of color are hired as Chief Diversity Officers or assistant coaches or temporary DEI consultants. Politicians and unions vow to make police take new training courses. We hear you. We sure do. Look at us. We are doing something.
All of this bullshit is of a piece. It is, collectively, the action of a system that is preserving itself while trying to appear as though it is doing anything other than that. It is the substance of appeasement. The only question for movements, and for all of the people in the streets, is whether we choose to swallow that bait or spit it out.
Unfortunately, in most cases we end up swallowing it. Uprisings are hard to sustain. Fires burn low. Energy flags. There is enormous incentive, at a certain point, to accept something and declare victory. People want to be told that all of their marching and hollering and outrage accomplished something. Human nature begs, absolutely begs, for us to delude ourselves. It is often much more comfortable than confronting the fact that truly changing the entrenched power arrangements of an unfair society would require us all to keep going far past the point of exhaustion.
And then, a few years later, the con begins to become clear. When attention turns away, the Chief Diversity Officers start to disappear, having accomplished little. White billionaires still own all the teams. The racial wealth gap persists. Police funding is up. The Democrats declare their undying belief in law and order. The existing system will always have the advantage of being able to wait out the uprising. Stalling works, unless you very assiduously work to make sure that it doesn’t.
We cannot predict when moments of opportunity for change will flare up, but we can be ready for them. One of the things being ready for them means is that we think, in advance, about our demands. About the minimum that we will accept in order to feel that we have not squandered our moment. Of course it is more complicated than this—for starters, there is usually no single central decision-making body in a social movement that can negotiate with the power structure on the other side. We all have to think these things through in advance, to collectively walk into the streets with a sense of determination about what we want to achieve. It is natural, after a burst of energy, to get tired, and from there, to get complacent. But it leads to sad endings. If we take a hard look at what material changes we earned downstream from these moments of opportunity, we find little to celebrate. The power structure was scared for a little while, but they got through it.
Our moments of opportunity vary. Occupy focused rage on economic inequality; BLM focused it on racism and police brutality. Neither achieved what it could have, though both achieved some things. Right now, we may be sliding into a comparable moment of opportunity for the labor movement. If UPS goes on strike, we’ll be in the midst of the biggest strike wave that many of Americans have seen in their lifetimes. In one way, the labor movement has an advantage over other movements, because when people unionize they create a permanent institution that does not dissipate and blow away when the public intensity dies out. But the labor movement is just as capable of squandering their moment as anyone else. That is why we must seize this time not just to pat ourselves on the back and smile and talk about how great it is that people are interested in us again, but to organize more unions. Like economic inequality and police department budgets, union membership can be measured. We will know whether we come out of this moment of opportunity with permanent gains or not. So far, we are not.
This is why it’s important to stay a little mad all the time. Mad at the ways that society is broken. Yes, constantly fighting is tough, and it is normal to want to cheer ourselves up and give each other awards for being so great and talk in positive terms about how we are at least helping things be better than they would otherwise be. But this can be a trap, too. It’s more important to look as critically as possible at the quantifiable markers of progress and ask ourselves whether we are winning our fights, or losing them. For every movement, in every moment of opportunity, every time that we grow strong enough to strike fear in the power structure, we will be offered appeasements. The nature of all these appeasements is that they will be designed to makes us feel good about what we have achieved by accepting them. Don’t do it. Look at the numbers. Until the numbers tell us we are winning, stay mad. We have a long way to go.
Few things make me more frustrated than hearing liberals whine about how they believe that “defund the police” is a bad slogan. Hey, how about you focus on the policies? On the substance? As soon as you start talking about police budgets everyone becomes a fucking marketing consultant. Talk about the substance of the issue! Go Stop Cop City! Do something! Democrats will spend months picking apart various slogans without lifting a finger to accomplish anything on the underlying issue. This makes me insane. I wrote about this here. You can read some of my reporting on the BLM protests in Portland here.
In a sad bit of BLM-labor movement crossover, one of the institutions that most spectacularly failed to harness the moment of opportunity to achieve real police reform was the AFL-CIO.
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