Why We Don’t Have Structural Change

The last post was not in any way meant to negate the necessity of teaching about structural racism. Rather, I was trying to raise concerns about age-appropriateness and being aware of the context of whom one is teaching, as well as who is doing the teaching, and if the people that Critical Race Theory is trying to address–African-Americans–are getting to do the talking. Critical Race Theory aims to educate people about structural racism, which is a necessity. And structural racism is only one area in which we need to make structural change. The elephant in the room in the United States is class differences (something we have only been discussing more publicly since the advent of the pandemic), and then of course there is the structural change needed for women. Activists have been fervently trying to address these issues for decades, especially since the 60s, and a good deal of legislation has been enacted. But why is there still not structural change on the level we need it?

Institutions are slow to change in any context. But when we live in a culture that so adores individualism, structural change is even more difficult. People are very nice and supportive on an individual level, but may not support actions made in the law or by the government. Consider these examples.

My friend Kathy (her name and some details are changed) has lived in different parts of the world and is herself of multi-ethnic heritage. She loves traveling, meeting people of different cultures, adores children. She has a high level career in a field where she has to navigate dealing with many men. Kathy is one of the kindest and warmest people you could ever meet, always includes people in her gatherings and adored by everyone. And yet she has no faith in the government or governmental institutions, and when I expressed my horror at Trump separating children from their parents, and thank goodness we have a more compassionate administration, she mentioned that she had seen a documentary on how human traffickers dump children from Latin America, and that it is a big racket. Kathy is fed up with politics, and while I would not call her Republican, I would probably describe her as apolitical or libertarian. She dislikes both Democrats and Republicans, thinks all politicians are corrupt. I have struggled to understand how she lives with this dichotomy, how she can be so incredibly kind in her personal life and yet cannot support any sort of government actions that enact social change. I believe that this is because on an individual level, it is easier to get along with different people, but when it comes to looking at the larger scale, it involves money and politics, two things she and others does not want to involve herself in.

A gay man I met who is from the South said that everyone in his neighborhood is very kind to him and his husband, he is well respected as a teacher, and in his church. But he mentions that at the polls, people will vote differently. Again, a sign that people may be going on a personal level, but not on the societal change level. And also (according to Southerners) people will be very nice to your face, as is required socially, but think otherwise.

The Black Lives Matter movement and protests were very strong in California last summer, and people came out in droves to protest despite the pandemic. However, when it came time to vote, at the polls, voters did not approve measures for affirmative action that would’ve helped black people in education. One could argue that the number of people supporting Black Lives Matter is smaller than the number of people who don’t feel black people need any privilege (the sort of people who callously say “All Lives Matter”), and this very well may be true. But the point is, the action needed to help black people structurally did not pass. 

Think about the myriad donors to universities, educational institutions, arts organizations, etc. A symphony may not be able to survive without Mr. and Mrs. Generous Benefactor’s contribution of $5 million, and a cardiology wing of a hospital may not even be built without their money. But if you were to ask this millionaire couple if they would vote for a candidate who supports healthcare for all, it’s possible that they would not. 

Look, for example, at people who serve in the Armed Forces. While I respect these people individually, and many of them are incredibly nice and very admirable on a personal level, I do not necessarily support the institutions they serve, as I am a pacifist and feel that America spends too much money on defense rather than human welfare. 

As a final example, a woman can sleep around like a man, post nude selfies of herself online, and correct people on their sexist language. But can a woman get elected president over the most incompetent moron America has ever seen run for office? Does a woman get adequate maternity leave? Does she get affordable childcare?

It is this NIMBY-like mentality where people do not think structurally that is affecting our country deeply. Our excessive American individualism encourages us to feel that if we have done well on a personal level, if we are individually nice to others, then we have done enough. But I believe this doesn’t work. The CEO of an insurance company might’ve himself lay in a hospital bed after an injury, wondering how he was going to pay his bills, but when he’s making $20 million a year and millions still have inadequate healthcare, all his personal compassion makes no difference. Our puritanical work ethic and individualism with money are killing us; class disparity is increasing radically, and it is my belief that a class issues are a large part of what is driving problems with race as well as gender. 

No one is perfect, perhaps we are all hypocrites to some degree, and people can’t be forced to act on things they don’t believe in. My only hope is that with the current administration, America will learn to be less selfish with money and opportunities, and live up to the ideal of equality and justice for all. If true equality is not possible now, then at least we need to start working on ending discrimination, violence, and life-threatening inequality.

Since 1776: Britain and/vs. the United States

With Independence Day soon approaching on July 4, I thought it would be interesting to explore the similarities and differences between British and American culture. As a devoted Anglophile who has studied abroad in England, visited the London area many times, and has family and friends there, I am always fascinated by America’s “homeland” and the culture there. There are a few things that absolutely make me scratch my head in wonder (the English fry up–baked beans at breakfast??), and other things I admire or can relate to. In no particular order, here are some of the similarities and differences I have noticed:

-England’s English is more ornate, flowery, and wordy than American English. Our use of language here is very direct, efficient, and about not wasting anybody’s time. One can see this in the language of our obsessive, dumbed-down text culture. While this efficiency is often very admirable and shows a certain confidence in expressing one’s ideas with an economy of words, at the same time, we can lack the eloquence, visible erudition, and even clever wordplay (there is nothing like British sarcasm, nothing!) that we find in the same language used across the pond. The language has had a longer time to develop in its homeland, and there are much deeper roots and history entwined with British English. American English’s strength is its innovation, which has surprisingly led the Oxford English Dictionary to include slangy words that might not have been considered decades earlier.

-Britons and Americans are both rather good-humored people. But there is more public bawdiness allowed on TV, in the media, etc. A streak of Puritanism still can run through American culture despite the fact that one can very easily find extremely racy, dirty, and vulgar American humor in the media. But the bawdy humor runs back centuries–think of Shakespeare, and the actors performing the play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Juliet’s nurse teasing about the pleasures of the nuptial bed in Romeo and Juliet.

-Both the United States and Great Britain are large, Anglo-Saxon-based multicultural societies. While there is the dominance of culture, there is also a huge inclusion and tolerance of diversity, minorities, and various ethnic groups. Part of this is due to the countries’ history of colonization and/or slavery. While someone who is Jamaican British for 2 generations would be considered British, someone who is Moroccan in France for two generations would still be considered Moroccan. Britain is very unique in Europe, and cannot be rightly considered Continental in her values, despite EU membership. Britain has proudly retained the pound sterling as her currency, and with the current economic crises in the EU, that was a wise decision.

-I once read a quote (I believe it was by JB Priestley) that England is “reasonable, not rational.” This has its pros and cons. As above, England is less puritanical overall, can accept more behaviors with a reasonable point of view. The long traditions of the English imagination, dandyism, architecture, royal culture, even its religion (Catholicism which then morphed into the Church of England) all illustrate a certain sense of grace and luxuriousness beyond the practicality of American day-to-day life. However, day-to-day life is run with much more smoothness and efficiency in the United States. Ours is not a bureaucratic country, and many institutional processes happen much more quickly here. Each visit to London makes me realize how disorganized the country can be—train stations are a mess, nobody knows which bus goes where, and one must either freeze or burn one’s hands when deciding between the cold or hot taps on the sink.

-Both the US and UK rely heavily on processed, prepackaged foods. Perhaps it is a leftover habit from the war, but supermarkets offer any variety of edible or prepare a bowl in a box, tin/can, or bag. Both the US and UK have gone through a foodie revolution, so to speak, in the past couple of decades, and the number of excellent restaurants has exponentially increased in both countries (primarily in urban areas). Britain does have the advantage of being a smaller country in that the distance from which locally grown foods are shipped is much smaller, although a number of items are imported from southern Europe and northern Africa. But this general reliance on processed foods is still very prevalent in both countries, and perhaps it is no surprise that both the US and UK have high rates of obesity (with the former having the highest rates in the world).

-Naturally, the reason for the colonies’ split from England was the dislike of monarchy and the love of freedom. But what does it mean to have a monarchy and how does this filter out into society? The primary factor that comes to mind is class. The UK is still very class-oriented, and though the upper class is a very small percentage, their landholding and wealth can be quite staggering. With any nobility-holding society comes a great tradition of the arts, high arts. In the United States, we are still developing an arts culture, and it tends to be based more on wealth and individualism rather than something historical. A sense of monarchy also lends itself to a more complacent society, in my opinion. People are more willing to be deferential in the UK in a way that we do not see here in the United States. Social harmony and well being are a higher priority than the extreme individualism and freedom we see in the US. Everything seems more calm, accepting, and unquestioned in the United Kingdom. In the United States, people are much less willing to accept what is put in the baby’s bottle, so to speak, without thinking it through and seeing if it meets the individual’s needs.

-Class differences and social structure are very different between the US and UK. Americans might falsely present an image of our country being a classless society, while the UK still retains the reputation of being run by the upper class and royals, while the rest of the country lives in detached houses. The US does indeed have different social classes, but the markers are often less obvious. Speech, for one, is relatively homogenized compared to Britain. How one speaks does not clearly indicate one’s social position. Also, people cross class barriers much more frequently here. For example, the child of multimillionaires may be working as a waitress in the summer during high school, or a plumber may be on a luxury cruise with passengers who are wealthy professionals. However, it is rare that we discuss class in the United States or very distinctly portray working-class people in our media. One of the rare exceptions was the groundbreaking TV sitcom “Roseanne” which was unabashedly working class. The idea in America is that everyone works, and everyone is self-made, whether or not this is entirely true. We would never have, financially or culturally, a social designation such as
“long term unemployed” as does the UK (as per the Office of National Statistics)!

The comparisons are endless, but the discussion must end here for now. Happy July 4 to all my American readers, and hopefully the Britons aren’t still bitter over 1776…