A DIY Guide to Institutional Change for Racial Equity
Step 6 - Maintain momentum
6 - A. Settle in for the long haul.
The arc of the moral universe only bends toward justice if there are people applying the force. The inequities that inhabit our institutions are a result of hundreds of years of history. They will not go away overnight. They will not fade as a result of one eloquent speech or a single anti-racism training. Maintaining momentum is important not just because the changes needed are difficult but because the work of creating better institutions is continuous. It will not actually ever end. Anti-racism is not a condition, not something static that an institution can reach. It is a verb, something to be continually practiced.
6 - B. Take breaks.
There is no shame in exhaustion. Take time to recharge but then get back in the fight.
6 - C. Don’t stop recruiting people.
New people bring energy but can also remind everyone else why they are doing this work.
6 - D. Celebrate small victories.
This isn't just to keep spirits up. All of this is a training process, a way of building community with each other and power to demand the large scale, substantive changes necessary. Small victories are proof change is possible and proof of the need to commit to continuing to push.
6 - E. Reaffirm solidarity.
People will tend to backslide into individual strategic considerations. Remind them that they are in community with each other and this unity is what gives them power. Having people verbally affirm solidarity with each other can strengthen group ties.
6 - F. Cherish your allies.
Tell them that you do. Enough said.
6 - G. When you leave, pass on what you know.
In our lives, we will enter and leave communities, walk into and away from institutions. The best we can do is try to leave those institutions better than when we encountered them. If you do all the right things, you may still fail. You will almost certainly not reach all your goals. Don't be discouraged or think your work was wasted. But when you leave, share what you have learned. Name names, pass on records, write your experience down.
A DIY Guide to Institutional Change for Racial Equity
A brief checklist for self-reflection:
A few last words
In the lead up to the Civil War, defenders of slavery called it the "Peculiar Institution." They called it "peculiar" to indicate that slavery in the American south was "special," different in kind from other, supposedly harsher systems. I have witnessed a disturbing temptation to think modern America is "peculiar" in the same way, that the oppression present in our nation is different than in other countries simply because our anthem says we live in the land of the free. But that is a lie, a dangerous one because it feels safe, because it soothes our souls in the same way that calling slavery "peculiar" may have quieted the consciences of those who did not fight for its abolition.
Institutions are made up of individuals. Like our society, they are what we make of them, the collective product of what we decide to accept, the choices we make. This means your choice matters. It always has. Free societies are not created and maintained by words on a page alone. We are only free if we all choose to make it true. The choice to confront reality requires moral courage. The truth is that there is much work to be done, that we are still far from grace, that the work of creating a more just society is endless. But that is precisely why we all need to take personal responsibility for it. If you benefit from privilege in any way, it is your dutyto redistribute it. None of us are free until all of us are free.
This guide is my attempt to pass on what I've learned. I write it in the hopes that it will help you avoid the mistakes I've made, so that you can do better. Most of all, I write in the hopes that our society can learn to better value and uplift Black folx and other people of color.
I struggled with whether to write it. First, because there is a danger that institutional reform can be a distraction from the ultimate task of building power to demand changes on a societal level. Second, because I wasn't sure I was qualified to comment.
As to the first, fighting for change at institutions is a means to an end, a way to further the goal of a just and anti-racist society. I'm still not sure as to the second so I'll let you be the judge. I have enough experience fighting institutional inertia to know some of the pitfalls but perhaps not enough to become too jaded or too invested in the systems that need to change. In any case, the question is whether the principles and guidelines I've outlined work. And that, you will only know when you try.
No one can be an expert in creating change. The very nature of pushing for structural shifts is that success makes you obsolete. The only real change is fundamental, is systemic. If you can easily imagine the changes you are fighting for, it is not change at all.
While doing research to write this, I stumbled upon an interview of Kathleen Cleaver, a member of the Black Panther Party. In answering a question of how to transform a system built on inequality and avarice, she said, "Well, you just have to get up and do it. And everybody has to agree that that's what they want to do and there's nothing more important. And it would take probably fifty-some years." When asked whether she could imagine this happening, she said yes but perhaps not in her lifetime. All I'm asking is for you to imagine this can happen during yours.
(Originally posted on 11/4/2020 on Medium)
In a digital and data-driven world, political polls have become a national obsession. For many, nervous pre-election rituals involve checking the updated poll numbers every day, even as other decry that the polls cannot be trusted.
While the results of the 2020 election are not yet certain, especially with the specter of litigation looming, we do know pre-election polling was off. By historic margins. Again.
In fact, in many states, preliminary numbers indicate that the polling errors may have been larger than in 2016.
Tweet from Derek Thompson
“Too early to be sure about the *exact* numbers here, but seems like state polls missed by 5 points, on avg, in 2016 by understating noncollege support for the GOP. Then a bunch of pollsters studied the issue and changed their methodologies for 2020 … and whiffed by 7 points.”
For example, in Wisconsin, the NYTimes reported a polling average of +10 for Biden but with pretty much 100% reporting, Biden is less than .5% ahead. According to NYTimes analysis, if polls were off by as much as they were in 2016, Biden should have been 4% up.
There will be plenty of think pieces about where the pollsters made their errors and whether these offenses were fireable or forgiveable. Some will argue that Trump is the source of the anomaly. Others will say that there are two basic problems when it comes to polling on politics. The first is a numbers problem. Survey response rates are extremely low in the modern era, in the single digits. Since those who are willing to respond to a survey may not be representative of the entire population, this alone can create enormous errors. The second problem is a human problem: namely, people lie. Or, really, they tell untruths. The reasons are manifold: embarrassment, haste, confusion, or they simply haven’t decided but want to appear decisive. Everything, from how you ask questions, to who you ask, when you ask, who does the asking, can all affect the outcome.
Whatever the reasons for the errors, progressives in particular should use this moment to think more deeply about our reliance on polls, their centrality within modern news media, and what that says about who has the right to decide what is valid and true. That is to say, this new failure in polling should cause us to consider how understanding politics through polls limits our epistemological imagination.
In an era of uncertainty and with the proliferation of data sources, perhaps it is no surprise that there is a tendency to think that only hard numbers are scientific and reliable. This is problematic both because science is not actually about establishing certainty and absolute truth but also because polling is not actually a science.
The scientific method requires a researcher to hypothesize first, to come up with a coherent and testable theory about the world. Only then do they set out to gather evidence capable of refuting that hypothesis. Political polls however, often work precisely the opposite way. Evidence is gathered from the field and then theories are grafted onto the results, to explain them. In the process, polling quirks that are the result of random chance can become the basis for narrative explanations that make it difficult to see the forest for the trees. Because polls reduce complex human preferences and psychologies into binary (or at any rate a limited set) of choices, a poll can lend itself to any number of explanatory theories. This, in turn, has led to an entire industry of political commentators and data scientists who crunch numbers and publish interpretations.
For the most part, political polling and particularily the analysis of political polls is done by highly educated people, professionals in professionalized settings. The answers they offered are clinical and (theoretically) objective. Compare this to the people who are left out of the conversation, namely activists, organizers, and the very people who policies fall most heavily upon. Sometimes, these people are left out because they are not given access to data and the resources to analyze it. Just as often however, the analysis that these folx have to offer do not lend themselves to graphs and charts because the truth of their realities cannot and should not need to be validated through polling.
Viewing politics through polls therefore limits the kinds of knowledge we can access and sets a privileged few and their mathematical models up as objective arbiters of truth. It also limits our understanding of how political change happens and how power is built. Just as commentators view a poll and attempt to graph a theory onto the numbers, politicians and policy makers often work backward from polls to build a platform. That means they are attempting to piece together incomplete snapshots of what people supposedly believe rather than building a coherent narrative about what ails our country and what can lift our communities up.
An obvious question is what we should do instead. The current election cycle offers a clue. First, if Biden wins the election, it will not be because of big data but small, not because of pollsters analyzing national figures but because of a ground game based on localized community knowledge in places like Detroit and Milwaukee, which are providing votes for the razor thin margins by which Biden is carrying Michigan and Wisconsin. Second, while polling averages were off in many key states, it seems that the final electoral count will be within the expected range based on modeling. These models incorporate polls but they combine them with fundamentals, more sociological understandings the population being modeled.
Tweet from @benjaminwittes Models. The big analytical winners here are the modelers. If you look at Nate Silver’s model, this result is at the edge of the fat part of his distribution.
For those hoping for a repudiation of Trump and Trumpism, this election is a disappointment. Preventing the next isn’t a matter of obsessive polling and then attempting to craft policies which fit those polls but something more basic: figuring out what you believe in, who you’re fighting for, and how those things can contribute to a systematic platform grounded in the real needs of those communities.
Unfortunately, I went to law school. Now I have Thoughts (TM).