Representation and participation in the existing political and economic system, for oppressed peoples, will not produce lasting change no matter how many of us manage to infiltrate it.
In struggles for liberation of oppressed people, some of us choose to do a portion of our work within existing systems, such as academia or government. Those who subscribe to the gradualist/incrementalist school of thought view work inside the system as the best way to ensure equity for oppressed groups. For me, that kind of work is a temporary fix aimed at protecting the most vulnerable among us from institutional harm, rather than a long-term strategy for getting free. Since the institutions that we’re working in weren’t designed to serve Black folks and other oppressed people, attempting to reform them is a Sisyphean task. Political gains are short-lived and transient, and oppressive systems are shape-shifters. Too often, the system will corrupt those who work within it for its own ends, turning folks into weapons against their own communities. Either directly or indirectly, gradualists attempting to effect change from within are usually required to participate in the oppression of minority groups. The system tends to change who works inside it more than we change the system.
A certain degree of assimilation, of course, is needed to work within any institution successfully. Gaining access to positions of power requires that you behave in a certain way, that you use a certain type of language, and that you moderate how you express your beliefs so you’re more palatable to the gatekeepers you’re attempting to woo. Once you gain power and access, there’s an increase in freedom, but you still must work within the confines of the institution to stay in its good graces. Certain institutions demand you surrender more of yourself than others—government or law enforcement, for example, are going to force folks to embrace the status quo more than academia or science. Politics in particular runs on compromise, so politicians often find themselves in situations where they have to support policies that hurt one marginalized group in order to advance policies that benefit another.
Being “in charge” of the system also does not prevent you from perpetuating its harm. Keeping an institution running smoothly as is means making choices that will contribute to marginalization and violence against oppressed groups in order to preserve the status of the institution. In the case of President Obama, while his educational background and experience in community organizing indicated he would be more conscious of the the dynamics of colonialism and imperialism than your average President, he still supported policies that harmed brown people worldwide. Drone strikes and deportations both escalated under his administration. We could spend hours debating the reasons why this is—and it likely would have still occurred under any of our other choices—but the point is, him being Black and conscious didn’t change the manifest function of American government. It did not transform American democracy from a force for domination and subjugation into a force for equity and equality.
This is because institutions themselves have internal philosophies that are derived in part from the circumstances under which they were formed. These philosophies drive them and define their function in society, and while that function might evolve over time, it is unlikely to stray too far from its origin point. No matter how an individual might feel about an institution or its function within the status quo, that institutional philosophy has a powerful effect. For example, law enforcement has a history of terroristic behavior towards Black communities and sees itself as adversarial to them; the institutional bias within law enforcement that Blackness is synonymous with crime can and will infect nonwhite officers. The tragedy of Philando Castile is an example of this—Castile was killed by a Latino officer who had clearly bought into the white supremacist philosophy of the system in which he worked. Whether or not Officer Yanez consciously considered Black people’s lives to be worthless, when under duress, he fell back on an institutional philosophy rooted in Whiteness that prioritizes the comfort of white and white-adjacent people over the lives of Black people. An assimilationist, conformist mentality is both encouraged and required to successfully function as an agent of an oppressive institution. As long as you are harming the right people—in other words, nonwhite people and preferably Black people—the institution will have your back. When oppressed people working within systems fail to recognize that institutional support is only maintained as long as they’re working to uphold the status quo, they will be sacrificed.
Working within the existing system can only ever be a palliative measure. Legislative and legal change is easily undone, because the underlying problem is that our political system was designed to serve white, wealthy, straight, able-bodied, cisgender men. It’s pretty simple, if painful, to rip off a band-aid, and all our interventions, from the 13th amendment to the Voting Rights Act, are band-aids attempting to cover the gaping wound that is a Constitution written to the exclusion of a majority of the individuals living in the country at the time (and resting on the genocide of those individuals who held the land before its founding). Band-aids over that wound are useful, however, for preventing vulnerable populations from bleeding out. Legislative and legal change can provide comfort, keeping us alive and able to work towards transformative change.
Participation in the political system is a way of making sure we stay relatively protected in the current paradigm while we scheme on what’s going to replace it. Any revolution has to have both short-term and long-term aspects. Working within the system to achieve short-term goals makes sense. Voting, running for office, and other status quo political activities do have a direct impact on the lives of oppressed and marginalized people. Despite the perceived futility of it, I vote, because who holds office can greatly affect the ease of existing as an oppressed person. Doing work within systems that we know are not designed to work for us also has educational potential—learning what structural features of the current system enable inequity instructs us on what to avoid when creating a new one.
So what can we, liberation-minded folk who choose to engage with systems that can perpetuate oppression, do to avoid losing ourselves to the machine? Keeping goals clear is crucial. Long-term goals should be transformative, short-term goals palliative. Visualizing the desired outcome of our interactions with institutions, and utilizing harm reduction principles when planning the steps we take to reach that desired outcome, will ensure we’re doing as much as we can to avoid being used in service of maintaining the status quo. Of course, listening to the most vulnerable among us and triaging their pressing concerns should always be a priority when we attempt to use institutional resources and knowledge to improve social conditions. No matter what knowledge we think we’ve gleaned during our time in the system, it will be misapplied unless we pair it with knowledge gained through lived experience—whether ours or others’. Reconnecting with our communities and families as a form of self-care can be invaluable both for staying centered and embodied as well as for reminding us what and who we’re fighting for.
It is also vital to remember that work within systems has to be paired with work outside systems. Demeaning the work of activists who seek to disrupt the functioning of institutions, as some gradualists tend to, is counterproductive. Disruptive, even violent activism is needed to provide a pressure point that emphasizes the existential necessity of transformative change, as the status quo will not change unless under duress. We have to stay focused on why we decided to work within these institutions in the first place—liberation. Liberation cannot be gained via incrementalism, because white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy will always adapt and reimagine itself no matter what superficial systems we modify in an attempt to approximate equality. Slavery became mass incarceration; colonialism became globalization under an American hegemon. To bypass white fragility and preserve a false sense of class-based unity, incrementalist strategies also tend to avoid addressing white supremacy as foundational to the American political system. Without addressing why the system is structured the way it is, without a critical interrogation of the role Whiteness plays in how the system operates, an egalitarian society will remain an unattainable goal.
Representation and participation in the existing political and economic system, for oppressed peoples, will not produce lasting change no matter how many of us manage to infiltrate it. The myth of “change from within” is a mirage sold to us in order to secure our compliance with the status quo by giving us a buy-in to the system. It is a distraction that allows our leaders to continue kicking the can down the road, claiming progress is being made towards “diversity” and equal opportunity, while avoiding the eventual and necessary revolutionary change that must take place. Ultimately, dismantling the current paradigm, and creating a new one based on equity, is our only path to liberation.