Article as it appeared on Sojo.net, 8/22-2017
By Melvin Bray
In the wake of the Charlottesville, Va., white nationalist race riot, several writers have reached for the metaphor of addiction to help characterize the gravity of what America is facing and the grip it has on us. It’s easy enough to understand why one would choose this particular comparison, especially when you take time to explore how compulsive behaviors affect the individuals engaged in them, their families and friends, and even their brains. The outcomes over time are devastating.
In fact the similarities are so uncanny that it’s hard to justify calling this comparison a metaphor, which is meant to provide insight by comparing one thing with something seemingly different, yet more familiar. On its face, the comparison of supremacist logic — that general but not always fully articulated notion that “we gonna be on top” — to alcoholism or drug dependency fails on both accounts. Both supremacist logic and alcoholism are equally familiar and both have shockingly similar impacts. The difference is that one addiction is widely recognized across people groups, political affiliations, faith traditions, even national boundaries as harmful to all involved or connected; the other is not. There’s also the problem with inadvertently implying that supremacist logic, when partaken of in moderation, might not really be that bad.
The problem with recognizing any addiction, one might say, is one of theatrics. Everyone recognizes a violent drunk as having a serious problem. So too, even parts of white America that heretofore insisted that blatant racial animus was a thing of the past balked at the images of so many young adult white men (and women), many of them proud to call themselves Christian, marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches and chants of “blood and soil” and “You will not replace us.” However, if one can “hold his liquor,” remaining publicly respectable, many see one’s addiction as his private business, which perhaps it would be if it were not for the impact it is having on those closest to him.
In like manner, the racist, sexist, queer-antagonistic public policy coming out of state and federal administrations and legislatures as well as city councils may still pass for well-meaning to some, but their inequitable impact is anything but. Businesses (if we have to be specific, let’s say political campaigns or media companies) still find a way to excuse the supremacist logic that runs rampant in hiring decisions that produce 90 percent white staffs in a country that is already 40 percent people of color; HR policies continue to allow women to make nearly 30 cents less than men; and though they can now legally marry, queer persons still have no legal protections that can stop them from losing a their jobs or their homes or their rights to make medical/legal decisions for their spouses or choose where they want to pee should a boss, a landlord, a hospital, a clerk, a school principal, or a municipality decide to take it away from them. Nearly half the country doesn’t agree these less theatrical forms of persistent inequity even constitute a problem, labeling attempts to correct them as egregious — counter-productive identity politics or illegal attempts at reverse discrimination — long before any correction has been made.
But the issue isn’t whether we all agree what constitutes the addiction. The issue is what can be done once one recognizes their compulsion and the impact made on those around them. When it comes to supremacist logics and the systems of inequity that concretize them, most expend their energy trying to feel, think, and talk better about them whenever they begin to make us uncomfortable. “Denounce hate,” we say, ignoring that one can still function in commitment to or collusion with a philosophy of white supremacy without being particularly outspoken about it or emotionally invested in it, all the while the imperative of being on top is still met. Denouncing is just talking better for PR sake. Not hating is just feeling better toward someone else. Neither changes what was, is, or will be done again in the future if materially inequitable outcomes are allowed to persist.
And herein is the rub: It’s almost as if we never really meant to change outcomes. The material inequities that persist don’t really bother us, at least not those of us in positions of privilege. It’s as if we were satisfied with just feeling, thinking, and talking better about them — as if deep down we always knew just as well as the young whites chanting their defiance or the old men in suits ever-dominating the halls of power that, in order to actually get better, those on top can’t stay there. Neither can those on the bottom simply take their places. We have to find a better place, a better way to be and to do.
Martin Luther King Jr. had a name for that better place: the “beloved community.” He didn’t see beloved community as some sort of religious utopia, but an attainable political reality in which we could practice relating well to each other across differences in race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, and so on. In BETTER: Waking Up to Who We Could Be and in my facilitative work, I often describe “beloved community as more of a 12-step program than a semester-length seminar. You can know all the right stuff and never get around to practicing it.”
The primary reason I personally like the metaphor of addiction when it comes to talking about systems of inequity like racism, sexism, and heterosexism or the logics of supremacy that undergird them, is because the 12-step response to addiction offers us a way out of both the cycle of inequity itself and the meaningless gestures of contrition we seem to be stuck in. It moves through the stages that those of us who work in the field recognize as making beloved community possible — critical analysis, self-awareness, cultural competence, and better practice. Seeing that, I decided to adapt the classic 12 steps to speak directly to this specific set of “addictions” and to address differences inherent in the personal/interpersonal/communal nature of, let’s say, alcoholism versus the added structural/institutional/systemic dimensions of something like racism. For example, when you are wrestling with something structural as opposed to personal, it doesn’t serve to keep it anonymous. In this sense, these 12 steps are not their own clinical model, but a metaphorical one, less concerned with the recovery of something lost and more concerned with the building of something new.
This 12-step model for beloved community helps those who engage it to see the harm done by systems of inequity to both those historically disadvantaged by them and those historically advantaged. And it’s not just for persons engaged in addictive behavior, but also for those impacted by it. It helps us understand the sometimes divergent paths for healing persons historically marginalized within systems of inequity must take relative to persons historically privileged. It helps decenter historically privileged persons while giving them something constructive to do with any guilt, shame, or resentment they may be feeling at the moment. It helps center historically marginalized leadership at the very moment that the insights and intuitions inherent to their experiences are the only reliable guides out of the muck and mire of persistently inequitable outcomes American society has been in since deciding it wanted to “live out the true meaning of its creed,” but wouldn’t accept less of anything in the process.
In the aftermath of all the ambivalent, milquetoast, and/or short-armed leadership responses to what happened in Charlottesville a week ago, while ordinary people simply ask for the millionth time, “What can we do?” I’m going to suggest that, instead of the PR of pretending yet again to fix what’s wrong, we actually work to build something equitable. We don’t have to agree right away on what the thing we build will be; we just know it can’t be what has been.