How Black Lives Matter Is Teaching Us To See Systemic Problems Again

by N. Gabriel Martin

Perhaps there is no greater testament to the triumph of individualism than the pro-gun slogan “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It takes an extremely narrow conception of responsibility to deny that lax gun laws are to blame for high rates of gun violence, but that view is pervasive anyway. Now, however, the Black Lives Matter movement is drawing broad popular attention to the fundamentally systemic character of racism, and giving us an opportunity to overthrow individualism.

Individualism stands in the way of serious public debate about many of our most serious social and political problems—from gun control to the erosion of public infrastructure and the racial wealth gap. That’s because it makes the onerous demand that in order to identify a problem, you’ve also got to find out who is responsible. F. A. Hayek, one of the principle architects of this ideology, put it like this: “Since only situations which have been created by human will can be called just or unjust, the particulars of a spontaneous order cannot be just or unjust: if it is not the intended or foreseen result of somebody’s action… this cannot be called just or unjust.”[i]

According to Hayek, complaining about a circumstance for which no one is entirely to blame is like complaining about the weather. It isn’t enough to point to some inequality, such as the gender pay gap, to recognise it as a social problem that we should try to correct. We can identify it as a fact, but in order to see that it is a problem, you have to find a culprit. Otherwise, doing something that alters it would actually be unjust (it might take money away from men, or take autonomy away from corporations).

The result is that we can prosecute the person who pulled the trigger, after they have already killed, but we’re powerless to do anything to stop the next gunman.

An individualism which denies the reality of structural problems robs us of the tools we would need to change the circumstances that allowed the person to kill in the first place. Even worse, individualism not only prevents us from recognising systemic problems and finding appropriate solutions to them, it also encourages us to look for inappropriate, counterproductive “solutions” that conform to the logic of individualism. This is why we tend to try to address problems through the criminal justice system that don’t have a criminal justice solution.

Take for example the FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) legislation, which is not only unfit to address the real world problem of sexual exploitation, it actually makes the situation far worse. Sex workers campaigned energetically against the legislation, claiming that it would make their work more dangerous. Nevertheless, it received broad bipartisan support and was passed into law in 2018.

The flaws of the legislation are rooted in a misunderstanding of exploitation in the sex industry, but that misunderstanding comes from the way that Hayekian individualism obscures the real problem. Sexual exploitation is primarily an economic problem—it happens because financial need leaves people (mostly women) with few options aside from what is called ‘survival sex.’ Consequently, the measures that would help protect people from sexual exploitation are primarily changes to economic, social welfare, and immigration policy. A welfare program, access to medical care, and expanded immigration, would remove many of the difficulties that sometimes make survival sex the best or only option in the USA.

Instead of making systemic changes that could actually improve the conditions that put people in danger, however, FOSTA introduces new prosecutorial tools that make the lives of sex workers harder and more dangerous. FOSTA empowers prosecutors to shut down online platforms which sex workers had used to find and vet clients, making far more dangerous street prostitution unavoidable. It also makes it hard for sex workers to support each other by, for example, sharing an apartment. Now sex workers who live together and share rent can both be prosecuted for ‘trafficking’ each other.

It would make sense to prosecute our way out of the problem if sexual exploitation happened the way it is portrayed in the 2008 film Taken, in which a teenage girl is abducted, forced into sex work, and rescued by her Father. That is, if there were some particular villain that needs to be prosecuted (or killed) so that their victim can be freed from a life of forced prostitution. However, this is rarely, if ever, the case. Survival sex workers do not need to be rescued, they need support. Lawmakers’ obliviousness to the entirely foreseeable counter-productiveness of FOSTA is a testament to the way that individualism has limited their imagination for systemic ways to address social problems.

Individualism also conceals the persistence of racial oppression. Ever since the civil rights movement, expressing overtly racist sentiments has become socially and politically unacceptable. But overt racism, like slurs, church bombings, and segregation, are only the tip of the racist iceberg that the movement was rallying against.[ii] The far greater problem is not overt acts of prejudice, but subtler and more disguised structures of racial oppression. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it: by focusing on making expressions of personal prejudice unacceptable “we risk reducing racism to the outrageous and intentional acts of depraved individuals, while downplaying the cumulative impact of public policies and private-sector discrimination that, regardless of personal intent, have crippled the vitality of African-American life.”

Despite what many people outside of activist seem to think, there is nothing new about the use of the term ‘racist’ to refer to social structures. In fact, it is older than the use of the word to refer to individual acts or personal prejudice. It was Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Chair Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) and Charles Hamilton who coined the term ‘institutional racism’ in their 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. They wrote: “When a black family moves into a home in a white neighborhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which most people will condemn. But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements.”[iii] Martin Luther King, Jr. also identified racism as a fundamentally systemic problem: “The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws— racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”[iv]

In the decades after the civil rights era, the work they had done to reveal social and political structures of racial oppression was undermined by the promotion of the idea that racism is isolated to individual acts of racial animus.[v] The political unacceptability of overt racism made racism invisible, but it did not eliminate it, because structures that promote and perpetuate racial oppression (such as funding schools through local property taxes) persisted. In fact, new ways to oppress African-Americans, through the dismantling of the public safety net and the expansion of the criminal justice system, for example, were devised.

These policy changes adversely affected black people, but, because they avoided mentioning race explicitly, they could not be pinned on the racist intent of an individual. The charge of racism could be denied, since in the individualist worldview that also came to dominate our worldview during this period, intent or foreseeability is crucial to ascribing responsibility.

Indeed, it is plausible that the usefulness of individualism for lending the continued racial oppression a veneer of plausible deniability is partly responsible for this philosophy’s success. The dismantling of the welfare state (from Nixon onward) was facilitated by an emphasis on individual faults and merits in order to explain why people stay impoverished. Nixon officials, such as Housing and Urban Development Secretary George Romney, shifted the blame for poverty onto the poor themselves: “Housing by itself cannot solve the problems of people . . . who may be suffering from bad habits, lawlessness, laziness, unemployment, inadequate education, low working skills, ill health, poor motivation and a negative self-image.”[vi]

If poverty can be blamed on the personal defects of the poor, the reasoning goes, then it is not only unnecessary, but useless to address systemic causes of poverty or ways to ameliorate them. This has been the governing ideology of administrations from Nixon until today. Since generations of segregation and discrimination, have left African-American communities more vulnerable, the dismantling of the welfare state has disproportionately affected them. It is worth noting the effectiveness of individualist rhetoric in defending policies that perpetuate economic disparities and leave African-Americans vulnerable to other kinds of oppression.

This rhetoric may be losing its power. Now that the Black Lives Matter movement, drawing on the focus on systemic racism of earlier movements for black liberation, has begun to overthrow it, the racism is exposed for anyone to see (as long as they are not determined not to).

The recent protests, like most, were sparked by a particular incident—the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. However, without diminishing the importance, or tragedy, of this particular act of violence, the movement has maintained focus on the underlying conditions that made it possible. As horrific as the murder in public, in broad daylight, of Floyd was, its horror is multiplied by the fact that it is not an isolated incident, but belongs to a pattern (several patterns, in fact—murder by police, more mundane police violence and harassment of black people, and the role that over-policing and mass incarceration play in the perpetuation of political and economic inequality—to name a few), with identifiable structural causes.

By chanting “Say his name!” one minute, and “Black Lives Matter” the next, protestors draw a powerful connection between the particular act of violence and the structural problems that are responsible for it. This connection is exactly what individualism has concealed, as the failures of gun control and the passage of FOSTA show. But the movement has effectively used the particular act of violence to draw attention to the structural conditions that made it possible. That is why the protests did not abate after charges were brought against the police officer who killed Floyd, nor after the other officers who stood by and let it happen were charged, instead gaining energy, fuelled by these incidental, but still important, victories.

Building on the awareness it has raised over the past seven years, and especially through the protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 over the murder of Michael Brown, Black Lives Matter is tearing down the ideology of individualism and teaching us to be able to see and talk about social structures again.

Public opinion seems to be following their lead; a recent CBS poll showed 60% agreeing with the ideas of the movement. On social media, in the press, and in corporate statements this month, systemic racism is condemned, and occasionally it is even admitted that it requires systemic solutions. The argument that these incidents of violence are isolated cases, and the result of ‘a few bad apples,’ seems to have lost credibility and started to fall into disuse.

So how has it been possible for the movement to propel a structural understanding of social issues into the wider public consciousness at this moment? And why has Black Lives Matter’s articulation of the systemic character of the problem they are fighting helped them get their message across, rather than alienating the public? Black Lives Matter is calling for a revolutionary shift in our understanding of what racism is. It requires us to jettison fundamental ways of seeing the world that are reflected back to us constantly by the way that journalists talk about these problems, and the good guy-bad guy formula of blockbuster movies and police-procedural television. It seems to be working. Does that suggest that the way to convince people is not by finding common ground, but by offering a better alternative, even if it is radical?

[i] F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty (London: Routledge, 2013), p. 198.

[ii] Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).

[iii] Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Random House, 1967).

[iv] Martin Luther King Jr. and James Melvin Washington, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 316.

[v] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York: The New Press, 2010), pp.43-44.

[vi] From Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).