In our opinion: Eliminating racism is measured by both the laws and our hearts
In wondering how change will come about and when, it’s clear structural adjustments won’t be an end in and of themselves.
As protests around the nation and the world enter their third week, we’re encouraged to see government and community leaders collaborating on ways to make appropriate changes. On Friday, lawmakers and community leaders, including the president of the Salt Lake NAACP branch, came together to discuss reforms, which, if accepted, would make Utah the first state to move forward with law enforcement legislation in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
But in wondering how change will come about and when, it’s clear structural adjustments won’t be an end in and of themselves.
Inadvertently mistaking institutional changes for the elimination of racism and prejudice is dangerous. It’s what Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer, sociologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, call “the legalistic fallacy” — assuming that abolishing racism in principle likewise abolishes racism in practice. “This fallacy begins to crumble after a few moments of critical reflection,” they write in “Race in America,” their 2016 book. “After all, we would not make the same mistake when it comes to other criminalized acts.”
If other states follow Utah’s lead to review and implement policy changes in an effort to promote racial equity, they will be moving in the right direction. But a change of behavior, unaccompanied by a change of heart, will prevent long-term progress in our nation’s fight for racial equality.
Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in schools, but non-white districts are still dramatically underfunded. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination in housing, but residential segregation still plagues urban America.
Race-centric protests — from the civil rights movement in the 1960s to the Rodney King riots in the ’90s — spurred legislative changes, but it’s clear many of the internal, personal issues continue to plague society. Dennis Gale, an emeritus lecturer at Stanford University and author of “Understanding Urban Unrest: From Reverend King to Rodney King,” explained as much in an interview with the Deseret News. “In both situations (the ’60s and the ’90s), you had the federal government — meaning Congress — passing federal programs in response to those protests. Here we are again, and the question becomes, we’ve had all of these events, how will Congress react now?”
How Congress will react isn’t clear at present. How individuals react, on the other hand, will be the true measure of our nation’s progress. Eliminating racist policies and inequitable treatment is essential, but it isn’t enough if individuals don’t scrub denigration, inequity and contempt from their own hearts.
If the makeup of peaceful protests over the past week are any measure, communities may slowly be making progress. “The protests are a step in the right direction, and I’ll tell you why,” Rashawn Ray, a Brookings Institution fellow, told the Deseret News. “A key indicator is the racial diversity in the protests. We’re seeing a level of racial diversity that we’ve never seen.”
Advancing toward racial equality is, by any measure, difficult to assess. But if it could be quantified, it would be measured not only by the laws of the land but by the hearts of each American.