Compelling Diagnosis, Unclear Prescription

No one familiar with john a. powell and Stephen Menendian would be surprised by the extraordinary scope and wisdom of their article, “The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging.” Beginning with the statement that “[t]he problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of ‘othering,’” the authors give a nod to W. E. B. DuBois’s identification of the color line as the problem of twentieth century and signal an intent to confront issues even broader than those that DuBois set out to confront a century earlier. The breadth of their review, which includes the vast scope of troubles besetting the world, including all “global, national, and regional conflict,” is ambitious. Equally comprehensive is their conclusion, that all of the problems set out above, and others in addition, are all in some way informed by tribalism or “one or more dimension of group-based difference.”

I first read this paper before the November 2016 election, an event that will almost certainly be seen as a watershed year in the country’s history. Having spent my legal career involved in some aspect of civil rights work, I found the paper to be responsive to a question I had long puzzled over: How could the country continue to be afflicted by discrimination, particularly racial but also based on ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation, despite decades of organizing, protesting, legislation, and countless court cases? It was as if the nation had a disease and still remained seriously ill despite years of trying every known treatment.

For me, part of the value of “The Problem of Othering” is its willingness to take on this seemingly intractable illness that afflicts our nation while recognizing that it is not peculiar to any one country. It is, instead, a pandemic that, in addition to being widespread, exhibits varied and constantly shifting symptoms. Most importantly, the underlying cause of the malady is extremely complex. At its center is “otherness,” which powell and Menendian define as a set of processes that “undergird group-based marginalization and inequality.”

My life as a black man and work as a civil rights advocate both lead me to agree with powell and Menendian’s conclusion. If personal experience were not enough, the results of the 2016 election in the United States provided a sad affirmation of the destructive consequences of othering. The election followed a campaign of unprecedented division and derision of groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion. The strategy of separation portended a difficult time of othering and exclusion. Sadly, nothing that has happened in the national arena since election day has allayed concerns about our past inability to address the problems associated with othering. In short, it seems clear that the diagnosis remains sound but that the cure, the implementation of a mutually beneficial broad-based inclusion, seems even further from reach. It is as if, having identified an effective treatment, its use has been made impossible by prohibitive costs or other factors beyond our control. As a result, the paper seems to combine a clear statement of the source of many problems with proposed solutions that, at least for now, seem difficult to achieve.

This is particularly frustrating because the paper does so much to address many of the questions to which I refer above. As previously suggested, part of the beauty of the piece is the range of issues it addresses. Violence between religious groups in Azerbeijan, the massacre of black churchgoers by a white supremacist in South Carolina, hostility toward Islamic refugees in Europe—each tells a story about tribalization and demonization of people seen as “other.” Looking at it from the perspective of race in the United States, the concept of otherness goes far to explain those questions that have arisen from my work. The American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice work has focused on a number of areas in which communities of color are excluded from access to broader participation in American society, particularly in the areas of education, law enforcement, and economic justice. Many of the problems we seek to address suggest that there is a common core of either hostility or, at best, profound disinterest toward those communities: the nation’s comfort with highly segregated schools with unequal resources, the apparently commonly held belief that people should be fine with being stopped by law enforcement officers for no reason, as if only communities of color should be happy to sacrifice their own constitutional rights in the name of “safety,” the continuing and growing wealth disparities between white families and families of color, the fact that the communities that were most severely affected by the economic crisis of 2008 are the ones who received the least relief while the architects of the collapse were consistently shielded from bearing any negative consequences, and of course, perhaps most strikingly, the videotaped demonstration of example after of example of brutality by law enforcement. All of these and other examples were constant reminders of the failure to value the common humanity of certain communities.

These and countless other examples feed the frustration at the nation’s refusal to even acknowledge, let alone address, the gaping inequalities that continue to plague American society. After a period of attempted denial of the continuing existence of discrimination under the fantasy of a “postracial America,” I hoped that perhaps there was a silver lining in the countless videos documenting discrimination. Remembering the impact that television coverage of the Selma March and the Birmingham demonstrations had on the country and the world, I was hopeful that the countless horrific videotapes we endured over the past few years might have the same effect now. Surely, the sight of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice being shot by a police officer while playing with a toy gun would force people to think of their own children and the unimaginable pain of losing a child, which would, in turn, lead them to question the forces that would cause such deaths. I had hoped that each video of unarmed people being shot or strangled by police, each news story about people having their homes foreclosed upon as a result of the greedy malfeasance of financial institutions, each description of children of color attending underresourced schools and being expelled from schools or referred to the police for the most minor offenses, each instance of immigrants being questioned or surveilled without probable cause of them committing any wrongful act, that each of these things might inspire some level of national introspection and recognition of the gross injustices and inequalities that still occur on a daily basis in the United States. But that self-examination has not yet occurred. In fact, a sign of our national resistance to introspection when it comes to continuing racial discrimination is apparent in the angry reaction of so many people to the call of movements, such as Black Lives Matter, for fundamental fairness in treatment and a recognition of basic humanity. That response, which interprets demands for fairness as being antipolice, is a clear indication of the difficulty ahead of us as a nation in creating an inclusive, compassionate society.

“[I]t seems clear that the diagnosis [othering] remains sound but that the cure, the implementation of a mutually beneficial broad-based inclusion, seems even further from reach.”

As logical as the paper’s conclusion is regarding the need to promote belonging rather than separation, the precise ways in which that might happen seem unclear. In many respects, events over the last year have demonstrated how heightened the difficulties of creating a culture of inclusion will be. In its discussion of the way that othering is used as a strategy of gaining and maintaining power, the authors refer to the too-familiar efforts of then-candidate Donald Trump to use explicit or thinly veiled appeals to racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance as a means of activating support from disenchanted white voters. The paper cites the outraged response of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to candidate Trump’s comments. At the time, those responses seemed like an indication of how outrageous Trump’s comments were and a suggestion that important representatives of the Republican Party appeared to be backing away from the discriminatory “Southern Strategy” initiated by Richard Nixon decades earlier.

Whatever qualms Romney and Ryan may have once had seemed to have disappeared after Trump’s victory. It appears that their objections to Trump’s discriminatory strategy arose less from a sense of decency than it did from a misapprehension of how strong an appeal the resort to othering would have. The recent silence of the two more mainstream Republicans in the face of the president’s clear intention of carrying out his most divisive campaign promises suggests a difficult road ahead.

Added to the challenge of addressing the deliberate use of othering as a strategy for securing power are the discussions of factors, many of them wholly unconscious, which powell and Menendian describe, which predispose people to assign others to groups in ways that result in group-based inequalities. The innate tendency of people to “organize and collectively define themselves among dimensions of difference and sameness,” the existence of unconscious, implicit bias, and the complex “collective and social processes” that push people to identify with persons like themselves add to the cynical, deliberate efforts to exploit otherness for purposes of creating and maintaining power to create a formidable barrier to achieving the type of just society envisioned in the piece.

It is, of course, unfair to expect a solution to enormous, deep-seated, and largely universal problems from a single paper. In fact, the paper does an enormous service by describing a unified and broad-reaching assessment of the issues that we must face if we are to avoid the disastrous consequences of othering. Its description of the need to create solutions that are systemic and that depend upon broadly defined principles of equality are also important. Exactly how we will overcome the abuse of power and the complex personal and societal forces that promote otherness remains to be seen. But this article is important because it makes clear how our future as a country and as a world depends upon doing so and provides us a meaningful and perceptive starting point for our efforts.