Lofty Talk or Small Action?

It’s been almost nine months since the brutal death of George Floyd. 

For a brief moment, the event pulled the nation together in demanding justice for the family and what they represented - a black community in constant tension with the police and a society leaving them behind.

And people were serious. Billions were committed to social justice causes. Antiracist pledges were made. Shame and guilt were laid bare. Statues came down. Rage and impatience were omnipresent. 

Allegiance was easy to signal (blacked out Instagram!), and much of it was sincere. But how about real impact?

I have written before about the stubbornness of “wicked” problems. Race relations in 2020’s America surely qualifies as wicked. But, while extremists still exist, the specter of burning crosses and segregated bathrooms are gone. Overt hate crimes actually are very rare (of course, more than zero is too many). Systemic racism is the core problem today and speaks to a more complex challenge: rebuilding social and institutional capital to close stubbornly disparate outcomes. Like all complex social problems, finding actions that make a difference is hard. And, the risk of doing more harm in the process is material.

Ibram X. Kendi writes in How to be an Antiracist that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” Maybe he’s right, but we have to acknowledge the distance this path sits from the MLK’s “dream” of people “not being judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.” Economic and social progress for groups falling behind is essential, but trying to force social and economic outcomes requires a heavy hand and will have many unintended consequences.

How do we avoid the overreach of this proposed societal engineering (e.g., canceling Lincoln, re-segregation) and the ugly backlash it will surely cause? How do you approach a problem so all-encompassing and layered with history, social and economic complexities, political power-brokering, and almost any other variable you can imagine?

Maybe we start small? Build trust where we can? See if incremental gains could lead to more significant progress?

In the aftermath of George Floyd, I was drawn to Campaign Zero, a group laser-focused on police reform (not defunding). They demanded ten common-sense policies and scored police departments on their compliance. Shortly after, I connected with Oji Martin and EJ Pinnock. A brother and sister team in San Antonio, with an even more focused plan, to get real accountability in policing in one community. 

In my first conversation with Oji, she was clear: “Fixing racism is a never-ending project that is almost impossible to act on. But we can rebuild some trust and limit harm with a few simple fixes.” As a team, they had a plan. It was finite. No vague notion of justice, but a simple goal to fix a real problem. In this case, it was the constant reinstatement of bad cops. Derek Chauvin had 22 complaints on his record before the Floyd incident. And my hometown, San Antonio, as it turns out, has the highest police reinstatement rate in the nation - almost two-thirds of the Police Chief’s firings get overturned in a maze of union-driven protective processes. Even an infamous cop who admitted to feeding a homeless man a feces sandwich got his job back on a technicality (of course, he continued to inflict harm and eventually did get removed). 

As a pro-police independent seeing the need for positive change, the organization Oji and EJ started, FixSAPD felt like a common-sense approach anyone could get behind.

For the left: wouldn’t real accountability that mostly harms the underprivileged win out over bigger aims (“defund”) and a natural fear of the police union?

For the right: wouldn’t “back the blue” take on some nuance to support good cops and limit unchecked state-sanctioned abuse and union overreach?

To the police: wouldn’t the vast majority of good cops perform a foundational service stop protecting the few that continue to make their jobs so hard?

Turns out the answer is no across the board. Real action requires a real stand. Not one politician, left or right, has supported this effort. No corporate sponsor has gotten behind them. Even Black Lives Matter has turned its back on Campaign Zero, citing the small aims

I am all for aspirational goals, especially on massive problems like race relations. But, we can’t let idealism be a shield to avoid concrete steps that can build progress. The world needs more Oji’s and EJ’s - true citizens devoted to doing the hard work to build a better future foundation. They are going to make a difference. Even if they fail at the ballot box, their efforts are changing the dialog in union negotiations. I am confident bad behavior will lose some protections thanks to their actions. 

The answer to complicated problems is almost always to break them down into small parts. You eat an elephant one bite at a time. Find someone with a small plan and support them - they just might make a big difference.

Good Reads

  1. A good overview of what FixSAPD is looking to do - it’s not about cutting funding or pay. While the union will fight, the police in our neighborhoods will benefit.

  2. Caitlin Flanagan nails the tragi-comedy of Jan 6th: The Worst Revolution Ever.

  3. Breaking bread (and sipping wine) to build a team: no one eats, drinks, and coaches like Pop.

  4. Alex Taborak has been doing incredible work pointing out how the regulatory state is failing in COVID...first doses now, crazy slow FDA timelines, and overall underinvestment in vaccines.

  5. I wrote recently about how we have a supply issue in essentials which are making life unaffordable for most. Eli Dourado lays it out even more clearly and makes the case for “progressive supply-side economics.’ I am ALL for it. We lack this kind of thinking in both parties today.