« Seeking the truth | Main | The "Do You Have Any Questions?" Question »

Monday, November 23, 2015

Platinum Cards of Social Change II

In a post a couple of months ago titled "Social Movements: The Platinum Card of Social Change," I offered some thoughts on a Balkinization post by Mark Graber. There, Graber wrote, "The Constitution of the United States remains an effective means of combatting governmental policies that inflict stigmatic harm on members of the upper-classes, but a far less effective means of combatting government policies that inflict material deprivation on the lower classes." I suggested in response that "Graber's statement would still be largely true if it were extended beyond the Constitution and the courts, to say that social movements are a relatively effective means of serving the social interests of the upper classes, and a relatively ineffective means of serving the material interests of the lower classes." I concluded with this observation/prediction:

One might question whether the current prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement serves as a counter-example. I doubt it. For one thing, it's too early to know how successful the movement will be. For another, it's possible that the movement's greatest tangible reforms will end up being directed toward stigmatic harms shared by African-Americans of all socio-economic levels and not material harms suffered by the poorest in the community. Finally, and I suspect this is true of most or all social movements, at the end one would want to know how much of the actual payout resulting from the movement and whatever reforms it achieves is siphoned off, cy-pres fashion, by more affluent sectors--giving rise to more jobs by professional consultants, for instance, or resulting in foundation grants to think tanks and most certainly to universities and their many institutes

That sentence was recalled for me the other day by the announcement that Brown University "expects to spend more than $100 million over the next 10 years to deal with issues of racism and diversity at the institution." That announcement, of course, stands alongside Yale's recent announcement of a $50 million diversity initiative--directed primarily at faculty diversity, not at students.  

Since my prediction was based on the same historical experiences and tendencies, if not inevitabilities, that underlay Graber's post, there's no back patting involved here. I just thought the Brown announcement, taken together with Yale's and (doubtless, given both genuine sentiment and competition in the elite university market) others to come, was a striking example. One might add the following:

1) This shouldn't be seen just as a response to recent campus protests, I think, but should be seen as a response in some measure to BLM and other protests, debates, and social movements over the past year or so. A lot of the recent discussions have focused on universities and campus issues in isolation, but they should be seen as having some relation to a larger social movement. 

2) One needn't approve or disapprove of how private universities choose to allocate their resources to note nevertheless that if the most substantial acts of resource redistribution in response to such movements takes place at elite and/or well-funded universities--and, moreover, is often directed at faculty and administrators rather than students or applicants--this is not, perhaps, a response directed at those institutions or sectors of the population that most urgently need resources and reforms. We could, I suppose, view universities as serving as vanguards of social change; but we could also view the story as one of a form of capture or siphoning of the energy of social movements toward narrower and more elite interests.

3) I say nothing here about the motives of the institutions in question, or of those who end up devoting greater efforts toward, and/or enjoying more success at, resource redistribution within elite institutions than elsewhere. My assumption, however, is that we should apply to the universities' actions the same kind of analysis we would apply to the actions of other large corporations. I assume there is a good deal of sincerity in these actions (just as, in fairness, there is a good deal of sincerity when a tech company pushes for equal benefits for same-sex couples, or a religious closely held corporation sues to avoid complicity in the provision of coverage for abortifacients). But I also assume, as I would with other corporations, that sincerity alone does not result in the ostensible movement of tens of millions of dollars. Presumably there are also intra-institutional politics and resource disputes involved, and possibly these announcements are also efforts to buy peace, occasionally to buy silence or co-opt various actors, and to compete with other institutions in the university market. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 23, 2015 at 11:01 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


The comments to this entry are closed.