Many people, myself included, are calling for the arrest of the police officers who have wrongfully murdered Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and other Black people. At the same time, we’re pushing for the abolition of police, prisons, and the carceral state as a whole, creating what seems to be a tension between short-term and long-term goals. In seeking change, we’re often forced to play by the rules of the game we’re trying to end.
I’ve noticed that this occurs in other fields too. Some believe that capitalism in the United States is broken. When working multiple full-time minimum wage jobs doesn’t provide enough to live on, maybe we should shift to a different system. That doesn’t happen overnight—in the meantime, efforts might involve supporting ethical, co-operative businesses with your buying power and membership.
Under some policies, low-performing schools must improve their test scores to avoid getting shut down or facing other disruptive consequences that do collateral damage to communities. Research and experience have revealed the flaws of test-based accountability, but schools are forced into situations where they can’t do much else—and students and teachers have little leverage or input—until these numbers are raised.
Another example comes from Minerva Schools at KGI, a college trying to re-invent higher education through global immersion, active learning seminars, and other research-backed practices. Its low acceptance rate and comparisons with Ivy League schools—traditional indicators and embodiments of prestige—give it credibility. Minerva can thus grow awareness and attract the supporters it needs to eventually operate in a new framework.
By contrast, some ostensibly oppose the current system but actually don’t aim to work beyond or expand its limitations. In his book Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadas argues that philanthropists will do everything they can to alleviate poverty—except disturb the social order that enables them to be massively wealthy and inordinately powerful. They not only follow the rules of the game, but are happy to keep playing.
Sometimes, the world shifts in a way that causes new systems to gain preeminence, while incumbents lose power but remain and serve different niches. This is often the case with category-defining startups. Browser-based apps like Figma and Notion exist alongside native software like Microsoft Office, as does Airbnb with hotels. The newcomers—never intended as replacements or direct competitors—became better options for many people, grabbing a chunk of the incumbents’ customer base in the process.
These observations raise some questions: When should we seek to dismantle systems? How? Are those who are fine with playing the game helping or hurting the abolitionist cause? In social movements, can the world ever just spontaneously shift to a different framework?
People have advocated for abolition or deep structural reforms when: a system is actively doing more harm than good, and/or when we’ve supposedly been reforming for a while and fundamental problems still exist. Prison conditions, the lack of comprehensive reentry support, and under-investment in certain communities perpetuate a cycle of violence and poverty. Police brutality toward BIPOC continues to take and threaten lives, despite years of efforts to improve police training, enforce body cam use, and more.
Are those who aren’t fully on board helping or hurting the cause? Sometimes they have a net positive effect, but other times they’re counterproductive. People on the fence about defunding the police may still want consequences for officers who have murdered someone. Different groups may have common goals up to a certain point.
However, performative activism can contribute to a culture of complacency with the current system. Although posting empty corporate platitudes and mindlessly re-sharing social media content may lead to followers genuinely learning something new, it can also make people feel satisfied with their minimal antiracism efforts.
In social movements, can the world ever shift to a new system without us working for it? I described startup examples above, where new technologies and the invisible hand induce the ebb and flow of companies. In education: Minerva and other alternative colleges can eventually build robust enough supporter bases that they no longer needs to position themselves within the context of traditional schools.
One key difference when it comes to social justice movements is that the current systems and systems we want cannot co-exist. We can’t hold some police departments accountable to racial discrimination and let others slide. The other difference is that incumbent systems possess vast amounts of power, requiring sustained, intentional work to dismantle. Alternatives to prisons already exist—restorative justice and transformative justice, practices with Native American roots—but society is clearly not going to budge from its deeply ingrained institutions spontaneously.
We must actively work against injustice.
Thanks to Rebecca for accountability and help with structuring, Linus for insightful ideas and feedback, and Sarv for accountability.