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Radicalism or pragmatism? The divide in racial justice advocacy

Stephen Menendian, assistant director, Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley | February 16, 2022

Today we launched the “Structural Racism Remedies Project,” a vast repository of scholarship, advocacy, and policy ideas for interventions to dismantle structural and systemic racism.

The policies contained in this repository take many forms and shapes. Some are locally-focused, while others are national. Some take the form of new initiatives, while others are proposed reforms of existing programs. And some are race-targeted, while others are more universal.

Many of the policies complement and build off each other, but at times they are pitted against each other, as advocates argue for one approach over another.

But there is another notable divide evident not only in the underlying literature, but in the public debates over these policies, often grounded in ideological differences.

Although this difference may be most visible in racial equity policy debates, it extends beyond that context into other policy debates that occur on the political left, including agriculture, energy, housing, health care, or policing.

When viewed holistically, there seems to be two fundamental orientations that shape how any particular problem should be framed and addressed in policy. To illustrate these two approaches, consider the debates over environmental racism and energy policy.

On one side of the debate there will be those arguing to block or relocate a proposed natural gas pipeline or coal terminal located in a community of color. On the other side, there are those who demand a shift entirely toward sustainable energy and will thus reject fossil fuel-based projects categorically.

A similar debate exists in the housing context. On the one hand are progressive YIMBYs, housing advocates who support more housing of all types. On the other side are more radical advocates who demand and prioritize social housing and ultimately wish to decommodify housing, removing it from market dynamics altogether.

But perhaps the most well-known debate in the advocacy realm as well as in the policy literature regards policing and criminal justice reform. This dichotomy is pithily characterized by the term “abolition,” which can apply to police or prisons narrowly, or more generally, as contrasted with “reform” efforts.

Thus, “defund the police” can be thought to fall into the former category, whereas various “reform” proposals relating to bail, use of force standards, or sentencing fall into the latter camp.

As our project repository amply illustrates, policy advocacy and racial equity proposals exist on a spectrum, with many areas of disagreement or differences in emphasis. And it would be an oversimplification to describe one camp as simply “moderate” and the other as “progressive.” In each case, advocates across this cleavage tend to support the same broad goals, largely agree on the nature of the problems they seek to address, and share many of the same progressive values, such as equity and sustainability.

One form or mode might be more accurately described as a “technocratic” position. This position is based on a close and careful assessment of the available empirical evidence, and pushes toward a set of policy prescriptions or recommendations that emphasize pragmatism and feasibility.

The other approach might be described as a “radical” position. This approach is informed by lived experience, emphasizing ground-truth and community power rather than technocratic expertise, but it is also more explicitly and clearly tied to an expression of values and ideals.

One difference between these two modes is the relevant time horizon. The more radical policy stance on each of these issues is defined, in part, by the immediacy of its demands, for example, by ending use of fossil fuels immediately.

In contrast, the more pragmatic position tends towards gradualism, for example, transitioning to renewable energy sources within a realistic timeframe.

Both sides are realistic when confronting political resistance, and recognize that public opinion can be reshaped over time, especially as reforms are initiated, but the radical side is more confrontational and urgent in its demands, whereas the pragmatic side is more willing to work incrementally.

But perhaps the chief distinction between these modes is their view of markets. The technocratic position tends to regard markets as a powerful force which must be regulated and tamed to serve the common good.

If market dynamics produce harmful byproducts, then regulatory structures should be devised to address and minimize that outcome, according to this perspective. Or if markets fail to meet human needs, then government supplements, such as subsidies or tax credits, can incentivize markets to fill in the gap.

Perhaps no person better epitomizes this position than Senator Elizabeth Warren, the brainchild behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and an avatar of regulatory liberalism and progressive capitalism.

In contrast, the radical position is not simply skeptical of markets, but runs from deeply suspicious to generally hostile or opposed to market dynamics, viewing them as instruments of inequality, exploitation, greed and predatory corporate power. This position prefers, as a policy objective, to remove the issue beyond market dynamics and profit motivation altogether.

In reviewing the policy proposals discussed herein, it is worth noting that most of the areas of policy consensus in the structural racism literature derive from the progressive-technocratic perspective rather than the progresive-radical position.

This is not necessarily because the former is more popular or compelling than the latter, but because scholarly work is based more on technical expertise rather than community power. This is unfortunate because we need both.

I invite you to dig into the repository here, and sift through the recommendations, for ideas and inspiration, with hopefully a better understanding of the differences among policy objectives contained within it, and in progressive policy debates more generally.

Editor’s note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.