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KEY FINDING ONE
Belonging narratives must address the structural drivers of racial inequality and center the role of government in remedying these inequalities

Among activists, organizers, and communications strategists, it’s no secret that “naming and shaming” is a widely accepted strategy within traditional campaigning. And it’s popular because it often works. By arousing a burst of passion (anger, sadness, outrage, and so on), this form of organizing can undoubtedly motivate ordinary people to respond online, get involved, and in some cases even achieve real results. 

But this tactic falls short when it neglects to clarify why unjust outcomes occur in the first place (i.e., which systems or policies facilitate them), allowing target constituents to oversimplify the root cause and thereby fostering the false belief that the defeat or penance of a singular, often individualized enemy will solve a social injustice. Indeed, such a lack of structural analysis anchoring a strategic narrative can create misdirection. This will ultimately stand in the way of achieving long-term and sustainable transformative change, which requires the dismantling and reconstructing of larger systems—not just the introduction of new policies, programs, or people.

A strategic narrative of belonging is therefore rooted in an analysis of systems, clearly identifying the ways that structures—maintained by common beliefs and values—organize our lives, privileging some at the expense of many others. 

Central to that analysis is not one individual, company, or bad actor, but systems themselves—embodied in our government that, for better or worse, facilitates the rules structuring society, from laws, regulations, and taxation to “who gets what, when, and how.” To be clear, this is not to suggest that a strategic narrative should simply place the blame on government—an approach that can be just as damaging as narratives that fail to center structures. Rather, strategic narrative must both convey the importance of government in its diagnosis of how injustices are reinforced and also identify it as the site where those injustices are remedied. It’s not, in other words, about one billionaire not paying taxes, but rather a system that allows billionaires to avoid paying their fair share. Concurrently, it’s also not just about one failure of government, but why government has been set up to fail. Is it a lack of public funding? A problem of public values? Or a lack of public education around an issue? 

“A strategic narrative of belonging is therefore rooted in an analysis of systems, clearly identifying the ways that structures—maintained by common beliefs and values—organize our lives, privileging some at the expense of many others.”

It’s important to remember that there has long been a regressive movement in the United States working diligently to attack and incapacitate government. Often it has operated through strategic uses of racism to suggest that the public sphere offers “handouts” to those who don’t work hard or are otherwise “undeserving”—coded to refer to communities of color. At the same time, progressives have failed to defend the role of government in their own narratives over the last few decades, perhaps out of an effort to acknowledge public disappointment at real government failures and mistakes. But the ultimate outcome of this is to cede the narrative turf around government to those who would seek to weaken and starve its mechanisms for fighting inequality and injustice.

The failure to defend the central role of government in facilitating racial and economic justice has ultimately hastened the popular acceptance of a narrative around government and the social good that says: the right size of government is “small”; government’s main role is to expedite economic growth; its programs and services are inefficient, inherently wasteful, and contrary to individual self-reliance; and therefore public goods should not be funded.

California’s public structures today reflect this dominant narrative. They are underfunded, undervalued, and thereby undermined. And the state’s communities of color most of all bear the brunt of underinvestment, furthering existing racialized inequalities and reinforcing othering. The COVID-19 pandemic, like no other recent crisis, has laid bare this reality. 

Ultimately, while the dominant narrative naturalizes the idea that the regulatory and “social welfare” functions of government need to be ever smaller—serving the interests of the wealthy—a belonging narrative says that government must be and do better, to benefit each and all of us. We can only further belonging at the structural level by centering structures in the analyses we put forward, with government visible as an object and instrument of change in our strategic narratives. In the end, we need the massive capacity and reach of government to resolve and address any of the major failures we’re facing—from housing to climate—and it’s in our best interest to find a new narrative that centers government’s role in delivering belonging. We must recognize that government is only as good as the ideologies that underpin it, the people who run it, and the narratives that interpret its role to the public. 

The Blueprint for Belonging launched with a project that sought to understand the day’s leading drivers of inequality, the sources of breaking between and among groups, and the narratives that sustain them. With essays by Color of Change’s Rashad Robinson; Perception Institute’s Rachel Godsil; University of California, Berkeley, legal scholar Ian Haney López; and other leading thinkers, this series sought to diagnose sources of inequality and injustice, but more importantly to put forth realizable strategies for building narrative change to help transform them. This series helped fulfill one part of the narrative development process: to develop a shared analysis across movements and the organizations that make them up. This step needs to be cared for and brought up to date periodically as major events change the course toward belonging.

The Blueprint for Belonging launched with a project that sought to understand the day’s leading drivers of inequality, the sources of breaking between and among groups, and the narratives that sustain them. With essays by Color of Change’s Rashad Robinson; Perception Institute’s Rachel Godsil; University of California, Berkeley, legal scholar Ian Haney López; and other leading thinkers, this series sought to diagnose sources of inequality and injustice, but more importantly to put forth realizable strategies for building narrative change to help transform them. This series helped fulfill one part of the narrative development process: to develop a shared analysis across movements and the organizations that make them up. This step needs to be cared for and brought up to date periodically as major events change the course toward belonging.

 

A red neon sign says "Change"
Read the Blueprint for Belonging Papers
A series of essays on inequality, identity, and narrative in California

 

 

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