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Collective Action Problems Are Not an Excuse for You to Do Nothing


The comment thread on yesterday’s school segregation post was the typical combination of white fragility and racism from too many of our liberal commenters, along with some people trying to talk sense to these people who should know enough to fight their own white privilege but instead actually don’t really care about people of color or issues of inequality. Sure, they might vote for Hillary, but anything above and beyond that is just impossible

Now, one of the issues that came up does have to be addressed. One issue that comes up in these threads–which I assure you will not be ending anytime soon–is that I talk about the problems of sweatshops as collective action issues and yet depend on individual agency to solve the problems of schools and racism.

This is, frankly, a jaw-droppingly silly critique. There is a huge obvious difference between the two situations–which is parents have vastly more ability to influence schools than consumers do the global apparel industry. In both cases, there is no excuse to do nothing. On the sweatshop issue, the individual action that people bring up is choosing as a consumer to not buy clothing from a certain brand. But that accomplishes nothing–and the workers in Bangladesh know it. They are asking that you not wait around for a collective action solution. They are asking that you help create one, actively, in part by supporting their struggles. They are wanting you to be active. The fact that you aren’t is a sign that you really don’t see these workers as a priority or worth a fight over.

With schools, yes, one parent can’t change everything. But consider this. As I am sure with many of you, I know a lot of people around my age with children in school. Many of them spend a lot–some a tremendous–amount of time and energy on the kids in these schools, even though they are usually already quite well off schools where the kids have huge advantages to begin with. Parents can have a huge impact on a given school–vastly more than they can have on Nike’s practices in Indonesia. That involvement, plugged in on the neighborhood public school or the city-wide schools generally, could make a real difference, one that would help a lot of kids that don’t have those advantages. By raising money, fighting at the city council and state legislature for better facilities, finding ways to keep or institute band and gym and art, etc., parents can really have an impact.

No, our educational disparities can’t be solved by parents. As I’ve said many times, if you want to solve that, you have to solve poverty. But that doesn’t mean that people can’t make a difference. They just choose not to. They make those choices by defining the “good” school as the one that is mostly or white or at least has just that right amount of diversity to make them feel good as parents. They don’t define good schools as being truly diverse, as those that would provide socio-economic diversity, that would prepare children to see America as it really is. They define good as those that will give those children more advantages as already privileged white people. And that is a racist act that reinforces a racist system.

But to the broader point, if you are shrugging your shoulders about a problem because it’s a collective action situation, what that actually means is that you don’t care and aren’t doing anything at all. I don’t even have kids and I’m doing more to fight for equitable schools by writing about this in a variety of places. The same with the sweatshop issue. I am using whatever limited skills I have to raise awareness and try to articulate for better future and even propose legislative solutions to move us ahead. It ain’t enough, but it’s something and it is certainly a hell of a lot more than sitting around whining about how anyone who doesn’t have children shouldn’t be commenting on how parents choose to raise their kids in ways that ensure America will always be a deeply unequal nation.

I shouldn’t even have to say these things at this point, but large numbers of LGM commenters simply refuse to confront their own racism and therefore we go around this carousel again and again.

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