A Systems View of (In)Justice

July 18, 2013 Leave a comment

“The point is that justice was always going to elude Trayvon Martin, not because the system failed, but because it worked.”

 – Robin D. G. Kelley


|Photo by Ben Sutherland|http://www.flickr.com/photos/bensutherland/8496877807|

The post below is a somewhat edited version of one that appeared on this blog a year ago.  As we have continued to have conversations at IISC and with our partners about the implications of the verdict in the George Zimmerman case, one thing that has become clear about who and where we are as a country is that there is an overall inability and/or resistance to thinking about racism from a systemic perspective. As evidence, we hear comments such as, “Race did not have anything to do with this verdict.  The women on the jury are not racist.”  Or, “Justice was done.  The jury followed the letter of the law.”  

Systems thinking as a framework can be very useful in helping us to better understand and address the production of social inequities.  It does this by going beyond personalized and overly simplified blame of individual people, groups, or institutions for injustices.  Instead it looks at the interactions within and between different elements that yield inequities.  A systems perspective suggests that it is the arrangement and relationship between a system’s components as much as the components themselves (for example, individual attitudes) that shape system behavior and outcomes.  It also appreciates how these dynamics exist or persist across time such that present day circumstances represent an historical accumulation of causes.

Research on racial inequities from this perspective shows that interlocking systems of disadvantage disproportionately shape and constrain the choices and life chances of people of color. This includes, as noted by Menendian and Watt, the relationships between racially and economically isolated neighborhoods; employment options; health and education opportunities and outcomes; crime and violence; and a host of other factors.  Flipping this, there are interlocking systems of advantage that disproportionally favor white people and result in unearned privilege. In other words, the system as arranged works for some and not for others, and the beneficiaries are not likely to be motivated to change things much.  Failure to look at inequities from this perspective results in thinking and action that do little to change current conditions, and may exacerbate them.

A first step in adopting a systemic lens is to become curious, to go beneath the surface and to look at presenting issues from numerous and inter-related perspectives.  This includes asking critical questions about structures, policies, and practices that support current opportunities and outcomes and how they reinforce one another.  It can also be critical to “get the system in the room,” especially those most directly and negatively impacted by current arrangements, conferring with and convening those from different domains to hear and share stories and consider what these reveal.  A related step is to think about how our own (individual, institutional) mindsets and tendencies may get in the way of effectively seeing and addressing systemic challenges.  As the systems thinking adage goes, “Until we understand our role in the problem, we can’t be part of the solution.”


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