BHARADWAJ: Protest doesn’t equal progress

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Whether it be Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March or infamous anthem protests, people are increasingly feeling like systemic change must occur in our society — and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, protests — peaceful and violent alike — have increased in both number and magnitude in our country. Whether it be Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March or infamous anthem protests, people are increasingly feeling like systemic change must occur in our society — and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As a constitutional conservative, I completely support any peaceful protests or other demonstrations of our freedoms of speech and assembly, for that is what makes America the beacon of liberty that it has been since its inception. That being said, the main problem when dealing with systemic issues — such as the debatable gender pay gap or the irrefutable racial disparity in incarceration rates — is the fact that a lot of these problems simply cannot be solved through legislation alone. 

As a result, many modern social justice organizations are focusing on bringing about systemic change, which is much harder to quantify and resolve than a legal matter. For instance, a recent study found evidence of racial biases in the employment rates for those with stereotypically black names, even if they were just as qualified as their competitors. There is no way to correct such an inequity — and others like it — except by changing public opinion and erasing stereotypes. In essence, one has to convince prejudiced individuals in positions of power to be tolerant, which is something that cannot be done through protest in my opinion. 

When it comes to the efficacy of protest, I subscribe to Booker T. Washington’s school of thought. To summarize the core of his arguments, he stated that although withheld rights can be obtained through protest and civil unrest, systemic change on the other hand cannot. This is because bias is the result of individual opinions which cannot be legislated away, as prejudiced as they may be. In his opinion, the best way to achieve social equality for blacks and sway public opinion is by focusing on individual achievement and success through “industry, thrift, intelligence and property.” In other words, he believed that problems had to be resolved from the ground up, with a focus on instilling core values into the communities themselves, for laws alone had proven to be ineffective.  

This theory holds true in a historical context. We’ve seen it with the Women’s Suffrage movement of the 1920s, which resulted in the 19th amendment, and with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The common denominator between all of these successful uprisings is that they could all be resolved by corrective legislation. On the flip side, even though interracial marriage was legalized in 1967, only four percent of Americans supported it just a few years earlier. This is testament to the notion that while achieving legal equality is linear, changing the minds of individuals is much more complex and can’t be accomplished through similar means. 

Juxtaposing these two main ideas — that protests can only bring about legal change and that most modern day societal problems cannot be solved through legislation — raises the question of why protests are on the rise. I think the reason behind the increased rate of protesting in our country has to do with the misconstrued notion that protesting can help solve systemic problems. According to a recent study for instance, over a third of Americans believe that the Black Lives Matter movement will “be effective in helping blacks achieve equality.” But this is contrasted by the fact that a majority of Americans believe that race relations are actually getting worse in our country. People are beginning to equate protest with progress, when in fact there has been no data to suggest such a correlation. 

So what then is the solution to these problems, if protest is not the answer? To quote Booker T. Washington once again, “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.” It’s easy to march the streets in ‘solidarity’ against some ambiguous evil or a nameless oppressor, but it is much harder to actually go to a middle school and teach young girls about computer programming, or to a poverty-stricken inner city and volunteer at a homeless shelter. Protest is not without purpose when there is a clear legislative objective in sight, but when the issue is changing public opinion and resolving systemic problems, more needs to be done.    

Milan Bharadwaj is a Viewpoint writer for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.   

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