by Vikram Seshadri
Say their names: George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, Duante Wright, Dominique Clayton, and countless others. These names have echoed out across the nation in the past year as African Americans have died at the hands of police in the past year. After George Floyd was choked to death by a police officer, protests erupted across the nation, and then the entire world, all with one common goal: political change. A year has passed since the world’s protests for racial justice, and support for the Black Lives Matter movement has subsided, but we must not forget that the issues that sparked these protests still pervade our society. Even one year after the protesting, rioting, and calls for a united federal response, our country fails to deliver the basic changes that justice demands.
The main culprit? Polarization. Today’s political atmosphere has become so divisive, so distrusting, and so disorienting that even the injustice of police brutality — one that should have no moral ambiguity — is not immune to the zero-sum mentality that stains our national politics. Some issues are not political: they do have credible positions on both sides of the aisle. But today’s level of polarization runs so deep that it masks this truism. Political ideologies are so strong that no amount of moral clarity can bridge the left-right divide. When protesters for police reform and racial justice are seen as props for left-wing radicals — as is often the case — the moral message of the protests gets lost in the quagmire of power contests. We have lost our common ground, even though it’s right in front of us.
To some degree, polarization can be difficult to avoid completely. Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein has argued that when groups with similar dispositions deliberate together, they naturally move “toward a more extreme position in the direction indicated by those dispositions”. In short, when people converse with those who have similar ideas, they tend to come out holding a more extreme view of those same ideas. In this way, “the law of group polarization”, as Sunstein calls it, is a natural byproduct of protest movements, which necessarily require the large-scale coordination of like-minded activists.
However, one factor differentiates today’s movements from the landmark protest movements of the past: technology. In past movements of moral crisis, citizens still surrounded themselves with like-minded people, but they had little tools to actively or programmatically “filter out” unwelcome voices. They had to, in a sense, deal with each other. By contrast, the widespread use of social media today has created two separate “echo chambers” that rarely engage with the other except to ridicule or denigrate them. Political attacks on opposing political parties have seemingly taken over these networks. In the Bay Area in California, mass protests erupted across cities, organized by high schoolers such as myself, but when the conversation on racial justice shifts to Twitter or Instagram, I have witnessed far more reluctance and hostility among my generation. This kind of “opposition” is superfluous. The left and the right are not engaging with the other, but merely signaling to their respective bases. On social media platforms, #BlackLivesMatter is no longer a call to action; it’s an opinion poll.
Racial justice is not meant to be a polarizing issue, but unfortunately, the technological environment we live in has led us to a point where justice can quickly be politicized; the more extreme the movement becomes, the more politicized it will become. We must not let political entrenchment impede our ability to compromise and collaborate in order to make tangible progress towards a more equitable and just America.