The Pacific Sociological Association’s 94th Annual Conference
will be at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue (East Seattle), Washington

Thursday, March 30 to Sunday, April 2, 2023

‘We Will Do Better’ and Other Myths: Social Institutions and the Maintenance of Oppression

President Shirley A. Jackson

PSA 2022-2023 President Shirley A. Jackson, Portland State University

In 2020, the demand to “defund the police” ignored the role of racism in institutions outside of law enforcement. This oversight by those who may have been well-intentioned gave the erroneous impression that police departments were the only barrier to social justice. The impression is that if the police were defunded we will have solved the problem and any other existing social injustices would disappear. This restrictive conception of social change was problematic in that it left other social institutions unchecked and without accountability.

Claims to address oppression must go beyond scapegoating one social institution and those who work within it. Doing so ignores the functioning of other institutions and the people who comprise them in preserving the status quo. Institutions are never going to change if the people who hold positions of leadership remain the same. It is hard to be convinced without a critical examination of institutions of power and the people who maintain the status quo. Paulo Freire drew the same conclusion, stating, that if individuals “are unable to perceive critically the themes of their time, and thus to intervene actively in reality, they are carried along in the wake of change.” He observed that what is required is “an especially flexible, critical spirit”; but, if such a spirit is lacking, individuals “cannot perceive the marked contradictions which occur in society as emerging values in search of affirmation and fulfillment clash with earlier values seeking self-preservation” (1974:6). In sum, change requires that we examine and critique how the actions of institutions can belie their rhetoric about creating and supporting change.

The manifestation of “woke washing”—a situation in which where there is an acknowledgment of racism and the glomming on of causes calling for the elimination of racist structures and practices but where no real consequential action is taken—became the raison d’ȇtre for individuals and institutions. Both had, prior to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, ignored previous calls to respond. As the protests continued, it seemed like everyone wanted to get into the game of avowing their support. It was a race to see who could get their statements out the quickest. Behind those statements, unfortunately, change has ranged from superficial to slow, to nonexistent. After the race to respond ended, we are left with the appearance of support for BLM and social justice on the part of those who give up as little as possible while maintaining the existing social order and the institutions within it.

This conference encourages participants to examine these issues through research, teaching, activism, and public sociology. What claims were institutions making prior to, during, and after, their claims to “do better”? What does this tell us about the sincerity or possibility of institutional change? Are changes meaningful or superficial? Do changes result in a payoff—economic or otherwise—for those who do performative politics on social media, through diversity-enhanced advertising, or by increasing numbers of students or employees who are targeted for inclusion? What have institutions done to increase opportunities for advancement in the workplace of the populations they are making efforts to include and maintain? How does inclusive pedagogy play a part in social justice efforts? How are students and student groups creating change? How are communities and community organizations responding to social justice efforts? And what are social institutions (including higher education) doing that show their efforts are empty rhetoric? I hope you have been inspired to think about how you might participate in this reckoning of rhetoric.

Freire. Paolo. 1974. Education for Critical Consciousness. London: Bloomsbury Academic.



Future PSA conferences confirmed:

2024: Marriott Mission Valley, San Diego, CA  Thursday, March 21 to Sunday, March 24

Theme: TBA
President:  Alicia D. Bonaparte, Pitzer College
Vice President: Celeste Atkins, University of Arizona
Program Chair: Marcia Hernandez, University of the Pacific

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