Protest against the travel ban at Dulles International Airport in Virgina, January 28, 2017. CREDIT: <a href="">Geoff Livingston</a> <a href="">(CC)</a>
Protest against the travel ban at Dulles International Airport in Virgina, January 28, 2017. CREDIT: Geoff Livingston (CC)

Human Rights Narratives and Active Resistance, with Sujata Gadka-Wilcox

Mar 3, 2017

Gadkar-Wilcox says that when it comes to human rights, we need to ask more questions about systems and origins. This is especially important now, as Americans confront a powerful executive branch pushing simplistic narratives and "alternative facts." What are the responsibilities of individuals? How can we start these challenging discussions?

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders podcast. My name is Alex Woodson. Today I am again joined by Carnegie New Leader Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox. Sujata is an assistant professor of legal studies at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

Sujata, thanks for coming today.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Thanks for having me back, Alex.

ALEX WOODSON: You were here last May, and we talked about political responsibility, or what citizens living in a democracy owe their country in terms of upholding their country's values and laws. Today we're going to get a bit more specific and discuss this in relation to human rights and how that relates to the rights of minority groups and a few other subjects.

Just to start, I'll mention something that I've been thinking about especially since election day, which is that the discussion of human rights in the United States really is a discussion of systemic racism. This concept is complicated, and it probably gets more complicated the more you think about it.

Van Jones, a CNN contributor and former Obama advisor, made this point in a New York Magazine interview in talking about how to have a discussion about the subject with, basically, white Americans who may not consider themselves racist but may hold biases themselves or certainly benefit from white privilege. He said, "By the time you've thought enough about race and racism to have the distinction of systemic racism in your mind, you've thought about it for hundreds of hours more than the people that you're talking about." So you have a situation where one group is talking about something in a totally different way than another group, and then you put the word "racism" in there and everyone gets offended.

I guess my question is: How do we talk about this? What's the proper way to discuss human rights in America, and how can we all reach an understanding on what that means?


I think that the first thing we have to consider, particularly when we're talking about minority groups—and by minority groups I mean those who are not represented well in the political process—they might not have access to change a public narrative or a policy initiative because they just don't have the same level of representation. The thing that I think we're missing in this election, or particularly the discussion that has been leading up and continues as a result of the election, is this focus on individuals. I think this comment on systemic racism brings to mind the problem of the public narrative.

Our public discourse is still too focused on individual decision-making, and this has always been true for the criminal justice system as well. Sometimes when we think particularly about something like sexual assault, the issue shifts sometimes to individual transgressions and not to a larger system that is in fact perpetuating the context of violence against women.

I think this is true for human rights too. What we need to think about in the United States and globally are two things. First is what you've mentioned, the idea of structures, what kind of systems do we have in place; what is the systemic injustice that individuals are facing? I think then we can start unpacking some of the overly simplistic narratives that are shifting the focus from that. I think the problem is that we're not focusing enough on the kind of structures that we have in place and shifting instead to this kind of divisive, inflammatory language and rhetoric that really has very little to do with the actual injustices that people are facing.

When you talk about systems, you find much more commonality there. I realize this when I'm talking to students in class, that if you start talking about a political ideology and they can connect that ideology to a particular party, one-half of the room or the other starts rolling their eyes or you can see that they're not paying attention. Once you start talking about systems, they're all paying attention.

It turns out that there is much more agreement than there is disagreement. When we're talking about the context in the United States, it's not just about individuals. How did we have a federal executive that has expanded this way? It didn't just happen last year. It happened over time. So constitutionally since the New Deal we've had an expansion of federal power. How did that happen? But that question isn't even addressed. That historical context isn't even addressed. I think when we think about systems we forget that the systems have origins, whether they are good or bad. That is not to say it was right or wrong to go one way or another, but there was a reason that the system was created in a particular way.

When we talk about this expansion of federal power, for example, we can look back to see that maybe there was an intervention that was necessary during the New Deal that allowed this expansive nature of federal power, and now we have executive agencies that are passing a lot of regulations that have no accountability in that sense to a legislature and to a constituency. It's really what we call the "fourth branch of government" and a bureaucracy.

The question then becomes: Should we revisit that? Whether that was appropriate or not, we certainly haven't spoken about why that has happened. We act as if this was an individual initiative and whether that is being exploited.

The real question about the system, though, is that there was an opportunity there in the first place for that kind of power to be transferred, and how did that happen? I think we need to look carefully at that to begin with; what is the structure of the system?

Even when it comes to representative democracy—now I hear people speaking more about things like redistricting and gerrymandering. What are the political rules that have been in place that have already limited people from access to their own political representatives? Lobbying, corporate lobbying—you know, whose interests are really being represented? That's not a very robust discussion, though. It is not only "here's the action of a president," it's "here's the action of an individual." Somehow the solution also seems to be, "If this individual is or is not in office, things would be entirely different," as if there isn't an entire system that's already in place that perhaps should be critiqued and considered from its origin and in its particular context.

So I think what we're missing is sort of a nuanced discussion of not only the structures that we have in place, not just a critique of them, but really a historical discussion of how did we get here; how did we create these powers in the first place, this distribution of power; and then what is the implication of that down to the individual.

ALEX WOODSON: One thing that I found very interesting—you sent me an outline of a panel discussion that you took part in at Quinnipiac a little while ago—one thing that you brought up, which was interesting, that I had not really thought too much about, is that human rights is particularly subject to hegemony or to certain narratives.

Can you explain what that means exactly and how that ties into what we were just talking about with the systemic racism in the United States and how we can gain a greater understanding of that?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Yes. The other aspect of thinking about systems is also thinking about the way we talk about these systems or talk about other things to distract us from thinking about the real structures that have been in place that may be perpetuating inequality. One of those things, of course, is narratives. We use language in a way that is often coded, so we have an understanding or we have preconceived notions of what we mean. When we say there's a particular kind of American experience, what is it we mean when we say there's an "American experience," and what does it mean to say "refugees would threaten that experience"? That presumes in and of itself that there is some sort of common or monolithic understanding of what it means to be American.

I think what we're missing in our public narrative is some complexity in that, because we have an understanding of usually a dominant group's experience. That experience usually comes to stand in place for everyone's experience, and the presumption is that if we operate within the contours of that experience, everybody will be picked up in that. And yet, of course we know that when you are part of a vulnerable group or you are part of a minority group, the experiences that you have are not reflected necessarily in the experiences of the majority group. So your experiences—even when we come up with remedies, for example, to address issues of class or or issues of race—they don't pick up intersectional understandings of what it means to experience multiple levels of vulnerability.

I think that becomes more problematic when we start thinking about overly simplistic narratives that define Americans as X, with no complexity, instead of thinking about the richness and the rich diversity of experiences that make up the social fabric. I think the counter-project there is to create an alternative narrative or bring to the forefront these experiences of minority groups that don't often get represented in prevailing conceptions.

An example on race: The fact that there is a presumption if you're running away from the police that you must have been doing something wrong doesn't account, obviously, for context where people are historically afraid of police officers because they have a relationship of tension within the community. It doesn't account for that. So the presumption is that when you have a legal rule, somehow that rule is neutral and that rule accounts for all experiences, and as long as nobody is enforcing that rule in a way that's arbitrary, the system must be fair.

But actually what we know is sometimes those rules in fact only represent the experiences of some and not others. I'm going to get to hegemony. It is hard for people to see that because these rules become not only neutral but universalized. So the understanding is, "Well, everybody's common experience is that when they see a police officer, if they have nothing to worry about, then of course they can approach the police officer." That's not everyone's common experience. But there's no way to understand that. It's not unreasonable to say, "How would I understand what it's like to react that way if I never interact in a community other than my own?"

I think part of the problem that we have in the United States in particular is that we live in segregated communities. Whether it's segregated by law or by choice, we don't really live in a context where we can understand complex experiences. I think you'll find in the areas where you have a more integrated environment—we'll take New York City, for example, where I grew up—complexity is part of everyday experience. So things are not strange in that sense. People understand that what makes up an individual has more to do than with these categories that we assign them—that practicing their particular religion means that they will be X or that their particular race means that they will act in a particular way. You recognize now that there is a sort of intersectional combination of characteristics that create the individual.

I think the only way to do that here, to try to break beyond these simplistic narratives—and these narratives that become quite problematic because we're creating this category of "us and them," and the only reason you think it's us and them is because most people in that situation haven't had an opportunity probably largely to interact with those that they're creating as the other, and so they don't have these experiences where they can understand that those are in fact overly simplified narratives.

The way to do that is to bring alternative narratives to the forefront. I actually thought the movie Hidden Figures was a really excellent example of this. The author of the book, Margot Lee Shetterly, came to Quinnipiac to give a university-wide talk. One thing she said was, "This is a quintessential American story." I think it's important that she said a story about black female scientists at NASA—I believe it was set in the 1950s—is a quintessential American story.

That is an alternative narrative. That is a narrative that gets excluded. When we think of American history in our minds—this isn't about racism; it's about intentionally creating these notions of prevailing or predominant conceptions of what these experiences mean—that is not an experience that most people think about when it comes to that time period. For her to bring that to the forefront is this project of counter-narratives, and I think that becomes important.

ALEX WOODSON: It is also, I think, pretty significant that it is a film, too. It is a film that millions of people have seen. It is not an academic text or some journal article that might get lost.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Absolutely. Sometimes at the university, too, I think we don't reference enough things that become culturally significant in terms of pop culture. I always refer to the movie V for Vendetta, which I think is an excellent movie to talk about. It sets up the kind of narrative that we're seeing today: What happens when you have an increasingly authoritarian government?

That actually leads into this point of hegemony, because what's interesting about V for Vendetta, and that really speaks more to how power gets consolidated in some ways where we think, "Look, we have all these democratic systems; how is it that we can have all this power on the top that we may object to?" Part of the point of hegemony is that it happens through consent and through legitimacy and because you start with an understanding of a concept like human rights.

We're here to talk about human rights. Human rights becomes something that everyone seems to understand. It has been the language that is used by those who have been underprivileged, by social movements, to claim some kind of human dignity, to claim some kind of commonality. What happens, then, with that kind of language of human rights is that it gets swept up not only into a system that we now have, a system that then has rules and institutions that are created around it that speak in a particular voice.

So, although human rights seems like it has this sort of universal application, when we create an entire system around human rights we forget then to think about the origins of that system. So when we look at our human rights instruments we see that predominantly the instruments, starting from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, come out of a particular moment in time. It comes in response to World War II and what was happening in response to the Holocaust and really in a response to genocide, but it also means it was constructed by particular countries, what we call "Western" countries or the "Global North," that had the most power at that time to construct the document.

So the language that got picked up in there often is claimed to be universal, but we see certain priorities. So we see priorities, for example, for civil and political rights over economic rights. And that makes sense because, for example, in the United States, the origin of the American Revolution, of course, has to do with political oppression. So the fact that the United States would support and be ready to sign onto a global agreement, an international agreement, that requires an enforcement of political rights, something that they already enforce, is something that makes sense.

It does not, then, account for in the same way an enforcement of economic rights. Of course countries from the Global South, many of whom had been coming out a post-colonial context, had to talk about economic rights, had to try to seek some kind of economic justice and a better redistribution, for example, of property. This was not something that would become part of the priorities, I would say, of international human rights law because it's not a priority, it's not something that would have been signed onto by the countries that predominantly had the say in the construction of those documents. What that means is we see that even though you have a system that is called "universal human rights," there are certain rights that are prioritized over others.

The problem with hegemony is that those rights and the priority of those rights become seen as something that is just universal, that it makes sense that those—we don't even think about the fact that some rights are prioritized over the others; we don't even think about the fact that this document is actually speaking in a particular voice. We just give it legitimacy because we label it "human rights." Because human rights already has that core of legitimacy it gets perpetuated in that way.

What we really need to do—and the real strategy, this counter-hegemonic strategy, which I think is the kind of project that Margot Lee Shetterly has taken on in this movie Hidden Figures—is bring up alternative conceptions of rights. The conception that we have right now of human rights, for example, the reason it is already limited is because it takes a particular view of human rights. Beyond just prioritizing, it presumes that we have a very legalistic framework for human rights, that governments are there to solve that problem, and that these are individual rights. That is just a presumption. It is presumed that that is universal.

The more we unpack that and tell alternative narratives—which is the counter-hegemonic strategy, of how those alternative strategies even came about, which oftentimes is through social movements and has nothing to do with governments—the more we can start unpacking the idea that, "Wait a minute. These things aren't really universal." That doesn't make them wrong. It just means that they are speaking from a particular voice.

I think what we fail to have today in our domestic and our global understandings of things is complexity. I think we don't really have a lot of understanding why we have created structures the way we have and why we have labeled them in the ways that we have, and I think what we need to introduce a little bit more is that complexity.

ALEX WOODSON: Yes. Speaking of that, one of the main things that concerns me about the Trump administration is that especially the president himself does not seem to understand these complex arguments, or if he does understand them, he's not willing to act or speak on them.

This brings me to another question: When you have a government—we are still not much longer than a month into the administration—where it seems like the government's priority is not going to be securing human rights for all Americans—it seems that they have a narrow definition about what an American is and what rights for Americans are. If that's the case and if that's what we're going to be looking at for the next four years, what should individuals do? What is the responsibility of individuals in the face of a government that might not be protecting rights for all of its people?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Just to speak about this issue of complexity, I heard this morning on my way here the president's remark, "You know, it turns out health care is actually much more complicated than one would have thought." I think that's the general rule of thumb, is that the more you know about an issue the less certain you are that you have the right answer because it turns out that there are many variables. Of course, you ultimately have to pick an answer, but if you're hearing an overly simplistic explanation for something, it probably means that something is missing, it's problematic. I think that is what we need to figure out.

I think the individual project here, first, is to think beyond our conception of individual rights. There are other conceptions—I spoke about this last time, Gandhi's conception of human rights for example—that are not legalistic, that actually require the individual to take on responsibilities to other members of the community. So they are community-oriented, and they require certain duties to be exchanged before you can even have any claim for human rights for yourself. So there is no automatic moral claim to human rights unless you are reciprocating by fulfilling particular obligations to others in the community.

I think as universities, too, we've been talking much more about an "ethic of rights." Again, I think the problem with the language of human rights is that it has become this kind of totalizing discourse.

I heard someone, in fact, also the other day on the radio say something about the right to do the wave at a baseball stadium. I think this overuse of the language of rights—and also, more problematically than just that it's overused, is that it is used to justify violence. So every military intervention is justified by human rights. Not every, but many, human rights abuses are in fact justified by human rights, by another conflicting human right.

So this has become a totalizing discourse. It is not clear when you say "human rights" what you mean. I think we're moving further and further away from the idea that what you should mean, I would think, as a project of someone who cares about social justice, is vulnerability. That is certainly what Gandhi means, and that was his politics of moral reductionism. The idea with moral reductionism is that you should align yourself with the weakest of the weak. A just state for Gandhi is a state that protects the weakest of the weak. So this idea that the more successful you are, the more prominent you are, the more wealth you have, that that somehow makes you a better person, runs contrary to this idea. That doesn't mean you have you have fulfilled your duties to the vulnerable.

When you say "human rights," people know what you are about to talk about. But it gets too caught up for me in this discourse. I think what's more important is, I would say, vulnerability. I think many universities are increasing this dialogue on empathy and compassion. I think that gets more to the idea of human rights as an ethic than just as a legal entitlement.

Now, I should say that as a legal scholar I think the legal entitlements are absolutely also necessary for individuals because when you're vulnerable and there is no legal access—we saw what happened in Detroit or in Flint. When you try to say, "Look, I have a human right to water, you need to do something about this," and the court comes back and says, "I'm sorry, this is not a constitutionally protected right. We can't do anything about it," that becomes a problem. So of course you need some kind of legal remedies.

But Gandhi's point of telling individuals that "you have to take on these responsibilities yourself" is that it is not sufficient to hand that over to someone else. So it is not sufficient to hand that over to the government or hand that over to courts because that takes the responsibility out of your hands. And we see that a lot. We see people relying, I think too heavily in some ways, on what will the Supreme Court say is its interpretation of rights. They might have the interpretation of what legal remedy may be available, but maybe we should also have a parallel conversation about what it means to have a particular right; what is our understanding to each other and what is our responsibility to each other? I think this language is coming back now of rights and responsibilities, or rights and duties, because it's more important that we try to understand what we can do as individuals.

I think also, most importantly, this idea of nonresistance becomes important when you think about what individuals should do when they have governments that they think are oppressive. Nonresistance is a very active form of resisting. It is not passive behavior. So nonresistance means that you continually push back in a way that is not violent against rules that you think are violating that kind of fabric. If you have an oppressive government, they are tearing in fact the ethical fabric of the society, and the ethical fabric is only mended when every individual is fulfilling their duties to one another, and that is how rights get protected in that sense.

An oppressive government in fact tears that social fabric apart. So your responsibility as an individual is to resist that, to make sure that you are telling alternative narratives, so that if there is a prevailing conception of what it means to have a particular experience, you stand up and stand out and say, "No, there are actually other experiences that haven't come within that legal remedy." I think that is how you get closer to justice and an alternative conception of rights that is not just focused so much on legal individual entitlements.

ALEX WOODSON: When you were talking about that, I started thinking about the airport protests that happened right after the executive order/travel ban was announced. I thought that was a very tangible way to actually resist the government and to show that—I heard lots of people say that "an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us"—so actually just go to the place where this is happening. You had lawyers going, you had non-lawyers going, to just support people. I think that was an interesting example of what you're talking about.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Exactly. We were actually there at the airport during the few days the protests were going on. Yes, that is a form of active resistance.

I think that was also happening within institutions. So there are many ways to do it. But I think there has been a lot of resurgence—to look at the positive—of activism.

In our last podcast we talked about the fact that political leaders will often say, "Look, vote for me and then I will solve all the problems," as if you can transfer your responsibility to them. I think what that often has meant is that individuals felt like, "Well, once we've come out to vote, we're really finished our job. That's it."

What you are realizing now is, of course, the way you really get social change to happen is not just through legislative action, but it is to push the legislature in a particular way, and that comes through social movements. So that comes through robust participation in a civil society, and I think that's what we're seeing again. So I think a resurgence of that kind of social action in communities is important.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to throw one other complication out there, right now there is a lot of talk about fake news and alternative facts. Part of me thinks that people are treating it a little bit too lightly. It is easy to find the humor when a member of the administration makes up a mass shooting in Kentucky—you see a lot of Twitter jokes about that—and I understand that. But I think sometimes we forget how dangerous it is for powerful people to label unfavorable media coverage as "fake news" and to just throw alternative facts out there.

What do we do in this situation? I know you spend a lot of time in other countries and you might have a global context to this as well. What should we be looking for in this? I guess my basic question is: How can we really have a discussion when we're not really dealing with the same facts and when our executive office is feeding us the wrong information in a lot of cases?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Right. I think part of that is who is controlling that narrative. It comes down to not only are there overly simplistic narratives coming out of the executive, but those narratives are being disseminated.

I think this is why, for me, it goes beyond political party affiliation and it comes back to this idea of who is actually identifying the complex issues. When you start talking about systemic inequality, it becomes very complicated; you can't do it in a sound bite. Of course there are people who talking about it. You see Bernie Sanders talking a lot about systems. But it can't be done easily, and it can't be done—people ask, "Well, what's the solution?"

I think first you have to figure out what the problem is, and I think the problem is very complicated. What becomes important maybe is how you control the narrative. It becomes more and more difficult.

If the media, for example, is not taking on a responsibility—again, not to be overly simplistic that they either are or are not—but if individuals feel like there isn't that kind of complex narrative coming out, then the responsibility is to figure out how you disseminate some kind of alternative narrative, whether that's through social media or whether that's through creating your own leaflets.

This is what freedom fighters did in India. They had their own publications and distribution of those publications because there was a controlled narrative, and they needed to break that narrative so that people actually understood what was happening. So do we take on that kind of responsibility?

Also, coming back to this idea of prevailing conceptions or this idea of real systemic injustice, we have to be careful about the language that we use that has—and this is why I am particularly cautious about legal language, because whenever you put legal language on something it often gives it a veil of neutrality that then masks the underlying power dynamic.

For example, the "war on drugs" was the leading cause of mass racialized incarceration. That may not seem facially obvious when you're thinking about the war on drugs, but these narratives came out about being "tough on crime" and what could happen and the amount and use of crack cocaine and cocaine use, particularly in the inner cities where there are communities of color. It turned out, of course, that those statistics were distorted and they were being used for a particular purpose.

In that sense, when people say alternative facts, things are being said from a particular lens, and I think that has to be distinguished from news that is just fake. For example, if you say "1,000 people came to a protest" and actually there were only 10, that is in fact fake news in the sense that it is not real, that there were in fact only 10 people there and you reported 1,000. What happens more often is your choice of framing and then your angle on the story, which is I think where people get into this realm of alternative news. If there were 1,000 people protesting and then 10 people in opposition to that and you gave equal media coverage to the protestors on the opposition, giving the appearance that there were just as many people on both sides, now it becomes a little bit more misleading. When that happens I think it is more complicated.

But I do not actually think it should be the source of ridicule, as you were saying, that it has become, because in that way we do often frame, sometimes without even recognizing—and this goes back to these sort of prevailing conceptions—we have some preconceived notions as individuals of what we mean when we say things, whether we know that we're saying them or not, whether we have an intention to say them or not.

When we say "quintessential American experience," in your mind you're constructing a narrative perhaps on a white male heterosexual identity without thinking about it, and that is why it is important for minority groups in particular to create counter-narratives about the experiences that then don't get dominantly reported.

I think those are alternative narratives in that sense, not alternative facts. I think it is important, in fact, to bring those alternative narratives to the forefront, to build what my colleague at Quinnipiac was saying is "authentic power." So we need to hear the voices of those in the community, and they need to be able to tell us and construct a new story of their own identity so that identity doesn't become further marginalized and becomes part of these narratives that we tell of our own identity.

ALEX WOODSON: Definitely. I think that's all I have.

Anything else that you wanted to speak about?

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: Just one thing. When I was saying, too, about systems that we often don't think about—I'm thinking about this because in my constitutional law class we go back to the origins of government and thinking about theories of government.

What we focus on—or what used to be focused on a lot—is this question of legitimacy. I think we forget that, that there is a limit of government and there is a purpose for government. And sometimes it seems like, "Well, government just does things because that's what's been done for the last decade or two decades."

We're not sitting back. At least I don't hear it predominantly in a public discussion of this, as to what it means for the government to act that way. At what point do they violate the purpose that they serve? At what point does this not actually match the kind of consent—we were supposed to be a consent-based governance system. At what point when you've created districts, even on a local level, where you have polls that are so far from individuals that have to get there that they literally just can't get there to vote, or they don't have the time or the effort or the ability to get there, what does that mean in terms of democratic legitimacy?

What I think is interesting is that we don't have those conversations more often. What is the philosophical influence on our Constitution, really this question of legitimacy and consent? Why don't we talk about that? Why don't we talk about how the structures that we have in place hinder our ability to really speak directly to our representatives or to feel somehow that we're accounted for? I think what you feel from a lot of people is that they are suffering for many different reasons and they're trying to express that, and it is falling on deaf ears. It is not getting anywhere.

And then you really have to ask yourself, "Why aren't we then asking why it's not getting anywhere?" We just then start blaming one party or another without thinking about "Look at all these systems that we've had in place that have prevented people from actually having that kind of access to their representatives," and should we rethink that system? Should we rethink the kind of system—either the two-party political system that we've created, the first-past-the-post majority system—should we think about what these things mean for governance in the United States?

I would like to see that conversation become the prevailing narrative, a discussion of the origins, and then also the appropriate context and limits of government.

ALEX WOODSON: That's interesting to me because I think in some ways that is what Donald Trump is doing as president, because he's kind of showing us that all of these things that we thought were just institutions, that were "this is how America runs," if there's not a legal hurdle to overcome, Trump is just blowing past it. For example, the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Or a better example is his tax returns; there is no legal reason that he has to give his tax returns except for the fact that every other president has done it for the last 50 years; but he didn't do it, and he's the president.

In some ways it is kind of interesting and refreshing to see that our institutions are what we make of them, but at the same time it is also very frightening because you have someone in the office who doesn't respect the institutions. I feel like, obviously, there could be a better way to do it, to just say, "Hey, we can talk about this; we can talk about anything in America." But I don't think the way that it has been handled for the last month has been very constructive.

SUJATA GADKAR-WILCOX: No. I think you are exactly right. I think what you are pointing out are the gaps in the system that I think we need to address. Yes, absolutely.

That is what I'm saying we don't come back to, that we don't come back to the fact that these gaps have always been there. They just happen not to have been exploited before. That doesn't mean they weren't part of the system. And that doesn't mean the system—going back to the original question of structural racism—didn't always have structures in place that have in fact perpetuated these kinds of injustices.

This is what I think the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the forefront, is that we have systems in place, and though on their face they may seem like they're equitable—we have a rule for how we select police and policing, but we realize that there are certain communities that get over-policed, and the question is: why does that happen even though the rules are supposed to be the same across the board and we set up a procedure that seems like it is facially neutral?

Because there is, of course, discretion in implementation. And implementation in a system—and no system is going to be procedurally perfect. I think that in fact always requires us to come back and revisit why that is happening, why do we have these structures. It doesn't mean we just completely obliterate the structures that we have, but it means we certainly come back and figure out how we revise these structures. We consider the sources of injustice and then think about how we revise these structures in a way that would actually be meaningful for people. I don't think we're doing that.

In a way you're right, that it is helpful that we're seeing the gaps in the system, because I have not heard the discussion about gerrymandering. This is the first time that people are actually talking much more about redistricting and why that makes sense and whether or not we should change that. I think Arnold Schwarzenegger even came out with a video clip on California's redistricting and how it actually addressed some of these concerns. This was not part of a public discussion. But it is now becoming part of that because we realized: "Wait a minute. There was a system that got us here in the first place, and that system needs to be discussed." I do think that's a good thing.

I think the bad thing is that we're—again, because we're still falling back on these simplistic narratives—still not getting there. I thought, "Oh, the one thing we would be able to do now is at least have these discussions of why these things are so complex." And it seems like we're still sort of trying to push the blame over to one party or another, or to one individual or another, when that is really distracting us I think from the real problem, which is, why do we have things that are already in place?

And again, back to what I was saying initially, how did we have this kind of expansion of federal power or executive power? There is a historical reason for that; there is a historical origin for that. We should know that before we just start talking.

There is also a limit to it. I think we throw around the term "states' rights" without understanding even what is within the province of the federal government, what is in Article I, and what is then left to the states.

I think that is a more nuanced conversation. I am realizing this, having it with students, that the more you talk about these nuances, in fact the more you see commonality. The more I see students—and I can tell that they are coming from different political persuasions—but I can see in class that when we start talking about these structures they seem to be more in agreement than they are in disagreement as to what is wrong and what are the flaws in the system. Maybe they disagree on how to correct it, but they are starting to now see that we should be talking about the impacts of these structures.

ALEX WOODSON: I think that's a great hopeful note to end on. Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox, thank you very much.

This has been the Carnegie New Leaders podcast. My name is Alex Woodson. You can find us on or iTunes. Thanks for listening.

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