Polarization is a real threat to democracy, and civic groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) can play an important role in closing the gap between groups by trying to correct polarized media, engaging those with different polarized views, and using non-violence to gain support.
SURJ is a group that was started to combat ideas of White Supremacy and create a base of support for minority movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM). SURJ was started in 2008 in response to the racist backlash in the wake of the election of President Obama. Issues of Race quickly became polarized political issues and are still trending upwards.
Its overarching goal is to fight against racism in America by closing the gaps between polarized groups, which as a byproduct would strengthen our democratic system. Groups like SURJ are vital because they attempt to confront democratic erosion at multiple points to create a common understanding.
I recently attended one of SURJ’s monthly branch meetings at a local library. Between the 20 or so members, all seemed to know one another, and everyone led committees within the organization. There was a formal part of the meeting which updated members on protests and rallies the group would be attending. This was followed by small group conversations about issues of the media, outreach, and non-violence. It was during this informal part that many of the issues central to democratic erosion and polarization came up. Through these discussions, both the strengths and weaknesses of the group could be seen.
Confronting Media Bias
One of the main discussions of the night revolved around confronting the media. Many members in attendance seemed to agree that polarized news outlets like Fox were not on their side. The members of my group focused on the dangers of polarized media.
The two issues brought up by members of SURJ were the spread of alternative facts and the different treatment of protesters based off of race. During the discussion of alternative facts, a member said that he/she believes alternative facts are often spread due to polarized media channels such as Fox news. He cited examples of the news hosts referring to protests as riots and using negative language when referring to organizations like BLM. Another member pointed to this difference in youth protest groups on the basis of race. He noted that there is a stark difference between the treatment of white youths protesting gun violence, and black youths protesting police brutality, again calling out polarization.
However, I noticed that the few times an action plan was mentioned it was very cosmetic and involved mostly fact-checking. This does not fix the strong underlying narratives of those who believe these alternative facts. This can be seen with the example of French supporters of populist Marine Le Pen. As Arlie Hochschild shows in her book “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” engaging and understanding the reasons behind someone’s belief is a better strategy than simply correcting them.
Chenoweth and Stephan argue that a fair, honest, and independent media is important for non-violent action. It is also an important part of stopping the democratic erosion. In order to stop this backsliding, SURJ is attempting to share its message with a white audience. The goal is to decrease polarization and gain the broad support necessary for a non-violent social movement to be successful. SURJ attempts to combat democratic erosion in the media by representing a side that is often left out, and pushing for honest and fair media treatment; the hope is that this will bring groups often on the opposite side of the spectrum together.
Confronting the “Other”
We also talked about engaging people with different views, such as the Blue Lives Matter and the All Lives Matter movement. One of SURJ’s core values is the need to engage with others beliefs in order to change them. Their target audience is lower class white individuals who they believe are more susceptible to populist rhetoric and ideas of white supremacy.
This goal of engaging with the “other” is noble and does help decrease democratic erosion. Engagement has the potential to decrease polarization caused by the lack of understanding of others “deep stories”, which she describes in her previously mentioned book. There are two deep stories, one for each side of the political spectrum, and they lay at the foundation of individuals understandings of the world. Understanding the “deep story” of the other is important for SURJ’s goals of reaching out to people who usually do not share their views on issues of race.
Making this a key goal and talking about it during the meeting was definitely one of the strengths of SURJ as a group attempting to combat democratic erosion. However, just saying you want to engage with these “deep stories” is not enough you have to actually do it. Some members of my discussion group belittled Blue Lives Matter supporters and other people with differing viewpoints. While this was not true of all members it is still important. According to Jan-Werner Muller, brushing aside the concerns of people who are more prone to populism only leads to the solidifying of those views.
The work of confronting the “other” is necessary to stall the spread and even reverse the trend of democratic erosion, and the work that SURJ is doing helps this. However, often times the interactions people with opposing views remember are the negative ones. So while you can hold your opinions it should be realized that recognizing joint humanity involves active listening, not just lip service.
Confronting With Non-Violence
The final aspect of SURJ that is vital to the fight against democratic erosion is the use of non-violent action in support of minority movements. SURJ attempts to accomplish many of the goals set up by Stephan and Chenoweth like bringing in a new support base to a non-violent movement like BLM. This is important to the group’s success as Stephan and Chenoweth point out; nonviolent action achieves its goals more often when it brings more people in than just the minority group.
The issue, however, is that movements like BLM are often perceived as violent. Also, the perceived anti-cop sentiment hurts in recruiting Gov. Forces who Stephan and Chenoweth say are necessary for the success of a movement. Overall the group is aware of these polarizing image problems; in response, it wants to address them through honest dialogue, and through acting as ambassadors and supporters of movements like BLM. By doing this they hope to change feelings of aversion to understanding through non-violent protest.
According to Dahl’s theory of democracy the ability to formulate, express, and organize around your opinions is vital for democracy. Just as vital for democracy is decreasing polarization between those groups. Groups like SURJ form a strong foundation in their attempts to depolarize issues of race relations and strengthen democracy by confronting biased media, groups of “others”, and generating understanding using non-violence.
Photo credits: By Rufino (hermandad – friendship)