If you’ve spent any significant amount of time on the Internet, you’ve seen it – someone, somewhere opining about how [insert ethnic group] endured years of hardship, yet have managed to achieve modern day success as a people. If you haven’t, I’d first like to let you know that I envy your ability to avoid the most “SMH” inducing corners of the web. But to fill you in, the monologue generally reads something like this:
AnonJim86: “History.” That’s all black people do is focus on history. They blame it for them not having jobs, not being able to take care of their families, and everything else. You don’t see Jews blaming the Holocaust for failing in life. In fact, they’re doing pretty well. Slavery and the Holocaust were really the same things.*
Uh, actually, they were not the same things – at all; though the mischaracterization of the two horrific periods as such occurs far too frequently. What AnonJim86 and those of his ilk are engaging in is something I like to call “struggle-equation,” and my god does it have to stop. As the name suggests, “struggle-equation” is the act of drawing similarities in historical oppression between two or more distinct groups, generally for the purpose of comparing the groups’ current collective social, political, and economic standing in relation to one another. Using our friend’s comment above as an example, a simple explanation of that definition would read something to the effect of “Jewish people suffered the Holocaust, and black people endured Slavery – therefore, blacks and Jews should be experiencing the same level of success.”
The previous sentence should strike you as equal parts ridiculous and offensive (at least in the empathetic sense).
That’s because comparing past hardship in order to make subjective determinations, as they relate to expectations of success, is an absurd practice. The problem with engaging in struggle-equation is that it overlooks the distinctive, historic plight of blacks in the United States, making it difficult – if not impossible – for many people to understand just how black Americans continue to lag behind in areas ranging from politics to socioeconomic class. The journey for blacks in the United States has been unique in every sense of the word, and neither its origin nor its progression need be measured against anyone else’s.
Equation is an Issue
What struggle-equation fails to consider are the latent factors encompassed within a particular community’s oppression – those factors that are the true determinants of a group’s collective potential for advancement. To illustrate this point, let’s focus on the history of black Americans. Since the days of Jim Crow, blacks (especially those in the South) have been running the figurative race of life with a weight fixed upon them; the toll of that weight being no more apparent than in the economic leg of the chase. Dr. Deirdre Royster, author of Race and the Invisible Hand: How White Networks Exclude Black Men from Blue-Collar Jobs, addresses, at least in part, how the lack of economic parity came to exist, and, how it has been perpetuated within this country. In the book, she introduces a theory she calls “Embeddedness,” which seeks to explain how the racial/ethnic wealth gap came to be. The theory essentially posits this: personal and institutional contacts are valuable in connecting workers to employment opportunities – the reverse being that a lack of contacts equals a lack of chances for employment. Without these institutional ties, seemingly permanent wage and employment gaps are created.
And I agree – I agree 100% with this theory.
Though, I feel that it goes much deeper than this.
Slavery, and the Jim Crow Laws that followed, served as tools to secure advantages within employment, which, in this case, meant keeping blacks excluded from the workforce. By not working, especially in the positions that demanded the most handsome salaries, blacks progressively fell behind their white counterparts financially, and because this practice continued for many years, the disparity grew. Further, relating back to Dr. Royster’s point, being out of the workforce meant that blacks were not able to “embed” themselves in the labor market and establish those connections which would have remained for years to come. Thus, while the latest statistics show a respectable unemployment rate of 4.7% for whites, the same cannot be said for black Americans, whose rate of unemployment more than doubles that at 10.4%.
I give that information to say this: these are the types of subtleties found within oppression that struggle-equation neglects to acknowledge. These are also the subtleties that make the practice both insensitive and often an exercise in futility. Struggle-equation doesn’t closely examine the elements that make a tragedy what it was. It looks only at what happened as a whole, and what is, now. Because of this, the practice falls short in understanding how various forms of oppression can affect groups in different and complex ways.
Your black friends are sick and tired of hearing that slavery (and its after effects) was just like the Holocaust – trust me. Your Jewish friends are likewise fed up with defending themselves and their ethnic heritage against your dimwitted comparison. Admit those differences; recognize how they’ve come to shape the society we live in today. Once we get to that point, the idea of phenomena such as “white privilege” and the societal advantages that accompany it will begin to make more sense. Finally, recognize that “struggle-equation” isn’t unique to the black experience. There is no event like the Holocaust. There is no experience like that of the LGBTQ community.
Simply put, no two struggles are the same.
Brian C. Bush is a law student with an interest surrounding the interplay between race, gender, culture, and the law. He can be reached on Twitter @BrianCBush.