The Road Ahead for Social Justice
By Alan Jenkins
Americans are waking up to a stunning reality. Donald J. Trump will be the 45th President of the United States. For those of us committed to social justice and opportunity for all, we may be entering one of the most challenging eras of our lives. But I am confident that, as a community, we will rise to the occasion. We will not only endure, but prevail.
The negative, often horrendous developments in this election are easy to list. The President-Elect blew through coded dog whistle messages of the past and proudly embraced explicit racism, misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Black stereotypes, not to mention birtherism and thinly veiled anti-Semitism. He proposed outlandish and often dangerous policies. And he repeatedly denigrated the ideals of due process and equal justice under the law.
Half of the U.S. electorate cast their vote for Donald Trump despite those positions, and many millions supported him because of those positions. The latter group will continue to carry this hateful torch in our public discourse and politics for many years to come. Whatever one’s party affiliation or policy positions, that truth should give anyone serious pause in our multicultural, constitutional democracy. We cannot allow our nation to follow that path.
Though it’s hard to remember at this moment, this election also included some remarkable positive milestones for social justice in our public discourse. There are many seeds for positive change going forward:
- Some of the greatest energy in both parties was around economic populism, inequality, and prioritizing people over corporations and elites. Harmful narratives from past elections that pinned poverty solely on “personal responsibility,” denied the importance of government in addressing shared problems, and touted “free markets” as the path to shared prosperity simply did not fly.
- A majority of presidential candidates in both parties campaigned in favor of drug treatment over incarceration and other positive reforms of our criminal justice system. Those positions were welcomed by audiences across ideology. By contrast, Donald Trump’s coded “law and order” message never really caught on, and quietly receded as a narrative.
- Activists, from the Movement for Black Lives, to the Dreamers, to the Fight for Fifteen and beyond, profoundly influenced the political discourse.
- The idea of implicit racial bias jumped into the political and policy conversation in ways that will shape thinking and decisionmaking into the future.
- The fastest growing segments of the electorate—Latinos, Asian Americans, unmarried women—appear to have reacted strongly against the bigoted rhetoric, anti-reproductive justice stances, and anti-immigrant positions. These Americans will increasingly come to dominate future elections.
- These dynamics, and properly channeled frustration with the dwindling American Dream, provide the stepping stones toward our social justice future. They are the foundation for a new, dominant, non-partisan Opportunity Constituency that we must refocus on building today.
It won’t be easy. This election cycle heralded the rise of a multi-faceted “fear narrative” that threatens to undermine the progress that the country has made on a range of social justice issues—from criminal justice reform, to the welcoming of immigrants and refugees, to racial and religious inclusion, to gender equity, and cherished human rights. The fear narrative draws on profound anxiety about changing demographics, rational and irrational fears about terrorism, concerns about crime (despite historically low crime rates), and very real obstacles to economic security and opportunity. It is fueled by subconscious and explicit bias and distrust of the other, but also by legitimate concerns about the future. It is one of the most pernicious legacies of this election.
…Transformative positive change is possible, even amidst the ashes of this divisive and ugly election. Indeed, tumultuous moments like this one often present the greatest opportunity for a new, positive direction.
So what’s the road ahead for us as social justice leaders, activists, and supporters? As stunning as today’s reality is, the positive seeds that I’ve described make clear that transformative positive change is possible, even amidst the ashes of this divisive and ugly election. Indeed, tumultuous moments like this one often present the greatest opportunity for a new, positive direction.
The Opportunity Agenda stands with you to take control of this challenging new era. As most of you know, we provide the free communications tools, training, research, and cultural strategies to make our case and tell a new story to the American people. Our mission has never been more needed than it is today. Alongside those resources, we will be launching in the coming weeks and months:
- A new effort on overcoming the fear narrative with a range of allies around the country.
- An action alert system to give social justice leaders and movements advance notice on breaking events and the resources to quickly frame the debate in our favor.
- New opportunities for collaboration by artists, entertainers, and other cultural leaders with movements for concrete change.
- A new website designed to facilitate collaboration across issues and movements, while offering easier access to our advice and tools.
We invite you to join us in this effort by signing up at our current website. Your ideas and your voice are critical to our shared success.
As we move forward, The Opportunity Agenda’s core advice remains true: We must lead with the positive values we share with broad audiences, highlight systemic obstacles to greater and more equal opportunity, emphasize solutions, articulate a positive role for government, take on implicit and explicit bias, and call for specific action from our audiences.
We must mobilize the growing base of social justice supporters while persuading the undecided and marginalizing the haters—our Opportunity Survey and other research offer clear directions for identifying and engaging those audiences.
We must continue to master traditional media and communications, while coming to grips with their limitations and leveraging social media, popular culture, big data, and innovative organizing strategies that engage diverse and non-traditional communities. We have to reinvent ourselves for a new reality while holding steadfast to our vision and values.
The coming years will be challenging ones, but they can also be ones in which our nation not only steps back from the brink, but takes a quantum leap forward, embracing an inclusive, shared future and charting a fresh course toward lasting social justice.
I’ve had the privilege of working with thousands of you around the country during The Opportunity Agenda’s first 10 years, and I know you won’t shrink from that challenge for a moment. As we move forward together, we’re here to support you every step of the way.