Why Understanding How Power and Race are Connected is Important to Building a More Equitable and Just World
I’ve been thinking a lot about power this past week, and how power, like everything else we’ve covered in this series, is also a social construction. Important to understand. Why?
Because when we fully understand that power, and how it is distributed, is a social construction we create a space to discuss the possibility of changing how that power is distributed. It is inside of this possibility that we will discuss power as a social construction. Ready? Good let’s go.
Power defined. Here we go.
Pronunciation /ˈpou(ə)r/ /ˈpaʊ(ə)r/
Translate power into Spanish
The ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality.
The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.Lexico
Alright, so here’s what we have thus far.
Power is the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality, such as influencing the behaviors of others or the course of events.
We could discuss power in a myriad of ways. In this article, however, we will cover five ways power is experienced. For it is in the experience of power that lies, pun intended, the power to change how power is socially constructed and distributed.
Using a Foucauldian lens for this analysis, we can say that power is granted through knowledge. The more knowledge you have, the more power you have. Why? Because the more you know, the more you understand, and the more you understand, especially about how systems and institutions work, the more you can deploy your power, or knowledge, to change the system.
Now, there are other concepts, which we will also discuss a little later that make the distribution and deployment of power unequal.
For now, let’s take a look at how Michel Foucault describes the connection between knowledge and power.
“On Foucault’s account, the relation of power and knowledge is far closer than in the familiar Baconian engineering model, for which “knowledge is power” means that knowledge is an instrument of power, although the two exist quite independently. Foucault’s point is rather that, at least for the study of human beings, the goals of power and the goals of knowledge cannot be separated: in knowing we control and in controlling we know.”Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
In knowing we control.
That’s a pretty powerful concept. Meaning, that the more we know, the more control we have over our experiential field, life. Why? Same reason as above. Because the more we understand how the system works, the more we can work the system to our advantage.
Now, the latter part of that quote, in controlling we know, is, for me, about internalization. Meaning that once we are aware of our knowledge base, and we seek out new knowledge, we understand that in order to create change, we must control and effect our actions to create such change.
We can also term this concept personal agency, which basically means understanding how much personal agency someone has, you have. As was alluded to earlier, the field of experience, available life choices, if you will, is not equally distributed.
Thus, power and knowledge are also not equally distributed, nor then are they internalized across racial, cultural, sexual, gendered, geographical, and socioeconomic statuses the same. They are not.
Kimberle Crenshaw, who developed Intersectionality Theory, might argue that, in fact, in order to understand people’s available life choices, you must do so within a framework that analyzes all dimensions of a person’s identity, especially as that identity is located and embedded in social structures and systems.
Here is a short quote about Intersectionality Theory.
“Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” -Kimberle CrenshawColumbia Law School
Now, we can connect the internalization of granted knowledge and power, and available life choices, to the need to analyze these system dynamics through an intersectional lens. Very important.
An intersectional lens would ensure that we look at how people are situated and located, or in a Founcalidian term, observed, within the social system, before making any claims about access to knowledge and power to begin with.
Here is another excerpt from Foucault’s work on observation.
“The examination also situates individuals in a “field of documentation”. The results of exams are recorded in documents that provide detailed information about the individuals examined and allow power systems to control them (e.g., absentee records for schools, patients’ charts in hospitals). On the basis of these records, those in control can formulate categories, averages, and norms that are in turn a basis for knowledge. The examination turns the individual into a “case”—in both senses of the term: a scientific example and an object of care. Caring is always also an opportunity for control.”Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Now here we can see that being observed also matters in relation to the access to knowledge and power. Observation, or what I’ll term surveillance, ensures that knowledge and power, and ultimately control, stay in certain hands, and out of “others.”
The effect of distributing knowledge and power in this way creates even more inequality. Meaning that power is distributed in ways that embed power within social institutions, and those that work in those institutions convey their power in very prescriptive ways.
Foucault writes about the Panopticon to describe the distribution of power.
“Bentham’s Panopticon is, for Foucault, a paradigmatic architectural model of modern disciplinary power. It is a design for a prison, built so that each inmate is separated from and invisible to all the others (in separate “cells”) and each inmate is always visible to a monitor situated in a central tower. Monitors do not in fact always see each inmate; the point is that they could at any time. Since inmates never know whether they are being observed, they must behave as if they are always seen and observed. As a result, control is achieved more by the possibility of internal monitoring of those controlled than by actual supervision or heavy physical constraints.”Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Now, whereas Foucault is focusing on prisons in this last excerpt, or what many contemporary activists call the prison industrial complex, the way that power is distributed in the prison has corollaries to all social institutions.
“The principle of the Panopticon can be applied not only to prisons but also to any system of disciplinary power (a factory, a hospital, a school). And, in fact, although Bentham himself was never able to build it, its principle has come to pervade aspects of modern society. It is the instrument through which modern discipline has been able to replace pre-modern sovereignty (kings, judges) as the fundamental power relation.”Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
And as this last excerpt alludes to, once power is codified into social institutions, it is the actors within those insitutision that take on the role and responsibility of the deployment of institutional power. And with that deployment discipline follows.
Power Deployed and Discipline
The deployment of power by actors working within social institutions, ranges from school teachers to priests, to police offers, and government officials.
The reason we have brought identity characteristics into this discussion, such as race, culture, sexuality, gender, geography, and socioeconomic status, is that the deployment of power, and the discipline that follows, is centered on the body.
“Foucault’s genealogy follows Nietzsche as well as existential phenomenology in that it aims to bring the body into the focus of history. Rather than histories of mentalities or ideas, genealogies are “histories of the body”. They examine the historical practices through which the body becomes an object of techniques and deployments of power. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault shows how disciplinary techniques produce “docile bodies”: bodies of prisoners, soldiers, workers and schoolchildren were subjected to disciplinary power in order to make them more useful and at the same time easier to control. The human body became a machine the functioning of which could be optimized, calculated, and improved. Its functions, movements and capabilities were broken down into narrow segments, analyzed in detail and recomposed in a maximally effective way.”Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
And, though in this excerpt these identity characteristics are not presented. We can now take a look at Simone Brown’s work to make this connection concrete.
“Importantly, Browne also accounts for methods of evading or repositioning surveillance, which she gathers under the phrase “dark sousveillance.” Dark surveillance refers to “the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight, and strategies used in the flight to freedom from slavery as necessarily ones of undersight.… Dark sousveillance is a site of critique, as it speaks to black epistemologies of contending with antiblack surveillance” (p. 21). In addition to writing about the sociotechnical processes that catalog, control, and delimit black bodies, the cataloging of “dark sousveillance” offers an agenda for coping with and subverting structures of control.”UPenn Repository
Here we can see clear connections to a Foucauldian analysis, yet the analysis is taken further by Brown by centering race as the means by which the deployment of institutional power is a central focus. Black bodies are surveilled and then disciplined (controlled), by the continuous objectification of their bodies as a commodity of power.
Now, from this analysis, we can see various ways that power is granted, internalized, distributed, deployed, and then used as a disciplinary tool.
Yet, power is socially constructed. Meaning, there is no natural law that requires power to be distributed and deployed as it is today. And, in fact, we can see people all across the United States today, protesting institutional and structural racism.
Both institutional and structural racism keep the distribution and deployment of power as is, status quo.
Yet, we as individuals, have the ability to create and effect change, and you can see that movement in the streets all across this country, as people call for, and demand, an end to police brutality against people of color.
Here is a statement from the Black Lives Matter website.
“Enough is enough. Our pain, our cries, and our need to be seen and heard resonate throughout this entire country. We demand acknowledgment and accountability for the devaluation and dehumanization of Black life at the hands of the police. We call for radical, sustainable solutions that affirm the prosperity of Black lives. George Floyd’s violent death was a breaking point — an all too familiar reminder that, for Black people, law enforcement doesn’t protect or save our lives. They often threaten and take them. Right now, Minneapolis and cities across our country are on fire, and our people are hurting — the violence against Black bodies felt in the ongoing mass disobedience, all while we grapple with a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting, infecting, and killing us. We call for an end to the systemic racism that allows this culture of corruption to go unchecked and our lives to be taken. We call for a national defunding of police. We demand investment in our communities and the resources to ensure Black people not only survive, but thrive. If you’re with us, add your name to the petition right now and help us spread the word.“Black Lives Matter
We must remember that though the entire world is socially constructed, moment by moment, these social constructions are very real in their consequences.
When we stand by and tacitly give our agreement to the ways in which power is distributed and deployed in this country, we are condoning the continued surveillance and brutalization of communities of color. Unacceptable.
As I’ve written about in many articles, it starts with each of us. How we think, feel, speak, and act. We each have available to us our own unique gifts, talents, knowledge, and thus power.
And, when we can use these tools to take action and increase awareness about the world, how it operates, both its strengths and weaknesses, we are at once working together to create a more equitable and just world.
And, for today, this is my action. What will yours be?