America’s Power Struggle: Whose Corner Are You In?

We are having a big argument within the country — about culture and norms. But mostly about power.

I’m intimately familiar with power struggles, changing cultures and norms. I grew up between two worlds and two families. My weekday family with my step-father was a “his way or else” culture — he had the power. My weekend family had boundaries to provide structure, and supported creativity–we played Monopoly by different rules so no one would lose. I had two families, two sets of norms and two cultures.

To this day, I feel the tension within myself of the two cultures I grew up with. One power dominating, the other power sharing.

Dominant Culture

The American Enlightenment that led to our founding documents was heavily influenced by their European counterparts. Today, as more people from other cultures call the United States home, we no longer have a homogenous or agreed upon culture.

Those of us who are comfortable with and come from European roots may feel threatened by the emerging cultures from Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It’s like visiting the home we grew up in to find strangers living there. Or as newcomers to the neighborhood, we may experience tension in straddling our new culture while honoring the culture of our ancestors — all while finding ways to participate in the promise of self-determination that is the United States of America.

We all seek to find people we can relate to in our community. At what point does the dominant culture fade and what replaces it?

Breaking Norms

Along with dominant culture comes social norms. Norms like who has more influence (wealthy men of European descent) and who doesn’t (the poor, women, people of color). Other norms are more subtle — like who gets to speak most or who holds our trust. Our social norms determine who has formal and informal power.

Formal power is granted to people in authority, like public officials. Informal power is granted to influencers by our attention and action based on their influence.

To be clear, not every man of European descent has power. But people in positions of power are predominantly men of European descent — I would posit they are also wealthy.

Politics

The Numbers

Despite white men comprising only 31 percent of the population, 97 percent of all Republican elected officials are white and 76 percent are male. Of all Democratic elected officials, 79 percent are white and 65 percent are male, according to one study.

Source: “Despite Diverse Demographics, Most Politicians Are Still White Men,” USA News

Business

The Numbers

Only 19 Fortune 500 firms are led by people of color, and only 21 of these companies are led by women, according to recent data. And almost 75% of Fortune 500 boards are mainly comprised of white men.

Source: “Another Reason Top Managers Are Disproportionally White Men,” Scientific American

Let’s be clear. The norms we refer to are a shared understanding of power: who has it, who wants it and with whom we share or do not share it. The old agreement — that we trust and give power to the European-descended man — has been rejected by a large percentage of the American public. We no longer have a collective agreement about power. This is the crux of our big argument.

Transition of Power

In every transition of power throughout American history, the formal and informal power structures undergo amazing changes. Formally, we write new policies and laws. Informally, we expand or contract what is acceptable, reasonable and tolerable. And everyone has a corner, where they protect what they value — and try to convince others their corner is the “right” corner for history.

The Four Corners

Willing to Use Force

Insiders

The Protectors are the embodiment of the establishment — and while protecting the dominant culture they love, they are willing to use oppression to protect their position. They are bolstered by people who fear losing their own power or influence and the apathy or inaction of community members

Outsiders

The Resistance is made up of two functions:
  1. Activists who come to the aid of those harmed by the Protectors (think of people protecting the black children going to desegregated schools as part of the civil rights movement).
  2. Provocateurs who take action to gain media attention, spread the word and champion their cause (setting up the Protectors to use oppression).

Non-Violent Means

Insiders

The Persuaders work inside the establishment along side the Protectors, calling and making the way for change.  They respond from within the system, making their case directly to the Protectors. These may be public officials or private influencers.

Outsiders

The Peacemakers work from a philosophy of nonviolence, following the steps of Ghandi and MLK Jr. Their work employs love and compassion, demonstrations and outreach to win hearts. Peaceful protestors also use provocative actions that reveal oppression — straddling the corner with the Resistance.


What’s notable about the Four Corners is that three of the corners are advocating for a new power-sharing agreement. Only the Protectors want to maintain the status quo — because they are protecting their existing power. And this is entirely normal and human. It’s how some people feel safe. Those of us who are disinterested and/or uninvolved support the status-quo through inertia.

We no longer have a collective agreement about power.
Debilyn Molineaux, Co-Director of the Bridge Alliance

The Resistance, Persuaders and Peacemakers share similar or aligned goals. They work independently of one another enacting different tactical plans. The Protectors know if the three groups worked together, change could happen very quickly. Continuing to pit each group against one another will increase their odds of keeping power–and staying safe.

As we undergo this period of transition, it is important for each of us to know whose corner we are in. We are not limited to one corner — most folks will recognize themselves in at least two — but we will tend to have a preferred or favorite corner. Mine is Peacemaker. Most of those I work with are also Peacemakers. I have friends who are the Resistance and I reach out to Persuaders regularly. I even have friends who support the Protectors. They like things just the way they are, thank you very much.

As a Peacemaker, I will continue to look for openings to make the transition less violent and more peaceful. My friends in the Resistance have my respect — they willingly put their bodies at risk through protests, civil disobedience, being provocative and protecting others.

Power is never conceded by asking nicely. It must be challenged and the Resistance corner is there to challenge power with counter-power.

Similarly, I respect the Persuaders for using their influence to cajole, argue, push and pull people inside the Protector group, to change minds and hearts. I recognize that those who support Protectors crave certainty — and I respect their needs. But I advocate for change through peace.

Whose corner are you in?