Institutions Impede Social Change

In many ways, institutions abuse their good standing in society to impede social change.

Alfred Brophy, a legal scholar, visited the University of Florida where he and students discussed slavery and academia in the Antebellum period. The thesis of his research is that academia used their position to rationalize injustices such as slavery. In Antebellum period, the anti-slavery movement was progressing because public opinion was shifting. However, in response, academia inserted itself into the slavery discourse to advocate for the pro-slavery side.

Historically, society perceives academia as intellectual because they do extensive research, and truthful because they are responsible for educating the next generation with genuine curriculum, not propaganda. Instead, in many ways, some in academia abuse their good standing in society to impede social change. This abuse of power not only occurred between in the Antebellum period but throughout history and into the modern era.

In 2013, academia was again perverted for political purposes. In American political discourse, a question to raise the federal minimum wage or not was posed to the American people. There were many substantive discussions about how an increase in the minimum wage would impact workers and businesses. For example, with an increase in the minimum wage, some people might not have to work three different jobs just to make ends meet. On the other hand, small businesses would suffer, and in some cases, shut down because they can’t afford the increase.

However, one political think tank, the Employment Policies Institute (EPI), used academia and the 1st Amendment to distort the discourse on the issue. The EPI published academic papers without credible scholars as authors, misrepresented facts and used a questionable methodology in support on one side of the issue. One example is when the EPI claimed a minimum wage increase “would cost the country a half a million jobs.” They took this claim out of context from a Congressional Budget Office report and neglected to mention the positive results that the report predicted. This included: a boosted net income of $2 billion, raised wages for more than 16 million workers, and lifted 900,000 Americans out of poverty.

These methods of the EPI are legal because of the 1st Amendment, which asserts all statements are legal with the exceptions of obscenity, fighting words, and inciting violence. Therefore, the EPI’s effort to distort the discourse is not applicable to the exemptions. So, while the EPI’s academics are disingenuous, it is protected by the 1st Amendment. This is a recent example of how academics are perverted to advocate for one issue or another.

In addition to academia, the clear majority of institutions impede social change. Some notable examples were: ending slavery, integrating all races in public schools and legalizing same sex marriage. For years institutions did not comply with the decision of Brown v. Board of Education. A small group of courageous plaintiffs, their lawyers, and the Warren Court made social change by desegregating schools to create equal opportunity for all students no matter their race. However, various institutions did not desegregate their schools because they did not want to. There was a concerted effort between institutions like Congress, the lower courts, school boards and the public to not integrate. Only until many years later, did the schools integrate because society eventually relented. However, even with the majority of public surrendering on the issue, other institutions undercut the momentum on the issue. For example, local governments cut funding to specific schools and rejected forced busing programs to restrict school integration. Establishments remain conservative despite public opinion.

Then, Obergefell v. Hodges shows the law and the court systems are naturally conservative because of the president’s temporary executive orders or administrative policies, the difficulty of changing the law with legislation in Congress and the United States Supreme Court’s inability to change the law. To start, in 1971, the question of same-sex marriage first arose in Baker v. Nelson. In Baker, the Court asserted same-sex marriage was not a substantial federal question so it remained illegal. Over time, however, some events changed the majority of people’s opinions in society. For example, Ellen DeGeneres shifted public opinion when she came out as gay, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage and the first sitting President, Barack Obama, publicly supported same sex-marriage. Finally, 44 years later, gay marriage was legalized. However, this was a slow process and only occurred because the majority of society was at least O.K. with the concept.

Brophy shows academia advocated for injustices in the 19th century like when the Virginia Military Institute required students to read literature about the importance of slavery. However, this trend persists into the 21st century with many examples including the EPI and the minimum wage debate, local governments and the integration of public schools, and the United States Supreme Court and gay rights. Only with broad public neutrality, concession or support does social change happen and even then, change is slow.