Jun 11, 2020 - Politics & Policy

A national crisis of institutional legitimacy

An illustration of columns collapsing.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

America's institutions are failing to command the respect they need to be effective.

Why it matters: A wave of discontent with institutions that started at the federal level has now metastasized to encompass almost every center of power in the country, from the media to technology to sports, retail, and — most visibly — the police.

The big picture: These powerful institutions, which are almost always run by white men, are increasingly being seen as manifestations of systemic racism and white supremacy.

  • A protester saying that Black Lives Matter is talking about the black lives lost to police forces across the nation. But the message is much broader than that, and is addressed at every institution that devalues the lives of its black employees, customers and communities.

How it works: International #brands like Prada and Dolce & Gabbana will happily aver that Black Lives Matter on their Instagram accounts, while remaining symbols of racial inequality. Young black men who covet, inspire, and buy the wares at stores like Gucci and Supreme are acutely aware that the companies in control of these brands are overwhelmingly owned and run by white men.

  • The disconnect is even greater when looking at Black Lives Matter posts from sports teams like the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, and the Chicago Blackhawks.
  • Tech giants Facebook and Google have faced walkouts over the way in which they perpetuate race and gender inequalities. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian has resigned from the company's board, saying his act was "long overdue" and that a black person should take his seat.
  • Media organizations across the country are facing race-related reckonings.

In government, President Trump rendered ineffectual or abolished entire agencies including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Security Council’s global health security unit. His signature move has been to appoint officials like Mick Mulvaney and Rick Perry to run agencies they had previously called to abolish.

  • At the local level, calls to defund police departments are gaining traction. The country's racist criminal-justice system remains intact, however, despite bipartisan consensus that it needs fundamental reform.

Between the lines: Two highly educated lawyers were arrested in New York last week on charges of throwing a largely ineffectual Molotov cocktail into an empty NYPD vehicle.

  • The damage caused was minimal, but if found guilty the two face a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years in prison.
  • Both lawyers, it seems, by taking to property destruction and what is sometimes called not-nonviolent crime, had lost all faith in the system they had sworn to uphold.

The bottom line: A multiracial country's national identity rests on the strength of its institutions. When those institutions no longer command broad respect, the nation is likely to fracture into tribalism.

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