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About four months into our How to Be a Good Citizen book club this year, my best friend and I realized we’d inadvertently settled on a theme for the year. There’s no real rhyme or reason to our book selection process; we keep a running list of books we’d like to read together and then pick whatever looks most interesting at the time.
This year, the result has been reading a series of books with a theme we didn’t necessarily intend to explore but that is as relevant as ever — that theme is related to the American tendency to propose and promote individual solutions for systemic issues, rather than working to dismantle unjust systems and push for broad societal change.
The first book we read for 2021 was Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can. This collection of essays details the wide-ranging and devastating impacts of climate change, what needs to be done to address them, and how the Green New Deal is our best solution for fighting climate change.
The book makes clear that the challenges we face from climate change are massive, that so far government and corporations have blocked real action, and that failure to act will have catastrophic results. And yet when we look at what is usually proposed to address climate change in the United States, the burden too often falls to individuals. Recycle more, stop using straws, eat less meat — and yet the only thing that will actually address the climate crisis is massive collective action, holding corporations responsible, and reshaping our society to meet the demands of climate change. So far, however, even in the face of an existential crisis like climate change, Americans can’t seem to come together and envision a collective solution.
We followed that book up with Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. This book traces the origins of burnout culture and the conditions that have led millennials to be particularly plagued by burnout. Petersen details how burnout culture is deeply rooted in American society. It’s expected in our parenting practices and gender norms, baked into our education system, and normalized at work. Yet when someone complains about feeling burned out, the suggested solutions are often highly individual — find a new job, practice self-care, take some time off. There is nothing proposed to hold companies’ accountable for exploitative conditions or to make education more affordable and accessible or to address the gendered division of family care and housework. Instead, successive generations of individual Americans are simply expected to bear the burden of burnout without complaint or hope for a better and more balanced life.
And just a few weeks ago, we finished the Pulitzer Prize-winning history, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America by Marcia Chatelain. This book traced the history of McDonald’s and fast food franchising, capitalism, and Black America, and one recurring theme was the undue burden placed on individual black franchise owners and black consumers to fight racism in their local communities and in the United States.
When white Americans failed to embrace the civil rights movement and when the government failed to fully implement and enforce civil rights legislation, many people turned to capitalism to advance the rights of African Americans. They thought if only black Americans could achieve economic equality, then racism would end. However, as Chatelain shows, this approach meant that black franchise owners and black consumers were forced to use their businesses and consumer choices to combat racism. Corporations, white Americans, the government, and society were not expected to do much of anything, but black franchise owners were tasked with educating their companies on racism and fighting to be treated equally. Black consumers were told it was their responsibility to support black businesses and that freedom could be found through exercising their consumer choices. Yet, as we’ve seen, capitalism and consumer choices have not cured the ills of racism, and if anything, have only blinded many white Americans to the true insidious nature of systemic racism.
Through three widely varied topics, the same theme is evident. When there is a big issue or problem in society, we too often propose the individual solution, even if the problem is so big that only a collective solution could possibly improve things. Of course, this isn’t to say the individual solutions proposed are bad, but they’re a drop in the bucket compared to the massive social action required to fix the damage caused by climate change, unchecked capitalism, and systemic racism.
In America, individuals are expected to fix the environmental problems caused by big corporations; black business owners and customers are expected to solve racism; individual workers are expected to buck up and fix our broken work culture.