The author is a long-time racial justice activist and co-founder of Decipher City, an organization whose missions is to ‘analyze partnerships between the built environment and local governments as they relate to marginalized communities, and provide solutions to dismantling systemic inequities.’
This is the first part of her ongoing series on interracial organizing.
Let’s talk about validation, the recognition that a person, their experience of the world, their needs, and their thoughts and feelings are valid. Let’s talk about the personal feeling of dignity acquired via some external source and the outsize, but subtle, role it plays in driving so much of politics and organizing today. The United States has based its method of validating human life on financial value since its founding, and this fact rests at the heart of the nation’s ongoing brutality. To start, let’s go back to the beginning of the context.
Since the administrative beginning of the United States, there has been a power imbalance. People with wealth and power escape accountability: they’ve never had to prove their worth. Their validation has been self-evident from the start. Despite the Constitution being written one way—behind a high-minded smokescreen of liberty and equality rhetoric—the reality of its execution has never lived up to its spirit. Through the nation’s bloody story, few in power—and too few without—have deviated from the belief that those with authority deserve to retain it. Despite it’s fetishizing of freedom, it was born as, and has remained, an authoritarian nation. At the basis of this hierarchy is the exchange of validation. In the American Way, nothing is worth anything without someone getting paid. No one has inherent worth without such external validation. Today, the nation’s government agencies hire economists to measure the economic value of life. The Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency agree that it’s about $9 million. The Food and Drug Administration, on the other hand, puts it under $8 million. See the meager punishment doled out to brutal police officers to understand how such worth varies by ethnicity.
That monetary value is the primary form of external validation is indicative of how the United States has evolved as a nation; it is the main reason its bloody, authoritarian history continues to repeat itself. Early on, only plantation owners and colonizing entities were considered to have authority, despite their continued absence from the lives of their subordinates. Their lives were priceless: the lives of slaves and the colonized had economic values attached to them. Colonizers and slavers were granted unlimited autonomy and full personhood without acknowledgment of the sources of their wealth. Slaves came to exist in the new nation because, despite the natural resources in African countries, the people themselves, sold as chattel, were stripped of their power and wealth before being forced to board a slave ship to the “New World.”
In the “New World,” Indigenous people were not recognized by colonizers as owning their land. Colonizers only recognized European private property laws as frames for reference. First Nations ascribed no analogous monetary value to the land; Indigenous people lived on the land because that was the biological expectation for human beings. Europeans maintained a feudalism that demanded constant payment for the pleasure of being ruled. Because Europeans were unable to translate land ownership in a way that projected that sort of external validation, they usurped land and power from the original stewards. Moreover, because Europeans could slaughter Indigenous people successfully, colonizers accepted that as the sole measure of superiority and the legal right to control non-European populations.
Throughout the colonization ecosystem, plantation owners and settlers could depend on support from among their subordinates, especially once the United States caste system was firmly in place. People within non-European cultures would compete with each other for European favor in hopes of developing some sort of peace, an external validation of their existence, a perverse kind of dignity doled out from those who had hoarded and set the terms of validation. Among slaves, for instance, there was often fierce competition to be a house slave, despite the physical and psychological abuse entailed in that position, because those slaves were seen as validated by the ruling family, and could even be seen as authorities among other slaves. If slaves were killed, whatever story circulated from the plantation elite was held as true even by those who knew the actual truth. Anything that was validated by those of European favor was seen as good and just, despite the horrors that existed for anyone or anything outside that favor.
Today, a parallel form of that external validation has been monopolized by finance: people in the United States are still being told that nothing is worth anything without getting paid. Social media, for example, is so addictive because of the instant hollow kind of validation available, but is destructive because of its theft of the most irretrievable resource without offering tangible resources required for validation: time. Because technology careers are among the highest paid, and therefore education in them prioritized, other subjects like fine arts are barely taught and social sciences persistently undervalued. Rather than learning to find internal validation through the self-expression or coping skills or knowledge that these other fields can teach, the elite continue to train the majority to persistently seek empty validation, with diminishing returns that are being offered to fewer and fewer people.
Laws continue to be fastidiously changed to cater to the whims of the wealthy, further validating their authority. A recent vivid example can be found in those who protest against and impede the progress of oil & gas companies being made felons, and facing decadeslong prison sentences, due to lobbying efforts and campaign contributions of the fossil fuel lobby. Even though protests and revolts are considered a valuable part of Amdrican mythology—the Boston Tea Party, the American Revolution—actions against fossil fuel companies have not been similarly validated.
Violence pervades all demands for validation. The waste products of which are genocide and poverty and exploitation. Because of this, people are conditioned to want relief from the violence rather than seek justice, seemingly to further validate even the most fiending atrocities. Large oil companies have devastated ecosystems, poisoned drinking water throughout the southern United States, and have degraded the air quality mostly in communities of color. With the proposed construction of the Permian Highway Pipeline and Valero’s announcement of another pipeline, for example, Central Texas residents have begun the long fight of saving the Edwards Aquifer, the main source of drinking water for the region. However, people of color work in many of the gas stations, depend on driving due to the locations of living wage jobs, and even work in the law enforcement protecting those oil companies. Because of deep indoctrination and their dependence on elite benevolence, most Americans seem to fetishize their abusers, telling them that they are smart and powerful in the hopes of relief from the constant violence. If they fawn over their oppressors, perhaps they’ll enjoy a moment of respite. Among many in the working class, undeserved praise abounds for those within elite circles, despite the violence.
Moreover, the tactics that are validated for some are seen as vile by others, essentially stating that people are only allowed to violate the humanity of others if they have received enough validation to do so. There are economic standards for who is allowed to steal and exploit, and there are harsh consequences for infringing upon that economic barrier. For example, poorer people are imprisoned for theft because of the violation of private property, they are shot dead at the slightest hint—true or untrue—of their committing even victimless crime; wealthier people are given legal impunity to act out crimes with victims in the hundreds, thousands, millions, and granted broad emotional license based on their unfamiliarity with the poor. After all, if Wells Fargo executives can demand fake accounts under the names of Black and Latino patrons, and“affluenza”is a successful legal defense to murder four people with a vehicle, clearly the problem with most of the incarcerated populations is that they did not earn enough money to validate the commission of their crimes. Organizations without resources are dismantled if any impropriety is revealed; companies with massive resources are allowed to reorganize upon the discovery of their misdeeds. Because those companies have acquired so many resources, the public generally assumes that the leadership is validated, further affirmed by the same leadership circulating through the same companies with extensive resources.
If society as a whole is to move forward, there must be a release from the obligation to validate and a movement of self-awareness. People cannot attain their full autonomy if they are begging for permission to exist based on resources that have been hoarded. Coping skills and self-expression can help people to internally validate; resources should be a reflection of what people need to thrive. The wealthy’s need for constant reassurance has led them to such acts of desperation as setting the Amazon on fire, and that should be viewed and addressed as the madness that it is. Humanity cannot afford to continue validating those who constantly feel inadequate without the manipulation and exploitation of others.