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Pessimism, Optimism, and Hope: Square One Discusses The Social Contract

The fourth Square One roundtable opened with a Zoom session addressing how the fallout from the pandemic and protests against police brutality have created an opportunity to reshape U.S. society for better — or worse.

I feel that perhaps a piece of optimism is that we can learn past lessons from these myriad broken contracts and actually reimagine and create one that takes those lessons learned — positive and negative — to recreate one that really is effective for all.
Kimá Joy Taylor Founder and Managing Principal, Anka Consulting LLC

Without a social contract to bind people’s actions and secure their rights, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote, life in a state of nature would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can certainly feel solitary — a point underlined as the fourth Square One roundtable opened not at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, as originally planned, but over Zoom.

As society grapples with the fallout from the ongoing pandemic, rolling protests against police brutality, an approaching economic depression and potential political crisis, Square One Co-Founder and Arnold Ventures Executive Vice President Jeremy Travis asked the 28-member group to present their thoughts on the current state of the U.S. social contract.

“We have this reality that we're coming together in the middle of this very brutal time, frankly,” Travis said. “So to talk about the social contract at a time when it seems to be frayed to say the least is an assignment of the first order.”

In the context of this national discord, Travis’ informal assignment was for each member to explain whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the social contract — especially as it relates to justice and crime.

Below are some highlights from the discussion.

Kimá Joy Taylor, Founder and Managing Principal, Anka Consulting LLC

I would say I'm somewhat pessimistic, but maybe sad is a better way to explain it. I don't feel the country has ever truly had a social contract. It has had social contracts for different groups at different times that it is absolutely willing to take away and destroy as needed. And so I feel that perhaps a piece of optimism is that we can learn past lessons from these myriad broken contracts and actually reimagine and create one that takes those lessons learned — positive and negative — to recreate one that really is effective for all.

Elizabeth Hinton, Associate Professor of History and African and African American Studies, Harvard University

I'm really optimistic by the speed with which social movements that have been building for decades have kind of taken a new national prominence like “defund the police” and people are talking about abolition more, and of course systemic racism is becoming this kind of household buzzword term, and white people are beginning to really reckon with racism and their own role in exacerbating racism and also taking to the streets.

Emily Wang, Associate Professor of Medicine, Yale School of Medicine; Director, Health Justice Lab; Co-Founder, Transitions Clinic Network

I’m neither pessimistic or optimistic. I think the work has to move on. I will say in this particular moment, it gives me deep satisfaction to see that Medicaid is expanding in Missouri. I think that that's a huge criminal justice piece of legislation.

Lynda Zeller, Senior Fellow of Behavioral Health, Michigan Endowment Fund

I'm really encouraged by the witnessing of the convictions of other people around me about the impact of our silence as white people and the power of our voices especially in systemic racism, injustice, and oppression. I'm especially hopeful about the more open conversations in health and social service circles about health disparities, especially racial and ethnic, that our systems have continued to perpetuate or ignore.

Erik Bringswhite, Co-Founder and Executive Director, I. Am. Legacy Center

Regarding the pandemic, I feel like it has given us all a little perspective on what it feels like to be Native American. [...] The recession, unemployment, racial justice, and the political climate. I guess these are some of the issues that we have been navigating since 1492. I'm optimistic because I feel that we have answers and solutions to assist in navigating through some of these issues with very little resources to do so. And I'm optimistic in adding our voice to the meaningful discussions that are taking place around the country.

Marcia Rincon-Gillardo, Executive Director, NOXTIN

I am inclined to talk about how this pandemic and the uprising actually makes me feel optimistic. The reason for that is it took this pandemic to actually start emptying out some of our facilities around the country that otherwise would not do it themselves.

Vivian Nixon, Executive Director, Community & College

I don't frame my hope in terms of optimism. I actually prefer the term hope, and it comes from knowing the difference between the two. Optimism relies on evidence, and there's not a whole lot of evidence that we can sustain the kind of long-term look in the mirror that we need to sustain in order to get where we need to be. But I am hopeful because somehow we always manage to make some progress despite that.

Aisha McWeay, Executive Director, Still She Rises Tulsa

Some of the places where we have seen real progress and real showing of potential, it has been in the youth in this country and their movement right now in all kinds of spaces — but really politically around social justice and racial justice, and that is something to be optimistic and hopeful about.

Heather Rice-Minus, Vice President of Government Affairs & Church Mobilization, Prison Fellowship

[I’ve] never before had such an outpouring of interest and wanting to learn from the Christian community than ever before. We've just seen such a spike in people wanting to use our small group curriculum to talk about justice issues, to join our ambassador program. I had my pastor who's a mega church pastor reach out to do a listen-and-learn with us on mass incarceration for the first time. So just glimmers of hope and kind of the personal and I'm hopeful that we can get to a place where we can take steps forward.

Chas Moore, Founder and Executive Director, Austin Justice Coalition

I'm pessimistic for a few different reasons. One, I’m loving the energy and the yard signs and the donations and the hashtags and people coming to the meetings and asking for the talking points at City Council meetings. But I'm pessimistic because I don't know if that conviction is real. [...] I call it the 911 effect — for six months in this country everybody loved one another. Six months after that we went back to the America that we were.

David Garland, Arthur T. Vanderbilt Professor of Law Professor of Sociology, New York University

The USA does have a social contract. [...] You should work hard, play by the rules, accept the sanctity of private property, market outcomes, and white supremacy. That's pretty much the American mode.

Jorge Renaud, Regional Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Southwest, LatinoJustice PRLDEF; Senior Policy Analyst, Prison Policy Initiative

As someone who spent 27 years in the Texas cage, I am optimistic that my abolitionist comrades are now starting to get a little sunlight and people are starting to see that they're not just preaching “open up the cages” — which is of course just simple decarceration. People are starting to understand [...] that it's actually about transformation, that it's about recognizing the life-long trauma that we inflict on everybody who lives in this country.

Deanna Van Buren, Co-Founder, Executive Director, Design Director, Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

What's been hopeful and kind of exciting is to see Black folks across a range of class spectrums in various financial institutions coming together to redirect the flow of capital into Black and brown communities. I've never seen it before.

Bruce Western​, Co-Founder, Square One Project; Co-Director, Justice Lab; Bryce Professor of Sociology and Social Justice, Columbia University

I think a lot about Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall. You have this massive edifice of state socialism across Europe. The official mission of that system was to deliver democracy and well-being to workers. It wasn't doing that. It was rotten at its core. Because of this crisis of legitimacy the system fell down like a house of cards, and this is kind of the possibility of this moment.