Black Lives Matter protest in Calgary, June 2020. Photo: Patrick Earl Concepcion

ANALYSIS: The reasons behind anti-racism protests

It’s about expanding the choices available to us.

In the last few months, we’ve seen many Black Canadians, Indigenous people and other people of colour take to the streets to protest against racism.

We’ve also seen headlines referring to those participating in the protests as thugs, overly emotional, radicals—the list goes on. All with the intention of painting the protests as emotionally charged, and therefore irrational and ineffective.

One of the most common criticisms against the protesters is that they are an irrational mob fuelled by emotions—caught up in the euphoria of the moment with very little idea of their desired outcome. But this notion is just a way to discredit protests that are meaningful, intentional, and indeed rational.

Critics often base their arguments on rational choice theory to discount the importance of protests. In a nutshell, rational choice theory states that in order to make a decision, individuals employ reason and logic rather than emotions. But this is not reality.

The myth of rational choice

In a society that values individual control over one’s life, the idea of rational choice is appealing. But choice is never infinite, as the ability to choose is always limited by internal and external factors. For example, one’s choice of career is limited by one’s ability, skills, location, resources and so on.

But even when faced with constraints on our choices, we like to think that we are completely in control.

Rational thought and rational actions are always guided by emotions.

As a result, we’re often quick to view those who make “irrational” decisions as individuals who lack the ability to choose rationally, and we then fault people for not making the “right” choice.

Rational choice theory suggests that once one’s limits are taken into account, individuals make rational cost-benefit analyses to make the best choice which yields the most beneficial response. But our actions are rarely as rational as we think.

Often, we are primed to make specific choices. For all of us, rational action is guided by emotion. Whether it be the emotion of fear of the other or the emotion of frustration with racism, the two cannot be separated.

Research shows that so-called rational choice is in fact emotionally charged.

In his 2012 book, The Social Animal, David Brooks shows that while the conscious mind guides rational choice and rational action, these actions are always guided by the unconscious mind, or emotions. In other words, rational thought and rational actions are always guided by emotions.

Consider this: the increasing amount of video evidence documenting police shooting Black men in the U.S., or police mistreating Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada, has led many to question the motivations behind these violent actions. Why would a police officer choose to shoot rather than to otherwise de-escalate these individuals?

Looking for unconscious bias calls us to question the truths” impacting the decisions we make.

Given the ubiquitousness of video cameras, the police’s actions seem irrational. Yet, many police officers insist that, given their situation, the decision to use violence is the most rational choice they could make. To better understand this explanation, it is helpful to consider the connection between rational choice and emotions as it pertains to police action.

It is conceivable that police officers see their acts as rational. But this does not mean that these actions are void of emotion. This is why implicit bias training is so crucial. While the conscious mind that guides rational choice is one part of the equation, police officers need to seriously pay attention to their unconscious mind which governs their emotion.

Often, our beliefs are so deeply ingrained that we perceive them as truths. Looking for unconscious bias calls us to question the “truths” impacting the decisions we make.

What emotions come to the surface when they see a Black man sleeping in a car in a parking lot? What emotions come to the surface when they see an Indigenous woman walking on the street late at night? What are the emotional aspects guiding their “rational” choice?

Creating our own path

All of us desire the same things—choices that allow us to express our innovation, creativity, motivation, determination and skills. But in our social context these choices are limited.

What happens to those whose choices are limited? How do they then exercise their autonomy in the face of fewer desirable choices?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought to create his own path in the face of limited choices.

Well, they make their own way. They create their own viable choices which, at times, may seem dangerous, undesirable, or a threat to the status quo.

Those who create their own path in the face of objection are seen as deviant at the time. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. protested, marched and fought for more choices, as the choices available to Black people in the U.S. were limited at the time.

His desire was not to create havoc, but rather to afford to him and those like him the same rights and choices as everyone else. He fought to create his own path in the face of limited choices.

This is what the current marches and protests symbolize. They represent those who rationally evaluate their choices in life, rooted in their emotion of past experiences of their own and others like them. Realizing that their position limited their choices, the Black Lives Matter movement has embarked on a new pursuit to expand and equalize the choices available to them.

If you were in the same position, would you choose to settle for the limited choices that are presented to you, or would you fight for the same level of choice available to others?

Monetta Bailey, PhD, is a Barbadian-Canadian who has called Alberta home for the last 30 years. She is currently an associate professor at Ambrose University where she teaches sociology with a focus on criminology and critical race theory.

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