State of Disunion

What Does Accountability Mean Anymore?


There can’t be reconciliation if we don’t start with the truth around the structural issues that got us here in the first place.



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The very idea of accountability—particularly political accountability—feels like trying to reach out and grab hold of a mirage. Over the past year alone, the United States has been home to a president who has incited white supremacist violence and made disinformation a cornerstone of his time in office, among many other violations. Police murdered Breonna Taylor in her home and George Floyd on the street, two of too many examples of police brutality, violence, and systemic racism with no accountability. There’s been next to no federal response to COVID, even doctors have dabbled in spreading disinformation, and the painless act of wearing a mask to the grocery store in order to protect each other has been spun as a signal of political ideology and statement-making, even as the pandemic surges on.

Yet we continue carrying about our days—because, in a society where healthcare is tied to our jobs and childcare is too often dependent on whether schools are open, what choice is there, really? And while the pandemic certainly added a layer that exacerbated existing inequities, not all of this is new. Racism and white supremacy aren’t sudden side effects of the Trump administration; they’re embedded in America’s societal fabric and structures. Some politicians have never been fully accountable to anyone, let alone the constituents they’re supposed to represent and communities they’re supposed to serve. Continued calls to “move on” and “unite” conveniently ignore that for Black people, immigrants, for LGBTQ+ people, for people who are marginalized, uniting essentially means shaking the hand of those who have no regard for your life, and in a lot of cases, actively work against you. As Jhumpa Bhattacharya, vice president of programs and strategy at Insight Center for Community Economic Development, pointed out, the question that pops up in these conversations—what’s the consequence for choosing unity over accountability?—poses a false dichotomy. “There is no true unity without accountability. Period,” she says. Defining accountability is necessary to justice, but that also means defining truth, who we are accountable to, and who we listen to.

What restorative justice frameworks point to is how accountability is a part of healing, and healing is a critical step towards actual unity, Bhattacharya explains. “It’s quite frankly a slap in the face to Black and brown communities to suggest that there can be unity without accountability to blatant acts of white supremacy within the halls of our government,” she adds. “To suggest so is to continue to excuse and minimize acts of racial violence, once again forcing people of color to swallow our pain and truth.”

Unity sounds nice in theory because the idea of coming together regardless of ideology, where everyone suddenly agrees to work toward a collective good and what that collective good is, is comfortable. “But comfort isn’t a marker of unity,” Bhattacharya says. “True unity comes when people are willing to get uncomfortable in order to grow and heal.” It’s the only way toward true progress in creating a just, inclusive society, she adds.

And President Joe Biden’s calls for unity can’t exist in any tangible way without accountability. The change in administration doesn’t necessarily mean people will snap into a common definition of what that means. “I don’t know what accountability will look like in this post-Trump era,” says Nadia E. Brown, PhD, associate professor and university faculty scholar in the department of political science and African American studies at Purdue University. Brown is concerned about this because, given the rampanent amount of misinformation, there’s a population that doesn’t think there’s any need to be accountable. When all the information someone is fed is saying they’re right, what accountability is there to be had, when there was no wrongdoing done? We would have an answer to what accountability would look like if there were not inherently two or three Americas, Brown says.

In the past, national crises, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, brought the nation together, united around a common threat—though not through a “kumbaya moment,” as those that are most marginalized are even more marginalized during these national crises, Brown points out. “But we’re living through a crisis; we’re living through a global pandemic,” Brown says, and that’s certainly not happening now. Nationalist, authoritarian governments have sown so much distrust that people are dying of COVID who don’t even believe COVID is a real thing. It seems the question isn’t only “What does accountability mean?” but an equally foundational question of “What is the truth?”

Accountability itself has to start with truth-telling, says Bhattacharya. She points out that, when we think about American narratives surrounding accountability, it’s rooted in punishment. But looking at accountability as being about healing and reconciliation, rather than just punishment, you see the larger context. Bhattacharya uses the example of insurrection: When viewed through that lens, “it’s not just about Trump and impeaching Trump, but the larger context of white supremacy that is really real in our country.”

That also ties into the idea of shared morality and whether it exists anymore. What ends up missing from ideas of morality and moral codes, Bhattacharya says, is “morality in the sense of who are we accountable to.” It means asking whether we’re only accountable to ourselves, or accountable to our larger communities. You can see it in the narrative surrounding the American dream as well as in our definitions of success, in which you have to get to the top at all costs and squishing others on the way there is just the price of entry. “How do we get to some deep kind of cultural shift around really showing how we are interconnected?” Bhattacharya says. “It can never be just about you.”

Seeing the larger context means examining the structural issues. You can’t have a conversation about accountability without talking about race and gender, Bhattacharya says, citing the report that showed women, and in particular women of color, had disproportionately lost jobs. That didn’t happen randomly, and it’s another example of what accountability in the larger context looks like. “These are structural issues. These are not individualistic issues. And they lie within the larger context of the patriarchy and racism, and anti-Blackness in particular,” Bhattacharya continues.

That also means looking twice at how we hold each other accountable. “We definitely should have a shared morality but we most definitely don’t, especially in politics as they are directly tied to what we believe in and it is a matter of life and death,” says MJ Freeburg, a 17-year-old community organizer and self-described learning abolitionist. “Beyond holding the people around you accountable, holding yourself is a crucial cornerstone as we continue to build a new world in the shell of the old.” They say that it’s important for white people, themself included, to interrogate themselves and be actively anti-racist. “We have to collectively understand that even if you have good intentions, being quiet and amplifying the voices of Black, Indigenous, and people of color is what will bring the most revolutionary change.” Freeburg also believes accountability requires consent and collectivism, which they explain is impossible to achieve through electorism. “Accountability starts now through mutual-aid, insurgency, occupying and organizing—these systems need to be destroyed,” Freeburg says.

As questions remain on how to actually hold elected officials accountable to the people they serve, 2020 was also an example of people attempting to be accountable to each other. “I think we’ve seen unprecedented numbers of people using or relying on mutual aid in the last year or so,” says Tyesha Maddox, PhD, assistant professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University. “I think in this moment, people are relying on organizing as a way to fill in those needs, when clearly we know the government has not stepped up and shown leadership to help groups of people who are hurting right now.” Maddox hopes it is a strategy people will continue to use, particularly because mutual aid organizing is not deemed as charity—there’s supposed to be no hierarchy, which feels like a stark contrast to begging for accountability from elected officials who don’t hold town halls or respond to constituent inquiries. And that doesn’t mean not holding people in power accountable: People are pushing for legislators to implement policies people need, says Maddox, but at the same time, there are on the ground needs that have to be immediately met.

Freeburg also says they’ve seen more impact on a smaller, local level. “I think applying pressure is still important as they are supposed to serve the public, but this pressure, combined with direct action, is where we usually see the most change happen through a legislative process,” Freeburg says. It starts from the ground up, Freeburg adds, including racializing yourself, taking action, and being an active member in your communities.

It also matters who you listen to. “People that are closest to the margins have had the ability to see multiple versions of truth and to have a clearer vision of truth, because they have to know what those at the center of power say is happening and see what is truthful and what their own lived experiences are,” Brown says. They’ve had to grapple with needing to know “what the white boys in power are saying,” and what’s happening in their own communities. Brown explains that they’ll be the future of what accountability looks like—people who know what the solutions should be, because they’re experiencing the problems firsthand. “I would hope we’re paying attention to their stories out of the shadows because they have something to say,” Brown says.

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