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  • Writer's pictureTracie Guy-Decker

In defense of incrementalism

Last week, a friend I know through my advocacy and activism work forwarded this Atlantic article by Mychal Denzel Smith, “Incremental change is a moral failing.” As the writer of B’more Incremental, my response to the title? Ouch.

Several days after reading the Atlantic article, I was talking with another activist and advocate friend about my work. She told me, “the name of your blog is kind of problematic. We need to be less incremental, not more.”

I admit it, I was shook. I spent a long evening wishing I’d named this blog B’more Persistent or B’more Resilient instead of B’more Incremental. In fact, I had decided to abandon B’more Incremental and transfer all of the content to a new name. When I told a third activist-advocate-DEI professional about my plans, she responded, “Incrementalism is incredibly powerful and effective. I think what [Smith] is calling incrementalism, I would label something else: stalling, denying, lack of sincerity and commitment. It isn’t so much incrementalism that’s the problem, but what the actual, true goal folks are working (or not) toward.”

“Yeah,” I thought. “Yeah. I named the blog B’more Incremental for a reason.” My goal is to help myself and other individuals work through the long, hard, uncomfortable journey of unlearning racism and white supremacy. When I say B(e) More Incremental, I don’t mean that our goal is small changes. I don’t mean “be patient” or “think small.” I mean big changes are achieved through the accumulation of lots and lots of small changes. It is a truth professional athletes, world-class musicians, long-time meditators, and anyone who has mastered a new skill knows. For changes within our control (I’m not talking about the kinds of massive change that come through external events), getting to the destination through incremental wins is the only way to get there.

And I don’t think Mychal Denzel Smith would disagree with me, despite the name of his article. Smith is writing about police violence and policy change. He is a self-proclaimed abolitionist--an advocate for a world without police. Smith envisions a future in which the money we currently spend on policing is instead spent on making sure everyone’s basic needs are met and as a result, violence--”both interpersonal and state sponsored”--is dramatically reduced.

In the midst of a national groundswell of support for police accountability Smith is seeing three steps forward and then two back in efforts to address police violence around the country. (He doesn’t name it, but I think of the recent Baltimore County Council meeting in which a relatively modest police reform bill couldn’t even make it to the floor for a vote.) In seeing this tedious reality in the midst of a cultural awakening, Smith worries, “this revolutionary moment seems to be turning into yet another flash of progress.” Though progress is good, he maintains, “the problem is when progress becomes its own ideology—that is, when advocacy for incrementalism is seen as the astute and preferred mode of political transformation. When we have done what is hard, and convinced ourselves that hard is a synonym for revolutionary. Incremental change keeps the grinding forces of oppression—of death—in place. Actively advocating for this position is a moral failure.” (emphasis and link in the original)

In other words, Smith argues incremental change is a moral failure when the next incremental change to policy is the sum total of the goal--when it is an end in itself. On that, Smith and I agree: in the face of systematized injustice, it is immoral to suggest that minor changes to the status quo are enough. Incremental progress cannot be the definition of success, it must be one step toward success.

Let me give an example of what I mean. In the midst of this pandemic, I learned that many of the kids in the Baltimore Public School System were going to go hungry when schools shut down, because the free school lunch was the only meal they received most days. Incremental change as a moral failing would look to solve this reality by crafting policy that created more food distribution methods and then consider the problem solved. More food distribution methods may be progress, but they are not success, because they do not address the root causes of food insecurity: lack of access to jobs paying a living wage, unreliable or non-existent public transportation, lack of access to education, mass incarceration, criminalization of poverty, disinvestment in poor or Black neighborhoods leading to food deserts, and other structural and systemic oppression.

At this point, I think it’s important to name the two sides of societal change, policy and culture. Policy and culture are a feedback loop. Each needs the other to change, and they influence one another. They do not move in lockstep, nor does either move in a linear trajectory. We must address both if we are to see real change in the world. Mychal Denzel Smith rightly calls out those who would aim for incremental policy change (more food distribution methods) and call it a revolution. (The real revolution would be to dismantle the policy structures that prevent people from providing for their own basic needs and the culture that both tolerates oppression and blames victims for their own oppression.)

When I say B’more Incremental I am advocating for incremental change as a tactic (perhaps *the* tactic) for individuals and organizations to move toward better versions of themselves, and thereby change culture. Despite the title of Smith’s article, or my friend’s assertion that the title of this blog is “problematic,” there is nothing inherently malignant about incrementalism. In fact, incrementalism, when done well, with persistence, resilience and a clear-eyed focus on the end goal, can lead to truly massive change. Ask an Olympic weight lifter about the path they took to be able to lift their current best, and they will describe a series of incremental increases in weight and reps used to build strength and muscle. The same is true for intellectual muscle and strength or empathy muscle and strength or antiracist muscle and strength. (In fact, I think of the work of B'more Incremental in some of the same ways I think of my exercise and meditation practices.)

Ultimately, my defense of incrementalism and B'more Incremental is to say: we all have a role to play. Policy and culture both require change. I am not a policy wonk. I have not built that muscle (yet?). When it comes to policy, I am a follower. I follow the wonks who are directly affected by issues of structural oppression and/or who care about what I care about. It is their job to define the end-goal policy (and even the interim wins it might take to get there): a world that doesn’t need police and where every family is able to meet their basic needs with or without school lunches. I see my job as helping to change culture so we can recognize today the good in that future world. My role is to help people--especially those who look, live, or worship as I do--examine their own place in the structures that have, so far, made that world impossible. My role is cheerleader and coach as people incrementally develop antiracist and anti-oppression muscles and strength.

Bmore Incremental may not be revolutionary, but I do believe it is part of a broader revolution.

Vive la Revolution!

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