What’s The Role of “Institutions” in Violence?

officer ben fields[Ed Note: This is another great guest post from Katie Christensen.]

An adult white man brutally beat a 16-year-old Black girl quietly sitting in a desk at a public high school and people felt their stomachs drop. A few weeks later, after Officer Ben Fields was fired and the Spring Valley High School student was hospitalized, the outrage continued but the media attention subsided.  An institution is a system that guides social interactions by use of its authority, and several institutions were at play at Spring Valley High School. These institutions supported the violence and discrimination that led to the assault of a minor. (Keep in mind that all institutions in the United States are built upon and maintained via racism as you read this article.)

The first institution that jumps out at me in this situation is education. In the United States, education has taken the form of public schooling, during which students learn to respect the authority of those “above them:” teachers, administrators, and increasingly, police officers. As a product of the public school system, I can tell you that I quickly learned to obey authority figures, even if I didn’t understand why they were asking me to do something. The young Black girl allegedly disobeyed a teacher. The teacher reacted to maintain their authority, even though, by all accounts, the student wasn’t being disruptive. She called into question the authority of the institution of education and a police officer reaffirmed that authority.

This brings me to the next institution: government. The police force is given its authority by the government through money, legislation and judicial processes. At the time, Ben Fields was using that authority granted to him by the institution of government and by the school that employed him. The power that came with being a part of several institutions allowed him to beat a minor without any claim on self-defense. If someone not supported by government and education systems had entered that school and begun beating a student, it would have been a crime that the authority figures in the school were obligated to stop. The media would have told a much different story.

The third institution at play was the media. As soon as the video of the assault was put online, it went viral. Virtually every media outlet from news broadcasts to click-bait factories covered the story up until Officer Fields was fired from the police force. As an institution, the media shows its consumers what it wants us to see. It’s important to remember that news outlets count on viewership/readership in order to function and thus cover news stories they believe interest viewers. Powerful media organizations decided that the Spring Valley High School case was no longer interesting enough for consumers to click on and it was dropped from the news.

The last obvious institution that was part of the story was family. Our society is focused on the nuclear family as a support system for children. The student who was assaulted had recently lost her nuclear family. When Ben Fields acted, he did not risk a confrontation with the student’s upset parent because she was an orphan. It’s the sad truth that children are often exploited, especially when they don’t have an adult standing behind them.

Institutions like the education, government and the media aren’t inherently bad. Plenty of them have beneficial roles in our society. However, because institutions have authority, there is a power differential between groups within society which often leads to prejudice and discrimination, as in the case of the student at Spring Valley High School. In every institution that played a role, Ben Fields was granted authority that the student was not.

In my search through media surrounding this case, I saw the words “prejudice” and “discrimination” used interchangeably, but there is an important difference. Prejudice is an attitude toward members of a social category, while discrimination is an action based on prejudice. As such, discrimination involves a difference in power—one group holds the power to take an action against another.

Institutions hold the power to discriminate based on prejudice. Ben Fields is not a lone wolf. Across the country, students are being discriminated against by the institutions that are supposed to protect them. What I can say for sure is that each of the institutions from which Fields got his authority are discriminatory. Black students across the country are consistently punished more severely for the same acts as their white classmates. Schools are still largely racially segregated, thanks to school boundaries being strategically drawn. Fields actions were despicable and the fact that his boss fired him is a small victory but allowing this story to disappear from the news so quickly missed an opportunity to address a problem that exists on an institutional level. Spring Valley High is everywhere.

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