On the fallacy of apolitical policy

Before you read this post, please consider donating to and otherwise furthering the hard work of Black organizers across the United States, as well as demanding justice and accountability for the Black people killed by law enforcement and white supremacy.

Let’s talk about policy. Let’s get political.

Recently, some colleagues and I created and began circulating a petition asking the Fletcher School at Tufts University – my graduate institution – to publicly release a statement indicating its support for the ongoing protests against systemic injustice against Black people in the United States. The signatures on the petition are edging 500 – that’s five hundred current students, incoming students, alumni, and staff – and the petition has since been communicated to the Dean of the Fletcher School (by the way, Fletcher did in fact release a public statement – the first of many steps necessary to create an institution that models the broader societal changes needed before we realize true justice and equity).

But I’d like to talk about one particular signature we received: “DISSENT – Fletcher educates policy makers, it’s institutional stance should be apolitical.”

I say signature, because by nature of this petition being – well – a petition, a dissent once submitted counts as a signature. And I don’t have the vaguest idea of who submitted this, and I’m okay with that. But I haven’t been able to get this idea out of my mind; that somehow, policymakers must be – and are – apolitical, and that the education of policymakers must be similarly apolitical.

Maybe in an ideal world, policymakers are just apolitical cogs in an apolitical machine that chugs along like the perfect Weberian bureaucracy: strictly professional, only tangentially aware of changes in political administrations, and committed to the pursuit of an elusive efficiency and effectiveness. But – and I think we’re all keenly aware of this reality, particularly now when we see mass uprising in the United States against entrenched anti-Blackness and injustice – we don’t live in an ideal world. And therefore, policymakers aren’t afforded the luxury of idealism.

I am a Pakistani woman. That is a policy fact. I am also a Muslim woman, another policy fact that is only sometimes extricated into Muslim and woman. And so I grew up understanding on a spiritual level that policy is only ever political, and policymakers – by extension – some of the most prime political actors in both their own domestic system and ours.

Policy looks like development. Policy looks like extradition agreements. Policy looks like the Consul-General. Policy looks like sanctions. Policy looks like tariffs. Policy looks political.

So who thinks policy is apolitical?

I don’t know for sure, because I don’t know who this person is that signed our petition indicating their dissent. Maybe it’s the people who aren’t by affected policy (or think they aren’t); maybe it’s the people who don’t know what sanctions look like in reality; maybe it’s people who don’t know how foreign policy actually works Over There; maybe it’s people who grew up x-collar/in x-community/with x-income/in an x-neighborhood and feel so deeply that policy should be apolitical that they begin to believe it is apolitical and anyone who insists the contrary is the anomaly.

So, then, who thinks policy is political?

People who have been shortchanged by resource allocation know policy is political. Teachers who see how funds to school districts are allocated and know they’ll have to bring things into their classroom on their own dime know that policy is political. The Consul-General of the Pakistani consulate in Dubai knows that policy is political. The NGO-intern helping draft a budget for their development project that has to be submitted to USAID by EOD knows that policy is political.

People who call policy what it is – political – are derided. Accused of making policy something different than what it was during their time, during their education. A policymaker’s job is to be above politics, beyond politics.

This is a fantasy. This is a fiction.

And I could be wrong here, but it’s my instinct that when people are forced to confront the political reality of policy, those people who stand to benefit from the (a)politics of policy are necessarily shocked out of their system, because they’re forced to contend with the fact that perhaps now policy will begin to affect them. Changemakers, instead of making policy apolitical, operating by leaning into the politics and recentering it until the politics is one of equity, one of justice. And so the folks that insist on an apolitical policy are jarred by, angered by, maybe even afraid of the audacity inherent in equity.

I don’t know how really to end this post, but perhaps it’s by saying this: when people call for change in the form of liberation of a people – particularly Black people – the response shouldn’t be fear, it should be eagerness, excitement. Because liberation – not any other system – is the rising tide that lifts all of us.

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