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How Can Academic Research Support Non-Reformist Reforms?


Nancy Polikoff is Professor of Law Emerita at American University Washington College of Law.

This post continues a symposium on Dorothy Roberts’s Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World and Wendy Bach’s Prosecuting Poverty, Criminalizing Care.

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What is the relationship between “non-reformist reforms” and scholarship? We can, of course, write about the legislation and policy that we believe will advance transformative change. But in reflecting on the two books that form the basis for this symposium, along with the work of radical feminist theorist Charlotte Bunch, I suggest that we should use our scholarship to highlight the work of the organizations that are actually seeking such change.

In Prosecuting Poverty, Criminalizing Care, Wendy Bach provides a scathing critique of a Tennessee statute criminalizing drug use by pregnant women as fetal assault. In Torn Apart, Dorothy Roberts calls for abolition of family policing, her more accurate name for what we commonly refer to as the child welfare system. Both books demonstrate how our current systems of care are harming the people they ostensibly serve, yet they do so in slightly different registers. Bach seeks to persuade in a recognizably lawyerly fashion, with facts and analysis that demonstrate the complete disconnect between the articulated purpose of the fetal assault law – getting care to substance-using pregnant woman – and the punitive results of that law. She also grounds the climate that made passage of the law possible in the US history and practices of subordination based on race, class, and socioeconomic status. Roberts’s book has a more clamorous tenor, perhaps because the passionate book she wrote twenty years ago, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, failed to produce necessary changes. Roberts says up front that the family-policing system is “rooted in white supremacist, capitalist, and patriarchal logics,” and that abolition is the only viable solution.

Both books end by describing reforms worth fighting for. Enter the term, “non-reformist reforms.” In recent years, prison abolitionists have developed this concept to distinguish demands that could build toward ultimately dismantling incarceration from mere reformist steps that leave the current carceral structures in place. Critical Resistance has produced three informative charts on imprisonment, policing and militarism on campuses, and a substantial tool kit on pretrial and bail reforms, to help activists think through what reforms count as non-reformist.

In Torn Apart, Roberts pulls explicitly from the framework of prison abolition to suggest a series of “non-reformist reforms,” defined as those that reduce the power of child welfare agencies to intervene and destroy families and that shrink the system. Bach invokes the term “non-reformist reforms” only in a footnote, but she, too, recommends changes only if they avoid giving additional resources to the punishment institutions of child welfare and the criminal legal system, and if they separate the care pregnant women need from punitive measures.

The term “non-reformist reforms” evokes for me the radical feminism of the 1970s, the world in which I came of age as a political activist, thinker, and, not incidentally, lawyer. We wanted to end patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. It was the fodder of daily conversation to critique the reform-minded women’s movement, with its emphasis on gaining equality for (some) women within the existing social, political, and economic order. But then what were we to do?

Those discussions produced scholarship, and one influential analysis came from Charlotte Bunch, one of the movement’s earliest theorists. Bunch tried to answer the question of what to do in her essay, “The Reform Tool Kit,” published in the first issue of Quest: A Feminist Quarterly in 1974. She noted that radicals had rightly challenged the white, middle class bias of most women’s reforms, but she lamented their inaction. “Most radical groups fail to develop concrete reforms as a part of our program and direction,” she wrote, “because we have not realized that such reforms need not be tied to a reformist ideology.” A desire for purity had made radicals think that, “if we can’t achieve the final good now, then…we can’t do anything at all because it might be co-optable.”

Bunch articulated the following goal: “We need a new social order based on equitable distribution of resources…; upon equal justice and rights for all; and upon maximum freedom for each person to determine her own life.” Achieving that goal would require mobilization, and she hoped to steer women into meaningful action by using the following five criteria to assess proposed reforms:

  1. Does this reform materially improve the lives of women, and if so, which women, and how many?
  2. Does it build an individual woman’s self-respect, strength, and confidence?
  3. Does working for the reform give women a sense of power, strength, and imagination as a group and help build structures for further change?
  4. Does the struggle for reform educate women politically, enhancing our ability to criticize and challenge the system in the future?
  5. Does the reform weaken patriarchal control of society’s institutions and help women gain power over them?

Careful review of Bunch’s criteria demonstrates that process – how women as a group organize for political change – was as important, if not more, than the substance of the reform. Her first criterion is the only one that is exclusively focused on substance, and there she highlighted reforms that force distribution of resources to the least privileged women, such as a decent income for mothers on welfare, and those that alleviate immediate, daily problems, such as childcare.

The other criteria emphasize the process of fighting for a reform. Reform activities should “[help] women understand why we lack respect in this society and how society will continue to destroy our confidence until we gain power as a group.” They should make clear that victories stem from pressure, organization, and strength and are not conferred by the state, and thereby build women’s political as well as personal motivation. Obtaining one reform is never the goal, she wrote; victories should spur on further fights. Bunch noted that it is important to ask whether working on a particular reform will teach us about ourselves and our enemies; such political education can motivate women to keep working rather than become cynical when a campaign for reform fails. Finally, she argued that building alternative institutions (e.g., health clinics, schools) should not be havens of retreat but should challenge the power of existing institutions. She articulated that those most affected by each institution must have the power to determine the nature and direction of that institution.

Although cursory discussions of non-reformist reforms, including the Critical Resistance charts, tend to focus only on the substantive outcomes under consideration, process is an aspect of more expansive contemporary efforts to delineate criteria for radical reforms. For example, one of the five criteria identified by Marbre Stahly-Butts and Amna Akbar is: “Does the demand build or shift power?” “It matters who articulated the demands,” they write, “which organizing efforts and organizations pushed for them, and what ongoing space the demands create for collective learning and governance. Put simply, radical reforms are concerned not only with outcomes but with process.”

As I read Roberts’ and Bachs’ respective books, my mind kept returning to the process criteria so important to Bunch’s assessment of radical rather than reformist changes. In Torn Apart, Roberts marvels at the enormous expansion of parent organizing, including groups in many cities who have organized to help mothers fight for their children; who have created mutual aid projects; who have engaged in successful direct actions to obtain housing for single mothers and their children and other projects; and who call explicitly for replacing family policing with community-based support groups. Thus, as Roberts describes the non-reformist reforms worth fighting for, she weaves in the work of community organizing. (A more thorough current account of organizing for family policing abolition can be found in Erin Miles Cloud and Lisa Sangoi’s Fulfilling the Promise of Reproductive Justice:Abolition and the Family Regulation System.)

Bach’s book is largely silent on that kind of grassroots work in Tennessee. She credits an organizer from Healthy and Free Tennessee with asking questions that led her to write the book but doesn’t describe the group’s activities. She cites another local group, SisterReach, largely for its qualitative study of the impact of the fetal assault law. The groups’ websites reveal much greater dynamism – reproductive justice organizations with radical visions led by, and centering, the experiences of women and people of color using processes that appear to track Bunch’s criteria for radical reforms. Although Bach endorses the reproductive justice framework and a vision of larger change at the end of her book, this vision could have been enhanced by exploring whether and how women’s groups in Tennessee are moving toward that transformative vision.

If we have criteria by which to judge what reforms constitute steps towards abolition, or any other goal too large to achieve all at once, it is only fair that we subject our scholarship as well to scrutiny. Applying Charlotte Bunch’s criteria, the way a group seeks reform is at least as important as the content of the reform. We apply that to our scholarship by going beyond our substantive arguments, beyond naming a reform non-reformist. We do it by honoring, describing, and analyzing the organizers on the ground who are working in the ways that are indispensable to achieving transformational change.