What is divide and conquer?

Plenty of scholars refer, in passing, to a divide and conquer strategy, but I don’t think there’s sufficient enough attention paid to this important and powerful phenomenon. So what exactly is it? Well, to me, it’s a process by which people are separated and pitted against each other so that they will not form alliances that threaten those in power. How does it work, and who is carrying it out? Those are complex questions, and I have found it useful to think about this on two levels, one that is explicit and one that is implicit. In order for me to develop my thinking, I, of course, turned to more post-it notes!

divide and conquer post its

I envision an “inner circle” of the divide and conquer phenomenon that is explicit, where someone or some group decides that in order to achieve their goals, they need to split up various groups of people. This can be done in a variety of ways, and I’ll mention just a few examples here:

  • In the 1960s, the FBI determined that leftist activist groups were a threat, and they infiltrated some of them and pitted the groups against each other in order to limit their cooperation with each other. This is well documented, and I will add more info about additional resources soon.
  • In 1966, the mainstream media began to identify Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans as the “model minority.” If there’s a “good” minority, there must be a “bad” minority, and this stereotype pitted Asian Americans against blacks at a time when many thought that more than enough changes had been made via civil rights legislation. This stereotype promoted the notion that anyone who works hard can be successful, thereby depicting concerns about racism as less credible. Journalist Helen Zia, in Asian American Dreams, writes: “Where Asians had previously been the economic wedge to distract labor unrest, in the 1960s they were refashioned as a political and social hammer against other disadvantaged groups. The ‘model minority’ was born” (46). Scholars including Frank Wu and Robert Lee also address this issue.
  • The mid to late 1600s saw the transition from an ambiguously defined status of white servants and black slaves to a clear demarcation between indentured servitude and slavery, and that boundary was marked by race. What was momentarily a burgeoning alliance between blacks and poor whites became antagonistic and competitive, through a divide and conquer mentality created by the language of laws (slave codes) and maintained by a variety of tactics. This fundamental divide and conquer moment established the notion of a racial ideology based on a hierarchy of white superiority and black inferiority. Many scholars have documented this, including Nell Irvin Painter, Ira Berlin, Peter Kolchin, and Theodore W. Allen.

Those are just a few examples to illustrate what I mean when I say an explicit, inner circle of the divide and conquer phenomenon. Then, I envision an “outer circle” of the divide and conquer phenomenon that is implicit, less conscious and less purposeful. This is where we are all complicit. We have all absorbed the stereotypes that keep us divided, whether it’s through the news media, popular culture, and advertising that we watch, our education, our interactions with the government and criminal justice system, or our interactions with neighbors, friends, and family who have in turn been influenced by these social forces. We are all affected by the dominant ideology, or the mainstream belief system, that operates in US culture today; it sends the message that we are in a “post-racial” society, that racism is mostly a thing of the past, and that economic success comes with hard work. However, the truth is that systemic racism and economic inequality are still serious problems in our country, but we don’t come together to discuss these problems and challenge the status quo that perpetuates them because we are divided from each other and pitted against each other.

My goal with my book project and this blog is to raise awareness about the stereotypes that divide and conquer us, resist those divisions, become “divided no longer,” and build coalitions around our common interests so that we can challenge the status quo and end systemic racism and economic inequality.

 

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