There's a term that was developed in the academic field of peace research, and it deserves far more currency in political discourse and everyday language than it currently receives. It's called "structural," or indirect, violence, and, as the name implies, it refers to violence that is embedded in social structures or institutions. You can't name a specific perpetrator as you would when an individual shoots, stabs, or suffocates another person. But structural violence inflicts no less harm than its direct counterpart.
In this political season, when there's so much obfuscation about real issues facing the American people, the term and the concept of structural violence should help illuminate issues and promote understanding. Here are a few examples:
Similar kinds of policies, understood as investments in human well-being and in economic vitality (not as welfare "handouts"), have been successfully adopted by other nations to address problems in housing and health care.
In the U.S., 10 million children live below the poverty line, and millions more live just above it. This reality may be invisible to many people, in large part because children can't advocate for themselves. But extensive research on the impacts of child poverty indicates that even a short time spent in poverty can harm children in myriad ways.
A recent study by the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine documented an array of long-term effects, including impaired physical health and educational attainment, as well as reduced lifetime earnings. Stress associated with living in poverty is now understood to exert negative impacts on brain development, and all of these negative consequences have been profoundly exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, with record numbers of children simply not having enough to eat. This is harm; this is violence.
Another manifestation of structural violence is what sociologist Matthew Desmond has called the "eviction economy," in which rising rents have tended to erase whatever gains in wages or earnings people in poverty attain. Before the pandemic struck, 800,000 people were threatened with eviction each month, and Desmond has documented movingly the enormous physical and emotional toll this has placed on individuals and families. In the years of economic upheaval from 2005 to 2010, the number of suicides attributed to evictions and foreclosures doubled.
Although the national eviction moratorium imposed this month by the Centers for Disease Control has given temporary relief to millions of Americans in economic distress, it won't ward off a reckoning with past due rents by the beginning of 2021.
It shouldn't be overlooked that structural violence and systemic racism also overlap in numerous ways. As widely noted, Black and Latino people are three times more likely than Whites to be infected with the coronavirus and two times more likely to die from it. It's now understood that they face much greater exposure to the virus than Whites: less able to work at home, more reliant on public transportation, less able to afford housing with sufficient space for all residents in a family or living unit. This greater rate of exposure derives from long-standing patterns of discrimination in employment, housing, education, health care, political opportunity, and law enforcement.
It may be argued that the use of the term "structural violence" is just a matter of semantics, and that terms like "inequality" or "social injustice" can work just as well. But language in all its shadings matters; accuracy and precision matter. The word "violence" captures the concept of harm as no other term is able to do. And "structural violence" points to another important feature of this phenomenon: it is avoidable.
As scholar Johan Galtung has pointed out (Galtung is largely credited with developing the concept), deaths from TB would not be considered a manifestation of structural violence in the 18th Century, but they would be today if people were prevented by social or political circumstances from receiving necessary treatment and medication.
Child poverty can be significantly reduced. The U.S. doesn't offer a child allowance to families in poverty, but 17 other advanced nations do. Canada, for example, recently increased its maximum allowance to $4,800 (in American dollars), and it reduced child poverty there by a third. Similar kinds of policies, understood as investments in human well-being and in economic vitality (not as welfare "handouts"), have been successfully adopted by other nations to address problems in housing and health care.
The rhetorical weather of an election season is largely defined by frequent occurrences of fog. In this season the fog is even thicker as confusion and doubt continue to be sown about the integrity of the election itself. Please think, then, of using the term structural violence as equivalent to turning on your car's fog lights. If you do so, you will see more clearly: you will see real harm being done to people.
You will also see that this harm is avoidable.