Awakening to Race: Individualism and Social Consciousness in Americaby Jack Turner
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The election of America’s first black president has led many to believe that race is no longer a real obstacle to success and that remaining racial inequality stems largely from the failure of minority groups to take personal responsibility for seeking out opportunities. Often this argument is made in the name of the long tradition of self-reliance and American individualism. In Awakening to Race, Jack Turner upends this view, arguing that it expresses not a deep commitment to the values of individualism, but a narrow understanding of them. Drawing on the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, Turner offers an original reconstruction of democratic individualism in American thought. All these thinkers, he shows, held that personal responsibility entails a refusal to be complicit in injustice and a duty to combat the conditions and structures that support it. At a time when individualism is invoked as a reason for inaction, Turner makes the individualist tradition the basis of a bold and impassioned case for race consciousness—consciousness of the ways that race continues to constrain opportunity in America. Turner’s “new individualism” becomes the grounds for concerted public action against racial injustice.
“Exercised by claims that race no longer matters as a bar to full participation in US society, Jack Turner writes a lively scholarly polemic seeking to move beyond ‘simplistic debates pitting advocates of self-reliance and personal responsibility against analysts of historical inheritance, structural constraint, and inequality of opportunity.’”
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Awakening to RaceIndividualism and Social Consciousness in America
By JACK TURNER
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAwakening to Race
No more excuses" was a common refrain in the aftermath of Barack Obama's historic election. The refrain expressed the sense of many pundits and citizens that African Americans had complained too much for too long about racial injustice, and that the election of a black president proved that race was no longer a real obstacle to success in the United States. "They have head football coaches, they ... have a president, they can't say society is holding them back anymore," said a forty-three-year-old white assembly-line worker from Mahoning County, Ohio. "The onus now falls on individuals to take advantage of opportunities," wrote news analyst Juan Williams.
The "no more excuses" chorus was symptomatic of a larger trend in American politics: increasing insistence that racial injustice is a thing of the past, and that any remaining racial inequality results from the failure of African Americans and Latinos to be personally responsible and take advantage of opportunities. This insistence that America is "postracial" occurs in the face of overwhelming social scientific evidence that racial prejudice and discrimination persist, and that the legal racial segregation of yesterday leaves a dramatic legacy of racial inequality of opportunity today. Purveyors of the gospel of race's diminishing significance often preach in the name of American individualism: the solution to racial inequality is black and brown self-uplift, and the cure for racism is a practice of color blindness in which we stop talking about race and treat each other "just as individuals."
This book argues that this viewpoint expresses not an excessive commitment to American individualism, but rather a narrow understanding of the philosophical tradition of American individualism. Specifically, it reflects an impoverished sense of what democratic individualist thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin have said about personal responsibility in American democracy. To Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, Ellison, and Baldwin, personal responsibility entailed at minimum (1) a refusal to be complicit in injustice, (2) a commitment to examine oneself for complicity, and (3) a willingness to overcome whatever complicity one finds. Their sense of what counted as complicity was expansive: one is complicit in injustice insofar as one authorizes it politically or enables it socially or economically. On the basis of this idea of responsibility, Emerson and Thoreau determined that they had to act against racial slavery even though it took them away from the intellectual pursuits they most loved. On the basis of this idea of responsibility, Douglass exhorted American citizens after the Civil War to provide emancipated slaves with the education and land they needed to lead free and self- reliant lives. On the basis of this idea of responsibility, Ellison and Baldwin called on white citizens to face up to the ways they benefit from both de jure and de facto white supremacy and to work for racial equality not only in legal form but also in social and economic substance.
The democratic individualist theory of responsibility is still applicable to the problem of racial injustice in the United States. This book elaborates it through a reinterpretation of Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, Ellison, and Baldwin, as well as a consideration of Alexis de Tocqueville. It makes a democratic individualist case for race consciousness—consciousness of the ways that race shapes and constrains individual opportunity in the United States—and it argues for concerted public action against racial injustice.
In contrast to recent work in critical race theory, which tends to see individualism as intrinsically hostile to the project of achieving substantive racial justice, this book demonstrates that individualist principles—properly understood—require robust, self-conscious pursuit of it. In contrast to Rawlsian liberal cases for race consciousness, this book elaborates race consciousness's ethical significance, the way it deepens self-awareness by encouraging individuals to contemplate how they are implicated in larger social and historical structures, allowing them to arrive at more accurate understandings of themselves and their moral obligations.
Thoreau's insistence in Walden (1854) that "moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep" inspires the book's unifying trope of awakening. Citizens who "awaken to race" become more self-aware and sociologically discerning. The civic project of "awakening to race" therefore promises not only a morally reformed life, but also a keener sense of reality. "We are capable of bearing a great burden," Baldwin declares in The Fire Next Time (1963), "once we discover that that burden is reality and arrive where reality is." The book also answers a question for citizens: why should I be conscious of race and spend time and energy eradicating racial injustice? The book responds: only by being conscious of race can you be truly conscious of yourself and your world, and only by working to overcome racial injustice can you ensure that you are not complicit in it.
Racial Injustice and Individualist Ideals
In 2009, African Americans were 80 percent more likely than white Americans to be unemployed and 175 percent more likely to live in poverty. Latinos were 38 percent more likely than whites to be unemployed and 169 percent more likely to live in poverty. For every dollar of income earned by white Americans, African Americans earned 60 cents and Latinos 70 cents. For every dollar of net worth possessed by whites, African Americans had 10 cents and Latinos 12 cents.
The question of who is to blame for such inequalities is a major fault line of American politics. In a 2008 National Election Study, 60 percent of white respondents, 61 percent of Latino respondents, and 52 percent of black respondents agreed that "it's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites." Yet only 37 percent of white respondents—versus 51 percent of Latino respondents and 63 percent of black respondents—agreed that "generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class." This division in public opinion reflects a distinctive "agency-versus-structure debate" in American racial politics. Whereas white respondents tend to see racial inequality as primarily the result of insufficient effort by African Americans (and presumably Latinos), blacks and Latinos tend to see it as resulting from a combination of insufficient effort and historical racial bias.
Agency and structure are mutually constitutive rather than mutually exclusive. Yet the prevailing tendencies of American political culture are to overlook how agency and structure constitute each other and to favor agent-centered explanations. W. E. B. Du Bois observed this incisively. In Black Reconstruction in America (1935), he remarked how a distinctly "American Assumption" impeded Reconstruction movements for economic democratization. The assumption was that economic success was "mainly the result of the owner's effort and that any average worker can by thrift" become self-sufficient. Political scientists and sociologists since Du Bois have documented the American Assumption's enduring reign in U.S. political culture. Widespread is the notion that the average individual's chances for success are virtually infinite, that structural constraint is no match for willpower.
Popular disregard for how structure constrains agency, how different social contexts allocate vastly different opportunities for self-uplift, impedes clear thinking about the causes of racial inequality. If agency is everything and structure is nothing (or next to nothing), then the existence of racial disparities in economic well-being suggests racially differentiated levels of industry and virtue: whites are more successful because they try harder and are more resourceful than Latinos and blacks. Yet if structure constrains agency and significantly influences the rate of economic return per unit of effort, then racial disparities in economic well-being suggest the existence of structural impediments that make for a lower rate of return.
Good evidence exists that African Americans and Latinos still suffer from structural impediments in their effort to achieve racial equality. The first and most obvious is continuing racial prejudice and discrimination. Though many commentators allege that racial prejudice and discrimination today do little to diminish economic opportunity for African Americans and Latinos, social science suggests that racial prejudice and discrimination still significantly limit black and Latino opportunity. A recent study in the American Economic Review, for example, documented ongoing discrimination against African Americans. The study tested whether job applicants who mail their résumés to prospective employers were more likely to get an interview if they had "white-sounding" names like Emily or Greg than if they have "black-sounding" names like Lakisha or Jamal. Even when the résumés were identical in every other way, the ones with "white-sounding" names received 50 percent more positive responses. A recent study in the American Sociological Review found that whites enjoy significant advantages over both Latinos and blacks in the low-wage labor market. After matching white, Latino, and black job applicants on demographic characteristics and interpersonal skills, researchers sent them out to apply for hundreds of entry-level positions. Even when their résumés were equivalent, white testers "received a callback or job offer 31.0 percent of the time, compared with a positive response of 25.2 percent for Latinos and 15.2 percent for blacks."
A second and less obvious structural impediment—for African Americans especially—is cumulative wealth inequality. In 2007, the median white household had a net worth of $170,400, while the median black household had a net worth of $17,100. This wealth gap is partly—if not largely—traceable to discriminatory home-loan practices by the federal government in the mid-twentieth century. After the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) during the New Deal, the federal government underwrote home mortgages for millions of Americans, guaranteeing the value of collateral for loans made by private banks. This put home ownership within the reach of the working and middle classes by enabling them to secure mortgages at only 10 percent down, as opposed to the 33 to 50 percent down required before the creation of the FHA. Nearly all of the loans, however, went to white families; the FHA refused to back home purchases in minority neighborhoods or in white neighborhoods with a substantial minority presence. Until 1950, moreover, the FHA encouraged the use of racially restrictive covenants, requiring home buyers in white neighborhoods to promise not to sell to nonwhites. Even after discontinuing this practice, the FHA obstructed integration both by "redlining" neighborhoods with a substantial minority presence and by tacitly encouraging real estate brokers to steer nonwhite people away from white neighborhoods. This hindered the growth of black home ownership, diminished the value of homes in nonwhite neighborhoods, enhanced the value of homes in white neighborhoods, and entrenched residential segregation. When housing values tripled in the 1970s and '80s, white families benefited disproportionately from the upsurge in home equity. Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro argue that the inability of African Americans to capitalize fully on this upsurge and pass this wealth on to their children contributes to enduring wealth disparities between black and white Americans. Because net worth provides a buffer during times of unemployment and helps families secure educational loans, cumulative wealth inequality hampers black families' ability to weather hard times and pursue higher education.
The Problem of Acknowledgment
Continuing racial prejudice and discrimination and cumulative wealth inequality are just two examples of how the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow still impede African American self-uplift. Yet most white Americans maintain that America has realized racial equality of opportunity, and that African Americans (and Latinos) just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Why do so many white Americans fail to recognize the reality of racial inequality of opportunity? Lack of information is one possibility: white Americans have been insufficiently exposed to evidence of racial injustice. This answer, however, is unsatisfactory. Ample information exists and is widely distributed. Even if there remain legitimate information gaps, they are largely the product of on going residential and educational segregation, raising the deeper question of why white Americans do not see the relative racial homogeny of the communities they live in as strange and unnatural. The problem may be—to borrow Stanley Cavell's helpful distinction—less one of knowledge and more one of acknowledgment. It is not that white Americans aren't exposed to information about racial injustice; it is that they do not treat that information as salient, do not interpret it as an occasion for action, do not assign it proper weight. The real question then is: Why do so many white Americans fail to acknowledge racial injustice? Are they invested in the illusion that racial equality of opportunity exists? Does that illusion shield them from the uncomfortable knowledge that they enjoy illicit advantages in the organization of national life? Do they wish to see whatever success they have achieved not as the result of beneficial placement in America's racial organization, but rather as the result of exertion, ingenuity, and virtue on a level playing field? Are they secretly invested in racial inequality of opportunity and willing to perpetuate the illusion that racial equality of opportunity exists to preserve their advantages?
This book does not conclusively answer the question of why so many white Americans fail to acknowledge racial injustice. Instead, it analyzes how this failure of acknowledgement constitutes a failure of democratic individualist virtue. The book also analyzes how the failure to take action against racial injustice is a failure of self-reliance. Since racial injustice is an inescapable part of social reality in the United States, failure to confront it honestly is failure to fulfill the first imperative of democratic individualism: to awaken to reality, "to throw off sleep." Since racial injustice advantages whites in America's social and economic landscape, failure to relinquish or counteract that advantage is failure to be self-reliant on the terms of fairness and equality underwriting self-reliance.
My conception of democratic individualism builds on George Kateb's elaboration of Emersonian democratic individuality. Democratic individuality is a distinctive conception of the good life born of liberal democracy. Its main characteristics are self-directed freedom, critical reflection, and moral agency "acknowledging that what one claims for oneself as a right one can claim only as an equal to everyone else." Simple though these imperatives are, they are exceedingly hard to enact, which is why democratic individuality's most famous philosophers—Emerson, Thoreau, and Walt Whitman—labored to describe the thinking and practices essential to their fulfillment.
A spirit of self-assertion animates democratic individuality. Democratic individualists court a free and adventurous life. The democratic individualist, however, does not believe his freedom and adventure must work at the expense of others. He is constantly aware of others' moral boundaries, partly because he is so acutely aware of his own.
One of the virtues of the democratic individualist is his readiness to reverse perspectives with anyone. His absorption of democracy's ethos of equality leads him to believe that a fundamental similarity unites all human beings—making all partly comprehensible. But his awareness of his own inner mystery and depth prevents him from pretending to understand everyone. Just as he insists that others will never be able to fully comprehend him, he realizes that he will never be able to fully comprehend others.
Democratic individualist character blends playfulness with moral seriousness. The democratic individualist will often interact in an agonistic fashion. But the expansion and flourishing of his character will respect others' moral equality. In the eyes of the democratic individualist, freedom and adventure are finer when constrained by the rights of others. Domination and exploitation indebt the individual to those he dominates and exploits—making his achievements less commendable and his life less his own. Achieving personal power on terms of justice and equality, refusing to elevate oneself through the degradation of others, is hard and therefore sweet. The democratic individualist welcomes the challenge fair play imposes.
Kateb insists that Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman are unequaled as theorists of democratic individuality: "Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman (and Lincoln) are the second generation of intellect, the true inheritors of the founding of the American polity. They disclose the fuller meaning of the founding. I do not think that there has been a third generation." Here I depart from Kateb. Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman are indeed indispensable to understanding the meaning of democratic individualism, but they are not the only indispensable figures. One could easily make the case that Kateb slights William James and John Dewey in suggesting that they do not constitute a third and fourth generation of American individualist genius. Yet my primary concern here is Kateb's neglect of African American democratic individualists—most especially Douglass, Ellison, and Baldwin.
Excerpted from Awakening to Race by JACK TURNER Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jack Turner is assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington and a member of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality. He is the editor of A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau.
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