The Unfairness of a Racial Democracy

Jason Stanley and Vesla Weaver have written a powerful and compelling article, arguing that the United States is a racial democracy.  On their view, “a racial democracy is one that unfairly applies the laws governing the removal of liberty primarily to citizens of one race, thereby singling out its members as especially unworthy of liberty, the coin of human dignity.”  For example, Stanley and Weaver point to the fact that black individuals (in cities such as New York) are more likely than white individuals to be stopped and questioned by the police.  They are also more likely to be imprisoned in the United States than white individuals.  Stanley and Weaver show that this type of “punishment and surveillance by itself causes individuals to withdraw from political participation.” They conclude that (1) black individuals, in particular, are both formally and informally excluded from political participation in the United States and (2) that their being excluded in this way is patently unfair.

The evidence that Stanley and Weaver give for the systematic exclusion of black individuals from political life (claim 1) is entirely convincing.  So, I will focus on the second claim regarding the unfairness of such treatment, since I think more can be said to flesh out their point.   What I say here is more of a friendly addition than a critical commentary.

At this point, what I think is missing from Stanley and Weaver’s discussion is a notion of unfairness.  I take it that their claim is that the sort of treatment being discussed – e.g., being targeted by the police – is unfair if it happens only to one segment of the population, such as the black population, and there is no good reason for why this portion of the population should be treated this way (since black individuals are no different than other individuals).  This seems right, but for reasons that aren’t mentioned in the article and that I think are worth developing.

I think that fairness implicitly (or perhaps by definition) requires parity of reasons: agents advancing a reason in favour of or against a political measure must be willing to accept the similar relevance of similar reasons in other similar cases.  So, if white individuals and black individuals are relevantly similar (i.e., they are not inherently dangerous), and white individuals would accept certain reasons (such as the fact that they are not inherently dangerous) against stop and frisk policies in the case of white individuals and these reasons also hold true in the case of black individuals, then white (and non-white) individuals must accept those reasons in the case of black individuals as well.  This just seems to be part of what is required by fairness.  So, to the extent that black individuals are not being treated by police officers and the law, more generally, in a way that is consistent with parity of reasons, they are not being treated fairly.  This is morally objectionable because political systems should treat people fairly.

One might now ask a more foundational question: why is it important to treat individuals fairly?  Again there isn’t a clear answer found in Stanley and Weaver’s article.  Stanley and Weaver make some gestures toward answering this question in their appeal to Aristotle, who suggests that “human dignity” is at stake, but I think a better and more complete answer is found in John Rawls’s work on self-respect.

Rawls argues that a fair political system is one that ensures that the grounds for each individual’s sense of self-respect are secure.  In Rawls’s sense, self-respect can be understood as a having a sense of one’s equal value or worth.  Rawls notably argues that there are social bases of self-respect.   “Self-respect depends upon and is encouraged by certain public features of basic social institutions, how they work and how people who accept these arrangements are expected to (and normally do) regard and treat one another” (A Theory of Justice, 1996, 319).  On Rawls’s view, citizens’ sense of self-respect is diminished unless social institutions express equal respect for them.

Rawls suggests that self-respect is “perhaps the most important primary good” because “without it nothing may seem worth doing.”   He also suggests, in his discussion of the difference principle, that a lack of the social bases of self-respect is likely to lead individuals to withdraw from public life.  As individuals come to see the social system as a potential source of a diminished sense of self-respect, they come to resent that system and become apathetic and cynical toward it and, as a result, are likely to withdraw from participation in that system.  For these reasons, Rawls argues that individuals would “wish to avoid at almost any cost the social conditions that undermine self-respect.”

Some of the considerations that Rawls raises are empirical considerations and they must be empirically validated.  If, however, they are right, then I think that they lend themselves to a helpful development of Stanley and Weaver’s argument.  Rawls’ arguments not only help to explain why unfair treatment of black individuals by officers of the law may lead to their withdrawal from public life but also why this sort of unfair treatment is objectionable.

Turning back to Stanley and Weaver’s arguments, they persuasively demonstrate that black individuals are more likely than white individuals to be stopped by police officers (even when they have committed no wrong doing).  Stanley and Weaver argue that an individual’s being stopped by a police officer often causes her to withdraw from public life.  A Rawlsian analysis may help to explain why this is the case.  Being stopped by a police officer, often for little or no good reason is unfair because it involves treating black individuals in ways that are not consistent with parity of reasons.  This is objectionable because it is insulting and undermining of one’s sense of self-respect (in the Rawlsian sense).  This type of treatment of black individuals suggests that, in contrast to white individuals, black individuals are not of equal value.  They are not entitled to the same sorts of reasonings and considerations that white people are entitled to.  To the extent that how we see ourselves and our worth is dependent on how others treat and regard us, such treatment may undermine individuals’ sense of self-respect.

This potential connection to self-respect may explain why black individuals, after being stopped and questioned by the police, pull away from public life in the way described by Stanley and Weaver.  It is difficult to maintain a sense of self-respect while participating in a society or a political system that allows these sorts of unfair social practices to perpetuate.  So, the best option, if you are concerned with maintaining your sense of self-respect, is just not to participate in these broader social and political systems.

In conclusion, I think that Stanley and Weaver have written a powerful and persuasive argument about the exclusion of many black individuals from the political process in the United States.  A Rawlsian analysis can only strengthen their argument by illustrating why such exclusion is morally troublesome.  It may also help to explain why such exclusion results.

[For an illuminating discussion of the contributions that Du Bois and Douglass’s work can make to Stanley and Weaver’s discussion see Tommy J. Curry and John Drabinski’s post here. Stanely also provides some thoughtful replies in the comments section.

Michele Moody-Adams’ paper on “Race, Class, and the Social Construction of Race,” Philosophical Forum 25.1-3 (1992-1993): 251-266 is very relevant to the discussion of self-respect in this context.  I am currently think this paper through and suggest that others who are interested in the connection between fairness, self-respect and racial discrimination take a look too.

I also develop some related ideas in my article, “Completing Rawls’s Arguments for Equal Political Liberty and its Fair Value: The Argument from Self-Respect,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 43.2 (2013): 179-205.]

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