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.]

Rejecting Mill on Plural Votes

In Considerations on Representative Government (Vol. 18 (1861), in J.M. Robson, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963-1991), Mill argues that those with greater education should have plural or weighted votes. He believes that, because they will have superior knowledge and intelligence, those with greater education will have a greater capacity for the management of joint interests and as such should have a greater say.  Mill suggests that the superior influence of the educated should be enough to protect them from the class legislationof the uneducated, but not so much as to allow them to enact their own class legislation (that is, legislation that favours the interests of their own class).  As Rawls puts it, on Mill’s picture, ideally those with superior education “should act as a constant force on the side of justice and the common good, a force that, although always weak in itself, can often tip the scale in the right direction if the larger forces cancel them out” (ATJ, pp. 204).  In short, Mill favours plural votes because he thinks that everyone, even the uneducated, who have fewer votes, will benefit from such a scheme.  Plural votes are justified not only because they will maximize the good of all but also because they will maximize the good of those with fewer votes, specifically.

Mill also suggests that plural or weighted voting of this kind is not insulting or damaging of self-respect.  He writes

entire exclusion from a voice in the common concerns is one thing: the concession to others of a more potential voice on the ground of greater capacity for the management of joint interests is another . . . Everyone has a right to feel insulted by being made a nobody and stamped as of no account at all.  No one but a fool, only a fool of a peculiar description, feels offended by the acknowledgement that there are others whose opinion, and even whose wish, is entitled to greater amount of consideration than his (Mill, Representative Government, p. 474).

I think that both of Mill’s arguments, regarding the benefit of plural votes and self-respect, are wrong.

Let’s start with what Mill says about self-respect.  There is an ordinary sense in which Mill’s proposal seems consistent with self-respect. Imagine that my husband is a nutritionist and that we are trying to decide what would be the most nutritious dinner to have.  Imagine that we tend to place more emphasis on my husband’s opinions about dinner, since he knows much more about nutrition than I do.  This does not seem insulting or undermining of my self-respect.  I could self-respectfully accept a change in family meals because my husband thinks it is right.  After all, I am less competent with respect to making nutritious dinner decisions; acknowledging this fact, by placing more weight on his opinions, is not insulting.  It is not undermining of one’s sense of self-respect to trust and concede to the opinions of those who are identified as having superior knowledge.  Indeed, this seems consistent with a proper sense of self-respect.  A person who has an appropriate or proper sense of her own worth or value will be aware of her limitations.  To the extent that I know that I am less competent with respect to making decisions about nutritious dinners than my husband, it is not degrading or undermining of my sense of self-respect to give greater weight to my husband’s opinions about dinner.  In short, in at least some cases, I can self-respectfully give greater weight to others’ opinions such as those of my husband.

However, this ordinary scenario is relevantly different from the one that Mill is suggesting.  In the case I describe, both my husband and I have an influential say in what will be served for dinner.  I get to make the decision along with my husband about whether to change the family meals or not.  My husband may have an opinion about what is best to serve for dinner.  Insofar as he knows more than me about this topic, we count his word as special evidence.  In this sense, his say counts more evidentially.  Yet, my husband does not have more power than I do.  Sometimes there may not be enough time for an explanation.  The kids might really need to be fed, for example, and so I will not get an explanation of my husband’s choice.  I will just go with his choice.  But, presumably, under normal circumstances, when there is time, my husband will have to explain his choice to me.  It is only when I have heard his reasons, weighed them, and agree with him, that we will go with his dinner choice.  I acknowledge my husband’s superior knowledge by taking his viewpoint seriously and listening to his case carefully.  However, and rather importantly, though I may generally go along with my husband’s choice, this is revocable.  I can always decide, after hearing his case, not to go along with his decision.

Mill’s proposal is different in the sense that the opinions of the educated are not just weighed more evidentially.  As long as the educated agree about what serves justice or the public good, insofar as they are given plural votes, their opinions are given special authority or power.  When they agree, their decisions will become embedded in social institutions, enforceable by law.  This is the case even when the uneducated disagree with the educated.  This is undermining of self-respect.  Imagine that I was to enter into a contract with my husband that says that in all instances, even when I disagree with him, his decisions are binding.  Signing this kind of contract is not consistent with my sense of self-respect.  A self-respecting choice does not involve admitting mental incompetence.  And signing this kind of contract suggests that I am mentally incompetent.  It suggests that I could not be convinced by good reasons and that any disagreement that I might have is not reflective or intelligent.  I think something similar can be said with respect to Mill’s proposal.  Accepting his plural or weighted voting proposal involves a making judgment of oneself that would be rather difficult for a self-respecting person to make, unless s/he were below a certain level of minimum competence.   For this reason, I think that those with fewer votes would have good grounds for claiming that plural voting is not consistent with their sense of self-respect.

I think that Mill’s arguments regarding the benefit of plural votes also fails.  Plural votes are unlikely to maximize the good of those with fewer votes.  The most fundamental threat to justice is, perhaps, not being appropriately impartial.  Different groups of people have different conceptions of justice and the common good.  There is a tendency for our conceptions of justice and the public good to represent our own interests disproportionately. As Thomas Christiano notes, this seems only natural given that people have a more intimate and sensitive understanding of their own interests than of others’ (see his “An Argument for Democratic Equality”).  It seems fairly clear that no education level, or qualification of any kind for that matter, is going to help us overcome this fact.  An education from Cambridge or Oxford, for example, will not guard against partiality.  So, if people tend to advance conceptions of justice and the public good that reflect their own interests, it follows that those who lack equal opportunity to advance their own conceptions of justice and the public good will tend to lose out.  If those with superior education are given a greater say, it is likely that the interests of the uneducated will be ignored.  This suggests that the good of those with fewer votes will not be maximized.  Again, Mill’s arguments for plural votes are not compelling.