The colour of our shame
Chris Lebron is a philosopher who asks deep questions about theories of justice appropriate for race. He thinks about bridging the gap between abstraction and lived experiences, about American democracy and racial inequality, marginalisation and oppression, about the idea of character and how it helps explain racial inequality, about the problem of social value, about why Rawls isn’t enough, about ‘white power’, about despair and blame, about perfectionism and egalitarianism, about soulcraft politics, about three principles of racial justice and about the lamentable number of black philosophers currently working in the Academy. Give this one the time of day to sink in, then reboot…
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Chris Lebron: I consider myself to be a person who has, even from a young age, harbored a certain kind of discontent with what I personally refer to as the tragedy of humankind. By this I mean to refer to the fact that people are possessed of extraordinary powers of imagination, reasoning, industry, magnanimity, but also of malice, destruction, and meanness. So far as I can tell we seem as a species tightly bound to this tragedy. But we each, personally, have a particular relationship to it and though I can often be deeply cynical, I can admit to cultivating an enduring hope that we individually have the potential to better comprehend our relationship to this tragedy so that we can do our small part to remain on the right side of the ledger. To my mind, this is the struggle of humanity vs. humankind. But how to do so, how might we do so, how ought we to do so? – this is a very great question. This question has been a part of my own complicated vacillation between love for humanity and resentment towards it.
I became a philosopher and theorist initially because I wanted to answer the question on how we get and stay on the right side of the ledger. As I mature in my career, though, I am coming to learn that I do philosophy because I want to know how I might get and stay on the right side of the ledge and in my personal struggle with the question I hope to invite others to take up my reflections and when they are pointed in the right direction, follow thusly, and when they are not, to help me and others find that direction, if it is there to be found.
3:AM: Your starting point for working out a theory of justice is to presuppose that if you’re black then you’re not part of society as democracy supposes isn’t it? Is this what you mean when you discuss ‘lonely citizens’ and shame?
CL: A theory of justice appropriate for race has one central obligation and that is to bridge the gap between abstract notions of the good, the right, fairness, etc. and the lived experience of race, the way history and power converge on the being and the fabric of reality of blacks in America. There are many kinds of injustices in the world and racial injustice certainly isn’t the only one to be marked by asymmetries of power. However, it has a singular place in American history – racial domination made America what we know it to be today. What is the nature of this thing we refer to as America? Well, it has at least a few discernible and significant attributes. One is that it is a liberal democracy – that is, it is regulated by a form of governance that takes the freedom and liberty of its citizens to widely participate in politics to be fundamental; this feature is itself underwritten by a deeper normatively inflected commitment which is to treat persons in a certain way – as possessing autonomy and having the station of equal standing among peers in the social and political scheme. Another is that it is a liberal democracy founded in the course of practicing racial domination. My position here is not unique in the history of (black) thought – to found a nation’s constitution and develop its institutions in this manner settles early lessons about which persons are supposed to be the legitimate beneficiaries of the constitution and institutions. A beautiful thing about a democratic government is that it can be made to change, but the nature of change required to address racial inequality have historically left not only scars but present-day battlegrounds of difference rooted in resentment on both sides of the racial divide, whites’ sense of being threatened by change, and insecurity of a many kinds for all involved. A democracy’s struggles largely constitute not only its history but its culture which itself teaches a variety of lessons to those constantly learning how to be citizens and how to assess other citizens. The bases for both these lessons and our apparatus for judgment is thus fraught with serious problems that affect the content of those lessons and our practices of judgment.
Finally, America is a liberal democracy that, despite that description and despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, continues to be a functioning and quite vibrant site not only of common indicators of racial inequality (income, wealth, resources, employment) but of racial marginalization (segregation, the reproduction of disparaging racial stereotypes in our popular media) as well as racial oppression (disproportionate jailing and the devaluation of black life by the institutions of criminal justice whether it be by disproportionate application of the death penalty or unpunished acts of violence against blacks by police). So we have to ask ourselves: just what kind of ‘liberal democracy’ is marked by a strain of deep and disrespectful injustice that is contrary to the very idea of liberal democracy? My answer is: One that doesn’t merely marginalize but one that explicitly and implicitly rejects the humanity of black Americans. So it is more than not being part of American society. It is deeper. It is not being seen fully as the kind of thing that can vie for membership in American society – a human being. So here, the question of loneliness is not itself as central as the diminished value of black humanity.
I noted the slippage between the standards and principles entailed by the form of governance we describe as liberal democracy on the one hand, while on the other, the consistent demeaning and unjust treatment of black Americans. The very notion of slippage between the principles to which we subscribe and the reasoning, attitudes, and actions we take up provides the grounds for shame. That we might or ought to feel shame in any instance is not in itself in the ordinary course of things always a reason to raise questions of justice. When as a parent we affirm the virtue of generosity towards our children but act meanly on an occasion, this seems appropriately remedied by a genuine apology and show of affection. So the question here is, what, for me, raises the question of justice in the case under consideration – racial inequality? This is the role I set for character.