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Body Politics

Racial Justice Easy To Understand, But Very Difficult to Achieve (Joe Pettit)

In light of the tragic events this past week surrounding the police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota as well as the killing of five police officers in Dallas, PTT invites ongoing commentary, including thoughtful and critical analysis, from both readers and regular contributors in hopes of fostering a more penetrating and far-reaching conversation about race in this country.  If you would like to be a part of these discussions, we welcome your submissions.

Racial justice is conceptually one of the easiest ideas of justice to understand, yet, like other forms of justice, will prove quite difficult to achieve. In this brief essay, I will defend both of these claims.

The Simple

Massive and persistent inequality between two groups can have only two possible explanations: 1) forces (both past and present) external to the groups; or 2) forces internal and intrinsic to the groups.

Examples of external forces are laws and policies, economic activity, and social discrimination. If the forces are external, they privilege the group benefiting from these forces and oppress the group disadvantaged by them. Examples of internal and intrinsic forces are character and ability. If the forces are internal and intrinsic to the groups, then the advantaged group must be understood as superior in character and ability to the disadvantaged group, and, therefore, the disadvantaged group must be understood as inferior to the advantaged group.

Individual exceptions contrary to the group norms are possible in each group without undermining the accuracy of the characterization of the group. It is impossible to combine external and internal explanations without still implying a relative superiority and inferiority between the groups, as some portion of the inequality would still be explained by internal and intrinsic forces.

Applied to racial inequality, the above formula indicates that only two possible explanations are possible for massive and persistent racial inequality between two racial groups. Either external forces have privileged one racial group and oppressed the other, or the two groups must be understood in terms of relative superiority and inferiority.

The former option is the definition of racial injustice: the creation of inequalities between racial groups. If racial injustice is always indicated by the presence of racial inequality, racial justice is the elimination of racial inequality. The latter option requires an affirmation of relative racial supremacy and racial inferiority. Given that this latter option is nothing but rank bigotry that defies all good science and history, it may be dismissed outright. Thus, racial injustice is the only rational explanation for massive and persistent racial inequality. This is why racial justice is conceptually simple.

If this argument is correct, racial justice has the added conceptual simplicity of not being dependent on more comprehensive and controversial conceptions of justice.

The Hard

In the absence of consensus that racial inequality is caused exclusively by past and present forces privileging one group and oppressing another, stigmatization of the oppressed group is inevitable. Stigma is the assumed inferiority of members of a given group until proven otherwise. Individual members of a stigmatized group can, at least provisionally, overcome the stigma associated with that group, but this in no way undermines the stigmatization of the group. Logically, it is possible to think well of individual members of a stigmatized group while still affirming the relative inferiority of the group.

Once racial stigma is entrenched, racial inequality will be perceived as normal. The group suffering from the inequality will not be viewed as oppressed, but simply as experiencing the natural, and so deserved, outcomes of its defects in character and ability. Political will to eliminate racial inequality is then undermined by the perceived inevitability of the inequality. Similarly, accepting responsibility for past oppressive actions is also undermined by the belief that present inequality has not been caused in part by those actions, but rather by the intrinsic problems associated with the disadvantaged racial group.

Applied to racial inequality between whites and blacks, I contend that our current situation can be described as 1) a failure to understand inequality between whites and blacks as caused exclusively by past and present forces acting externally on the groups; and, therefore, 2) the necessary stigmatization of blacks as a group, leading to the conclusion that racial inequality between the groups is normal.

The only way to change this current situation is to create a consensus that racial inequality is caused exclusively by external forces. Without this consensus, racial stigma will remain both the most important consequence and the most important cause of racial inequality.

Creating this consensus, however, faces at least three obstacles. First, there is a massive ignorance of the countless past and present forms of racial oppression and privilege that have occurred and are occurring in our country. This ignorance can, at least in principle, be progressively overcome.

Second, there is a common confusion regarding responsibility for racial inequality and responsibility for individual actions. If individual black people are seen to be behaving badly, this behavior is thought to yield at least a partial explanation for racial inequality.

However, while the bad actions of individuals explain at least some bad outcomes in their lives, the aggregation of these bad actions cannot be used to explain inequality between groups without implicitly affirming racial superiority and racial inferiority. These two questions of responsibility are logically and factually separate. Any failure to separate them is necessarily stigmatizing. Elsewhere, I have proposed a thought experiment that might be helpful in clarifying this separation.

Third, there is an unfortunate willingness in the hearts of too many people to consider the possibility of racial inferiority, and so, too, of racial superiority. This willingness yields self-doubt in black lives and racial bias in whites. If this willingness did not exist, then the existence of racial inequality would be a clear indication of racial injustice. The absence of a shared racial justice imperative in the United States demonstrates that white supremacy is still entrenched.

There are other attitudinal and conceptual obstacles that will need to be overcome if a consensus is to be achieved that racial inequality equals racial injustice. (See my article last year in the Sojourners blog). Exactly how hard it would be to create at least a broad, if not universal, consensus is unclear, but, given entrenched racial stigma, one should expect it to be very difficult.

The Harder

Even if a racial justice imperative could be created identifying the elimination of racial inequality as the necessary condition for racial justice, transforming that imperative into political action would prove even more difficult. Not only would there be important, proper, but also inevitably contentious debate about how best to eliminate racial inequality, there is more significantly no reason to be even remotely confident that individuals would be able and willing to engage in the large scale and long-term legislative activism that would be required to produce the laws and policies capable of reducing and ultimately eliminating racial inequality.

There is no infrastructure in place to educate people in both public policy and the nuts and bolts of legislative change. In such a context, racial justice becomes a frustrating and demoralizing pursuit. Small and important victories might be achieved, perhaps on a topic like the use of lethal violence in law enforcement, but these victories will not significantly alter the realities of racial inequality that lead to racial stigma.

If my argument is correct, racial justice cannot be achieved without the elimination of racial inequality. Given the reality of racial stigma, racial inequality in the United States is white supremacy. Understanding the equation is simple. Changing the realities that produce this outcome will be much harder than most imagine. Yet, unless one is willing to grant a final victory to white supremacy, and so to provide it aid and comfort, the struggle for racial justice must continue.

Joe Pettit is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University.

3 thoughts on “Racial Justice Easy To Understand, But Very Difficult to Achieve (Joe Pettit)

  1. Thank you Joe for sharing your thoughts and helping to clarify important issues around racial justice.
    I have two responses to your shared thoughts:

    First, regarding your statement: “there is an unfortunate willingness in the hearts of too many people to consider the possibility of racial inferiority, and so, too, of racial superiority,” I agree that it is difficult to think of possible solutions to this problem, especially if it is as widespread as it seems, and widespread precisely because it serves to justify inaction by those who benefit from white supremacy. I wonder if you have any thoughts as to how we might begin to address this issue?

    Second, what kind of “large scale and long-term legislative activism that would be required to produce the laws and policies capable of reducing and ultimately eliminating racial inequality” do you have in mind? Like many of us now, I’ve been thinking about which proposed laws and policies might help reduce and/or eliminate discriminatory violence in law enforcement (see the ACLUs suggested policy on body cams: https://www.aclu.org/police-body-mounted-cameras-right-policies-place-win-all). Body cams are useless (not to mention fraught with issues regarding privacy and surveillance) unless they and their content are the domain of an entity independent from the law enforcement agency being held accountable by the tech. Would not the desired “infrastructure to educate people in both public policy and the nuts and bolts of legislative change” be useful here, or should such an educational project focus instead on legislation and policy that could “significantly alter the realities of racial inequality that lead to racial stigma.” If the latter, then again, I wonder what kind of legislation and policy might be proposed here?

    Thank you again for your shared thoughts on racial injustice.

  2. Harold – Thanks for the questions. Regarding your first one, I see two immediate possibilities. First, I think this is a great issue for religious communities to discuss. They have a long tradition of promoting internal reflection and the need for honesty about what a person believes. I also think many of them have a tradition of emphasizing the equality of human worth, and so are able to explain how racial bias runs contrary to that conviction. Second, I think that individuals, religious or otherwise, need to be honest and ask themselves why they do NOT think there should be a racial equality imperative in our country. I contend that if they stay with that question long enough, they will be forced to see that they are holding on to essentialist convictions about racial groups.
    Regarding your second question, I think there are three levels to this. First, there is public policy. I think criminal punishment, education, and housing are the top three areas needing to be addressed (this does not mean that there are not others). Individuals need to learn about these issues in relatively concise ways. Second, there is legislation. There are lots of laws considered every year on these issues at the federal and state level, and individuals need to become educated about them. Third, there what I called the “nuts and bolts” of political activism. Individuals need to be educated in how to do this. This includes making phone calls, writing letters, keeping track of committee votes, etc. I think we need organizations whose mission is to focus just on this last problem so that individuals have place to go to get information quickly and easily. We live in a country where it is very easy to spend money, but very hard to promote social justice. We need to work hard to change that dynamic. Otherwise, calls for social justice will be viewed as nothing very serious at all, only rhetoric that makes a social justice advocate look good, but does not actually change things for the oppressed.

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