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“Many well-meaning people who long for change have seized on [Michael] Brown’s death as a golden opportunity to organize,” Glenn Loury writes. They have seized this opportunity, he suggests, because there is no “well-organized” civil rights movement on which to build. In this account, Loury echoes much of the existing coverage, which has treated the Ferguson protests and riots as spontaneous eruptions. Loury seeks to clear ground for a deliberate and deliberative effort to pursue racial justice.
While I am sympathetic to his aspirations, there are two problems, as I see it, with his framework. First, there is in fact an organized movement, and it can claim credit for the influence of the Brown and Trayvon Martin cases. Second, the project of racial justice is no longer best defined as one of racial justice. It should instead be conceived as a project of egalitarianism. The focus should not be on how we reintroduce some, any, kind of black freedom struggle but on how we progress from the movement we have now to the one we need.
The problem today is racial domination, not exclusion.
So what is today’s movement? Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Loury is dismissive of Sharpton, but he shouldn’t be. Benjamin Crump, whom Martin’s family hired as an attorney, reached out to Sharpton to advance a successful media strategy. Carlton Lee, the pastor of the church Brown’s stepfather attends, is the Missouri chapter president of the National Action Network. These connections no doubt helped Brown’s family bring in Crump, who has represented them from the beginning. These cases have gained traction thanks to the dedicated and methodical activism surrounding them.
A 2010 Newsweek profile speaks to the foundation of Sharpton’s successful advocacy: “While [Jesse] Jackson takes a broad, programmatic view of the civil-rights struggle, Sharpton most often focuses on individual instances of injustice. ‘It’s simple,’ says Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute at Stanford, and a friend of Sharpton’s. ‘If you want policies put forth, you call Obama or Cory Booker. But if you get beat up by the police, you’d better call Al Sharpton.’”
Loury believes it is a mistake to focus on specific cases of injustice. But I have a different take.
The Civil Rights Movement was largely structured around a discourse of exclusion and inclusion. Blacks had been excluded from schools, restaurants, economic opportunities. The point was to get us included. This discourse of exclusion and inclusion has for a long time been the basic strategy for dealing with the failings of liberalism’s supposed commitments to universal rights. When universal institutions prove to be otherwise, get everyone included and then we can move on with our lives.
But two generations of scholarship in history and political philosophy have shown that the inclusion/exclusion paradigm is inadequate to reality. Our problem is not exclusion, to be solved by inclusion. Our problem is domination, to be solved by non-domination.
Liberal institutions in America were built on documents and principles that provided liberty for some and domination for others. These differential statuses were not accidentally but intrinsically connected to each other. Those who enjoyed liberation and the benefits of domination, which we have come to call white privilege and male privilege, mistakenly understood themselves to be experiencing equality. Thus began the mis-education of our people. We have not yet learned what it means and feels like to live with one another, with the many and different others among whom we find ourselves, on the footing of equality. Sharpton’s network relentlessly spotlights this fact.
In order to achieve our egalitarian aspirations, we need not so much include the excluded as reconstitute our social order. In this sense our project is no longer one of racial justice, of fixing something for a part of the population, as the image of inclusion suggests. Instead we need an egalitarian order for everyone.
The abstract project of achieving non-domination becomes concrete through policies. Those policies should change the habits and techniques of policing. As Loury says, they also need to break cycles of deprivation and criminality and free minority communities from the strangling grip of the drug economy. But we must recognize that there is a new philosophical starting point for our policy work: the effort to end domination.
And we should give Sharpton’s network credit for clarifying what domination, in contrast to exclusion, looks like.
Danielle Allen is Director of Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Professor of Government and Education, and coauthor of From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age.
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