CUNY Lehman College The Justice Deviance and the Dark Ghetto Essay
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TOMMIE SHELBY Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto The truth of the dark ghetto is not merely a truth about Negroes; it reflects the deeper torment and anguish of the total human predicament. Kenneth B. Clark, Dark Ghetto Unjust social arrangements are themselves a kind of extortion, even violence, and consent to them does not bind. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice In the United States, some citizens sharply criticize poor people who live in ghettos. These critics demand that the urban poor take greater “personal responsibility” for their choices and stop blaming the government or racism for hardships that they have imposed on themselves through self-defeating attitudes and bad conduct. The problems of the ghetto, on this view, are primarily the result of a crisis of values, best remedied by reaffirming a collective commitment to living morally upright lives. On the other side are those who criticize the government for its failure to ameliorate the social conditions of the ghetto poor. They believe the government and affluent citizens have an obligation to improve the impoverished lives of the ghetto poor and should stop “blaming the victim,” that is, should stop criticizing the poor for a situation brought about by the failure of the society to live up to its professed ideals. Rather than demand that the ghetto poor change, they argue that the social system should be made more equitable. This debate raises highly contentious and urgent practical issues. It also raises difficult philosophical questions. I am not thinking primarily about traditional problems of free will and moral responsibility. The problems I will focus on lie in the domain of the theory of justice. Specifically, my concern is to determine what kinds of criticisms of the ghetto poor’s behavior and attitudes are or are not appropriate given that © by Blackwell Publishing, Inc. Philosophy & Public Affairs , no. Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto the social circumstances under which they make their life choices are, at least in part, the result of injustice. If the overall social arrangement in which the ghetto poor live is unjust, this requires that we think about what their obligations are quite differently than we should if the society were judged to be just.1 In particular, I will argue that it is necessary to distinguish the civic obligations citizens have to each other from the natural duties all persons have as moral agents, both of which are affected, though in different ways, by the justness of social arrangements. In addition, among the natural duties all persons possess is the duty to uphold, and to assist in bringing about, just institutions, a political duty that has important, though generally overlooked, consequences for the debate about ghetto poverty. CUNY Lehman College The Justice Deviance and the Dark Ghetto Essay
Throughout I will stress the importance of assessing the moral status of the ghetto poor’s conduct within nonideal political theory, that underdeveloped part of the theory of justice that specifies how we should respond to or rectify injustice. This is not, of course, the only relevant evaluative point of view. It is, however, a crucial and frequently neglected one, at least when it comes to thinking about the conduct of poor urban blacks. In addition, viewing these problems from the standpoint of justice—rather than, say, that of traditional American values or I have benefited greatly from discussions of drafts of this article with seminar participants and audiences at UC Berkeley, Princeton University, Columbia University, the Society for the Study of Africana Philosophy, Harvard University, University of Toronto, and a moral philosophy conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia, sponsored by Ohio State University, University of Maribor, and University of Rijeka. For comments and discussion, I’m grateful to Anthony Appiah, Nir Eyal, Samuel Freeman, Niko Kolodny, Angelika Krebs, Ron Mallon, John Pittman, Amélie Rorty, Jessie Scanlon, Tim Scanlon, Samuel Scheffler, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Melissa Williams, William Julius Wilson, and the Editors of Philosophy & Public Affairs. Research for this article was generously supported by the Center for Human Values at Princeton University. . Norman Daniels makes this important point when discussing how the “context of compliance” (i.e., the extent to which social institutions satisfy appropriate principles of justice) affects how we should assess the relative priority of (i) providing adequate welfare benefits to the poor, (ii) avoiding the creation of work disincentives, and (iii) maintaining equity between low-income earners. Most relevant to my concerns is Daniels’s claim, which I believe is correct, that the extent to which background conditions are unjust will have implications for determining who among the jobless poor are blameworthy for failing or refusing to work. (See his “Conflicting Objectives and the Priorities Problem,” in Income Support: Conceptual and Policy Issues, ed. Peter G. Brown, Conrad Johnson, and Paul Vernier [Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, ], pp. –.) I develop and draw out the consequences of this insight for the debate over the obligations of the ghetto poor. Philosophy & Public Affairs technocratic social engineering—would, I believe, help to move us beyond the behavior-versus-structure impasse that afflicts current public discussions of race and urban poverty.2 To avoid misunderstanding, a few further introductory remarks are in order.CUNY Lehman College The Justice Deviance and the Dark Ghetto Essay
I use the word ‘deviant’ throughout in its literal sense: sharply divergent from widely accepted norms. In using this term, which I concede is not wholly satisfactory, I am not endorsing its negative connotations or expressing disapproval.3 Moreover, there are many different attitudes and behavior associated with the ghetto that some regard, whether rightly or wrongly, as deviant or even pathological. Not all of these are relevant to my argument. The principal forms of deviance I will discuss are crime, refusing to work in legitimate jobs, and having contempt for authority. i. justice and the basic structure To define the problem I will rely on some familiar notions from John Rawls’s theoretical framework: justice as fairness. Some hold that Rawls’s theory of domestic justice is too austere and utopian. So to address those less sympathetic to his account and to show that my conclusions rest on relatively weak normative principles, I will make my argument in a way that does not depend on the soundness of the overall Rawlsian apparatus or on its most demanding egalitarian claims. Instead, I will limit myself to a few core yet moderate ideas from this . Recent work in sociology has attempted to transcend the behavior-versus-structure debate by carefully demonstrating the subtle interaction between structural and cultural factors in the explanation of ghetto conditions. See, for example, Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, ); William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (New York: Knopf, ); and Elijah Anderson, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (New York: Norton, ). Unfortunately, journalistic writing, public debate, and elite political discourse do not generally reflect this more nuanced view of urban poverty. . For helpful discussions of how the public discourse surrounding urban poverty, including social scientific discourse, is often stigmatizing and even racist, see Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon, ); Herbert J. Gans, The War Against the Poor: The Underclass and Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, ); Martin Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ); and Ange-Marie Hancock, The Politics of Disgust: The Public Identity of the Welfare Queen (New York: NYU Press, ). Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto well-known theory, ideas that have an intuitive appeal because they are available in our public political culture.4 Rawls suggests that if we were to conceive of society as a system of social cooperation over time and take an impartial view of what the distribution of benefits and burdens of participating in this scheme ought to be, we could arrive at objective conclusions about what social justice requires. This is not a sociological claim. Thinking of society as a fair system of cooperation is a moral idea. Social justice is defined by the set of legitimate claims and obligations individuals have within a fair overall social arrangement.CUNY Lehman College The Justice Deviance and the Dark Ghetto Essay
Thought about this way, justice is, at least in part, a matter of reciprocity between persons who regard each other as equals.5 Taking this approach to questions of social justice is particularly helpful when considering criticisms often made against the ghetto poor. It provides a framework for asking when the urban poor are doing their fair share in upholding the scheme of cooperation and when they are receiving the fair share due them as equal participants in this scheme. Rawls also emphasizes the paramount significance of the basic structure for social justice. The basic structure is constituted by the way the major social, political, and economic institutions of society apportion the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. A well-organized and impartially administered basic structure may not be all we need to achieve or maintain social justice. Yet it should be clear why Rawls chooses to focus on it: the effects of the basic structure on an individual’s life prospects are immense and wide-ranging, and these effects have an impact on the quality of individuals’ lives from the cradle to the grave.6 Given that each of us must make a life for ourselves under the dominion of such institutions, we each have a legitimate claim that these institutions treat us fairly. The institutions of the basic structure fix a person’s initial position within society, and some individuals will be more, and some less, favored in the distribution of benefits . An additional advantage of drawing on Rawls’s theory is that it allows me to rebut the charge, frequently made by Critical Race Theorists and others on the Left, that this brand of liberalism, like its classical ancestor, has little insightful to say about issues of race and class. . John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, ), pp. –. . John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, ), p. ; and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, ed. Erin Kelly (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, ), p. . Philosophy & Public Affairs and burdens—of liberties, duties, opportunities, and material advantages—of this association over the course of their lives depending on their starting places within the social arrangement. This does not mean that a person’s life prospects are completely determined by the particular social circumstances he or she is born into, since a person’s own choices, the good or bad will of other individuals, and brute luck will have a significant impact as well; and of course in a liberal democratic regime, where individual autonomy is (or at least ought to be) respected, each person should take primary responsibility for how his or her life goes. But each individual’s life prospects are obviously deeply shaped by a social structure that he or she did not choose. Moreover, it is largely through institutions—governments, schools, firms, markets, and families—that social, natural, and fortuitous contingencies come to affect our individual life chances.CUNY Lehman College The Justice Deviance and the Dark Ghetto Essay
Thus the social arrangement we participate in should be organized to give each of us a fair chance to flourish. And on Rawls’s theory, providing that fair chance means ensuring that no citizen’s life prospects are diminished because the social scheme disadvantages him or her in ways that cannot be justified on impartial grounds. It is also important to outline how we should understand racial justice.7 It is now a widely shared moral conviction that racial discrimination is unjust.8 But there is considerable disagreement over what such discrimination consists in. Some think that racial discrimination must be motivated by racial animus or an explicit intention to exclude on racial grounds. Others believe that racial discrimination occurs whenever race is considered in decisions about how public institutions ought to treat persons, even if the proposed race-conscious policy is designed to promote some otherwise worthy social goal, such as reducing the economic marginalization of groups who have been historically oppressed or attenuating the legacy of racial exclusion by creating integrated schools . The remarks in this paragraph and the next are developed in greater detail in my “Race and Social Justice: Rawlsian Considerations,” Fordham Law Review (): – ; and “Is Racism in the ‘Heart’?” Journal of Social Philosophy (): –. . For evidence of this, see Howard Schuman, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence Bobo, and Maria Krysan, Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, ). Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto and neighborhoods.9 Rejecting both views, I hold that racial discrimination is operating when a so-called racial characteristic (or set of characteristics) possessed by or attributed to the members of a social group is wrongly treated as a source or sign of disvalue, incompetence, or inferiority. Thus, racial animus is not a necessary condition for racial discrimination, and not every invocation of race in public life constitutes discrimination, at least not if “discrimination” suggests unfairness. When the administration of the institutions of the basic structure is distorted by racial prejudice or bias, Rawls regards this as a violation of “formal justice.”10 Building on this, we can say that institutional racism exists when the administration or enforcement of the rules and procedures of a major social institution—say, the labor market or the criminal justice system—is regularly distorted by the racial prejudice or bias of those who exercise authority within the institution. Institutional racism can exist even when the content of the rules and procedures of an institution, when viewed in the abstract, is perfectly just, provided there is pervasive racial bias in the application of those rules and procedures. Rawls also allows that in some societies, for instance, those with a long history of racism, it may be necessary to make special constitutional provisions that explicitly prohibit racial discrimination in the institutions of the basic structure, and even to grant special powers to the government to ensure that all citizens, regardless of their race, receive the equal protection of the laws.
11 The core moral idea behind the principles of racial justice, and an obviously attractive one, is that in a just society each has a chance to carry out his or her own plan of life without being unfairly inhibited in this pursuit by others’ racial prejudice or racial bias. Some think that equal opportunity exists if no important position or good afforded by social cooperation is unfairly denied persons on account of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, creed, or national origin. On this view, equal opportunity is simply nondiscrimination. However, Rawls thinks of equal opportunity as entailing . For forceful criticisms of this “colorblind” principle, see Bernard R. Boxill, Blacks and Social Justice, rev. ed. (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, ), chap. . Also see Glenn C. Loury, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, ), chap. . . Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. . . Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. –. Philosophy & Public Affairs much more than this. In particular, he thinks fair equality of opportunity requires equal life prospects (as measured by primary social goods) given similar natural talents and motivation. One should be able to expect similar income and wealth over a life as anyone else who has the same abilities and the same willingness to use them regardless of the social class one has been born into. There should be no class barriers to the acquisition of knowledge or the development of skills, which means that the educational system must be set up and administered so that each has the same chance to cultivate his or her abilities regardless of class origins. This brief description of the moral ideal of racial equality and equal opportunity within a fair basic structure is perhaps too abstract.
To make these principles more concrete, let me describe an embodied institutional arrangement that seems, on its face, to violate them. Suppose that the basic structure of a liberal democratic, market-based society has the following characteristics. There is uneven growth and decline across different sectors of the economy; however, the government does not ensure that workers hit hardest by economic restructuring, declining wages, or periodic recessions are able to maintain their standard of living. For example, there is little attempt to provide retraining programs, jobs in the public sector, or subsidized income for laborers in declining industries. In general, the economy is not structured to sustain full employment at decent wages, so there are always a significant number of unemployed persons who find it difficult to find a good job. Social entitlements are so meager that many of the unemployed are forced to live in poverty while they look for work, and some do not qualify for public subsidies at all. Let us also suppose that in this same society, there is, and has been for some time, a vastly higher rate of social mobility for the highly educated than for the poorly educated. However, the quality of kindergarten to grade education varies widely from neighborhood to neighborhood. In affluent, middle-class, and mixed-income suburban neighborhoods, the public schools are generally good; in urban working-class and poor neighborhoods, the education offered is often significantly inferior and substandard. Yet despite these manifest and widely known inequities between suburban and urban schools, the government does not distribute resources in a way to create equal educational opportunity across different neighborhoods, and most citizens in suburban communities do not push for a more equitable allotment of educational resources. Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto Finally, let us assume that this society is a multiracial one, with a white majority and several smaller nonwhite racial groups. The society has a long and brutal history of racial domination, exploitation, and exclusion. Indeed, it was once based on explicit white supremacist principles; and it practiced race-based slavery and de jure racial segregation enforced through terror. These practices have now been abolished, and constitutional and legislative provisions have been enacted to give racial minorities equal civil rights. Explicit expressions of racist attitudes have declined sharply. Nevertheless, covert forms of racial prejudice still exist and attenuate the impartial administration of the major institutions of the society. Antidiscrimination law is not effectively enforced, …
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