Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Amy Ireland is thinking about a genocide at the level of "genus-cide," the eradication of humanity itself. The threat is not weaponry but technology. And the exemplary precursor is the horse: "In the United States--where competition with the automobile was at its most intense--there were about 26 million horses in 1915. By the 1950s only 2 million remained." The question Ireland asks is whether humans are going the way of horses to be replaced by more efficient machines. Will artificially intelligent machines consume humans' fuel? "Far from being actively malevolent, an artificially intelligent agent endowed with enough power only needs to be indifferent to become a murderer. What are we, after all, but fuel? Atoms that can be freely disassembled and reassembled into something else - a thousand paperclip factories, for instance, or a massive supercomputer, capable of mathematical calculations we can't even begin to imagine in our current state of technological paucity. Even the clearly delimited goal of creating exactly one million paperclips can warrant the wasting of an entire planet, for a fully rational AI would never assign zero probability to the hypothesis that it has not yet achieved its goal.... There is something satisfying about imagining a malevolent artificial intelligence that actively wants to destroy us because it fears us, loathes us, or at least finds our existence frustrating and inconvenient. But the notion that something will destroy us out of sheer indifference is much harder to swallow because it forces us to consider the possibility of our utter insignificance. Bostrom surmises with all the level-headedness of a pure statistician that the odds against humanity's survival are overwhelmingly high. The default outcome of our construction of a single strong artificial intelligence is, quite plainly, extinction. His intention, naturally, is to raise awareness of the risks that lie behind this seemingly anodyne technological innovation and encourage governments, corporations or other entities that may one day attempt to build strong AI to implement rigorously tested control measures before letting the thing out of the box. All this is well and good, but it rests upon a deeper anthropomorphic supposition. What if the most radical gesture a flailing humanity can make at this juncture is not to increase its investment in security and control, but to pass it on? What if we are entangled in a larger evolutionary process that we never had control over in the first place? The real question then, might not be how to survive the construction of strong artificial intelligence but whether or not the survival of the human race is a good thing after all." Ireland is right to pose the question of "genus-cide," although her tone is a bit blithe. The threat is not the eradication of human beings but, as Arendt writes in The Human Condition, the loss of the human condition, those characteristics of being human like labor, work, action, and (sometimes) thinking. As Arendt writes, "This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange."
Karl Ove Knausgaard was commissioned to travel from Sweden to the Viking's first settlement in Newfoundland and then drive across the United States in order to reflect on the state of America. In part one of his two-part "Saga," Knausgaard offers this insight into a specifically American form of poverty, the poverty of imagination and the abandonment of distinction: "I'd seen poverty before, of course, even incomprehensible poverty, as in the slums outside Maputo, in Mozambique. But I'd never seen anything like this. If what I had seen tonight--house after house after house abandoned, deserted, decaying as if there had been disaster--if this was poverty, then it must be a new kind poverty, maybe in the same way that the wealth that had amassed here in the 20th century had been a new kind of wealth. I had never really understood how a nation that so celebrated the individual could obliterate all differences the way this country did. In a system of mass production, the individual workers are replaceable and the products are identical. The identical cars are followed by identical gas stations, identical restaurants, identical motels and, as an extension of these, by identical TV screens, which hang everywhere in this country, broadcasting identical entertainment and identical dreams. Not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating such a unified, collective identity as the one Americans lived their lives within. When times got rough, a person could abandon one town in favor of another, and that new town would still represent the same thing. Was that what home was here? Not the place, not the local, but the culture, the general?"
Peter Railton gave the John Dewey Lecture at the American Philosophical Association Meeting this year, where amidst reflections on philosophical thinking, personal courage, and political activism, he offered a guileless and moving account of his personal struggle with depression. "And what of depression? Perhaps we all know the mask of depression, that frozen, affectless face we catch glimpses of on our students, colleagues, and friends. I can't do anything about that. But perhaps I can do something about the face of depression--its visible image in the minds of our children and parents, teachers and students. Because in truth, we are still to a considerable degree still in a world of 'Don't ask, don't tell' with regard to depression and associated mental disorders, such as anxiety, even though these will severely affect one in ten of us over the course of a lifetime, and often at more than one point in a lifetime. So there's nothing for it. Those whose have dwelt in the depths depression need to come out as well. Some already have, but far too few adult men (big surprise!), and especially far too few of the adult men who somehow have come to bear the stamp of respectability and recognition, and thus are visible to hundreds of students and colleagues. It's no big deal, right? We're all enlightened about this. Then why do the words stick in my throat when I tell you that another theme uniting the three episodes I have recounted from my life, and that has played an equally important role in shaping my philosophy, is that they were all accompanied by my depression. This moody high school student, this struggling protester, this anxious young faculty member--they were all me and they were all living through major depressive episodes at the time. And there have been other such episodes, some more recent. Thankfully, for me and especially for my family who have been through so much already, not right now. Did others know? I don't know. Some must have guessed--perhaps those who themselves had known depression in their lives could see the mask of depression upon my face. But the thing is: I couldn't say it. I couldn't say, 'Look, I'm dying inside. I need help.' Because that's what depression is--it isn't sadness or moodiness, it is above all a logic that undermines from within, that brings to bear all the mind's mighty resources in convincing you that you're worthless, incapable, unloveable, and everyone would be better off without you. Not a steely-eyed, careful critique from which one might learn, but an incessant bludgeoning that exaggerates past errors while ignoring new information, eroding even the ability to form memories. A young man once had the courage to tell me, 'My brain is telling me to kill myself, but my body is saying "no."' Happily, his body won. But it doesn't always. Every year, thousands of young men don't win the battle. We are captive audiences to our own minds, and it can become intolerable." Depression, Railton suggests, is still in the closet, and this causes untold pain at colleges, where, as a recent study shows, the mental health of college Freshmen is at an all-time low--something that will not surprise any of us who teach in this nation's colleges and universities.
In Railton's speech on depression discussed above, he also has this tidbit on meetings: "Oscar Wilde is still right--because the cost of building a society where the people have more say in how their lives are run is still many, many meetings. What is a meeting, after all, but people deliberating together with a capacity to act as a group that is more than just a sum of individual actions, and this sort of informed joint action is a precondition for significant social change. Come together, decide together, act together, and bear the consequences together. We must own our institutions or they will surely own us. As Aristotle told us, one becomes a citizen not by belonging to a polity or having a vote, but by shouldering the tasks of joint deliberation and civic governance. And there is no civic or faculty governance, no oversight of discrimination in hiring and promotion, no regulation of pollutants, no organization of faculty or students to initiate curricular reform, no mobilization by professional associations to protect their most vulnerable members or to promote greater diversity, no increased humaneness in the treatment of animals and human subjects, no chance to offset arbitrariness and bullying within offices and departments, no oversight of progress and revision of plans in response to changing circumstances, without actual people who care spending long hours in the work of planning, meeting, and making things happens. The alternative is for all these decisions to be made at the discretion of those on high--or not at all." At a moment when faith and participation in all institutions is rare and the pursuit of individual pursuits comparatively common, Railton's reminder of what Arendt calls the power of talking and acting together is worth heeding.
David Cole writes that the Senate Torture Report, when read in full, leads to fundamentally different conclusions than most of the headlines and early accounts suggest. Above all, the report blaming the CIA for lying may have missed the real story: "The full story is more complicated, and ultimately much more disturbing, than the initial responses--mine included--suggested. And because these documents may be the closest we come to some form of accountability, it is essential that we get the lessons right.... So why did the committee focus on efficacy and misrepresentation, rather than on the program's fundamental illegality? Possibly because that meant it could cast the C.I.A. as solely responsible, a rogue agency. A focus on legality would have rightly held C.I.A. officials responsible for failing to say no--but it also would have implicated many more officials who were just as guilty, if not more so. Lawyers at the Justice Department wrote a series of highly implausible legal memos from 2002 to 2007, opining that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, confinement in coffinlike boxes, painful stress positions and slamming people into walls were not torture; were not cruel, inhuman or degrading; and did not violate the Geneva Conventions. The same can be said for President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and all the cabinet-level officials responsible for national security, each of whom signed off on a program that was patently illegal. The reality is, no one in a position of authority said no. This may well explain the committee's focus on the C.I.A. and its alleged misrepresentations. The inquiry began as a bipartisan effort, and there is no way that the Republican members would have agreed to an investigation that might have found fault with the entire leadership of the Bush administration. But while the committee's framing may be understandable as a political matter, it was a mistake as a matter of historical accuracy and of moral principle. The report is, to date, the closest thing to official accountability that we have. But by focusing on whether the program worked and whether the C.I.A. lied, the report was critically misleading. Responsibility for the program lies not with the C.I.A. alone, but also with everyone else, up to the highest levels of the White House, who said yes when law and morality plainly required them to say no."
Adam Phillips worries about what's inside us: "We are never as good as we should be; and neither, it seems, are other people. A life without a so-called critical faculty would seem an idiocy: what are we, after all, but our powers of discrimination, our taste, the violence of our preferences? Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves. Nothing makes us more critical--more suspicious or appalled or even mildly amused--than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism, that we should be less impressed by it and start really loving ourselves. But the self-critical part of ourselves, the part that Freud calls the super-ego, has some striking deficiencies: it is remarkably narrow-minded; it has an unusually impoverished vocabulary; and it is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive. It is cruelly intimidating--Lacan writes of 'the obscene super-ego'--and it never brings us any news about ourselves. There are only ever two or three things we endlessly accuse ourselves of, and they are all too familiar; a stuck record, as we say, but in both senses--the super-ego is reiterative. It is the stuck record of the past ('something there badly not wrong', Beckett's line from Worstward Ho, is exactly what it must not say) and it insists on diminishing us. It is, in short, unimaginative; both about morality, and about ourselves. Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right." In other words, critical thinking is essential, but let's also recall that it is dangerous. All thinking is an attack on the status quo and the common world in which we live. That is what Arendt means when she wrote, "There are no dangerous thoughts. Thinking itself is dangerous." That doesn't mean we should stop thinking critically, but it does mean that thinking requires knowing when thinking is, and when it is not, needed. That is the moment of judgment.
Novelist Gary Shteyngart spent a week watching Russian television and living like a Russian oligarch: "Here is the question I'm trying to answer: What will happen to me--an Americanized Russian-speaking novelist who emigrated from the Soviet Union as a child--if I let myself float into the television-filtered head space of my former countrymen? Will I learn to love Putin as 85 percent of Russians profess to do? Will I dash to the Russian consulate on East 91st Street and ask for my citizenship back? Will I leave New York behind and move to Crimea, which, as of this year, Putin's troops have reoccupied, claiming it has belonged to Russia practically since the days of the Old Testament? Or will I simply go insane? A friend of mine in St. Petersburg, a man in his 30s who, like many his age, avoids state-controlled TV and goes straight to alternative news sources on the Internet, warns me in an email: 'Your task may prove harmful to your psyche and your health in general. Russian TV, especially the news, is a biohazard.' I'll be fine, I think. Russians have survived far worse than this. But, just in case, I have packed a full complement of anti-anxiety, sleep and pain medication."
Andy Greenwald considers what made the recently concluded sitcom Parks and Recreation successful and what it's legacy might be: "Art doesn't always have to be a dark mirror reflecting reality. It can and should also be a window, thrown open to let in every last bit of possible light. Parks and Recreation never quite resembled the real America. But every episode was imbued with the idea that maybe it could, if only we, the people, cared a little more and tried a little harder. The Wire, the greatest drama of the young 21st century, left us with a tough legacy to reckon with. Parks and Rec, the best comedy of that same century, gifted us with a beautiful model to which we can collectively aspire. I doubt the future will be as bleak as David Simon's vision for it or as rosy as Mike Schur's. The joy of being a TV fan is that we get to consider both. That's not a cop-out, by the way. That's a compromise, and one that even President Leslie Knope could accept. After all, Parks was built on the bedrock belief that opposing ideas could not only have merit, they could coexist. Like the show itself, it's an idea that sounds simple but in practice is anything but."
"Arendt's Critique of Modern Society as an Analysis of Process Imaginary"
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center announces three post-doctoral fellowships for the 2015-2016 academic year.
To learn more about the fellowships, including how to apply, click here.
Application Deadline: Thursday, March 5, 2015
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Friday, March 6, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
"Figuring Rights: Wollstonecraft and the Right to Political Community
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 6:00 - 7:00 pm
Synopsis: A diverse group of South African actors tours the war-torn regions of Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia to share their country's experiment with reconciliation. As they ignite a dialogue among people with raw memories of atrocity, the actors find they must once again confront their homeland's violent past, and question their own capacity for healing and forgiveness.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Weis Cinema, Campus Center, 6:30 pm
Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge
Invite Only. RSVP Required.
Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am - 7:00 pm
Invite Only. RSVP Required.
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Johannes Lang explores the moral and political consequences of emotion entering into the public sphere in the Quote of the Week. American moral and social philosopher Eric Hoffer provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In a special feature, we recognize Aliza Becker, one of her Associate Fellows, and her creation of the American Jewish Peace Archive: An Oral History of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Activists (AJPA). And we appreciate Arendt's engagement with Saint Augustine's "Confessions" in our Library feature.
This coming Friday, March 6th, the Hannah Arendt Center will host the fifth session of its Virtual Reading Group. We will be discussing Chapters 10-13 of The Human Condition.
The reading group is available to all members and is always welcoming new participants! Please click here to learn more!
Dear Valued Supporters,
We live in a time marked by dangerous levels of political cynicism. And yet, there is a palpable yearning to rise above partisanship, a will to articulate and pursue public goods. We saw this in the support for whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and also in the popularity of Rand Paul's filibuster opposing the government's targeted killing of American citizens. We feel it in our disappointment at anemic voter turnout and in our disgust at the corruption of American democracy. And we witnessed it at our seventh annual conference "The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting for," where speakers from Charles Murray to George Packer, from Lawrence Lessig to Kendall Thomas, came together to think about those ideals that still inspire and unite Americans to sacrifice for a common dream.
A judge in California has ruled that the state’s method of granting tenure to teachers is unconstitutional under California’s guarantee of equal protection. At the heart of the ruling is a finding that between one and three percent of teachers in California are “grossly ineffective.” That amounts to between 3,000 and 9,000 thousand teachers, most of whom are gathered together in many of the poorest and worst school districts in the state. Evidence shows that one year of instruction by a “grossly ineffective” teacher can significantly retard a child’s progress. Multiple years of such teaching is dangerous and patently unfair. Because these teachers cannot be fired and because they end up teaching the poorest Californians, the judge found that tenure “impose[s] a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.”
Anand Giridharadas has written a thoughtful and thrilling new book, The True American. It tells two interlocking stories of Rais Bhuiyan and Mark Stroman. Bhuiyan is a striver, an immigrant from Bangladesh, and a Muslim. Stroman is a drug addict, a charmer, and a Texan who is hateful and broken. Shortly after the attacks on 9/11, Stroman goes on a rampage and shoots three people he thinks are Muslim. Two die. Rais Bhuiyan, the third, is badly wounded; losing his right eye, his face becomes permanently disfigured.
Giridharadas chronicles their lives. Rais seeks to rise above his adversity and live the American dream; Stroman finds God and redemption on death row. Ultimately Rais forgives Stroman and wages an international campaign to stop his execution. The story risks being cliché at every turn. But Giridharadas discovers amidst banality a brutal, shattering, and also inspiring window into modern America.
Reviewing The True American in the Washington Post, Eboo Patel writes:
The premise is simple — Bhuiyan forgives his attacker in the name of Islam and then wages a campaign to save Stroman from execution. An inspiring enough story, surely worthy of the flurry of news coverage it received around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But a book-length treatment, especially with a title like “The True American,” runs the risk of being taken for a middle-school morality tale. Simply put, it’s not. This is a haunting book, one that penetrates deep into the lives of two complex individuals and reveals the worlds that made them.
Patel rightly sees that the richness of Giridharadas’ book is the way he offers two very different Americans in attempting to explore the sense of what it means to be a “true American.”
The individual stories are certainly compelling, but what sets this book apart is when it zooms out and illuminates the broader social context of the lives at the center. We get Bhuiyan’s immigrant eyes on America: his gratitude for the upward opportunities provided to the resourceful and industrious; his despair for those who have fallen into what he calls the SAD life, beholden to empty sex, alcohol and drugs; and above all his confusion at how so many Americans seem abandoned, unable to find family members to co-sign for car loans or take them in when they have no place to go.
Rais Bhuiyan is at once enraptured by the America he adopts and also aghast at the loneliness and dysfunction he witnesses – something so different from his life back home. Poverty in Bangladesh was much worse than in America, but the lives of the poor in the USA are worse than back home.
If he had only recently settled in America and already had friends who would sign on a lease for him, how could people who had been here for donkey’s years lack such connections? Rais saw his colleagues having to beg for rides or commute by foot on major roads in the searing heat, and he wondered why their family members weren’t picking them up—especially the young women. He felt offended on their behalf.
And Rais has more than a bit of that immigrant hubris, a frustration bordering on contempt for Americans who want a good life without struggle:
Ever since his arrival in America, a part of Rais—at first a small part, swollen by time—had wanted to grab these people, shake them by the shoulders, and wake them from their misery and depression and self-loathing and family-breaking and money-grabbing and loneliness and violence. He wanted to tell them: “Look, why you guys are still suffering? If I can overcome, if I can turn around my life, with the mercy of God, in this country, from that negative point to this point—you guys are born here, you guys speak better than me, you understand the culture better than me, you have more networks, more resource. Why can’t you stay in the same place—even going down day by day? Why you have to struggle on a regular basis, just to survive?
As Rais resolves to forgive Stroman for his violence, Giridharadas shows that the real agenda is more grand. Rais is out to save America from itself. In seeking to save him, Rais wants not only to save Stroman’s life from what in Texas is called “The Death,” but to save his soul and the souls of millions of other Americans like him. Rais, a newly minted American, wants to “stay true to this vision of waking his countrymen up.” The True American is a story of regeneration, a call to America from its optimistic and immigrant soul, to reclaim its freedom.
[Rais] wanted, he said, to save them from childhoods with “no peace at home”; from an idea of life centered on “sex, alcohol, and drugs, starting from your teenage until when you grow up”; from people staying poor “generation-wise because of lack of education”; from members of an overclass that “never even know what is happening in the poor people’s life”; from “lack of in-touch with family”; from stressed and fragmented parents “busy with their own lives,” who tell their young to “just feel comfortable, just make your life happy” and thus nudge them towards things like drugs; from people who are “free, but the way they’re living their life, they’re losing their freedom.”
Meanwhile, Giridharadas paints an equally nuanced and at times compelling picture of Mark Stroman. Stroman insists that he is no racist because he is married to a Mexican. Yet he spouts racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Here is Patel:
It would be easy to dismiss Stroman, with his Aryan Nation friends and swastika tattoo, as simply a murderous white supremacist. But Giridharadas spends time with Stroman’s kids, visiting his son Robert in the maximum-security area of a maximum-security prison, and hanging out in a halfway house with Stroman’s first wife and their daughters as they try to beat addictions and hold down fast-food jobs. The Stromans’ problems are replicated throughout lower-class America: the uncertain parentages and anarchic families, the ubiquity of meth, the race-gang-dominated prisons, the sex that begins at the turn of puberty.
Giridharadas also tells the story of the friendship between Stroman and Ilan Ziv, an Israeli documentarian who comes to befriend Stroman. Ziv tells of the days after the killing of 13 soldiers at the Fort Hood military base by an American Muslim of Palestinian provenance.
[T]hey spoke of a book that Stroman had been reading and had grown infatuated with: Man’s Search for Meaning, by the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. It was not clear whether he had read it because of his relationship with Ziv. … They spoke at length about the book that first day. There was much in the work—born of Frankl’s years in Nazi concentration camps and his investigation of how people survive the direst circumstances—to calm a man in Stroman’s situation: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Stroman, who used to spout terms like “nigger-loving Jew,” now found himself drawn to one Jewish man’s story of inner transformation: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Yet even as Stroman spoke of his power to change and the “responsibility he bears toward a human being,” he remains also the bigot he has been. When he learns of the Fort Hood shootings,
that news of the attack had reawakened the specter of 9/11 for him and roused his dormant hatred of Muslims, whom he still thought to be evil. “You know me and Muslims,” Stroman snarled.
Ziv responds angrily and honestly:
“I looked him in the eye,” Ziv said, “and I say, ‘You know what, Mark? You’re a fucked-up person, and now I see how fucked you are,’ because that’s the way we talked. I said, ‘I see how fucked-up because you know what your problem is? You don’t see people. You see groups, right? You see groups, and I see people. And that person who did this killing is a very fucked-up individual. From everyone’s perspective, you’re a very fucked-up person. Nobody would say you’re white and you’re Christian, and all white Christians are fucked up. You’re fucked up.’”
Stroman looked at Ziv for the longest time and finally said, “So this is what they did to the Jews, right?”
Giridharadas has written an excellent book about America, hate, and redemption. At once despairing of and affirming the American dream, The True American is your Weekend Read. You can read an excerpt here. Better yet, order The True American here.
Looking for scandal, the press is focusing on the apparent conflict between Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The controversy began seven years ago before Sotomayor was on the Court, when Roberts wrote, in a decision invalidating a race-based busing program in Seattle, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This week, in a dissent Sotomayor chose to read aloud from the Supreme Court bench, she scolded Roberts:
"In my colleagues’ view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter."
Sotomayor’s point is that race matters in ways that her colleagues, including Roberts, apparently do not understand. She is right; race does matter, and it matters in ways that are difficult to perceive and comprehend. Among the pages of historical, legal, and everyday examples she offers, there are these reflections on the small but persistent present reality of race in America:
“And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, 'No, where are you really from?', regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: 'I do not belong here.'”
Roberts responded in a separate concurring opinion, defending himself against the charge of racial insensitivity. It is not and he is not out of touch with reality, he argues, to disagree about the use of racial preferences in responding to the reality of race in 21st century America. He too is right.
"The dissent states that '[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.' And it urges that '[r]ace matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: "I do not belong here.'" But it is not 'out of touch with reality' to conclude that racial preferences may themselves have the debilitating effect of reinforcing precisely that doubt, and—if so—that the preferences do more harm than good. To disagree with the dissent’s views on the costs and benefits of racial preferences is not to 'wish away, rather than confront' racial inequality. People can disagree in good faith on this issue, but it similarly does more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate."
The background of these supremely intemperate contretemps is a decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action in which the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Kennedy, upheld a Michigan Constitutional provision (recently amended through a ballot initiative) prohibiting race-based affirmative action in public universities.
As both Justice Kennedy’s controlling opinion and Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion make clear, the decision does not at all address the constitutionality of race-based affirmative action programs themselves. While in recent years the Supreme Court has shown skepticism about race-based affirmative action, it has consistently allowed such programs as long as they are tailored to achieve a legitimate state purpose understood as diversity in educational institutions. Nothing in Schuette changes that.
At the same time, Schuette does give constitutional blessing to states that democratically choose not to use race-based affirmative action. Already a number of states (including Blue states like California and swing states like Florida) have passed voter initiatives banning such race-based preferences. Racial preferences are not popular. In Michigan, a state that has voted democratic in the last five presidential elections, the anti-affirmative action ballot proposal passed by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent. For this reason, Schuette is rightly seen as another nail in the coffin of race-based affirmative action programs.
Support for race-based affirmative action is dwindling, hence the impassioned and at times angry dissent by Justice Sotomayor. Even if the Court does not further limit the ability of states to practice race-based affirmative action, more and more states—which means the people of the United States—are choosing not to.
This, by the way, does not mean a return to segregated education although it will likely mean, at least in the short term, fewer African Americans at public universities in Michigan. To choose not to allow race-based preferences opens the door to other experiments with promoting diversity in education. For example, universities in Michigan and California can seek to give preference to students from poor and socio-economically disadvantaged zip codes. Depending on the connection between race and poverty in a given state, such an approach to diversity may or may not lead to racial diversity on campus, but it will very likely lead to increased and meaningful diversity insofar as students from meaningfully different pasts and with uniquely divergent life experiences would be in school together. It is at least arguable that such an approach would lead to greater diversity than many race-based preference programs that end up recruiting a small group of upper class minorities.
As a legal matter, Schuette concerned two different understandings of freedom. On the one hand, as Justice Kennedy writes, “The freedom secured by the Constitution consists, in one of its essential dimensions, of the right of the individual not to be injured by the unlawful exercise of governmental power.” Understood as individual rights, freedom means the right to attend desegregated schools, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to meaningful dissent.
But freedom, Kennedy continues, “does not stop with individual rights.” There is another understanding of freedom, which may be called the freedom to participate in self-government:
"Our constitutional system embraces, too, the right of citizens to debate so they can learn and decide and then, through the political process, act in concert to try to shape the course of their own times and the course of a nation that must strive always to make freedom ever greater and more secure. Here Michigan voters acted in concert and statewide to seek consensus and adopt a policy on a difficult subject against a historical background of race in America that has been a source of tragedy and persisting injustice. That history demands that we continue to learn, to listen, and to remain open to new approaches if we are to aspire always to a constitutional order in which all persons are treated with fairness and equal dignity. Were the Court to rule that the question addressed by Michigan voters is too sensitive or complex to be within the grasp of the electorate; or that the policies at issue remain too delicate to be resolved save by university officials or faculties, acting at some remove from immediate public scrutiny and control; or that these matters are so arcane that the electorate’s power must be limited because the people cannot prudently exercise that power even after a full debate, that holding would be an unprecedented restriction on the exercise of a fundamental right held not just by one person but by all in common. It is the right to speak and debate and learn and then, as a matter of political will, to act through a lawful electoral process."
Both individual freedom and political freedom are important. Both are at the core of American understandings of free, democratic, constitutional government. The point is that these freedoms must be balanced. In this case, the balance swung in favor of political freedom. Here is Justice Breyer’s argument from his concurring opinion:
“The Constitution allows local, state, and national communities to adopt narrowly tailored race-conscious programs designed to bring about greater inclusion and diversity. But the Constitution foresees the ballot box, not the courts, as the normal instrument for resolving differences and debates about the merits of these programs. In short, the 'Constitution creates a democratic political system through which the people themselves must together find answers' to disagreements of this kind.”
For Sotomayor and those who agree with her, the claim is that the reality of racism historically and presently threatens the integrity of the political process. The problem with Sotomayor’s argument is that it is not at all clear that racial inequality today is the primary factor threatening the integrity of our political system. On the contrary, while it is incontrovertible that race matters, other facts, like class or income, may matter more.
To think seriously about race in American is hard. Very hard. As Walter Russell Mead writes, in discussing these questions,
“There’s a basic point that should not be forgotten in dealing with anything touching on race: The place of African Americans in the United States is a uniquely difficult and charged question. The history of slavery, segregation and entrenched racism in the United States cannot be denied and should not be minimized. The effects of this history are still very much with us today, and while the overwhelming majority of Americans repudiate racist ideologies and beliefs, the continuing presence of racist ideas, prejudices and emotions in this country is a reality that policy makers and people of good will cannot and should not ignore. It is naive to think otherwise, and any look at how our system works and any thoughts about whether it works fairly have to include a serious and honest reflection on the fading but real potency of race.”
Mead raises a difficult question, which is whether race is really the best way to think about inequality in 21st century America. He argues for status based public policy programs to replace race-based programs:
“Ultimately, this is why status-based forms of affirmative action seem better than race based ones. President Obama’s kids don’t need any special help in getting into college, but there are many kids of all races and ethnic groups who have demonstrated unusual talent and grit by achieving in difficult circumstances. Kids who go to terrible schools, who overcome economic disadvantages, who are the first in their family to complete high school, or who grow up in neighborhoods that are socially distressed can and should be treated with the respect their achievements warrant.”
Should President Obama’s children benefit from race-based preference programs? Clearly the answer is no. But note, this does not mean that his children will not suffer from racism. Mead knows this and says so. Indeed, it is likely they will, over the course of their lives, find themselves in situations where they are looked at askance, avoided, singled out, discriminated against, and also privileged on account of their races. Race matters, undoubtedly, in complicated but overwhelmingly in damaging and at times degrading ways. Responding to the reality of race in our society is absolutely necessary.
It is not at all clear that race-based preferences in college admission are the best way to respond to the reality of race in the 21st century. Some states believe such race-based preferences are necessary. Other states, including Michigan, California, and Florida, have concluded they are not. Deciding that preferential admissions to universities on the basis of race is impermissible is not unconstitutional. That is the correct decision the Court made this week.
That does not mean, of course, that we shouldn’t try to address both racial and class discrimination in higher education. There are many ways to address the damaging impact of racial as well as economic inequality in our society—some maybe better than race-based preferences. For one, schools could institute truly need-blind admissions and decide to give preference to applicants who come from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. While many of the poorest and most disadvantaged children in our society are white and from rural backgrounds, many others are racial minorities. Both would benefit from such an approach, which would be infinitely more just than a simple preference based on skin color.
Even better would be a serious commitment to affirmatively act to improve our shamefully underfunded and under-achieving high schools. Especially in poorer areas where rural and urban poverty crush the hopes and dreams of young people, our public schools are too-often disastrous. These schools, however, are free and the four years students spend in them are frequently wasted. If we could somehow figure out how to make high school a meaningful experience for millions of low-income children, that would be the single best way to help disadvantaged children around the country, both minority and white. That would be a truly meaningful form of affirmative action.
Over the last 50 years race has replaced class as the primary way that people on the left have perceived the injustices of the world. During that time poverty did not disappear as a problem, but it was hidden behind concerns of race and at times of gender. A whole generation of activists and politicians have grown up and worked in an era in which the problems of the nation were seen through a racial lens. There were good reasons for this shift and the results have been important and phenomenal. Yes, race still matters today, but nowhere to the extent it did 50 years ago.
Poverty, on the other end, matters ever more. With rising inequality and with the welldocumented problems of the middle classes (let alone the overlooked lower classes), we are slowly seeing a shift away from race and towards class as the dominant lens for thinking about equality and inequality in the country. This is as it should be. It is time to begin thinking more about advocating for real class diversity in colleges and public institutions; that doesn’t mean race as a problem has gone away, but it does mean that in the early 21st century, poverty trumps race as the true scourge of our public life.
The opinions in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action are well worth reading in full, especially those by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor. They are your weekend read. You can download a PDF of the opinion here.