How do our understandings of democracy shape how we imagine racial equality and the means by which it might be achieved? That was the question posed by Maribel Morey at the most recent lunchtime talk at the Arendt Center. Morey is currently a fellow at the New York University School of Law, and she has recently completed her dissertation in the Department of History at Princeton University. Building upon her research on the Swedish economist and social theorist Gunnar Myrdal, Morey offered an incisive comparative reading of Myrdal’s book An American Dilemma (1944) and Hannah Arendt’s essay “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959).
As became evident in the course of her talk, these texts posit different visions of democracy in the U.S., and they come to different conclusions about a central feature of the civil rights era: the federally enforced integration of public schools in the segregated South.
Myrdal was a strong advocate of such government intervention. In his argument, the premises and principles of American democracy effectively demand the racial integration of schools and other institutions, and it is legitimate for the federal government to enforce such integration for the sake of America’s ongoing democratic life. This position insists that education constitutes a crucial public resource provided by the state, and it proposes that inequitable access to this resource limits individual and collective participation in the political realm. Indeed, Myrdal goes even further by contending that discrimination and segregation violate the very “American creed”—the liberal commitment to equality and fair treatment—that makes national co-existence possible. Since its initial publication, Myrdal’s position has exerted a deep influence on U.S. public discourse: it played a key role in civil rights activism in the 1950s and ‘60s, and it figured prominently in the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
Arendt was also committed to the project of political equality in the U.S., but she parts ways with Myrdal by sharply questioning the legitimacy of federally enforced integration. On the one hand, she objects to this form of intervention because it “burden[s] children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve”. Government-mandated integration thereby inserts young people into a political struggle for which they are not prepared and to which they do not properly belong. On the other hand, Arendt takes issue with the way that federally mandated integration transgresses the boundaries that ought to be maintained between the realms of political, social, and private life.
These boundaries are necessary, in Arendt’s argument, because polity, society, and privacy are defined by different animating principles. Politics is defined by the principle of equality: all adult citizens enjoy the same right to vote and be voted into office, and no differences should exist in their ability to participate in the polity. By contrast, the social realm is characterized by the principle of discrimination: social relations follow the adage “like attracts like,” according to Arendt, and individuals are therefore entitled to associate—and not associate—with others along the lines of profession, class origin, ethnicity, level of education, and other vectors of difference. Finally, the private realm is defined by the principle of exclusiveness: individuals choose the people with whom they will spend their lives on the basis of those people’s unique qualities, and the government should and indeed must assure “the rights of every person to do as he pleases within the four wall of his own home.”
Arendt charges that state action in the service of racial integration is acceptable when it attacks the legal enforcement of discrimination in the political realm. One of her key differences with Myrdal, however, lies in the fact that she does not regard the education provided by the school as necessary for political participation. Indeed, she does not ultimately consider the school to be a “political” institution at all. To be sure, the state has the right to prescribe educational content that will prepare children for future work and citizenship. But in Arendt’s argument government cannot dictate the forms of association and social life that emerge in school, and it cannot infringe on parents’ rights to bring up their children as they deem appropriate. These points lead her to a rather provocative conclusion: “to force parents to send their children to an integrated school against their will means to deprive them of rights which clearly belong to them in all free societies—the private right over their children and the social right to free association.”
As Roger Berkowitz writes in his essay "Solitude and the Activity of Thinking," Arendt's argument is grounded on her belief that a vibrant private realm is a constitutive need of a free political society. Without a strong protection of the private realm where people can grow to be different, unique, and self-thinkers, there will be no true plurality, which is the condition for action and politics. The price for plurality, she writes, is that we allow for people to live freely in private. It is for this reason that Arendt argues against anti-miscegenation law and why she would insist on the right to gay marriage. For Arendt, there is nothing more constitutive of privacy than the right to raise one's children as one wishes. For the state to forcefully require parents to send their children to a specific kinds of school means, she writes, that there would be no meaningful realm of privacy left—which would endanger the plurality she understands is the pre-condition of politics. As Berkowitz writes:
What offends Arendt in the Little Rock case is not the ideal of desegregation, but the danger that well-intentioned governmental attacks on social discrimination will erode the walls of privacy that nourish the possibility of thinking and of acting—and thus of plurality. Since the space for solitary thought depends on the protection of a vibrant private realm, the protection of privacy is a necessary first step in the cultivation of thoughtful political action.
Given the controversial nature of Arendt’s position, it should come as no surprise that much of the discussion turned on the questions her essay leaves unanswered. For example, many audience members wondered about the connections between private upbringing, social discrimination, and political equality. What is it that enables or requires citizens to forego the discrimination they practice in social life so that they might recognize other citizens as equals?
For that matter, how is it possible for people to transcend those aspects of their familial socialization that might hinder them from participating in politics without prejudice?
Other listeners focused on the two writers’ divergent intellectual predilections. As several of them noted, Myrdal’s work reveals a basic confidence in the ability of government, working in tandem with enlightened social science, to conceive and implement policies that further democratic freedoms. Arendt, on the other hand, betrays a much more skeptical stance not only on power of the state, but also on the capacity of social scientists (like Myrdal) to guide productive social and political interventions.
Finally, discussion turned to one point where Arendt, despite the contentious nature of her remarks, might be developing a more interesting view of democratic societies than Myrdal. As Morey noted in the Q and A, Myrdal’s reflections on democracy are ultimately premised on the existence of a national Volk defined by broad moral and cultural commonality. Prejudice and discrimination are pernicious, in his reading, because they prevent racial minorities from complete integration into the nation and its defining sense of peoplehood. Arendt’s vision, by contrast, adopts a much more guarded stance toward “conformism” of this sort. Indeed, “Reflections on Little Rock” proposes that people have a strong right to their opinions and sentiments in the private and social realms, even when those opinions and sentiments are deeply unpalatable in the wider public sphere and polity. As a result, Arendt’s notion of democracy appears to allow much greater room for the existence and maintenance of difference.
On the whole, then, Morey’s talk cast thoughtful light on the work of these two thinkers. It sought neither to venerate nor to dismiss their claims wholesale, but instead probed the many differences in their starting points and claims. In the end, Myrdal and Arendt’s positions seemed so divergent that it was hard not to regard them as “two ships passing in the night”—despite their common abhorrence of racial segregation.
You can view Maribel Morey's talk and the ensuing discussion on the Hannah Arendt Center website, here.
Maribel Morey's essay, "Reassessing Hannah Arendt's 'Reflections on Little Rock' (1959)" was published in the Journal of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. You can sign in with a password to read the article here.
A German Court this week declared that circumcision is illegal. The court decided that the time immemorial Jewish law—the mark of a Jewish boy's covenant with God—is an inhumane act that does "grievous bodily harm" to young Jews and Muslims (the case actually originated when the parents of a four-year-old Muslim boy had him circumcised). But the Court's ruling went further. According to Der Spiegel:
The court ruled that the child's right to physical integrity is more important than the parent's basic rights. The ruling stated that a mother's or father's right to freedom of religion as well as their right to determining how they raise their child would not be limited if they were forced to wait and allow their child to decide for himself if he wanted to be circumcised. The ruling states a child's right to self-determination should come first.
The regional court in Cologne, Germany, held that the "fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents." You can read about the decision here.
This is an amazing decision for many reasons, not the least of which is that a court in Germany has basically said that Jewish and Muslim families do not have a right to practice their religious obligations, which for Jews include the requirement of circumcision as a mark of their covenant with God. A Jewish father who does not circumcise his son on the 8th day after birth is in violation of basic Jewish commandments. This prohibition on what is a fundamental matter of Jewish law and practice is especially shocking given Germany's history.
The blogosphere has erupted over the anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim implications of the decision, even as the U.S. mainstream press has ignored it. You can find a helpful and typically smart recap of the dispute over at ViaMeadia.
Beyond the questions of antisemitism and Islamophobia, the decision to outlaw circumcision reveals the frequently overlooked conflict between human rights and the basic rights of privacy. The German court's decision imagines the parental rights to practice religion as a right to privacy—to determine how to raise their child. Against this right it balances the child's human right to bodily integrity. And the court decides the matter on the side of human rights over the right of privacy.
This conflict between human rights and privacy recalls Hannah Arendt's essay "Reflections on Little Rock." Arendt's essay on the school desegregation controversy has been roundly criticized. It has been less well understood. Arendt's argument against forced-federal desegregation turns on her worry about the private realm. She makes four arguments:
1. Arendt is in favor of politically invalidating all laws supporting segregation.
2. She is against forced desegregation of social discrimination that in places such as vacation spots, which she argues are not relevant to the public life. In such spaces, integration may be desirable, but it is not publicly necessary.
3. She supports forced desegregation of social worlds that are publicly necessary (buses and hotels in business districts). Schools would of course usually fit here.
4. But Arendt is against forced integration of schools. Schools are different. Why? Because education is a question of how a parent raises his or her children, and this is the quintessential private right.
Arendt's rejection of forced school integration was not based on a social defense of all discrimination since she clearly thinks that some kinds of discrimination are subject to forced integration. Instead, her rejection of forced school integration is based on her insistence on the need to preserve private rights. For many, her argument does not take seriously enough the public role of education. But Arendt insisted that education must be seen as part of the private sphere.
For Arendt, there is no more basic private right than the right to raise one's children as one sees fit. Since education of one's children is the quintessential private right, Arendt reasons that to deprive people of such a right is to eradicate the very idea of an inviolable sphere of the private realm. If we can tell people how to educate their children, what can't we tell them about how to live their private lives?
Arendt clearly understands education as a private practice. It is in this sense similar to the rights of religious practice and circumcision that, likewise, go to the fundamental authority of parents to raise their children as they see fit. It is important to be vigilant against the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia, and those who have been critical of the German Court's decision are right. But there is a more pressing threat that this decision raises, which is the desire to continually restrict or eviscerate the realm of the private in the name of humane and efficient regulation.
Private rights are deeply important. It is in the private realm where young people grow up and are led into the world by parents, teachers, and friends. If we value plurality, difference, and individuality, it is essential that we protect the private realm—that world in which individuals are formed in their singularity and uniqueness. As well meaning as human rights advocates may be, they are antagonistic to the private realm. They will forever seek to impose a world of humane conformity at the expense of the singularity suffering. This is the tension that Arendt provokes us to consider.
It is in such conflicts between the private and the social realms that Arendt takes her stand against the social conformity of the regulatory state. She makes fine distinctions that are too frequently overlooked. Thus, she defends the absolute right of mixed marriage (and also by extension gay marriage) as important rights to live privately and uniquely—since these are rights to live privately as one wishes. It is justified for the federal government to overturn discriminatory anti-miscegenation laws. She rejects federal intervention to combat discrimination in vacation spots, but supports such a federal role in matters of buses, hotels and business districts. But she would surely not defend the federal imposition of the right to bodily integrity when it interferes with the right to raise one's child as one wants.
Reading Arendt reminds us that the real controversy in the German Court's decision is less about antisemitism (although it is about that too) and more about the danger that a human rights agenda seeking to eradicate suffering poses to freedom and meaningful difference. It is easy (and right) to get riled up about antisemitism. It is also fairly easy (and right) to speak up for the right to circumcise one's children for religious reasons. What is more difficult, and thus even more necessary, is defending private and often unpopular uniqueness from the social conformism of those who would eradicate suffering in the name of human rights.
There is no more clear-headed articulations of the need for a private sphere of uniqueness than Hannah Arendt's essay "Reflections on Little Rock." It is, this fourth of July weekend, your weekend read.
African Americans were imprisoned at roughly four times the rate of whites in the U.S. at the dawn of the civil rights era. Today it is seven times. How can we explain this persistent—indeed, widening—disparity in rates of incarceration? Are contemporary patterns of imprisonment merely the incidental byproduct of economic restructuring, intensive policing, and stiffer sentencing guidelines? Or are they rather the latest development in a lengthy history of American racial conflict and subjugation? Does the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans even represent the continuation of chattel slavery and state-sanctioned segregation?
These questions tread fraught moral and political terrain, and they invite the construction of overdrawn parallels and facile analogies. After all, present-day African American inmates are not born into bondage in the same way slaves were, and racial hierarchy today is not legally codified in the fashion it was under slavery and Jim Crow. Nevertheless, a few scholars have recently insisted that American penal institutions play a decisive role in long-running patterns of racial formation and social control.
Probably the most prominent work in this school of thought is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), which offers a sweeping indictment of the War on Drugs and its impact on African American men. Another less acclaimed but finer-grained study is that of historian Robert Perkinson, whose book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (2010) traces the history of incarceration in one of the bastions of the American South.
I intend to devote my next few contributions to the Arendt Center blog to Perkinson’s book, which offers a bracing, accessible, and generally well argued account of American criminal justice. His work, while not equating enslavement and imprisonment in any superficial manner, goes a long way toward demonstrating the deep connections between slavery and imprisonment.
In Texas’s case, these connections are rooted in the state’s long-standing commitment to forced labor as the essence of incarceration. Whereas northern penal institutions have often sought to reclaim offenders through confinement and discipline, Texas’s penal institutions have focused on putting prisoners to work for revenue-generating purposes and paid little heed to reformist ideals of rehabilitation. In the 1850s, for example, the state penitentiary at Huntsville specialized in the for-profit production of cotton and wool fabrics, and during the Civil War its inmates became the chief textile manufacturers and suppliers for the Confederate army. Up to this point, the vast majority of the state’s inmates were white, given that the state’s 1848 penal code prescribed whipping and other forms of sanguinary punishment, but not incarceration, for slaves and “free persons of color.”
With emancipation in 1865, however, Texas prison demographics shifted dramatically as increasing numbers of former slaves were sentenced to prison terms, often for minor offenses on the basis of flimsy evidence. These black convicts—and their Mexican and Native American counterparts—were rarely detained in the state’s main penitentiaries; instead, they were deployed on public works projects or agricultural plantations around the state. (American popular imagery of chain gangs and hoe squads, epitomized in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, hearkens back to the Reconstruction era in Texas and other southern states.) Impressed and largely nonwhite convict labor thereby played a key role in the construction of the state’s railroads and other infrastructure, and it contributed significantly to the lucrative production of cotton and sugar. Indeed, most of the plantations on which these prisoners labored had been worked by slaves only a few years before.
This use of involuntary labor reached its apotheosis in “convict leasing,” the term used in the later nineteenth century to describe the state’s hiring out of imprisoned workers to private contractors. These leases were initially concluded on a piecemeal basis, but in 1871 one Galveston firm, Ward, Dewey & Co., paid $325,000 to take possession of the entire Texas penal system and every state prisoner, more than half of whom were former slaves. (The proliferation of for-profit prisons in the past few decades is thus not the first time that American carceral institutions have been privatized.) Although Ward, Dewey & Co. agreed to treat “all convicts with care and humanity,” the living and working conditions they provided shocked many state supervisors and other observers. At least one of them regarded the company’s management as “a system of vilest slavery” (Perkinson, p. 93).
Yet even when the Texas government regained full control of its penal system in 1883, it did not abandon the pursuit of profit as much as bring it under state control. Among the most significant steps, Texas established its own state-run prison farms, which did not merely grow cash crops with unpaid convict labor, but carried on work traditions that bore striking resemblances to the era of convict leasing and, ultimately, plantation slavery. State-run farms remained a mainstay of the Texas penal system as late as the 1970s, and even as periodic reforms led to modest (if often short-lived) improvements in living conditions, they continued to be organized in starkly racialized terms: largely black prisoners labored involuntarily under the supervision of armed, largely white prison personnel.
Perkinson’s careful attention to the nineteenth century brings the phenomena of slavery and imprisonment into close proximity, and it demonstrates how early forms of incarceration in Texas bore the imprint of the South’s “peculiar institution.” It thereby sets the stage for the developments in the twentieth century, when Texas became one of the nation’s leaders—and models—in matters of mass incarceration. I shall take up the threads of this narrative in my next blog, which will also consider some of the implications of imprisonment for our understandings of civil liberty and democracy.