Jason Stanley – Is the United States a ‘Racial Democracy’?

January 21, 2014

This week, Point of Inquiry welcomes Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale and co-author of a provocative essay in last week’s New York Times entitled “Is the United States a ‘Racial Democracy?”

Dr. Stanley and his co-author, Dr. Vesla Weaver, argue that the disproportionate surveillance, imprisonment, and post-conviction voter disenfranchisement of black Americans threatens the very integrity of our democracy. On any given day, 5.85 million people are unable to vote because they are in prison, on parole, or disenfranchised as felons. A disproportionate percentage of them are black. Of the nation’s 2.3 million prisoners, about 1 million are black, despite the fact that black people represent just 13% of the population. If current trends continue, 1 in 3 black men born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.

The essay raises pointed questions of interest to any skeptical citizen: Why do we strip prisoners of the right to vote in the first place? Does our fervent belief in democracy and equality blind us to the realities of our political system? Host Lindsay Beyerstein explores this question in this week’s episode.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, January 20th, 2014. Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy and the coauthor of a provocative essay in this week’s New York Times entitled Is the United States a Racial Democracy? Stanley and his coauthor, Bessler Weaver, a professor of African-American studies and political science at Yale, argued that the disproportionate surveillance, imprisonment and post conviction, voter disenfranchisement of black Americans threatens the very integrity of our democracy. 2013 From two point four million people in prison in the United States, more than four times the number in 1980, the rate of black incarceration has risen even faster than the rate of white incarceration. Prison has consequences that lasts far beyond the sentence. If you have ever been to prison, you may permanently lose the right to vote. You may face discrimination in housing and employment for the rest of your life. In theory, prisoners are supposed to reform offenders or at least sequester them until they are ready to rejoin mainstream society. In practice, the stigma of having gone to prison pretty much guarantees that you can never function in mainstream society again. On the same footing as someone who’s never been to prison, a democracy is supposed to be representative. What does it say about our democracy when millions of people are relegated to permanent second class citizenship, including not being able to vote? What should we conclude when these permanent second class citizens are disproportionately of one race? As skeptics, we know that we often see what we want to see. Sometimes our fervent belief in equality can blind us to the evidence that equality remains elusive. Stanley and Weaver are a dynamic intellectual duo. Stan Lee, a philosopher of language and epistemology. He’s working on a book on the philosophy of propaganda. He studies how political speech can be used not only to express the speaker’s ideas, but also to suddenly silence opposing views. Weaver is the author of Policing Citizenship, America’s anti-Democratic Institutions and a New Civic Underclass. Their essay, published on Time’s Philosophy blog, was a prize breakout hit. It was the ninth most emailed and most tweeted item on the entire New York Times Web site. Rarely does an essay that say it’s Plato, Aristotle and Dewey beat out Modern Love. Jason, welcome to the program. 

Thank you very much. 

So let’s start by asking the really basic question. What do you mean by a racial democracy? 

Racial democracy wasn’t perhaps the best. What we mean is a racial oligarchy and classic political philosophy. An oligarchy is typically defined in terms of class, like an oligarchy is a system where there’s a property requirement that voters say you have to have a certain number of. Perhaps you have to have a House in order to vote. Alabama actually had race and oligarchy that’s disconnected the racial issue and class oligarchic nexus because a certain amount of dollar, they got thirty three hundred dollars. That’s the early 20th century. That was the means by which to disenfranchize black voters. So to a class oligarchy and a racial oligarchy aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. But the original title of the piece was actually racial oligarchy, which captures the notion where after more closely but requires a lengthier initial explanation. So in racial oligarchy is one in which there is a race requirement on voting. And just like a class oligarchy, where there’s a property requirement on voting for dollar, some requirement on that asset requirement on voting, it’s not a democracy because, as John Dewey says, a democracy. The idea of a democracy is the idea of community. It’s coming together. 

It’s all of us staying in one community, taking everyone’s perspective into account and making policy together and having a having a community in which only part of the polity can form the laws is just not a democracy. 

So how many people are disenfranchized in this way right now, in total now disenfranchized legally by, say, stolen disenfranchized by men, which is I think it’s 13 percent. But like my colleague Fashloom Weaver is a criminology. 

So that would be 13 percent of African-Americans. But let me. 

That the 13 percent of African American males, I think. But let me check that the the the more important work points that Weaver and her colleague at Princeton, Amy Lerman, discover in their research is that in addition to the massive black population in our prisons, it’s 39 percent of the prison population. 

In addition to that, there are 13 percent of the population of the 39 percent of the prison population. And if you look at just black males, there are 35 percent of the prison population, prison or jail. And of course, you can’t vote if you’re in prison or jail. So that’s disenfranchisement. So actually, being in prison is is disenfranchisement. You start at the start of the program that block the black rate of incarceration has risen faster than the white rate of incarceration. It’s risen four times as fast as the white rate of incarceration. The increase in black admissions from 1960 to 1997, that’s five hundred seventeen percent. If you look at the graph of the increase in black incarceration over whites, perforations, black incarceration just goes straight up. 

So we don’t think. Felony disenfranchisement is sort of an excessive focus on it, given that there’s only two states that that have it. The real problem is the two real problems. First, the massive over incarceration of black men. As we say in our piece, over nine percent of the world’s prison population is black American crime. So, you know, you’d expect there to be over 600 million black Americans. So. But Weaver and Latterman discover that just having exposure to the police leads you to not politically participate. 

And that’s a crucial discovery because we know that black neighborhoods are massively police. 

So what they found is that things like stop and frisk in day to day, involuntary contact with the police are correlated with lower rates of voting low. 

Yes. And so here is the exact statistics from from Wevers. Amazing. We’ve heard leavens worked the probability of voting decline by eight percent for those who’d been stopped and questioned by the police for six by 16 percent for those who had experienced the rust by 18 percent for those with the conviction by 22 percent of those serving time in jail or prison after they get out. And if the sentence was a year or more in duration, the probability of voting declined by an overwhelming 26 percent, even after accounting for race, socio economic position, self reported engagements, criminal behavior and other factors. So that’s the real crucial extra element. And this is this focus on disenfranchisement. I mean, one of the sad things, although, you know, seen mass incarceration, we’ve seen the rate spike. What’s terrifying is if you go back and look at the literature on black disenfranchisement, you know, this has been the story since since reconstruction. I mean, Dubois in Chapter nine of the souls of black folks both. Right. Can we establish a massive, massive black laborers and artisans and landholders in the south who by law and public opinion, have absolutely no voice in shaping the laws for which they live and work in a modern organization of industry, assuming as it does free democratic government and the power and ability of the laboring classes to compel respect for their welfare. Can the system be carried out when half its laboring for them? Force is voiceless in the public council. 

Some people might think or assume that being discouraged from participating in politics is a fairly minor punishment compared to being locked up for being fined. But in the essay you talk about how it’s really one of the most profound ways that you can disrespect and degrade a person. 

People might say, look, what are you talking about? So people don’t vote. Who cares? They say you’re not liberal, limiting their liberty. You know, they can still wander the streets and buy candy canes or or chocolate bars. So what’s the problem there? They’re they’re dissuaded from voting, but they’ve got liberty, right. That’s a fundamental confusion about liberty. That’s the role of liberty in Western philosophy. We don’t. Certain kinds of speech that we will do. Let’s take our own policy. The United States, certain kinds of speech, receive special protection, political speech, speech that his contribution to political debate that receives special protection, gossip, gossip does not receive as much snuffles. The taxes of stuff like advertising doesn’t receive special protection. We have laws governing what you can say and advertising political speech receive special protection because deliberation to deliberate in the public square is, as Aristotle argues in the politics, what it is to fulfill your end as a human. Of course, Aristotle believed some people were natural slaves, that women could never do this. But one of the main points of our piece is these ideals that we track over the centuries. They’re always there, always there’s always this huge complexity negotiating between them and reality, and sometimes they interfere with reality. You have this wonderful picture sketched by Aristotle amidst this, you know, these chapters that are interwoven about how people, some men are everywhere a slave. So by Aristotle thought that the liberty, the liberty, that hopefully political participation for deliberate and play a role in the policies that govern who was was the highest form of liberty. Now, various political theorists have wanted to say that there’s just one kind of liberty, and that’s just one aspect. 

But even if you say that it’s distinguished, it’s more important than buying a chocolate chocolate bar at the bodega, at the opinion store. To take that away is to take away your input into the policies. And that is, if you have no input into the policies, then I mean, Dubois’. Yes. No one’s better than the boys on those frantic efforts must be made at critical times, yet lawmakers in states even to listen to the black brown side of the current controversy. 

Because if you’re not voting, why should your side be listen. 

And you can argue that the legitimacy of the democracy itself lies in the breadth of adults that it represents. And even if nobody’s individual rights, hypothetically, were violated by being discouraged about voting, that the democracy itself simply isn’t representing as many people that points of view are left out. 


It’s just not a democracy. If policies are being formed that govern the behavior of some in the community, when though when they have no input into the formation of the policy, the idea of a democracy is something that is a system that maximizes liberty. There’s different conceptions of liberty. I’ve said that political participation is a particularly important form of liberty, but the basic idea of a democracy is we all want. We’re all supposed to forge our own paths and have the freedom support forge our own path through the world. And when we want a policy. Constrains our liberty. It must be because we view that policy as in our best interests. Now, if you’re not one of the ah that’s being considered and your subject to that policy, it’s not a democracy. Your your a subject. You’re not a citizen. That’s what a subject is. That’s why we had the American Revolution, because we were subjects that we had no input into the policies that govern. 

And that’s how we’re treating a lot of our black citizens. You write in the essay, The philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that when political ideals diverge so widely from reality, the ideals themselves may prevent us from seeing the gap. How does this process work when it comes to racial democracy or racial or oligarchy? 

Well, I think for me and the reason that I was one of the many reasons that I decided to come to Yale, I first realized the Elizabeth Anderson’s point when the Anderson point is also I think it’s Charles Mills to certain to assert that the racial conflict. I’ll get to that later. But when I read this National Weaver paper called Front Losh in 2007, the point was driven home to me and I only discovered the andreassen later. Weaver Front laughs, argues that or shows that the policies that led to mass mass incarceration harmful happened simultaneously with the civil rights that of the Voting Rights Act was passed. People relax and people wanted to believe that the ideals were further not satisfied, not realized, but further. And then Weaver argues that just at that time, people set the foundations for the large burst in prison construction to massive crime bills, one signed by Johnson in 1965 and the other by Nixon in 1968. The mass incarceration starts in the 1970s. 

Michelle Alexander writes in Jim Crow that the very phrase law and order originally obtained its currency as a kind of codeword for opposing integration and then kind of took on a life of its own. Is that similar to the phenomenon you’re describing? 

Yes, absolutely. I think Weaver and Alexander’s work, those are the two figures that for me most both of their work overlaps. I think those were two figures who were first working on this, and that is exactly what happened. I mean, that’s what both of them show. Frontalot tells some of the same story as the new Jim Crow. 

So it was both that people of people who are anti-racist, relaxed, and people who were racist were energized and then began waging this campaign of law and order that everyone acquiesced to because they thought, oh, well, we’re in the new era of civil rights. Now, there couldn’t be anything bad about cracking down on criminals. And divine order on order is great. 

Now that we have voting rights, that now that they have political participation. Why don’t we go for law and order? Who can be against stability? There are all these and this. Now, this is the shift to the theme, a major theme of my book. There are all these political ideals. Stability is one freedom, democracy. Those are political ideals, democratic, liberal, democratic political ideals, humanity, justice. And those are all political ideals. The political theorist Carl Schmitt, who became the Nazis Nazi Party’s chief intellectual. So if you want to take what he says with a grain of salt, it’s sad when you hear political ideals, the language of political ideals are always being used to justify strategic goals being used strategically to get you to do something that’s not very fast. And he’s a wonderful discussion. In particular of the Conference of Liberal Democracy, humanity, what? You know, humanity has no enemy. You can’t have a war for the sake of humanity because there’s no enemy, at least on this. But he says the fact that wars are often waged in the name of humanity doesn’t contradict us for the simple truth. It proves that because what you’re doing when you wage a war for humanity is you’re claiming that your enemy isn’t human, your wielding humanity as a strategic weapon and law and order is used as a strategic weapon again against some members of the policy to exclude their voices. 

So, yes, if you’re in favor of the forces of law and order, then you’re implicitly casting anyone who questions whether we need all this incarceration, questioning them as lawless or dangerous. 

That’s certainly I mean, you certainly have that feature, I would think. I mean, I think in this case, that’s not what’s going on. There’s certainly cases that I talk about in my book that have exactly that structure of the Patriot Act has exactly that structure. I mean, six weeks after 9/11, it’s passed. It’s called the Patriot Act contains these very unpatriotic things because patriotism is pride in our nation’s political ideals. Such as. Now, the Bill of Rights and it’s as unpatriotic as you can get. It’s called the Patriot Act to exclude those who oppose it from the policy. If you oppose it, you’re anti patriotic. So that case has a structure that you describe. I think a lot of these appeals, so on order aren’t directed against those who jack their men. OK, everyone can accept this. But they’re meant to justify something that has always occurred in the United States. And I’m going to read from The Voice one more time. This is three and it’s terrifying because he says, you know, that screw up a double system of justice, which aired on the white side by undue leniency. And the practical of unity of redhanded criminal can aired on the black side. I do severity, injustice and lack of discrimination. So that’s 1983. And that differential justice system remained in place. Know, that’s probably a description of the American justice of the two different American justice systems, one for blacks, one for whites. This that has existed since the Republicans have come into being. So when you’re for law and order, you are for applying the system of law. You’re applying the system of law and order. Who can be against that? But the reality is have two different justice systems, two radically different sentencing policies. 

Do you feel like the idea of colorblindness, the idea that the United States is a colorblind society, where everyone gets a fair shake has become part of our patriotism narrative to the point where when people start pointing out inconvenient evidence of inequality, it’s almost as if they’re questioning patriotic ideals. 

Yes. And now you are saying what Charles Nel’s says in his book, The Racial Contract, which is the book that sort of shook me, the star originally thinking about this. Then it explained to me what I found so disturbing about political philosophy during my tenure as a philosopher, during my time as philosophy warfare, because, as you noted, it’s a new area for me. So he says what you just described is what Nel’s in the racial contract describes is the function of those ideals. So he has a darker criticism of those ideals. So towards the end of the racial contract, he talks about how the the mainstream conceptions of the policy themselves are just the opposite, in which portrayed as essentially racist, whether in the dominant view of an individualist market, liberal democracy or, you know. So he says that the ideals of liberal democracy are portrayed as ruthless and that that has exactly the function effect and that Phil’s critique and the racial contract of the ideals of liberal democracy. 

So how does he think we should reconceived the ideas of liberal democracy to get a more and more truly egalitarian result? 

Mills is not an ideal theorist. So he’s not someone who thinks that. And who thinks that the way to do it and this is the idea. I’m also playing around with and we play around within the piece, but we don’t go as far as me of his Mels as condemning the ideals themselves. And list Elizabeth Edwards is also suggesting that that ideals are themselves problematic, that they have essentially blindman function. I mean, Nilsa saying you’re saying it’s in the nature and purpose of a liberal democratic ideal to make you think that if you think about race and talk about race, then you’re not really doing political philosophy. You’re not really doing, you know, IDL theory. You’re not really talking about the central issues. And so that’s the Rothfuss at their very core. The Anderson point is more talking about thinking about the ideals has a blinding function. It tends to make you overlook concrete instances of social injustice and the mechanism by which that works is still mysterious. Tell me, Shelby, the great Harvard political philosopher, is pushing this. 

So if ideals are blinding us to real world problems, what do we do differently? I mean, we do, in fact, substantively want a colorblind society. How do we go about pursuing one without some kind of ideal to guide us? I’m not sure. I’m not. 

I wonder if we do want. It’s not really clear what colorblind. We lose our elders with. Anderson, there’s a lot on that. I’m not sure we can eat the rest thinking that way. I mean, that’s my view of those ideals. We can’t even risk given the role that race, ethnicity play has played an injustice. We can’t think that way. 

We can’t think. But is there any corresponding? Is there some alternative ideal that we could that we could replace it with in terms of equity? I mean, it would still be an ideal. We’d still have the problem of ideals blinding us to concrete realities. Right. 

So so one of the things I’m thinking about in my book is how do you have ideals motivate you yet prevent them from having this blinding function? Another thing to do is just to say. Always be suspicious. Why could counter, I feel. And just go from one concrete instance of injustice to another. But something must guide you and the guidance must be some kind of ideals. I just can’t see how you can do away with having some kind of political ideals that guide you. But some. But I think colorblindness we should get rid of because it does too much damage. We should just assume that race is always going to be something that people are going to be sensitive to. We’re so far off from from ever coming near. I mean, we do all of these surveys. The Justice Department does. We do employment surveys over and over again. I feel it. My students feel with my family members of mine who are anecdotal, take it anecdotally and they see it confirmed time and time again, which is that we are especially race, rather conscious society at all levels. So to even talk of colorblindness as an ideal, it seems so dangerous that I think we should put it aside. And Anderson has conceptual objections to what color blindness is supposed to mean. We do know we have all sorts of reactions to race, given that we have these actions, the race. What are we supposed to do? Ignore those reactions? So we’re in a situation now where black Americans face great obstacles everywhere. And people think they have great advantage, though. So there’s a study that I just read. I think it would help. But he let me look it up now. That says that white Americans now think that there’s war and anti white bias and anti black bias, which is just absurd. 

If you do any kind of survey of handing out Phoebes for job. But, you know, it’s extremely dangerous time for that reason. 

And of course, a lot of media outlets like Fox News are doing their part to stoke the reverse racism narrative. 

I mean, I you know, I don’t know what reverse racism would even mean in a society where so many of our lost fellow citizens are in such dire conditions. And when we have time and time again, you know, I mean, I’m constantly seeing that and possibly seeing among black students constantly saying and saying to blacks and women, oh, you’re going to go have an easy time of it. You know, you’re going to get you’re going to have an easy route to employment. I’ve actually never seen an instance of affirmative action in my life, you know. I mean, I can say that. I mean, I can say we may be a couple, maybe maybe one or two. But I’ve never seen I’ve seen blacks that face a higher standard because people are suspicious of affirmative action that’s being employed. So people are assuming you’ll get often when a black feisty candidate, for example, goes to the market, people will assume, OK, they’re going to have lots of jobs and they won’t interview them and they’ll get very few interviews. So, you know. 

So it’s kind of a game theory thing where everyone assumes, oh, this person will be so popular we shouldn’t even try. 

They say that I can’t quite believe they believe it. 

It sounds hard to believe, but people literally do say that like, oh, we could never get to answer women as well with women candidates as well as its counterpart in philosophy. 

We’re shifting. When you shift from the prison industrial complex to the philosophy industrial complex, you’ve made a big conceptual leap. 

Does the term reverse racism function in any of the ways that you’ve been characterizing as? You know, propaganda is silencing opposition? 

Oh, yeah. It suggests that. Yeah. I mean, it’s it’s definitely intended. 

I mean, racism is a charge that when you charge someone with racism, what you’re saying is you’re trying to exclude a group of people from the democratic polity. You’re saying they’re not their perspectives are not worth listening to. Even if you’re a gentle racist and you say, OK, we want to I’m a gentle racist. I think we should take care of them. You’re saying the prospects don’t matter when you’re designing the laws that apply to all of us. And so reverse racism is the charge. You know, is that charge, Barcott, when you accuse someone of racism, you’re saying you’re trying to drive me out of the community and reverse racism? Is the charge that blacks are trying to drive whites out of its misery, which is absurd because whites own the community. How do you drive people away when they own the means of production? They own they own the factories. They aren’t you know, they they have all the wealth. You can’t drive them away. I mean, reverse racism. I mean, would be throwing a pebble against a massive stone wall. It has no effect. Whereas a racist I mean, I. So I don’t even know if you’re saying that the. 

Concept of racism really only makes sense within a structural. When there’s a structural disadvantage at play. So it’s not just one person’s bigoted opinions of one person being mean or one person shutting out other people. That really what racism is, is that way of thinking, combined with an entire support network around you to reinforce hate and multiply it. That said, it better myself. 

The reason racism is such an intense charge is because it is easy to exclude black citizens from them from our community. And you’re OK when you accusing someone of that? You’re accusing them of taking someone with relatively powerless. And I mean, not that. Not that. I mean, blacks have great agency has militated. Not not to say they’re powerless, but don’t have the economic equality that they ought to have at your threatening them even more. You’re threatening them by saying, you know, I think your voice in deliberations about what to do is not a voice we needs to pay attention to, because you’re not you don’t have the capacity for reason. You just can’t do that or reverse direction when the structural inequalities are so large. 

Because you know what is. What are you saying? You say to a a person who, you know, is part of a group that is always going to be that has has the political power. You know, you’re excluding them from the community. What would it be for a group? Black Americans are 13 percent of the population. To exclude the vast majority of America from the community. What furthermore, that vast majority owns much of much of the resources, the community. 

So when one final question, Jason, as an expert on propaganda, what can people who want to turn the discourse around do? Are there ways that we can we can talk and put ideas forward that will be more effective at opening dialog rather than cutting it off? 

Well, when you look at the comment thread on our piece, you see something very frightening. So what you see is a string of really dire. Comments about race. I mean, you see white supremacist comments. So I’m trying to find one of the comments to give you a sense of what I mean, so. Well. So what do you what you see is people saying, OK, there’s this group that just really doesn’t belong in the community. That was the sixth most powerful. The sixth most popular comment was one that was one that that could it be that one group just doesn’t belong in the community with the rest of us. And when you see that, you see you see a certain inability to if you think of it in multiple traditions, political philosophers say this is how democracy works. 

You’ve got a project of public reasons, harbormaster thinks. That’s where citizens engage in discussion. Governed by reasonableness. They take everybody’s perspective into account and ask if you think that people are uncivilized and live in horrible conditions. When you recognize that and have suffered previous past harms, which every American I think recognizes like Americans, they’ve suffered greediest past time. And your attitude towards it is they just have to suck it up and get over it and realize that we should wear their hair like us. They should wear their clothing like us. They should be like us. Or else it isn’t going to work. I would describe that as, you know, pretty much the definition of an intractable situation. If I was one of a group that whose grandparents and parents were terribly treated by your group and you say to me, the problem is, is because you don’t act like that group and not have our norms, you’re not civilized like we are. You start acting like us and, you know, we’ll treat you with fighting more respect. You know, that’s just not going up. That’s going to cut it. So so I’m not optimistic. And fortunately, I’m a flawed philosophy professor. My job is not to recommend the solutions, but to call it attention to the problems. And I can’t think of I can’t think of a way forward under those conditions. I can’t think of a way forward when people think of African black citizens as disease that problematic and uncivilized and ungovernable and just have to act like whites to just drop their connections, their pasts and their past grievances in order to be part of the polity. Because if I was one of those people I know, those wouldn’t be conditions I would accept as reasonable. 

Well, you’ve done a really compelling job in drawing attention to some very concerning problems. And thank you so much for coming on the show today. Thank you so much. There’s a lot of you are listening to point of inquiry. My guest today has been Jason Stanley of Yale University, discussing his article in The New York Times. Is the United States a racial democracy? 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.