In this marvellous essay, Jesse McCarthy puzzles over why there is “a bloody knot in the social fabric that is as vivid in Ferguson, Missouri today as it was in Baldwin’s Harlem half a century ago.”
He starts with “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: a Letter from Harlem”, James Baldwin’s essay from 1960.
It is hard on the other hand to blame the policeman… he too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed… He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is. … He can retreat from his unease in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature. He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased. One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.
“Want to be treated like men.” That wish, together with all its many ramifications, is in McCarthy’s view ground zero. He sees the failure of the American state to do so over the centuries as central to many blacks continuing estrangement from society, their outsider status, their suffering and anger.
Blacks have often understood family, and the love of family, as a metaphor for society, an affective relationship based on mutual respect and realistic expectations. The American state, initially constructed by and for whites only, has never fully relinquished its conviction that blacks are subjects who need to be dominated. There is no way forward, no path to King’s “table of brotherhood” where we sit together as family, without demolishing the remnants of that mindset. We won’t see a republic of socially responsible, free and equal persons until the ugly damage of racial domination in America is repaired.
None of this is new of course. Far from it. Still, McCarthy appears to be a bighearted realist, far more interested in finding ways out of this everlasting impasse than bitching. The way he sees it, many blacks have long dreamt of a time when the law protects them rather than oppresses them, when they can take their place as full citizens within a republic.
In his 2012 book On the People’s Terms, he 1 reminds us that for republicans “the evil of subjection to the will of others, whether or not such subjection led to actual interference, was identified and indicted as the iconic ill from which political organization should liberate people.” This evil was described as “being subject to a master, or dominus”—suffering domination—and was contrasted with the good of libertas, liberty. The state must guarantee citizens freedom from domination from each other, but, importantly, “it also needs to guard against itself practicing a form of public domination.” For republicanism to work the people must “demand a rich array of popular controls over government.”
Again, conventional fare, particularly within the context of American politics. McCarthy goes much further, however.
It is no accident that blacks in the United States would be attracted to a republican conception of politics. Black Americans are the only population in U.S. history to have known complete lack of lawful protection in regular peacetime society, a condition described by Giorgio Agamben as the “bare life” of homo sacer: the human being whom the sovereign treats as existing beyond the reach of the law, capable of being terminated at any time and without any legal or moral cost. 2 The black man in America has often been imagined as an outlaw, but in truth blacks more than any other group have fought for the sanctuary of the law, seeing in it their best weapon for securing freedom from domination.
If he’s right, a goal, one that may even be realistic, suddenly becomes visible.
Reparations should be about bending the social good once again towards freedom and the good life. The War on Drugs and its corollary, mass incarceration, represent a massively unjust and abusive use of state power with massive consequences. I firmly believe it will go down as a blight on American history. For the work of reparations, dismantling its legacy and restoring confidence in a demilitarized social life is urgent.
In his view, and he’s far from alone, America’s running racial sores can never be solved by imposed solutions, by top-down, bureaucratic, patronising efforts. Those currently stuck on the outside of the American republican ideal must find a way in where they can properly participate in the broader republican process, and thereby in time become recognised and “treated like men”. Not only by others, but by themselves.
Black Americans must strive to reinvigorate a communal, grassroots politics that brings pressure from below, a pragmatic social politics that black intellectuals like Eddie Glaude, Jr., Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have been advocating for years now. These practices and demands of civic inclusion are what a republic is supposed to embody: a freedom where people care for each other and hold each other accountable.
All this is so very far outside my experience but I do hope he’s right. If so, Ferguson would seem a good place to start.
- Philip Pettit
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