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Racial justice

Page history last edited by John McMahon 4 years, 4 months ago


1. Introduction: Racial Justice


White people have benefited from hundreds of years of racism and racist systems in America that have systematically empowered whites, and disempowered minorities, specifically African Americans. From the 1830 Indian Removal Act that forcibly relocated Indian Americans to the benefit of whites, to the 1862 Homestead Act that gave away millions of acres of land for free, to the benefit of whites (Adelman, 2003). From Jim Crow laws that benefited whites, Redlining, where minorities were excluded from home loans, which benefited whites. To immigration laws that benefited whites, and post-World War II subsidies for returning soldiers that was mostly for whites. White people have benefited from generations and generations of accrued wealth, accrued access, and accrued privilege. Many Americans claim that racism is over with and that the Civil Rights Movement took care of that. Or, after having a black president, what more can they accomplish!? They claim that living in a post-racial society is the solution. Yet, the evidence is stark and devastating that in every area of the American society, people of color are living segregated lives, poorer ones, and have less access to education, housing, health care, and other basic needs. They’re more vulnerable to exploitation and violence. This is a reality that Americans need to face. Wherever they are, they need to ask themselves racial justice questions; they need to look around and ask whether or not there are equal opportunities, whether or not everyone is invited to participate, and what are the racial dynamics that are happening. Racial justice means that people of all races must have equal opportunities, regardless of physical traits and skin color. People of all races must be given the same legal, moral, and political rights.


The topics of discussion on this page are the famous Malcom X and Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. debate of violence vs. nonviolence, the role of the social movement SCLC (The Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and its president MLK, Charles W. Mills's critique of Immanuel Kant's denial of personhood of people of color, and Shatema Threadcraft's critique of John Rawls's theory of justice where he fails to address incorporate intimate justice concerns, particularly those of black women, in his original position.


2. Major Debate: Violence vs. Nonviolence


A major debate in the area of racial justice is violence versus nonviolence. The American theologian James H. Cone asserts that “no issue has been more hotly debated in the African-American community than violence and nonviolence. No two persons symbolize this debate more than Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. They present two radically different responses to nonviolence and violence in the black freedom movement during the 1960s” (Cone 2001, 173). King preached a doctrine of nonviolent insistence upon the rights of African Americans. Malcom X opposed this doctrine, and believed that King was teaching African Americans to be defenseless. When Malcom X was asked about King’s philosophy in an interview, he said: “The white man pays Reverend Martin Luther King, subsidizes Reverend Luther King, so that Reverend Martin Luther King can continue to teach the negroes to be defenseless. That’s what you mean by nonviolent; be defenseless in the face of one of the most cruel beasts that has ever taken the people into captivity." King however was not a soft-liner, for in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote: “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation” (King 1963).


Malcom X did not see anything revolutionary in King’s “nonviolent tension.” In his Message to the Grassroots, he stated that there’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution, and he claimed that a revolution is bloody, hostile, knows no compromise, and that it overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way. Both leaders had very different ways of going about obtaining the same goal; racial justice. In King’s famous speech “The Other America”, he contended that Americans have to change the heart, and that changing the heart is not something that can be done through legislation. They have to treat African Americans “right”, not because the law states that, but because it’s natural and right. And because behavior can be regulated, but morality cannot be legislated. Malcom on the other hand believed that the government of America, “the so-called democracy”, and all the white liberals, have failed African Americans, and are responsible for the oppression and exploitation and degradation of black people in America, and that people should drop it in their lap: “The entire civil-rights struggle needs a new interpretation, a broader interpretation. We need to look at this civil-rights thing from another angle -- from the inside as well as from the outside. To those of us whose philosophy is black nationalism, the only way you can get involved in the civil-rights struggle is give it a new interpretation. That old interpretation excluded us. It kept us out. So, we're giving a new interpretation to the civil-rights struggle, an interpretation that will enable us to come into it, take part in it. And these handkerchief-heads who have been dillydallying and pussy footing and compromising -- we don't intend to let them pussyfoot and dillydally and compromise any longer” (Malcom X 1964).


Both MLK and Malcom X, while addressing the racial dynamics that are happening failed to incorporate the struggles of black women in the body, which brings to mind Shatema Threadcraft's critique of W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington (2016, chap. 3), and of her critique of John Rawls where she addresses that Rawls failed to incorporate intimate justice in his original position (2016, 117). 


3. Social Movement: SCLC and MLK


“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (King 1963). From King’s quote, I draw the conclusion that racial justice is a condition precedent for there to be justice for all. Racial justice is the elimination of the structural and institutional barriers that impact life outcomes, those outcomes that are impacted by race, and it insures that life, health, and equity are available regardless of race. Racial justice is the epitome of King’s so-called “Beloved Community”. On the topic of racial justice, we now turn to the modern Civil Rights Movement. A period that has left one of the biggest influences and legacies in American history. One of the most influential people during that time, who was also a face of the Civil Rights Movement, was Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He played a big part in getting the Civil Rights Movement in the place it is today in American history. One of the larger civil rights organizations of the time, supporting and following King and other leaders, was the SCLC (The Southern Christian Leadership Conference). This was a nationwide organization created by American protesters and boycotters. Their goal was to stop segregation. The beginning of the SCLC can be traced back to the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. The bus boycott started after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on the bus. The boycott was a signal for African Americans to begin a new phase of long struggle. Bus boycotts spread across the South, where many African Americans refused to ride the buses. That action led the Supreme Court to rule that segregation on the buses was unconstitutional. William H. Harris asserts that “The Montgomery victory was the first major chink in the armor of strident racism and segregation, and it set into motion a decade of activities that would achieve an end to legal racial discrimination in American society. The Montgomery boycott also brought to the fore a young Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., and marked him as a national symbol of the black struggle for freedom” (Harris 2002, 750). In 1957, King and other leaders and protest groups met to form a regional organization to coordinate protest activities across the South, and that led to the creation of the SCLC. During this time, an issue had occurred where the house and church of Ralph David Abernathy Sr. were bombed. Abernathy was an American civil rights activist and Baptist minister, and he was at the meeting. This did not stop the creation of the SCLC. They still created it and assembled a creation of the Leadership Conference.


They issued a document declaring the civil rights as essential to democracy, stating that segregation must end, and that all people should reject segregation non-violently. They had tried earlier to campaign themselves, and their campaign was not very successful. But that all changed one day, when in Birmingham in 1963 people marched trying to reach half a mile, and they were brutally tortured by hoses and dogs. Davi Johnson states that “King’s Birmingham campaign made the ‘color line’ visible, activating the shame and moral condemnation of white moderates. If King’s ‘Letter’ is an articulate description of his visual strategy, the Birmingham campaign is its implementation. The verbal appeals to conscience, emotion, and moral sensibility were successful in part because the images of dogs and fire hoses turned against black bodies were an exercise in ‘cross-racial vision,’ making the reality of racism immediately visible to an audience of white moderates content in their complacent avoidance of overt conflict” (Johnson 2007, 2). So this brutality led many Americans to support the SCLC, and it had a big campaign boost for them. In the same year, King, who was a leading force in the movement, led thousands of civil rights activists in the remarkable march on Washington DC, and at the end of the march, he delivered one of his memorable and most influential speeches, the “I Have A Dream” speech. In response to this and other movements, and at the urging of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act that banned discrimination in public facilities and employment. The SCLC had moved many steps ahead after this. In 1965, the SCLC had launched a major campaign to register African American voters. In the same year, Congress had passed the Voting Rights Act.


4. Connection to Broader Theory of Justice: Mills on Kant, Threadcraft on Rawls.


Some of the thinkers we read this semester wrote about justice, equality, and freedom, but they forgot to address the personhood of those who are not white landholding males, or explicitly excluded them from personhood. For instance, John Locke wrote influential theories about justice while he was deeply implicated in the slave trade in his financial investments. Another thinker who did not publish a word against the slave trade even though it was one of the main issues of his time is the Prussian German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant did not just ignore the slave trade, but he used scientific racism to deny the personhood of people of color:


'In the hot countries the human being matures earlier in all ways but does not reach the perfection of the temperate zones. Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race. The yellow Indians have a smaller amount of Talent. The Negroes are lower and the lowest are a part of the American peoples…The race of the Negroes, one could say, is completely the opposite of the Americans; they are full of affect and passion, very lively, talkative and vain. They can be educated but only as servants (slaves), that is they allow themselves to be trained. They have many motivating forces, are also sensitive, are afraid of blows and do much out of a sense of honor' (cited in Mills 2017, 95-96).


In previous theories, Kant defended the equality of all humans, but apparently he failed to extend his equal moral status to those who are not white males. Some might try to insulate the good Kant (the great theorist on nature of morality) from the bad Kant (the ugly defender of scientific racism), and argue that Kant’s racism might involve a misapplication of his theory rather than being a problem with the theory itself. However, I believe that racism goes to the very heart of Kant’s theory, so we can’t remove it without killing the patient. We can’t just miss the racism as an application problem, because it is built into the theory itself in some way. We basically can’t separate the racial views from the ethical theory:


What I am suggesting, then, is that racism should be seen as a normative system in its own right that makes whiteness a prerequisite for full personhood and generally (the need for this qualification will be explained later) limits nonwhites to ‘sub-person’ status. So whereas mainstream narratives tend to assume that adult humanness was usually sufficient, or at least strongly presumptively sufficient, for one’s equal moral personhood to be recognized, I am claiming that in reality there were necessary racial pre-conditions also. In this racist conceptual and normative framework, “person” is really a technical term, a term of art, and non-Europeans are generally seen not as persons but as ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’ (Mills 2017, 92).


The idea defended by Mills is that racism is not an application error at all, rather it stems directly from Kant’s theory base denial of full moral agency to nonwhites. So while still biologically human, members of minority races do not count for moral purposes as “proper” persons. Some tried to dismiss this based on language, but I believe that we have to look at the theory itself, and Kant’s ethical theory is fundamentally marked by racism.


Further, in Shatema Threadcraft's Intimate Justice, she posits that first, John Rawls failed to incorporate intimate justice in his original position, and that black women's struggles were ignored, and second, that behind Rawl's veil of ignorance, not everyone can predict all the kinds of inequalities that are happening (Threadcraft 2016, 117). Threadcraft is critical of Rawls' theory of justice and its applicability to America, because how are all citizens bound to uphold the existing political order at a time when there's struggles over civil rights, racism, and economic inequities?



5. Conclusion:


After discussing the Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. debate of violence vs. nonviolence, the role of SCLC and MLK in the struggle of racial justice, Charles W. Mills's critique of Immanuel Kant's denial of personhood of people of color, and Threadcraft's critique of John Rawls's theory of justice where he fails to address incorporate intimate justice concerns in his original position, I conclude that racial injustices continue to happen at an alarming rate because many people have not properly addressed the long history of racial terror in America, which has treated blackness as a proxy for inhumanness or criminality. The problem is that the presumption that people of color do not count for moral purposes as proper persons -as Kant thought- still exists. For police officers to still justify the use of deadly force against unarmed citizens -like they did with those who marched trying to reach half a mile in Birmingham and brutally tortured them by hoses and dogs- they have to reasonably believe that their lives are in danger or under threat; they have to view people of color not as persons, but as threats. MLK wanted people to "change at heart" and treat people of color "right", but in order for someone to be treated right, their personhood should be acknowledged in the first place. In short, the struggle of racial justice still has a long way to go, and those who claim that racism is over with and the Civil Rights Movement took care of all racial injustices are wrong.




Adelman, Larry. 2003. “RACE - The Power of an Illusion .” https://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-02.htm.


Cone, James H. 2001. “Martin and Malcolm on Nonviolence and Violence.” Phylon (1960-) 49(3/4): 173. doi: 10.2307/3132627.


Harris, William H., Martin Luther King Jr., and Clayborne Carson. 2002. “The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume IV: Symbol of the Movement, January 1957-December 1958.” The Journal of Southern History 68(3): 750. doi: 10.2307/3070231.


Johnson, Davi. 2007. “Martin Luther King Jr.s 1963 Birmingham Campaign as Image Event.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 10(1): 1–25. doi: 10.1353/rap.2007.0023.


King, Jr. 1963. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.


Malcom X. 1963. “Message to Grassroots.” https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/message-to-grassroots/. 


Malcolm X. 1964. “The Ballot or the Bullet.” http://omero.humnet.unipi.it/2013/matdid/252/Malcolm X The Ballot or the Bullet, April 3, 1964.pdf.


Mills, Charles W. 2017. “Racial Liberalism.” Black Rights/White Wrongs: 28–48. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190245412.003.0003.


Malcolm X on Dr Martin Luther King Jr. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6FEyOziF8s.


Martin Luther King, Jr. | "The Other America" Speech (Full) HD. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRI5W95cI4A.


Threadcraft, Shatema. 2016. “Intimate Justice.” Intimate Justice: 133–66. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190251635.003.0005.




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