On September 2, 2005, Kanye West engaged in political moralizing that disturbed our understanding of a series of events that, on the face of it, appeared to be a national tragedy, but which in fact exposed persistent social and political continuities with America’s troubled racial past. In front of an audience numbering 8.5 million television viewers he declared that George W. Bush did not care about black people. What prompted such a scathing indictment? On August 29, 2005, the Gulf coast was battered by Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst storms in American history. New Orleans, a deep-south city bearing the legacy of segregation along two dimensions, was hardest hit. Residentially, it was and remains home to entire wards that are predominantly black. This dimension alone was not at issue, however. New Orleans is topographically diverse and it turns out that, as a result of a long racial history, blacks – who overwhelmingly comprise the poor – were located in New Orleans’ low-lying lands. Katrina made short work of the coastal levees meant to prevent flooding, so it was not long before it devastated the low lying wards, sections of New Orleans predominantly black, and entirely poor.
To this day there remain questions as to why residents were not warned earlier as there were indications that a natural disaster was imminent. But that failure was not West’s motivation. Rather, it was a second failure of a much more fundamental kind – that of caring for citizens who mostly happened to be dark. As is now well-documented, the federal government took days to mobilize a response while people crowded into the Louisiana Superdome and proceeded to live in terror under conditions that deteriorated with alarming speed. Food and water were in short supply and people died in the absence of medical services. Where was the government? After all, as Spike Lee documents in his When The Levees Broke, Canadian Mounties were on the scene before U.S. Federal agencies even figured out what to do. It seems their first concern was to simply help in a time of need.
Then there was a third failure – that of sympathy. West’s complaints were not solely aimed at Bush. As the media covered the aftermath of the disaster, ugly images began to emerge of blacks entering stores and exiting with unpaid-for goods. Stories of looting began to proliferate, and they were accepted with ease because they depended on socio-historical tropes of black criminality. West was sure to not let this go by unremarked. He further said: “They portray us in the media, when they see a black family they’re looting; when they see a white family, it says, they’re looking for food.” In other words, two actions based on identical human needs nonetheless assigned different moral assessment. Though blacks were disproportionately suffering under conditions of severe neglect, they were nevertheless looked upon as pariahs. In less than one minute, West gave us a snapshot of racial inequality. But he also did something deeply political and engaged in a kind of moral discourse we tend to shy away from – he shamed us on account of displaying bad national character.
West was alternately maligned and praised for what almost all considered to be a public outburst. But much commentary focused on whether he had called Bush a racist or whether he was accusing the media of unfair coverage. I think West was up to something much more sophisticated. Let’s first take the statement: George Bush doesn’t care about black people. This utterance makes reference to a person as the president and there is the target group, black people, and one way to read the relationship is that there is a group of people George Bush doesn’t seem to like very much. But let’s widen our interpretive lens. West had an audience of many millions, which is to say he had a significant audience comprised of his co-participants in the democratic social scheme. His utterance wasn’t a political act merely because it registered a complaint, but it was a political act because it sought to speak directly to the public. Seen in this light, West can be taken to say something else. Major American institutions – the president and his supporting apparatus – failed to express moral concern for a suffering sub-population of the democratic body politic that happened to be mostly dark skinned. On this reading, West wants us to think about how and why we seem to care about some folks but not about others although we are formally all equal members in the social scheme.
Let us now consider the other significant statement: when white people seek food, they’re hungry; when blacks seek food, they’re looting. Again, I believe his statement admits of more than one interpretation. Topically, he is simply saying that our judgments are in logical error: either both are stealing or both are hungry, to suggest otherwise is to be confused about our use of descriptive terms. But, again, I think much more is happening. West is not only drawing our attention to a failure in logic but also problems of interpretation. It is important for him that the actions of whites are prima facie reasonable and acceptable, while the actions of blacks are prima facie deviant and criminal. The problem is that they are the same action. How can our judgment of the same action be so radically different on account of skin color? To be sure, he would want to say that a lot of it has to do with the media and how they frame images followed by certain commentary. However, I think he would want to say more. While his first indictment ostensibly targeted Bush, this second comment unsettles our self-understanding, for one reason the media proceeded in this way was because their spin would not be considered spin given widely subscribed notions of black deviance. West’s second comment is largely directed to us as members of a society that allowed this tragedy to unfold. In effect, the lesson is – the next time you consider what it means to have a need or pursue a reasonable course of action, be aware of how you corrupt your final judgment on account of your prior racial beliefs. Whites were stealing because they were hungry…and blacks get hungry, too.
In my view, West did something we need more of – he shamed us as a nation at two levels. In targeting Bush he also targeted what Rawls terms the basic structure: the major political, social, and economic arrangements responsible for distributing benefits and burdens. At the level of the basic structure, he meant to remark upon the way the U.S.’s commitments to social welfare and regard for the value of each American life as equal seemed to simply collapse. Something between the commitment to valid principles of justice and institutional actions and dispositions was severed in the face of race. In targeting us, the audience, he was speaking to persons who play a role in the social scheme, for we populate these institutions by being employers, educators, service providers, municipal functionaries, judges, loan officers, politicians, and so on. However, particularly by way of calling attention to the different ways the stealing of food can be interpreted, he meant to draw our attention to fundamental inconsistencies in personal character – how our deeper and correct principle of the right to meet personal needs applied to whites while becoming corrupted in the face of black needs. West’s second statement indicates a failure of other-regardingness upon which well-ordered democracies depend.
There is a moral term for the response these very astute observations entail: shame. That is, the moral response we should have when we fail to uphold principles we affirm on our own account in the face of conditions that cannot possibly be thought to justify that failure. The view of this book is that given the deeply complex nature of racial inequality over forty years after the ringing success of the Civil Rights Act, racial justice depends upon our being ashamed of a problem that by all means should genuinely be a thing of the past.
In this chapter I give content to this claim as an initial step in developing a response to racial inequality. First, I provide an account of shame and the work it does in our socio-moral apparatus. What I mean to be doing in invoking shame is to orient the reader towards thinking of justice in a more capacious manner than has been typical in contemporary political thought. Shame indicates not a failure in rules but a failure, as a society, at both the institutional and personal levels, to consistently align actions and dispositions with a commitment to those rules. It indicates a failure of national character. So that is my complaint against contemporary political thought – it needs to re-vision what it means to think about justice and race in the face of the appropriateness of shame.
Thus, my second aim is to do the preparatory work of the normative political thinker and critically survey the state of things as they stand in the relevant fields. Both the literatures in justice and race are large, so a way must be found to satisfactorily lay out the basic concerns without being bogged down by parochial debates or engaging in uninteresting literature reviews. To that end, I turn to the two leading thinkers of those respective fields: John Rawls and Charles Mills. Each has given us important tools in thinking about their respective areas of concern, but there is a way in which they each fall into error or confusion that seems to seriously hinder the project of racial justice. As I shall argue, while Rawls justifiably focuses on the basic structure as the primary subject of justice, he has an importantly incomplete view of what a ‘political’ theory amounts to. And while Mills is right to direct our attention to relations of power and concerns over social epistemology, he relies on overly blunt analytic devices, such as ‘white supremacy’; further his recent embrace of reparations is a puzzling solution to a problem that is not fundamentally rooted in problems of distribution. As Mills seems to acknowledge (though in different terms), and as I shall argue in more precise terms in Chapter 2, the problem of racial inequality is that of social valuation. That is to say, that blacks do not occupy an equal place in the scheme of normative attention and concern upon which our society depends in the first place to justify the distribution of benefits and burdens as well to identify those who are deserving or appropriate recipients. If I am right about this, we will have to move beyond the state of the respective fields, beyond Rawls and Mills, onto new ground in understanding racial inequality. Shame sets us up to reconceive that ground. George W. Bush might or might not care about black people, but he is not alone in being subject to that descriptive ambiguity, and that is certainly shameful.