The Abolition of White Democracy

The Abolition of White Democracy

The Abolition of White Democracy

The Abolition of White Democracy

Synopsis

Racial discrimination embodies inequality, exclusion, and injustice and as such has no place in a democratic society. And yet racial matters pervade nearly every aspect of American life, influencing where we live, what schools we attend, the friends we make, the votes we cast, the opportunities we enjoy, and even the television shows we watch. Joel Olson contends that, given the history of slavery and segregation in the United States, American citizenship is a form of racial privilege in which whites are equal to each other but superior to everyone else. In Olson's analysis we see how the tension in this equation produces a passive form of democracy that discourages extensive participation in politics because it treats citizenship as an identity to possess rather than as a source of empowerment. Olson traces this tension and its disenfranchising effects from the colonial era to our own, demonstrating how, after the civil rights movement, whiteness has become less a form of standing and more a norm that cements while advantages in the ordinary operations of modern society. To break this pattern, Olson suggests an "abolitionist-democratic" political theory that makes the fight against racial discrimination a prerequisite for expanding democratic participation.

Excerpt

Racial discrimination has no place in a democratic society. There is little disagreement with that. It embodies inequality, intolerance, exclusion, and injustice. Democracy, on the other hand, stands for equality and freedom. Democratic citizenship is inclusive of all members of a polity while racial oppression actively prohibits certain people from exercising their rights as citizens. Yet in spite of these sharp contrasts, racial matters pervade nearly every aspect of life in the United States. Race influences where we live, the schools we attend, the friends we make, the votes we cast, the opportunities we enjoy, even the television shows we watch. As contrary as discrimination and democracy seem to be, they somehow coexist in the American political order.

In his 1940 book Dusk of Dawn, the great political theorist W. E. B. Du Bois argues that race is the central problem facing democracy in the United States and the world. One question this problem raises is how can African Americans and people of color throughout the world become part of democracy, which has heretofore been reserved exclusively for whites. Another question is how would the “self-government” of the world's peoples of color, once achieved, change democracy. How might American democracy, for example, be transformed if it was shorn of white supremacy? Would it simply be more inclusive or would its nature be fundamentally altered? Contemporary political theory has had difficulty grappling with both of these questions. Part of the reason . . .

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