18 June 2020

Black Lives Matter: A Rawls-ian Moment

In 1958, the political philosopher John Rawls published an article whose argument would end up as the core of his celebrated A Theory of Justice. Rawls’s article, with the lapidary title “Justice as Fairness,” resonates strongly in this current hour. The Black Lives Matter protests that have roiled the United States since the video-recorded killing of George Floyd exemplify Rawls’s point: not only that justice depends on equality of liberty – something which has never been the case for African Americans in the U.S. – but that recognition of this injustice impels people to act so as to redress it.

Since the protests first broke out, they have spread to all 50 U.S. states and of course to many countries around the world; they have occurred in large cities, medium-size towns, and rural hamlets; and, at least as significantly, they have continued to this day. The protests have involved massive numbers of participants, and by no means only African Americans, people of colour, or for that matter, those under the age of 30. At the level of public opinion, the protests have been supported by strong majorities, with even white respondents agreeing that the police use violence disproportionately against blacks. Those numbers are unprecedented in polling, and represent an enormous jump over comparable figures as recently as five years ago.

At least as significantly, there have been reactions to this at all levels of government and in all walks of life. Legislation has been introduced, and in some cases already enacted, to rein in the police in multiple ways, to shift funds away from them, and, albeit purely symbolically, to tear down or remove Confederate statues or flags. Businesses and nonprofit organisations have at least gestured at rethinking their hiring and promotion policies, shifting their stance while distancing themselves from racist individuals within their ranks and, of greater potential significance, at least for tech firms, cutting their provision of identification services to the police. The latest example to date is the Quaker Oats Company, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, removing the “Aunt Jemima” name and image from its products.

What seems clear is that, throughout American society, a kind of Rawls-ian recognition has now occurred that racial unfairness is not accidental, perhaps the fault of a few bad cops, but is something systemic, and that it is therefore morally untenable for governments and organisations simply to nod at this fact and continue as they had before. In this regard, the actions of Trump and his Republican allies in Congress speak volumes.

Since the protests began, there has been a flurry of cluck-clucking in Washington, with Republican bills being drafted and pious statements being issued that Something Will Soon Be Done. Of course, what results will, deliberately, be weak and unenforceable, but the Rochefoucauldian necessity of some sort of hypocritical response is worth signalling. No Republican at this moment could possibly expect to gain more than a trivial number of African American votes by signing onto legislation; what they hope, however, is that white voters will nod in approval. That is to say, they can read the opinion polls as well as anyone, and they recognise that doing something about systemic racism, notably involving the police, is now an expectation on the part of white voters. That is something new.

Perhaps the best-known line in William Faulkner’s lengthy oeuvre comes from one of his Yoknapatawpha County novels, Requiem for a Nun: “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.” What motivates the protests, and all the reactions to them, in America and around the globe, is precisely this sense that events of 5, or 50, or even 150 years ago are very much with us today, because the institutions created in the context of those events reflect them just as luridly now as at the moment of their creation. Bearing witness, and agitating, and carrying out even pro forma acts should thus be taken, not as the end of a process but as an important step in a much longer march. One might therefore be excused, in the heart of all this darkness, for seeing a faint shimmer of hope.