By: Hugh Ragan
This summer’s Black Lives Matter protests led to the most widespread and profound consciousness-raising that I have experienced in my lifetime. The killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd drew attention to injustices experienced by African Americans and racial minorities but also prompted fundamental questions about justice that transcend race.
Four points, in particular, underscore why ending racial inequity remains deeply challenging, despite growing support for the cause.
Moral individualism is a conception of freedom. “For a moral individualist, to be free is to be subject only to obligations I voluntarily incur”, says Michael Sandel, in his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do? This notion is liberating, as it means that one’s sense of responsibility stems only from individual consent, not from prior moral ties, tradition or customs. But this vision of individualism “leaves little room for collective responsibility, or for a duty to bear the moral burden of historical injustices perpetrated by our predecessors,” says Sandel. The economic disparities between white and African American people in America are the compounded effects of discriminatory practices that reach back several centuries. Yet closing that gap requires that today’s population feel morally compelled to correct for those injustices. If individual freedom is emphasized as a core aspect of our liberal society, is it then realistic to assume that we can develop a collective sense of responsibility in select circumstances, like addressing racial inequity?
Similar to the idea that our obligations should be of our own choosing is the notion that our successes should be attributable to our own doing. The American Dream is prefaced on the meritocratic ideal that “you can make it if you try.” A perfect meritocracy presupposes that everyone starts from a level playing field, and success is rewarded to those who work hard and leverage their talents, rather than be rewarded based on nepotism or social class. In this way, someone that achieves success by working hard and playing by the rules is deserving of their success. But even a perfectly functioning meritocracy has a downside. If success reflects your own merit, then it follows that those who are unsuccessful are equally deserving of their position. This commitment to meritocratic ideals – a belief that one’s position is indicative of what one deserves – has further eroded a sense of responsibility to help those who are less fortunate. Particularly puzzling is the faith in meritocratic ideals despite the playing field being so evidently unequal.
Supposing it were even possible for a magic wand to guarantee that by tomorrow, all people would access the same education, get promoted at the same rate, and earn the same incomes, regardless of race, the problem of racial inequity would still be unresolved. The massive wealth disparity between white and African American people will be a persistent source of opportunity gap. Shy of making reparations (for which the political practicalities make it so unlikely as not to warrant much attention), ending such an opportunity gap requires fundamental changes to the structure of our society. John Rawls describes what an egalitarian society might look like, where inequities are only permitted if they serve to benefit the least well off. Our progressive tax system is one indication that we pursue egalitarian ideals, yet the rules that govern the creation and transfer of wealth suggest otherwise. So, racial economic justice is inextricably bound with a much wider reconception of justice. While it is hopeful and inspiring to think that the national dialogue prompted by the protests this summer could be impetus for widespread reform, it also highlights that those fighting to end racial inequity are in fact fighting a much bigger battle.
The Role of Government as a Moral Leader
Among the pleas of protesters this summer were calls for bold government action. But to the extent that addressing racial inequity requires moral arguments and a change in values, the government can only do so much. The government’s attempt to paternalistically impose values through laws and policies can only be marginally effective, because individuals in a liberal society maintain a significant amount of agency to choose their own path within the acceptable bounds of the law. In this sense, government laws are a consequence, not a cause, of our values.
Or course, racial inequity is also traced to racial bias and overt discrimination, neither of which have been addressed here. Instead, I have raised four points which perniciously perpetuate racial inequity, yet themselves are not explicitly related to race. Hopefully this demonstrates that addressing racial inequity requires grappling with challenges distinct from racism.
The challenges raised in this article are not static obstacles; they are evolving conceptions of our personal obligations to others, the role of the government, and our collective notion of fairness. These engrained values may be slow to evolve, but the protests have caused us to reflect on them by demonstrating how they are currently failing us. That is a powerful legacy of the protests, as societal value change will be more enduring than any government legislation, and farther reaching than any one issue.
Hugh Ragan is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. He currently serves as a member of the Peterson Leadership Speaker Series Committee at Munk, in addition to contributing towards the Economic Nationalism project with the Policy Innovation Initiative. His primary goal is to understand the relationship between policy design and people’s incentives, values and choices. Hugh holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Economics from Queen’s University.