Civil Society, Liberal Democracy, and Racial Injustice: A Political Theory Informed by the Black Experience in America
I. Introduction: Civil Society and Liberal Democracy
As we stated in the introduction, a “political theory is constructed as a response to enduring questions that hold the attention of the political theorist.” The highly important question for us in this chapter is how does a political theory that is rooted in the experience of African Americans in this country contribute in a major way - as we think it does - to a liberal democracy? And what are the consequences for civil society?
Why is the first question so significant? Because a liberal democracy seeks to achieve civic equality for all, which means protecting the basic rights of each individual, regardless of status, race, gender, or sexuality.1 There is no higher objective for a liberal democratic regime than to secure the civic equality (and, thus, the dignity) of all citizens. And, in our view, there is no higher purpose for politics, in general. For this approach to politics is the basis for an open, pluralist society in which all citizens agree - as part of what is required by the common good - to respect all others, no matter how different they may be from oneself.
It is also the case - as we know from history - that the public sphere (or what can also be called the national government) in a liberal democratic state has often failed to safeguard, and has instead worked to deny, civic equality for African Americans. And this reality has often worked against achieving an open, pluralist society. Why this has happened and why it often continues to happen, as well as what can be done to overturn such horrific injustice on behalf of ensuring civic equality for all, become the central concerns of a political theory that is both informed by the American experience of black-white relationships and grounded in a commitment to support a liberal democratic public sphere.
Moreover, these concerns inevitably are aired in civil society, where discussions designed to advance civic equality for all take place in the hopes of restoring in full measure a public sphere that can achieve civic equality for all citizens of whatever belief or color. A civil society, then, has a fundamental role in securing a liberal democratic public sphere, and without the former, the latter will be hard to achieve.
Before proceeding to explain this view more fully, we wish to do three things in the next five sections. First, our plan is to be more specific as to what we mean by the “public sphere of a liberal democracy.” Included in this description is recognition of the factors that often contribute to the weakening, if not the destruction, of the public sphere. Second, we discuss civil society’s relationship to the public sphere and, in particular, highlight the importance of a civil society as the location of the discussion that - when successful - makes the case for, as well as helps to safeguard, a liberal democratic public sphere. Third, we describe the significant role a political theory - impacted heavily by the experience of African Americans - has in civil society with respect to this goal. In this context, we introduce an idea of critical importance to a civil society that seeks to establish -through discussions there - a foundation for preserving a liberal democratic public sphere; in particular, we discuss what we call a “moral obligation to remember radical injustice toward blacks.” Finally, in the sections that follow the first five, we discuss a few of the black voices that manifest in different ways a moral obligation to remember radical injustice.