Race & Democracy in America
Transcript for Student Voices
Melvin Rogers/Donnell Williamson
You’re listening to Student Voices, a podcast featuring student-led interviews of Brown University faculty based on the Race & in America panel discussion series, curated by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America in partnership with the Office of the Provost.
Donnell Williamson: Hello, everyone. My name is Donnell Williamson, I am a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies, and I am speaking with Associate Professor of Political Science Melvin Rogers about the recent panel discussion on Race & Democracy in America. Thank you for joining us, Professor Rogers. How are you doing today?
Professor Melvin Rogers: I'm doing well. Thanks for having me.
Donnell Williamson: So here's the first question that we have for you today. Democracy has an obscure American history, if one simply reviewed the US Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, our founding documents, one would quickly realize that the word democracy does not appear in any of them. Politicians nonetheless champion, year after year, the mission of democracy. What would you suggest is the mission of democracy or simply, what is democracy?
Professor Melvin Rogers: Well, thank you for the question. I mean, the first thing I would say before I get to the question is that the absence of the language of democracy is a bit deceptive. The term that was most prominent in the 18th century would have been the term republicanism, but for all intents and purposes, historically speaking and with respect to our current time, republicanism and democracy mean the same thing. These are not different accounts. In the 18th century the reason why the language of democracy was not used is because they specifically had in mind a very older and more direct form of democracy as opposed to what we now call representative democracy. Representative democracy and republicanism are one and the same. But the next thing I would say is about democracy, I think it's a challenging question, but for me and my sort of political-philosophical understanding of it, I think that there are sort of two components to understanding democracy. On the one hand democracy is a political ideal and then on the other hand it is an ethical vision. To say that it is a political ideal is to say that democracy puts on the table the proposition that each of us, ordinary human beings, can engage in the practice of self-governance and can engage in that shared practice of self-governance without deferring, without deferring and deferring blindly to kings or queens or princes or bosses. So democracy, in its political sense, it rejects bowing to another.
In terms of its ethical vision, the ethical vision is a bit more trickier, but if in that first vision there’s a sense that each one of us stands on equal footing, politically speaking, which is why we don't bow to another, it then means that ethically, insofar as we engage in self-governance, we each can give articulation to a vision of the good that ought to orient our lives. But because this is a shared project it means that there will often be moments, perhaps the moment we are in now, intense moments of deep disagreement. But the understanding, the idea is that even amid those disagreements we can together find our way through it. Of course this also means that the disagreements, even as they run deep, they can never go so far or they should never go so far as to touch the very criteria of political equality. The disagreements call into question the standing of our fellows then we are in a very different political and ethical condition. So the ethical condition, the ethical vision is that, despite our disagreements, we can get on about living together. And of course the challenge that it places on us is that we will come to and work to cultivate the requisite virtues that will enable us to listen and hear each other, and find our way through a shared life together.
Donnell Williamson: Another question, in the Race & Democracy in America panel a few weeks ago, many of your statements were in favor of what one may call democracy or republicanism, contrary to what Professor [Andre] Willis named post-democracy, which suggests that democracy is a vacuous word with no resources available for Black people. What would you say is the most salient feature of democracy for Black people? What do Black people gain from adopting or even prescribing democratic values?
Professor Melvin Rogers: Well, obviously based on what I just said politically and ethically I don't think it's vacuous, right? I think it's actually quite robust and I think that description that I offered up of the political and ethical dimensions actually has been the two salient features of democracy that African Americans have advanced. I edited a book that I recently completed with Jack Turner at Washington, Seattle and this is a book of 30 essays on key African American thinkers in a tradition of African American political thought by 30 contemporary scholars writing on those figures. And although there is intense disagreement internal to that volume and among those thinkers about whether or not America, the United States, is up to the task of fulfilling or up to the task of meeting the demand that democracy places on them, all share a kind of robust account of what democracy means, those two elements that I just shared. And whenever we speak about the investment in a political ideal and an ethical vision, it's always as compared to what? In relation to what? And so if these are the ideals, this idea of political equality, this sort of ethical vision of being able to work through our deepest disagreements as the basis of a shared life, if that's the vision what are the going alternatives? And my sense is that, historically and in our current moment, there is still a great deal of value in the political ideal and the ethical vision that democracy promises. Even in the face of the United States’ failure in various ways to fully embody that ideal, that ideal is what again and again calls the United States to the carpet. It calls it to the carpet in the name of accountability, right? So my sense is that historically African Americans have deployed this concept, historically they have used it in the name of their quest for full equality in this country. And they have seen at various moments value in it, even if that history has been laced with also some tragic outcomes.
Donnell Williamson: Thank you. President Biden and Vice President Harris presents an opportunity for the US government to upend systemic racial injustices in the United States and there was a similar assumption held at the first inauguration of President Obama. During the 2020 campaign some Black people stated that they were uninterested in mere representational politics again, such as Harris's VP nomination, and this time Black people advocated for real and effective change in the Black community. Whereas one may view democracy as campaign promises, what should Black people -- and not just Black people, Indigenous peoples, all people -- expect from a democratic government given the dis-ease of rampant white supremacy in the United States?
Professor Melvin Rogers: Yeah. Look, American politics is a messy affair and it lends itself quite easily to being disingenuous and hypocritical as political figures feel that they must negotiate with, in Cornel West’s language, “gangsters” and “mobsters.” But my sense is, looking at Biden right now and his administration, thinking about this executive order that he's singed to deal with issues around racial inequity. So basically the White House Domestic Policy Council is really charged with coordinating and implementing the domestic policy agenda of the president and he has put front and center on that agenda questions of racial inequity. So I think in one sense we have to see what comes out of this. Now of course we know that the history is a checkered one even when an African American was in office, but this is one reason why I think that because democracy turns on this fundamental principle of political equality and it means that you do not have to blindly defer to another then it also means that the practices that people undertake, including the president and his administration, the practices that they undertake, the beliefs that they hold but in forming those practices, we can pull these figures to the carpet to say, “Give us an account of why it is you are not proceeding in the way that you said you would proceed!” or “Why is it that all of a sudden you've become confused or mistaken about what you have previously told us that you were committed to?" Part of this is a practice of giving and asking for reasons for the beliefs we hold, the practices we undertake, and when those reasons and practices fall short, especially when they fall short and the repercussion or the consequence of it is to reaffirm inequality, then it most certainly will be time for them to move on. So my sense is that we see this executive order, we pay attention to what else is going on, and now that he is in the critical eye, it must always be active. And we’ll just have to see how things unfold, knowing that history is a checkered one.
Donnell Williamson: Yeah, which brings me to my last question. Imagine someone came to you and said, Professor Rogers, you can instill one core democratic value into all U.S. citizens. What core democratic values would you instill? How do you think it would enhance society?
Professor Melvin Rogers: So it's interesting because the thing that I’m going to claim as a core value is perhaps both also a capacity. So I think [it’s] the sympathetic imagination. It's all sort of intellectual, I suppose, but if you take it to be the case that we're engaged in this process of self-governance, that we believe because of political equality we do not have to blindly defer to others, that we will not submit to bosses and kings. And if you take it as settled that amid that there will be a lot of disagreements, but that the ethical vision is that amid those disagreements, we can carve out a shared life together. What is most essential to doing that? The capacity that is, and that is the sympathetic imagination. This ability to try and to sort of see the positionality of others. Now, will the ability to see the position of others get us to a place in which we say that particular issue needs to be addressed? I don't yet know. But we most certainly will not be able to get there if we do not have the sympathetic imagination. It is at the base of democratic governance and it is so central to generate the proper care that is necessary for one's fellows.
Donnell Williamson: Nah, that's good. Thank you so much. Thank you, Professor Rogers, thank you for being here. Thank you for sharing with us today.
Student Voices is a feature of the Race & in America digital publication series developed by the Brown University Library. Our theme music is “see the unseen” by Butter. Explore the series at DigitalPublications.Brown.edu