Push for Racial Justice Beyond Race Alone.

AuthorReed, Adolph

What ought a racial justice agenda look like as we anticipate the possibility of defeating Donald Trump in 2020, strengthening progressive forces in Congress, and generating the sort of broad movement needed to support egalitarian social transformation beyond the election?

Answering that question, and rising to meet this challenge, requires examining what we mean by "racial justice." Most people who consider themselves progressives no doubt have general ideas of what would constitute a racially just society. Yet two basic norms of racial justice have coexisted--sometimes converging, sometimes contending--since at least the 1930s.

Political scientist Preston H. Smith II described these twenty years ago as the ideals of racial democracy, "the view that all racial groups should have proportionate access to and enjoyment of all social goods," and social democracy, the principle that "all individuals regardless of class should have equal enjoyment of all essential social goods."

Each is legitimate as an ideal of a just society, and, as Smith shows, for the middle third of the twentieth century, they were compatible and often mutually reinforcing. When movements against racial exclusion and discrimination and movements for egalitarian redistribution overlapped, when the same individuals and organizations were involved in each, there was no pressing need to parse potential divergences and areas of conflict between them.

The 1944 volume, What the Negro Wants, edited by Howard University historian Rayford Logan, is a good illustration of the broadly shared commonsense view that the two ideals of social justice were naturally compatible, if not symbiotic. Logans volume collected perspectives from black civic elites across the ideological spectrum, from radical to conservative, who opined on what they considered the most pressing issues and opportunities, problems and prospects for black Americans in the rapidly approaching postwar years.

Even the most conservative bootstrappers agreed in a matter-of-fact way that continued expansion of federal social wage policy and ClO-style industrial unionism were necessary conditions for the continued advance of black Americans' pursuit of justice and equality, as well as progress in the struggle against discrimination and racial exclusion.

As Smith later showed in his 2012 book, Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis: Housing Policy in Postwar Chicago, tensions between those two ideals could and did erupt into conflict in concrete instances throughout the postwar period. However, those eruptions were usually episodic and isolated, and as a result didn't disrupt the prevailing understanding that these tensions were ephemeral moments in a singular progressive movement.

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