The White Mob, (In) Equality Before the Law, and Racial Common Sense: A Critical Race Reading of the Negro Question in “Reflections on Little Rock”

Published date01 February 2021
Date01 February 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(1) 3 –27
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720943211
The White Mob, (In)
Equality Before the Law,
and Racial Common
Sense: A Critical Race
Reading of the Negro
Question in “Reflections
on Little Rock”
Ainsley LeSure1
This article argues that Hannah Arendt’s controversial essay “Reflections
on Little Rock,” when situated within her analysis of Jewish assimilation,
has an astute insight: racial integration and the decrease of the racial gaps in
material inequality, without taking seriously the political project of building
a world in common, only intensify racism in racist polities. This occurs
because attempts to extend formal equality to the racially dominated give
rise to the rule of racial common sense, a result of a clash between the
political structures of equality and the racial inequality practiced in quotidian
interracial exchanges occurring in civil society. Though Arendt’s work on
racism echoes criticisms of racial integration leveled by racial realist and
pessimistic accounts of the Civil Rights struggle, her work points to a more
expansive practice of “the political” that calls for the institutional (re)design
of formal politics as an important strategy against racism.
Hannah Arendt, Little Rock, racism, racial equality, law, white mob
1Africana Studies, Brown University, Providence, RI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ainsley LeSure, Africana Studies, Brown University, 155 Angell Street, Providence, RI 02912,
943211PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720943211Political TheoryLeSure
4 Political Theory 49(1)
“Reflections on Little Rock” (“Reflections”) is a controversial essay that has
only grown in infamy as scholars have interrogated the significance of
Hannah Arendt’s condemnable views about race in her normative political
theory.1 Scholars find that persistent antiblack racism pervades her work and
is on display in “Reflections.”2 She presumes the intellectual inferiority of
Black students; she charges Black parents with cowardice, arguing that they
failed to protect their children by sending their children, rather than them-
selves, to the front lines of the public fight for school desegregation.3 Yet, her
claim that the fight for school desegregation, forged by the then-nascent civil
rights movement, involved Black parents and their children in “an affair of
social climbing” rather than a genuine effort toward political equality, has
been deemed an especially egregious failure in her judgment. With this judg-
ment, Arendt is read as accusing the NAACP of inappropriately using politi-
cal institutions, like the courts, to advance the social and economic interests
of Black Americans. Scholars also see reflected in this charge her untenable
distinction between the social and political, developed in The Human
Condition (THC), where she concludes that so-called social issues—like the
economic and social standing of citizens or the social customs that organize
racial interactions in public space—have no bearing on the political standing
of citizens.4
In this article, I demonstrate that Arendt’s claim in “Reflections” that the
fight for school desegregation involved Black parents and their children in
“an affair of social climbing” is more complicated than a simple rebuke of the
NAACP’s legal strategy to achieve racial equality. When read with an eye
toward understanding Arendt’s concern about the rise of the white mob in
response to the enforcement of Brown v. The Board of Education (Brown),
Arendt’s characterization of the Black community in “Reflections” mirrors
less her pathological characterizations of Black students and Black residents
in her 1969 characterization of the Negro question. And it resembles more her
account of the Jewish people amidst their anti-Semitic brethren in eighteenth-
and nineteenth-century Europe. From this vantage, Arendt’s critique of
Brown in “Reflections” is indicative of a larger concern within her work
about the threat racial common sense poses to the legitimacy of equality and
the stability of the modern liberal political order.
By racial common sense, I mean to capture Arendt’s description of a long
process of racialization, documented in her analysis of the Jewish question,
that reduces the lived reality of the Jewish people into a racial category that
signifies “an agglomeration of characteristics that are universally ‘evil’ and,
although observable in other people,” always deemed a possession of the

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