Race in America in the 21st Century: Historical, Critical, Political and Ethical Perspectives
Some 50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., buoyed by a powerful social movement winning landmark victories, famously intoned: “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice!” But recently King’s confidence appears less credible. Many Americans resent the ‘constraints’ on speech that interracial civility requires and the ‘special’ privileges afforded to racial minorities, and instead support the current President’s ‘white nationalism’.’ To understand the complexity of race in contemporary America, we will adopt a variety of perspectives, contemplating not only our complicated history but also what we can do here and now to contribute to racial justice and a better future. We will chart the remarkable transformations the American racial order has undergone over the last century, as the Jim Crow system was gradually dismantled, and a substantial African American middle class and elite emerged. We will also note how the racial composition of America is changing as whites are slowly surrendering their demographic majority, (‘non-white’) Latinos are becoming the largest racial minority, and Asians are emerging from the shadows of the black-white divide. But we will also seek to understand how recent gains do not mark the dismantling so much as the reorganization of the American racial order: race remains the most salient predictor of social fate for Americans’ health, life expectancy, education, earnings, home-ownership, status within the criminal justice system and wealth. Further, a substantial portion of white Americans experiences a deep sense of moral existential threat from the demographic and cultural changes we are currently undergoing, and seek to resist it politically. What does the ambivalent present bode for America’s racial future? This course will take up these issues by examining the evolving American racial order through a variety of critical lenses—history, politics, sociology, law and ethics. We will examine the unsteady march of racial justice in American history, the complex relations between racial categorization and personal identity, and what happens as the binary of black and white gives way to a spectrum of many hues. Though these are charged issues, discussion will be framed in ways that invite participation from all, including efforts to talk through difficult and perplexing issues for the first time.
David Peritz earned his BA from Occidental College. and Ph.D. from Oxford. A Professor at Sarah Lawrence since 2000, he is the recipient of a Marshall Scholarship and taught at Harvard, Deep Springs, Dartmouth, UC Berkeley, and Cornell. His research specialization is modern and contemporary political philosophy, especially theories of democracy and justice and their relation to issues of diversity and inequality. He has taught at the Fromm Institute since 2016 and in lifelong learning for 20 years.