With Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform, Harvard philosophy professor Tommie Shelby brings the disciplined reason of philosophy to the ghetto. He examines core ethical principles and values through the ghetto lens. He sticks to the ghettos associated with urban black communities rather than white slums and Latino barrios because those “dark ghettos” are what most people think of, reflexively. The ghetto is a place, geographic and cultural, a center of entrenched poverty where just about everything is suboptimal, to say the least. From schools to public services, job opportunities to social capital, ghettos reveal the utter failure to meet even the most basic requirements of just society.
Often discussions of urban poverty and ghettos either blame the problem on the people who live there and advocate for some form or personal responsibility and moral reformation. Others focus on some sort of “fix” that will mitigate the inequities without fixing the problem, though not all fixes are fixes. Charter schools for example are promoted as a way to address substandard schools, but the evidence is in that charter schools fail poor, urban, black students even more than public schools.
Shelby is not interested in tinkering. He wants to abolish the ghetto and by that, he does not mean gentrification. Abolishing the ghetto requires restructuring our society, not the buildings. It means creating a basic structure that is egalitarian, where ghettos do not exist because the racist structures that create them do not exist.
Justice is the heart and soul of this book. Shelby frequently refers to John Rawls, though he only takes some of his ideas from Rawls, though Shelby is less utopian. He does rely on Rawls’ idea of the basic structure and how it affects our lives and our outcomes, which gives us the right to demand fairness. He works from core fundamentals of fairness to construct an ethical framework that demands the abolition of ghettos and the restructuring of society.
Here’s the cool thing about philosophy, it can get truly radical without even breaking a sweat. Shelby does not shake his fist. He does nor raise his voice. He cooly, deliberatively, constructs some shared agreements that nearly anyone would accept as true. From them, he takes us on a logical and philosophical examination of what justice requires, what level of injustice is tolerable, and just what should be expected when injustice is intolerable.
Shelby examines the most problematic and fraught issues from defining justice and injustice, from ghetto “culture” to questions of reproductive freedom, defining family, and valuing the work ethic. He examines crime, punishment and dissent. He questions whether we have the right to criticize the life choices of ghetto residents when their basic structure is intolerably unjust. He challenges us all to our moral duty to work for justice.
I borrowed this from the library, but I plan to get my own copy as soon as there are some used ones on sale. I have already urged friends to read it. Asking whether I like it, though, misses the point. How do you like a book that demands so much of its readers? This book is challenging, demanding, and does not come with human interest stories. There is one exception, when discussing hip hop as a form of impure dissent, Shelby writes about Nas and his Untitled album which was controversial and subject to critique on several levels as impure dissent despite its political content.
Dark Ghettos is important and it answers arguments I have had with myself as a white person living in a racist society. I think it shows a way forward, though I am not hopeful that people will listen. There are many more appealing arguments that protect the status quo and soothe white racial anxiety. Those arguments often win out even when they are ridiculous on their face and unjust. After all, the current regime argues that feeding children and seniors is a waste because it has no effect on them. Racial justice has never been a priority for White America. It is even less so now.
There is one thing that would really improve this book, at least for me. Shelby defines certain principles and terms. You know he’s doing it because they are in italics. I wanted a glossary at the end, where I could find them all in one place. A lot of them are terms of art, so to speak, as Shelby defines them very specifically, separating self-respect from self-esteem, for example, and what obligations self-respect places on us. He parses the hell out of condemnation. With a glossary, we could look back at the definition to remind ourselves of the specifics when they came up later. There is a good index, but looking for a term in the index and trying to find it is less efficient, and less likely to happen, than flipping to a glossary.
I think you should read this book. I want everyone to read this book. It’s not entertaining. It’s not easy. It’s challenging, difficult and demands so much, not just as a reader, but as a human being. But it’s important. We have fundamental problems and tinkering is not the solution.
Publication: November 2016