Democratic aspirations founder on racial & ethnic disparity

by Danielle Allen

More than 200 years into the modern experiment with democratic forms of rule, democratic aspirations continue to founder on the rocks of racial and ethnic hierarchies, and other patterns of domination constructed on social categorizations of difference. Meeting these challenges requires rigorous ethical reflection.

In the case of the U.S., fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African American disadvantage continues to be entrenched; Latino disadvantage, too, has emerged as a pressing problem as has a low level of political engagement among Asian Americans.

In Europe, we are witnessing the resurgence of the far-right, in response to dramatic demographic diversification, occurring simultaneously with economic instability.

Civil war related to ethnic violence has devastated many African countries in recent years. India has the world’s largest affirmative action program and yet to cross caste and religious lines in marriage is to open oneself and one’s family to abuse and often murder by the locally dominant.

These are just a few examples of the hard problems that currently define the political and ethical landscape of democracy in contexts of diversity.

The question of how to achieve fair and just forms of democratic life in conditions of significant demographic diversity must be tackled afresh, from the ground up. Importantly, pursuing answers to this question requires uniting normative and positive, or ethical and empirical, forms of expertise, through multi-disciplinary partnerships, through academic and professional partnerships.

Several of our Fellows-in-Residence during the 2015-16 academic year will be working squarely at the intersections of diversity, justice, and democracy, and I invite you to take a look at their bios to see the shape of the conversation that will develop at the Center.

In addition, our multi-disciplinary Diversity, Justice, and Democracy workshop group will use a set of intensive collaborative workshops to co-author a volume bringing economics, law, philosophy, psychology, and history together to chart a course for thinking about the requirements of justice and democracy in conditions of diversity. Participant bios are available here.

Yet no single theme can encompass the many quandaries of public ethics that presently confront us, and so this year the Edmond J. Safra Center will also be deploying informal lunchtime conversations (“Ethics Mondays”) and public lectures to tackle a broad array of issues. Over the course of the coming year, we expect to have conversations about sexual misconduct on college campuses, economics and ethics, institutional corruption, neuroscience and race, leadership challenges in higher education, the ethics of social science, medical decision-making and so on.

The Edmond J. Safra Center is uniquely positioned at Harvard to cultivate University-wide conversations about the hard questions involved in determining how we should live, singly and collectively. We look forward to welcoming you in person to our public events, and online to the many fora in which we will broadly share our conversations.

Danielle Allen is director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and a Graduate School of Education professor of Government at Harvard University.

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