- Awakening to Race: Individualism and Social Consciousness in America by Jack Turner
Don’t let the size of this slim volume fool you: Awakening to Race is chock-full of fresh insights and original arguments regarding individualism and race in the American democratic tradition. Individualism in America often takes atomistic forms that are antithetical to a rich sense of the social constitution of the self. For that reason, individualism often is viewed as antithetical to a critical consciousness of how race and white racism operate. In Awakening to Race, Jack Turner boldly takes the bull of American individualism by its horns. He argues that the rhetoric of individualism can be used against, rather than in service of an allegedly colorblind society in which independent, post-racial individuals pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The result of Turner’s skillful intervention into American political philosophy is to take back individualism from conservative forces and refashion it into a progressive tool for racial justice movements.
Turner sets the stage for his intervention in chapter one, which provides an overview of the book. Beginning with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Awakening to Race proceeds to focus on Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison and concludes with James Baldwin. One of the primary tasks of chapter one is to outline the book’s major Emersonian theme, which is that an individualist notion of self-reliance should lead a person to become more, rather than less aware of structural and social injustices. Properly understood, individualism should lead to an awakening to race, as Turner’s book is aptly titled, not to ignoring or failing to see it. An individual who wishes to be self-reliant should be wary and watchful of the ways in which she depends on social structures, including those of social injustice. An atomistic notion of the individual is not adequate to this task; an Emersonian democratic individual is needed instead. As Turner explains with reference to adherents of atomistic individualism, “their failure to awaken to the socially indebted nature of the self desensitizes them to structural—and thus racial—injustice” (11).
Chapter two turns to Tocqueville, Emerson, and (to a lesser extent) Thoreau to flesh out this idea. In this chapter, Turner develops [End Page 170] Emerson’s notion of self-reliance as “a politically dynamic ethical ideal, one that can motivate and energize democratic political action” rather than withdrawal from society (29). To do so, Turner references Tocqueville’s analysis of race in the United States, which reveals an affinity between white individualism and white supremacy. White individuals could contrast themselves with black slaves to reassure themselves that they were free while simultaneously ignoring their dependence on social and legal structures of white supremacy to ensure their psychological and personal sense of personhood. Individual self-sufficiency can operate as a racialized marker of freedom that is in bad faith because it evades its dependence on race and racism. With Emerson, Turner argues that genuine self-sufficiency requires reckoning with all sorts of ways that one is dependent on and complicit with societal structures, including those of white supremacy. Drawing on Emerson’s anti-slavery addresses, Turner develops a theory of democratic individual responsibility that requires of genuine self-reliance that it not interfere with the self-reliance of others. This requirement obligates the individual to take political and other forms of action to ensure that his or her free, self-reliant life is not dependent on the exploitation of others (45).
In addition to its nonexploitation obligation, democratic individualist responsibility includes a democratic egalitarian obligation. Turner develops the latter idea in chapter three through the work of Frederick Douglas. While Douglas’s notion of self-help often is read as atomistically individualist, Turner shows how it is instead tied to social responsibility. In the case of Douglasian self-help, “ought implies can” and so requiring of people that they help themselves means ensuring that they have the resources available to do so (62). While dominant notions of self-help have been used in the United States...