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  • Liberalism, Narrative, and Identity: A Pragmatic Defense of Racial Solidarity
  • Melvin Rogers (bio)


Since the revival of liberal theory in the 1970s, largely owed to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice[1], liberalism has come under attack from a number of different camps. Specifically, proponents of identity politics, such as William Kymlicka, Susan Moller Okin, Melissa Williams, and Iris Marion Young, have admirably pointed out the extent to which liberalism is largely a philosophical narrative of exclusion. [2] “Typically,” writes Young, “philosophical theories of justice have operated with a social ontology that has no room for a concept of social groups.” [3] But exclusion is not merely of theoretical interest; it reveals itself in liberalism’s universalist orientation articulated through the color-blind or difference-blind talk that underwrites American politics and policies. The epistemological claim of these theorists is that the emphasis on universality rather than particularity unhinges moral agency from the very resources that give it meaning. It ignores why it is that identities come to have the existential, and indeed, practical meaning that they do. Moving social difference to the center of articulations of liberalism thus accords with a central point of these thinkers — namely, that individual and group identities are indispensable for understanding the integrity of moral agency and its corresponding role in producing and assessing principles of justice.[4] From a theoretical perspective, these accounts point to the gap between mainstream discussions of justice and rights in political philosophy and the political thought of oppressed groups that historically focus on issues such as colonialism, imperialism, slavery, and racism.[5]

My concern in this essay is to contribute to this developing literature by focusing on the centrality of race, and providing a defense for the way in which it becomes the source of solidarity among black Americans.[6] After all, solidarity among black Americans is not a new phenomenon; it has historically been used to bring about social change and secure equality and justice. And in doing so it accentuates the importance of race in the United States. As Michael Omi and Howard Winant note in Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, race plays a role in representing social reality, and because of that we should properly “think of race as an element of the social structure rather than as an irregularity within it.”[7] For black Americans, race becomes a structuring framework through which a shared experience is shaped, influenced, and transformed.[8] Reconceptualizing the possibility of racial solidarity becomes especially important in the wake of continued discriminatory practices affecting post-Civil Rights America coupled with the fact that defenses of racial solidarity based on biological or cultural essentialism have run aground.

To that extent, part one of this essay argues that we can better elucidate racial solidarity through a conception of narrative theory. Drawing on the insights of Alasdair MacIntyre, I understand narrativity to mean the causal emplotment that explains the temporal-spatial relationship that connects agents to each other and the world. It is an explanatory framework to the extent that it inheres in, and helps account for, the social constitution of identities, the relationships among agents, and their institutions.[9] But I reconfigure MacIntyre’s insights through a pragmatic idiom; I speak explicitly of moral choices being the outgrowth of the problems we encounter in experience. So the emphasis that narrative theory places on elucidating the connection between agents and their background horizon is now explained specifically by the problems that the environment presents to those within its domain. As such, the test we put to our moral choices (i.e. affirming solidarity based on race) has everything to do with whether or not they place us in a better, that is, more effectual position, to address the environment that called them forth. This in turn opens the way for evaluation, critique, and/or affirmation.

Part two of this essay develops a specific account of racial solidarity against the background of Anthony Appiah’s skepticism that there is no way to speak of racial solidarity without it being tied to some essential biological or cultural characteristic. [10] Appiah’s argument, however, rests with his failure...

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