- Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform by Tommie Shelby
By Tommie Shelby. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016. ISBN: 9780674970502. $29.95. Hardcover, 352 pages.
The continued existence of ghettos in the United States demands that we reflect on the nature of our political values and whether the basic structure of our society is fundamentally just or unjust. Tommie Shelby's Dark Ghettos intends to provide "a detailed defense of the values and principles that . . . should (and sometimes do) guide grassroots efforts and policy prescriptions" (7) in addressing the injustice of ghettos. Though there are social-scientific studies that lead to proposals of rectification there is "[o]ften missing . . . sufficient critical reflection on the values that should guide such proposals" (ibid.). For one may look at the ghetto and intuitively assert that there is something wrong there. But this is far from articulating what the problem is and how one should address it. How one formulates what Shelby calls "the problem" (ibid.) will configure what array of answers one can reasonably provide. This is a critical issue which cannot be left to implicit presuppositions as many public debates and social-scientific studies seem to for Shelby. It is for this reason that he relentlessly attacks the evaluative schema of the "medical model" in favor of a "systemic-injustice framework" (2–3). The "medical model" already carries implicit values based on the idea that a social body is fundamentally healthy and must [End Page 101] simply excise or "cure" the unhealthy elements. According to this model, the ghettos are perceived as a blight on an otherwise healthy social landscape and thus the problems of poverty, crime, and familial structures are conceived as localized and endemic to that area. This often leads to policies of intervention rather than a systematic interrogation of the structures that make up U.S. civil society.
By centering what he calls the "political ethics of the oppressed," Shelby allows us to gain a critical vantage point on the interrelationships between class injustice and racial injustice, ideal theory and nonideal theory within the liberal tradition broadly construed. Shelby is not just confirming once again our pre-theoretical intuition that there is some injustice in the existence of ghettos in the United States; he works to formulate the language to evaluate the injustice. His twofold aim is to delineate the precise nature of the wrong and to express the response of the moral agents within these communities to this wrong. The importance of the former is to allow our speech to explicate of what injustice consists and the latter allows us to understand the speech of the least-favored as reasonable responses to this notion of injustice. Taken together, the "political ethics of the oppressed" becomes a dynamic movement between "what ought we value?" and "how do we evaluate?" In short, Dark Ghettos, by analyzing the plight of the black urban poor as a reflection of structural injustices rather than a localized pathology, crystallizes the problematic of racial valuing.
While Shelby never uses the phrase "racial valuing" in his text it is the question which animates his study. What values ought the oppressed hold and how ought we (philosophers, politicians, or others interested in social justice) evaluate the situation of the oppressed are interrelated questions which raises vexing issues about how arguments for "social justice" are supposed to proceed in a non-circular fashion. Do the proposed values for the oppressed presuppose an evaluative schema that would allow for rendering the proper ethical judgment of the concerned subjects and a state of affairs? Or, conversely, is it that an evaluative schema must be constructed from a priori values in order to discern the social arrangement that would most fruitfully allow for the flourishing of justice? This problem of racial valuing leads Shelby to claim:
When social justice questions are raised, there is a common tendency to treat the answers as obvious or to regard disagreements about the answers as products of irresolvable "ideological" differences. Indeed, [End Page 102] some are skeptical of the very idea of "social justice." Alternatively, some, though not in...