Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Philosophy at Yale University Christopher Lebron gave a lecture at the Russell House on Monday, Oct. 29 titled, “The Sense and Sensibility of Equality.” The lecture centered on topics from Lebron’s upcoming second book, which will be titled “From a Human Point of View: (Re)Imagining Racial Egalitarianism.” The Philosophy Department coordinated the lecture.
Chair of the Philosophy Department Lori Gruen introduced the speaker as an academic who is both a political theorist and a racial studies expert. She emphasized the importance of his book, “The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice in Our Time,” which received the First Book Prize by the American Political Science Association’s Foundations of Political Theory section. The focus of the book was how racist history undermines the possibility of democratic history. His new book is designed to focus on modern definitions of equality.
“Lebron’s work is meant to deeply reshape how we value black humanity,” Gruen said.
Lebron gave background on why he was motivated to study issues of racial identity in contemporary American politics. When he first went to graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lebron said that he wanted to do work on global justice, determined not to write about race. One factor that influenced him was the denomination ‘Chocolate City,’ a name given to the section of the university where many of the black students lived. He also found himself unable to identify some of his personal struggles with the texts that he was reading for his courses.
“I read more widely what was within mainstream political philosophy of the time,” Lebron said. “And I wondered, where the hell are my problems? Where can philosophy and experience have a fruitful communication to say something with urgency about a major philosophical problem: what does it mean to treat people without humanity?”
Lebron stated that racial inequality is an empirical fact of modern society and categorized many of the difficulties in combating this fundamental issue. Integral to Lebron’s definition of equality is the American people’s self-reflection about their relationship to each other as co-citizens sharing the same nation space. Lebron cited author James Baldwin’s two large complaints about democracy. The first is that of a democratic dissonance, which states that we can all be sharing the same nation and yet can individually be remarkably distant from one another. Another offshoot of this is democratic disaffection, which reflects the ways in which Americans can become disillusioned with the efficacy of democracy.
“Institutions don’t treat us in a way that makes sense for equality,” Lebron said. “In life we’ve all been through varying kinds of ‘no,’ so by the time we reach age 35, we have a hard time trusting our countrymen.”
The second tenet of the equality which he wants to define emphasizes overcoming bias and potentially harmful self-perceptions. Lebron believes that the human imagination can be used as as a tool of compassion and empathy for the world’s larger problems. Lebron gave the analogy of watching a play as a tool for describing the importance of imagination in defining racial equality.
“Imagine that my father and I go and watch Othello and there is a moment where someone is strangled,” Lebron said. “We can react in a number of ways, but mainly, we can react in no way, or we can react and think that someone is getting strangled here, but we don’t react as if someone were actually being strangled because we see that it is a representation of something. We need not watch someone be strangled physically to understand that there is something awful going on.”
Lebron’s new book is meant to give a picture of the capacities required to perceive equality and the ways in which we can reimagine our citizenship based on this new view. To begin this section of the lecture, Lebron described a pickup game of basketball as a metaphor for democracy. One thing he found interesting about this type of game is that players are willing to cooperate quickly and effectively towards a common goal. In their implicit agreement to participate in the game, Lebron argues that pickup basketball players mimic citizens participating in democratic life. However, the major difference for Lebron, is that the game of basketball is inherently fair, whereas democracy is rigged.
“Democracy is obviously not fair,” Lebron said. “If basketball were more like democracy, it would be that one team shoots to a ten-foot hoop versus a fifteen-foot hoop.”
In a second analogy, Lebron detailed the story of a man named Darrell, who was pulled over while driving only because he was black, and who then proceeded to tell the story to a co-worker. This analogy was adapted from true events that involved his colleagues at Yale. Lebron argued that the co-worker has certain things that he ought to be do in response to hearing Darrell’s story. He clarified that when he says what the co-worker ‘ought to do,’ he is not suggesting that there is a set of actions or roles that the co-worker must carry out. He emphasized that the co-worker ought to be adaptive, flexible, and responsive as he hears Darrell’s testimony. He breaks the relationship between Darrell and his co-worker into three potential conceptual pairs: narrator and receptor, reasons and responsibility, and affect and compassion. Many students found this example intriguing and discussed it after the lecture. Rachel Fox ’16 spoke about the relevance of the anecdote to one of her courses.
“This example really ties into the content of my philosophy class, American Pragmatist Philosophy with Professor Springer,” Fox said. “I think that his use of this anecdote really presented the information in a logical, cohesive way that could also be accessible to people outside of the world of philosophy.”
In the second half of his book, which is less developed as of now than the first half, Lebron hopes to revisit ideas about moral political theory and address the direction of the modern ethical gaze, large obstacles in racial inequality, and the ways in which our society blames certain demographic groups for their own misfortune or for the misfortune of others.
The question and answer section was a stimulating portion of the lecture for many in attendance. Miles Cornwall ’15 reflected on the last portion of the lecture.
“The talk was very interesting and sparked interesting debate after he was done, in particular because of the anecdotal nature of it,” Cornwall said. “I’m left wondering, in the basketball example, whether it’s [not] the issue of democracy that he is truly focusing on, but how we practice democracy. This seems to map onto whether or not there an issue in the structure of the game, or more so whether or not people perceive that they are actually playing the same game. Or is that the playing field is distorted, and that we can no longer play the same game?”