Civic Engagement and America’s Racialized, Anti-Democratic Public Sphere

Racial cleavages in public opinion remain massive, particularly between black and white citizens. Gaps of 20 to 60 percent between mean black and white opinion are consistently found on issues such as support for military intervention in the Middle East, economic redistribution, prospects for blacks achieving racial equality in the United States, whether felons who have served their time should be allowed to vote, whether the government should apologize to blacks for slavery and Jim Crow, and the whether poor government response to the Katrina disaster was due in part to racial inequality. Group differences of this magnitude are disturbing for a number of reasons. These differences indicate that large degrees of polarization exist between black and white citizens and that political discourse within the U.S. is, to a substantial degree, structured along racial lines. Even more worrisome, these vast cleavages are also indicative of the antidemocratic nature of public discourse in the U.S. and, more generally, the public sphere.

An important form of civic engagement and political participation is the ability of citizens and groups of citizens to participate in the public sphere and thereby influence public opinion, shape policy formation, and demand accountability from public officials. In the U.S., however, as we saw vividly during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, mainstream black political opinion is marginalized, excluded, and demonized. Not only are mainstream black political voices rarely heard (as even in this conservative era they anchor the left of the American political spectrum), and not only is mainstream black opinion not represented in the institutions of government, but these positions and the speakers that utter them are also demonized—condemned as being hopelessly out of step with “real American” politics or, worse, anti-American.

Jean Cohen (1999) points out that multiple publics do not in and of themselves signify an exclusionary set of publics. Multiple publics are a mark, according to Cohen, of any pluralistic society—one can have both multiple publics and multiple different types of publics. The key, however, is that these multiple publics, comprised of “readers, listeners, viewers, and now cyber-communicators scattered around the national and international society,” must also be part of a larger “public of publics,” which allows them to contribute to what Cohen calls “public opinion in general” and what Habermas calls the will-formation process.

Much public sphere theory conceptualizes political influence as flowing from the public sphere to the policy formation process—from the public to the state. But for subordinate counterpublics, publics that must fight to have their voices heard and considered, the causal arrow is at least partially reversed. In a pluralistic democratic society, for the counterpublic’s views to be heard and influential in the larger “public of publics” and to have an impact on the state, the subordinate population must wield sufficient political power. That political power could come from three sources: (1) local mass mobilization from within black civil society; (2) local political power exercised through the electoral system; and (3) substantial political pressure from outside of any given local area—most likely, as is usually the case for subordinate populations, from their national compatriots. In this era of the triumph of neoliberal sensibilities even within black politics, local or national black political mobilization is rare, and the limited leverage provided by black electoral power has had to serve as the main, if not ideal, protector of local black interests.

In a racially fragmented civil society, the black counterpublic, formed in response to the dominant publics, has its roots in the relative political, economic, and social powerlessness of African Americans in this era. This relative powerlessness has made it difficult for the consensuses that developed within the black counterpublic to be interjected into mainstream publics. The extreme racial polarization found within public opinion surveys is indeed an indication of the lack of success that the black counterpublic has had in influencing white mainstream publics. The reverse is also true, of course; black publics remain relatively resistant to white opinion, but it is white opinion that molds public policy, and it is white opinion that gets coded as “normal,” “rational,” and “reasonable.” Indeed, as Nancy Fraser (1989) and Michael Warner (2002) both argue, counterpublics are, by nature, subordinate to their dominant counterparts (in this case, subordinate to white-dominated civil society, public spheres, and counterpublics) and, as Fraser argues, have subaltern status. Warner makes this point when he states, “Dominant publics are by definition those that can take their discourse pragmatics and their lifeworlds for granted, misrecognizing the indefinite scope of their expansive address as universality or normalcy.” But the effect of this misrecognition is that alternative discourses become marginalized and, in this case, with real consequences for the shape of political power and the distribution of life chances.

Both the exclusion of the black counterpublic from civil society as well as its exclusion from the “public of publics” has led to a near total lack of access to the policymaking arena. This deadly combination has left black communities especially vulnerable to economic, political, and other disasters—a vulnerability that was highlighted in recent years by the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the human-constructed disaster of the aftermath to the storm, and also, more recently, by the financial crisis that has gripped the world.

Real threats exist to the ability of blacks and other marginalized populations, particularly Latinos, to participate in traditionally conceived political participation and civic engagement. Minority voting rights are under attack throughout the country. In addition to fighting these attacks, we must also address how to reconstruct political discourse within the U.S. so that the public sphere serves the democratic functions it ought to and no longer operates as a site of racial exclusion and marginalization. If this does not occur, black (and other) citizens will not have the full ability to participate in all aspects of democratic life.

About the Author
Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago.