Category: Race


Racey, Racey Neuro-Hype! Can a Pill Make You Less Racist?

Media outlets around the world reported yesterday that a pill can make people less racist.

“Heart disease drug ‘combats racism’” heralds the UK’s Telegraph.  “A Pill that Could Prevent Racism?” asks The Daily News.

Is this for real?

The answer is less racy – and less raced – but actually more interesting than the headlines suggest.

Researchers at the Oxford University Centre for Practical Ethics, led by Sylvia Terbeck, administered a common blood-pressure lowering drug, called propranolol, to half of a group of white subjects and a placebo to the other half.  (Read the study’s press release here and the research paper here)  The subjects then took a test that measures “implicit associations” – the rapid, automatic good/bad, scary/safe judgments we all make in a fraction of a second when we look at words and pictures.  The subjects who took the drug showed less of an automatic fear response to images of black people’s faces and were less likely to associate pictures of black people with negative words than the subjects who did not take the drug.  Based on the study’s design, it is likely that results would be the same in trials involving racism by and against other racial and ethnic groups.

This looks like the pill treated racism in the research subjects.  But this isn’t so.

Researchers have long known that propranolol has a range of effects that include lethargy, sedation, and reductions in several kinds of brain activity.  In high-flown medical parlance, this drug makes people really chilled out.  I know: I’ve been on propranolol myself (unsuccessfully) for migraine prevention.  When I was on the drug, my biggest fear was falling asleep at work – and even that didn’t stress me as much as it should have.

Because propranolol muffles fear generally, it reduces automatic negative responses to just about anything.  Propranolol has been used to treat everything from “uncontrolled rage” to performance anxiety and is being explored for treating PTSD.  Very recent research shows that it generally reduces activity in the brain region called the amygdala (more on that, below).

But the study remains interesting and important for a few reasons.  This is the first study to show that inhibiting activity in the amygdala, which is crucially involved in fear learning, directly reduces one measure of race bias.  This validates extensive research that has correlated race bias with heightened activity in that brain region.  (Although some contrary research also challenges the association.)  So this study helps support the idea of a causal relationship between automatic or pre-conscious race bias and conditioned fear learning.

The cure for racism born of conditioned fear learning is not to chemically dampen the brain’s response to fear generally – because fear is often useful – but to attack the causes of the conditioned associations that lead to bias in the first place.

The rest of this post will show how the fear response, claims about race, and the way the drug works all come together to point to the social nature of even “neurological” race bias – and to its economic and legal repercussions.

The fear response

When we see something that frightens or startles us, several regions of the brain become active – particularly the amygdala.  The amygdala has many functions, so a neuroimage showing activity in the amygdala does not necessarily mean that a person is experiencing fear.  But if a person has a frightening experience (loud noise!) or sees something she’s afraid of (snakes!), activity in the amygdala spikes.  This activity is pre-conscious and totally outside our control:  We startle first and then maybe stop to think about it.

The automaticity of fear serves us well in the face of real threats – but poorly in much of daily life.  Fear learning is overly easy: A single negative experience can create a lasting, automatic fear association.  Repeated, weak negative experiences can also form a strong fear association.  And, we can “catch” fear socially: If my friend tells me that she had a negative experience, I may form an automatic fear association as if I had been frightened or harmed myself.  Finally, fear lasts.  I can consciously tell myself not to be afraid of a particular thing but my automatic fear response is likely to persist.

Race bias and the fear response

In neuroimaging studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on white and black Americans, research subjects on average have a greater amygdalar response to images of black faces than to images of white faces.  Researchers have interpreted this as a pre-conscious fear response.  Indeed, the more that activity in a person’s amydala increases in response to the images of black faces, the more strongly he or she makes negative associations with images of black faces and with typically African-American names (see paper here).

These automatic fear responses matter because they literally shape our perceptions of reality.  For example, a subject might be asked to rate the facial expressions on a set of white and black faces.  The facial expressions range from happy to neutral to angry.  A subject who has a strong amygdalar response to images of black faces is much more likely to misinterpret neutral or even moderately happy expressions on a black facial image as being hostile or angry.  This shows how fear changes our perceptions, which in turn changes how we react to and treat other people.  It also shows how fear alters perception to create a self-reinforcing loop.

This kind of pre-conscious or automatic racism matters economically and legally:  A majority of white people who have taken these implicit association tests demonstrate some automatic bias against black faces both associationally and neurologically.  White people numerically and proportionally hold more positions as decision-makers about employment – like hiring and promotion – and about legal process and consequences – like whether to charge a suspect with a crime, the severity of the crime with which to charge him or her, and whether to offer a generous or harsh plea bargain.  A study of two hundred judges serving in jurisdictions across the United States has shown that judges, too, more readily make these automatic, negative associations about black people than they do about white people.  The implication is that automatic racial bias could play a role in pervasively tilting the scales against black people in every phase of economic life and in every phase of the legal process.

Yet, current anti-discrimination law only prohibits explicit racial bias.  An employer may not advertise a position as “whites only” nor fire nor refuse to promote a worker because the employer does not want to retain or advance a black person.  Systematic racial bias that creates unlawful “disparate impact” also rests on explicit racism: plaintiffs who claim that they are proportionally under-represented in, say, hiring and promotion by a particular employer must show that the disparate impact results from an intentional discriminatory purpose.

Automatic race bias, by contrast, takes a different form – a form not barred by law.  Automatic discrimination expresses itself when the white supervisor (or police officer, or prosecutor, or judge, or parole board member) just somehow feels that his or her black counterpart has the proverbial “bad attitude,” or doesn’t “fit” with the culture of the organization, or poses a greater risk to the public than an equivalent white offender and so should not be offered bail or a plea deal or be paroled after serving some part of his sentence.

Tying it all together

If current anti-discrimination law does not touch automatic bias, and automatic bias is pervasive, then does this point to a role for drugs?

On propranlol, an implicitly biased interviewer or boss might perceive a black candidate more fairly, unfiltered by automatic negative responses.  (She might, of course, still harbor conscious but unstated forms of bias; propranolol certainly would not touch race-biased beliefs about professionalism, competence, and the like.)  But it also would generally dampen the decision-maker’s automatic fear responses.  An overall reduction in automatic negative responses would not necessarily be a good thing:  while it might free decision-makers from some false negative judgments based on race, it also would likely impair them from picking up on real negative signals from other sources.

And the take-away …

That a fear-dampening drug reduces racial bias in subjects helps confirm that much racial bias is based in automatic negative responses, which result from conditioned fear learning.  Although this finding is hardly surprising, it is interesting and important.  Any person reading this study should ask him- or herself: How does automatic fear affect my decisions about other people?  How does it affect the judgments of important economic and legal decision-makers?  How can we make it less likely that the average white person sees the average black person through distorting fear goggles in the first place?

The problem with this study and the headlines hyping it is that they perpetuate the idea that racism is the individual racist’s problem (It’s in his brain! And we can fix it!).  A close reading of the study points to the importance of socially conditioned fear-learning about race – which then becomes neurologically represented in each of us.  Despite the headlines, racism is not a neurological problem but a cultural one, which means that the solutions are a lot more complex than popping a pill.


The Problem with Affirmative Action After Grutter: Some Reflections on Fisher v. University of Texas

It’s official: the Supreme Court will hear Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin this term. The Court will determine the constitutionality of the university’s use of race in its undergraduate admissions decisions. Because Justice Kagan has recused herself, supporters of affirmative action must hope (pray!) for a 4-4 split – with Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kennedy on one side and Justices Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas on the other.

But, what’s the likelihood that Justice Kennedy will swing to the left? After all, he dissented in Grutter. Part of his discontent in 2003 concerned Michigan Law’s notion of a “critical mass.” Michigan Law argued, and the majority accepted, that a “critical mass” of minority students would promote “cross-racial understanding,” undermine racial stereotypes, prepare students for the “multicultural workforce” that exists outside the law school’s doors, and prevent minority students from having to be “spokespersons for their race.” Essentially, admitting less than a “critical mass” of minority students would be an exercise in futility; however, admitting a “critical mass” of them would further the compelling state interest in securing the educational benefits of having a diverse student body. But, Kennedy protested that he was not fooled by the concept of “critical mass.” To him, “critical mass” walked like a quota and quacked like a quota. “Aha!,” Kennedy exclaimed in dissent. “It’s a quota!” And quotas are, of course, constitutionally repugnant.

So, it may be a bit ominous for those who want to see the University of Texas’ affirmative action program survive review that the university specifically and explicitly argues that it uses race in its admissions decisions in order to ensure that its student body contains a “critical mass” of racial minorities. As Justice Blackmun said in another context: “The signs are evident and ominous, and a chill wind blows.”

Notably, Justice Kennedy did not have a problem with the Grutter majority’s holding that student body diversity was a compelling governmental interest. He noted in his dissent that he found “no constitutional objection to the goal of considering race as one modest factor among many others to achieve diversity”; his disquietude was solely with the way that Michigan Law pursued this interest. Thus, if Texas’ program is struck down this term, it will not be because a majority has found that achieving student body diversity is no longer a compelling governmental interest.

Yet, this holding is, for me, the most disturbing part of Grutter. I get it: we have to argue in the language of “diversity” in order to justify affirmative action programs because the jurisprudence will not allow us to argue successfully in the language of “remedying past societal discrimination.” But, while the end is the same (more racial minorities gain access to schools that otherwise would be inaccessible), the means to the end are troubling. Why is “diversity” more attractive as a compelling interest than “remedying past societal discrimination”? The answer may be that those who are imagined to benefit from programs designed to “remedy past societal discrimination” are only the minority groups that were victims of discrimination; however, those who are imagined to benefit from programs designed to increase diversity include nonminorities. To be clear: the programs are the same. But, when “diversity” is the justification for the program, it allows us to imagine that even White people benefit. Nonwhite people and White people acquire cross-racial understanding. Nonwhite people and White people are disabused of racial stereotypes. Nonwhite people and White people are prepared to enter a multicultural workforce. There are no losers with diversity! It’s a win-win!

And I’m pretty sure that individuals of all racial ascriptions and identifications benefit from racially diverse environments. However, my issue is that when the interest was framed in terms that focused only on the benefit that minorities would receive from affirmative action – when it was articulated in the language of “remedying past societal discrimination” – a majority of the Court refused to find that this interest was compelling. Rectifying the enduring effects of the mistreatment, the disenfranchisement, the denial of citizenship, the abuse… That’s definitely legitimate. It may even be important. But, it’s not compelling. Diversity, on the other hand? That’s the stuff that the Fourteenth Amendment can sink its teeth into!

At present, efforts to repair the damage caused by this country’s history of racism and exclusion can only be justified by not making reference to this country’s history of racism and exclusion. There’s something unsettling about that. There’s also something unsettling about the work that the acceptance of the diversity argument, coupled with the rejection of the remediation argument, does to deny that the effects of past societal discrimination even exist. Diversity screams, “Racism is dead!” But, could it be that the premature celebration of racism’s demise is the very sign that demonstrates that racism is alive and well? That is: nonwhite people – Black people, specifically – are poorer, sicker, more frequently incarcerated, die earlier, more likely to die violent deaths, etc., than their White counterparts. If these disparities are not the effects of past societal discrimination – if these disparities are not the effects of institutional mechanisms – then what explains them? The focus shifts to individuals and their pathological choices, behaviors, lifestyles, cultures, instincts, etc. And racism is just a stone’s throw away.


Cyberbullying and the Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys

(This post is based on a talk I gave at the Seton Hall Legislative Journal’s symposium on Bullying and the Social Media Generation. Many thanks to Frank Pasquale, Marisa Hourdajian, and Michelle Newton for the invitation, and to Jane Yakowitz and Will Creeley for a great discussion!)


New Jersey enacted the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABBR) in 2011, in part as a response to the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers University. It is routinely lauded as the country’s broadest, most inclusive, and strongest anti-bullying law. That is not entirely a compliment. In this post, I make two core claims. First, the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights has several aspects that are problematic from a First Amendment perspective – in particular, the overbreadth of its definition of prohibited conduct, the enforcement discretion afforded school personnel, and the risk of impingement upon religious and political freedoms. I argue that the legislation departs from established precedent on disruptions of the educational environment by regulating horizontal relations between students rather than vertical relations between students and the school as an institution / environment. Second, I believe we should be cautious about statutory regimes that enable government actors to sanction speech based on content. I suggest that it is difficult to distinguish, on a principled basis, between bullying (which is bad) and social sanctions that enforce norms (which are good). Moreover, anti-bullying laws risk displacing effective informal measures that emerge from peer production. Read More


BRIGHT IDEAS: Anita Allen’s Unpopular Privacy

Lucky for CoOp readers, I had a chance to talk to Professor Anita Allen about her new book Unpopular Privacy, which Oxford University Press recently published.  My co-blogger Dan Solove included Professor Allen’s new book on his must-read privacy books for the year.  And rightly so: the book is insightful, important, and engrossing.  Before I reproduce below my interview with Professor Allen, let me introduce her to you.  She is a true renaissance person, just see her Wikipedia page.  Professor Allen is the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.  She is also a senior fellow in the bioethics department of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, a collaborating faculty member in African studies, and an affiliated faculty member in the women’s studies program.  In 2010, President Barack Obama named Professor Allen to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. She is a Hastings CenterFellow.  Her publications are too numerous to list here: suffice it to say that she’s written several books, a casebook, and countless articles in law reviews and philosophy journals.  She also writes for the Daily Beast and other popular media.

Question: You began writing about privacy in the 1980s, long before the Internet and long before many of the federal privacy statutes we take for granted. What has changed? 

 I started writing about privacy when I was a law student at Harvard in the early 1980s and have never stopped. Unpopular Privacy, What Must We Hide (Oxford University Press 2011) is my third book about privacy in addition to a privacy law casebook Privacy Law and Society (West Publishing 2011).  My original impetus was to understand and explore the relationships of power and control among governments, individuals, groups, and families.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the big privacy issues in the newspapers and the courts related to abortion, gay sex, and the right to die.  Surveillance, search and seizure, and database issues were on the table, as they had been since the early 1960s, but they often seemed the special province of criminal lawyers and technocrats.

To use a cliché, it’s a brave new world.   Since my early interest in privacy, times have indeed changed, the role of electronic communications and the pervasiveness of networked technologies in daily life has transformed how personal data flows and how we think about and prioritize our privacy.  Terms like webcam, “text messaging,” “social networking,” and “cloud computing” have entered the lexicon, along with devices like mobile, personal digital assistants, and iPads.

The public is just beginning to grasp ways in which genetics and neuroscience will impact privacy in daily life—I have begun to reflect, write, and speak more about these matters recently, including in connection with my work as a member of President Obama’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

Question: Your book coins the phrase “unpopular privacy.”  In what way is privacy unpopular?  

First let me say that I think of “popular privacy” as the privacy that people in the United States and similar developed nations tend to want, believe they have a right to, and expect government to secure.  For example, typical adults very much want privacy protection for the content of their telephone calls, e-mail, tax filings, health records, academic transcripts, and bank transactions.

I wrote this book because I think we need to think more about “unpopular” privacy. “Unpopular” privacy is the kind that people reject, despise, or are indifferent to.  My book focuses on the moral and political underpinnings of laws that promote, require, and enforce physical and informational privacy that is unpopular with the very people that those laws are supposed to help or control.  (I call such people the beneficiaries and targets of privacy laws.)  “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” for instance, was an unpopular government mandated privacy for military service members.  My book suggests that some types of privacy that should be popular aren’t and asks what, if anything, we should do about it.

Question: If people don’t want privacy or don’t care about it, why should we care?

We should care because privacy is important.  I urge that we think of it as a “foundational” good like freedom and equality.  Privacy is not a purely optional good like cookies and sports cars.  Since the 1960s, when scholars first began to analyze privacy in earnest, philosophers and other theorists have rightly linked the experience of privacy with dignity, autonomy, civility, and intimacy. They have linked it to repose, self-expression, creativity, and reflection. They have tied it to the preservation of unique preferences and distinct traditions.  I agree with moral, legal and political theorists who have argued that privacy is a right.

I go further to join a small group of theorists that includes Jean L. Cohen who have argued that privacy is also potentially a duty; and not only a duty to others, but a duty to one’s self.  I believe we each have a duty to take into account the way in which one’s own personality and life enterprises could be affected by decisions to dispense with foundational goods that are lost when one decides to flaunt, expose, and share rather than to reserve, conceal, and keep.

If people are completely morally and legally free to pick and choose the degrees of privacy they will enter, they are potentially deprived of highly valued states that promote their vital interests, and those of their fellow human beings. For me, this suggests that we need to restrain choice—if not by law, then by ethics and other social norms.  Respect for privacy rights and the ascription of privacy duties must comprise a part of a society’s formative project for shaping citizens. Read More


The meaning of the Three-Fifths Clause

The ConstitutionIt’s very common to hear progressive writers criticize the racial inequality in the Constitution. One common such criticism invokes the Three-Fifths Clause — that is, writers criticize the Constitution as a document which unjustly labels slaves as merely “three-fifths of a person.” This sort of statement suggests that the Three-Fifths Clause created some sort of legally diminished status for Blacks, perhaps granting them only three-fifths of others’ rights or protections.

The idea that the Constitution is problematic because it labels slaves “three-fifths of a person” comes up frequently in news stories and online conversations. For instance, the New York Times discussion earlier this year about House members reading the Constitution noted that, “Certainly the Republican leadership is not trying to suggest that African-Americans still be counted as three-fifths of a person.”

This sort of framing, while common, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the Three-Fifths Clause and of what the Constitution does and does not say about race. Read More


Hot Summer Flashes, Black Urban Mobs

Like Professor Zick, I am grateful for the invitation to share my view of the world with Concurring Opinions. I’d like to pick up where his post on strange expressive acts left off and, along the way, perhaps answer his question.

Flash mobs have been eliciting wide-eyed excitement for the better part of the past decade now. They were playful and glaringly pointless in their earliest manifestations. Mobbers back then were content with the playful performance art of the thing. Early proponents, at the same time, breathlessly lauded the flash mob “movement.”

MGK leads a movement (Youtube)

Today, the flash mob has matured into something much more complex than these early proponents prophesied. For one, they involve unsupported and disaffected young people of color in cities on the one hand and, on the other, anxious and unprepared law enforcement officials. A fateful mix.

In North London in early August, mobile online social networking and messaging probably helped outrage over the police shooting of a young black man morph into misanthropic madness.  Race-inflected flash mob mischief hit the U.S. this summer, too. Most major metropolitan newspapers and cable news channels this summer have run stories about young black people across the country using their idle time and fleet thumbs to organize shoplifting, beatings, and general indiscipline. This is not the first time the U.S. has seen the flash mob or something like it. (Remember the 2000 recount in Florida?) But the demographic and commercial politics of these events in particular ought to raise eyebrows.
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Book Review: Banks’s Is Marriage for White People? How African American Marriage Decline Affects Everone

Richard Banks,Is Marriage for White People? How African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone (Dutton 2011).

A half century ago, high rates of marriage were close to universal.  The one notable exception – and the subject of alarm in a much vilified report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965 – involved lower class African-Americans, whose divorce rates were high and non-marital birth rates were rising.  Today, marriage has emerged as a marker of class for the country as a whole.   For the first time ever, fewer than half of all households consist of married couples.  Moreover, just like access to health care, stable employment, and higher education, access to marriage has become a class-based affair.  According to the National Marriage Project, the likelihood of marrying, staying married and raising children within marriage correlates strongly with education.   Compared to twenty years ago, the likelihood that a fourteen-year old girl will be in a family with both parents has risen for the children of college graduates and fallen substantially for everyone else.  In the midst of cries of alarms about family decay, marital stability has increased for college graduates with declining divorce rates and non-marital birth rates that have stayed below ten percent.  As in 1965, however, the notable exception to the rosy picture for family stability, at least for the elite, comes from African-Americans.   While the white   non-marital birth rate for college graduates has stayed at 2%; for African-American  college graduates, the numbers are rising and now approach the 25% level that caused such alarm at the time of the Moynihan report.  National Marriage Project, fig. S.2, p. 56.

Stanford Law Professor Richard Banks, in a book that has already triggered fireworks, courageously addresses the issue.   In Is Marriage for White People?  How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone, he points out the enormous disparity between the marriage rates of black men and black women and the fact that the issue is no longer one limited to the black underclass.  While marriage has effectively disappeared from the poorest communities (the non-marital birth rates for black high school dropouts is 96%), Banks’ concern is successful African-American women.  Their marriage rates have been dropping, and their dissatisfaction with the behavior of black men is the subject of plays, movies and Banks’ book.  Banks’ explanation is straightforward: black women have been so disproportionately successful that they outnumber the men.  So, too, is his solution.  He writes the book to argue that the only realistic choice for African-American women is to marry outside the race and as a prominent African-American male, he is effectively giving them permission.

While Banks does an exceptional job describing the plight of the most talented African-American women (the book has good stories in addition to its good statistics), he punts on a number of issues.  He treats the behavior of the men as a consequence of the numbers game and, rather than exhort black men to do better by their women, he addresses the book to the women – give up, if you can, on racial exclusivity and the men, facing a more competitive market, will have to come around.  He also does not question the importance of marriage.  Some would celebrate the freedom to create a variety of family relationships and associate higher rates of marriage with male dominance.  On this issue, Banks gets a pass.  He does not take on the larger issue of family organization.  Instead, he addresses the pain of well-educated African-American women who want a committed partner in their lives and are frustrated in their inability to find one.

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Critical Jewish Studies?

The first two areas I could say I had an actual scholarly interest in were Church/State law and Critical Race Theory. This wasn’t an accident — I got interest in CRT because the method of analysis it used really spoke to me as a Jew. It seemed to do a better job of capturing the various problems and barriers faced by members of marginalized groups beyond the standard, thin liberal story.

When I finally got access to Lexis as an undergraduate at Carleton, one of the first things I did was run a search for something approximating a “Critical Jewish Theory”. And I came up with … virtually nothing. With one very notable exception — Stephen Feldman at the University of Wyoming (I know, I know: Jewish studies in Wyoming — could it get any more cliched?) — it was a virtual dead-end. Even Professor Feldman’s work, which I admire and has influenced me greatly, focuses primarily on the American Church/State context. An important topic, to be sure, but hardly the only one which intersects with Jewish lives and areas of concern (international law, in particular, seems like a gimme).

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Constitutional Redemption

Jack M. Balkin’s profound book, Constitutional Redemption, develops an aspirational interpretation of the Constitution. The presentation is not nostalgic; rather, Balkin provides a hopeful picture of an evolving form of constitutional interpretation. His methodology requires the reexamination of existing social morality and political forms but not an abandonment of the Constitution’s commitments to standards and principles of justice.

Balkin’s narrative of redemption speaks of unfulfilled promises made at the nation’s founding. These promises, he argues, should guide reform. Improvement, amendment, and advancement are not merely results of blind flux, but concerted efforts to achieve the “promise[s] of the past.” He neither seeks nor engages in constitutional idolatry, but a belief that the ideals of liberty and equality imbedded into the document can mold public opinion against injustices that violate them.

Such a grand vision is based on faith that the Constitution’s flexible framework will be instrumental to the achievement of social justice. Balkin’s perspective is positioned with the leanings of scholars like Mark Tushnet, , Sanford Levinson, William Eskridge, and Larry Kramer, who regard social and political movements to be important actors for “shifting the boundaries” of what are considered to be reasonable and plausible alternatives to existing inequalities. According to Balkin’s perspective, the effect of civil rights groups on our understanding of the Constitution is reflected in cases like Brown v. Board of Education, Reed v. Reed, and Lawrence v. Texas. These decisions, indeed, bear witness to the ability of litigation groups–like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Women’s Rights Project, and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund–to integrate visionary popular activism into a constitutional framework compelling enough to alter Supreme Court decisionmaking.

I believe that in Balkin’s redemptive vision of constitutional interpretation lies, arguably, the central paradox of American history. The nation was built on the principled foundations of the Declaration of Independence, which recognizes universal inalienable rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but from its inception the United States failed to fully carry those ideals into law. The Declaration too, I argue in a forthcoming book, offers the sort of visionary (or in Balkin’s language redemptive) possibilities that drove Abraham Lincoln’s vision of federal government and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s advocacy of reform.

While the founding document spoke in terms of liberal equality, not quite twelve years after the Declaration was signed (on June 21, 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth sate to adopt the Constitution) the Constitution’s notorious protections of slavery became binding. That is, the Constitution was not merely a step forward in the establishment of binding institutions pregnant with redemptive possibilities but also a document that compromised some of the ideals of the Revolution. Even the ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments did not lead to immediate redemptions of those original ideals. But I believe that Balkin is correct, that the Constitution just as its legal forerunner, the Declaration of Independence, contains the necessary kernels of wisdom that allow for the national and human evolution of understanding about the significance of due process, equal protection, and the pursuit of happiness.

Balkin correctly points out that the many failures to live up to the nation’s ideals do not diminish the value of anti-classist promises the nation made to improve of people’s welfare. His redemptive model helps explain why abolitionists could condemn the nation for its gross failures while clinging to its ideals. The original documents were useful for those who condemned the nation’s existing practices and for those who sought a jubilaic plan for its reform.

A letter published in abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, The North Star, mocked the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal.” The author insisted that the document should be rewritten to say, “All men are created equal; but many are made by their Creator, of baser material, and inferior origin, and are doomed now and forever to the sufferance of certain wrongs–amongst which is Slavery!” To blacks, the writer went on to say, the Fourth of July was “but a mockery and an insult.” To the advocates of slavery, he surmised, “liberty and equality” meant no more than the noises of firecrackers, raised flags, and other raucous festivities. J.D. “The Ever-glorious Fourth”, North Star (Rochester, NY), July 13, 1849.

But there was more to be said about America; it was not merely a composite of its failures but also a set of affective and effective norms. Despite the nation’s failures, the Declaration of Independence committed the country to liberal equality. In this context, an ex-slave’s daughter described her father’s awakening when he heard the Declaration read aloud. From that moment, she wrote, “he resolved that he would be free, and to this early determination, the cause of human freedom is indebted for one of its most effective advocates.” Biography of an American Bondman, by His Daughter 15-16 (1856). Her father, William Wells Brown, successfully escaped in 1834, later to become a prolific novelist and abolitionist lecturer.

The author of Douglass’s paper reflects the failure to live up to the substance of freedom. But Brown’s experience speaks to the possibility of unfulfilled aspiration to inspire and guide individuals, and perhaps even the nation, to liberal equality. This ability to animate hope even in the course of culturally accepted injustice demonstrates the Constitution’s redemptive quality, providing visionary revitalization of existing institutions and leading to social beneficial revision.