(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post to learn more!)


In her widely-viewed TED Talk, “Color Blind or Color Brave?” Mellody Hobson raises a critical point of discussion related to the contemporary state of race in American society.  Hobson, chairwoman of Starbucks Corporation, questions whether people can address significant issues without talking about them.  The tendency to take on a “color blind” approach can lead to the practice of ignoring problems that still exist. Instead, a “color brave” approach allows us to learn to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable” so that we can better solve problems because we gain insights from those whose lives differ from our own (7:07).  Hobson’s words apply not only to our own behavior but to the ways that government makes policy.

Sociologist Leland Saito demonstrates the collective impact of color blind – or more formally termed “race-neutral” – policies in complicating the experience of groups who have previously been legally (and socially) marginalized in The Politics of Exclusion: The Failure of Race-Neutral Policies in Urban America.  Reading his book several years ago for a book review project, I was struck by the important role that community activism served to challenge such policies and create a more inclusive society, revealing the importance of groups having a critical mass to promote change.  In contrast with other authors featured in this series, Saito takes issue with some of Tocqueville’s underlying assumptions surrounding American democracy. Specifically, he argues that Tocqueville – and other thinkers who treated slavery as a temporary condition in political development – overestimates the intentions of earlier eras in pursuing equality.  A closer look reveals that Tocqueville perceived the long-term implications of slavery and the exclusion of native populations, despite being shaped by his own prejudicial images of these people.

Saito’s case studies affirm that community activism exists at the heart of successful movements to elevate perspectives that have not always been historically included. In San Diego, Chinese and Black historical societies helped to raise the overall community support for the Chinese Mission and Clermont hotel by highlighting the positive historical impact of these sites, overcoming purely economic interests that desired to rezone the land (Chapters 2-3).  In the 1990 New York City redistricting efforts, the failure to allow for the construction of a critical voter mass by focusing purely on the numerical division of districts excluded Asian American voices from positions of power (Chapters 4-5). This process was replicated in “sweetheart deals” of California redistricting that protected existing incumbents without reflecting the underlying populations; Asian Pacific and Mexican American legal organizations mobilized to partially overturn these efforts, increasing the chance for the political system to attend to their constituents’ interests (Chapter 6). The activism in these cases served as an example of color bravery (in Hobson’s words) and, Saito argues, challenged Tocqueville’s framing that the idea of slavery/ discrimination (and their legacies) was an “aberration” (3). However, Tocqueville’s recorded thoughts offer a much more complex view.

Tocqueville offers a sympathetic but still prejudicial perspective of the experience of those born outside of the Anglo-American tradition.  Acknowledging that the “supremacy of democracy” is only experienced by one point of view, he describes the oppressive and exclusive experience of slaves and freed persons, as well as Native Americans:

Both of them occupy an inferior rank in the country they inhabit; both suffer from tyranny; and if their wrongs are not the same, they originate, at any rate, with the same authors. If we reasoned from what passes in the world, we should almost say that the European is to the other races of mankind, what man is to the lower animals;—he makes them subservient to his use; and when he cannot subdue, he destroys them. Oppression has, at one stroke, deprived the descendants of the Africans of almost all the privileges of humanity (Vol 1, Chapter XVIII, Part 1, pars. 5-6).

Throughout this chapter, spanning ten parts, he paints a vivid picture of the relations between European, African and indigenous people, demonstrating their very unequal experiences, and calling into question the ethics arising from the rejection of their equal status as fellow humans.

Despite this recognition, Tocqueville’s analysis also offers some stereotypical characterizations of these people groups.  His apt assessment of the impact of colonization on native populations also echoed sentiments of the time that characterized native societies as “savage nations…less civilized…barbarous” rather than allowing for divergent values and structures of civilization (i.e. Vol 1, Chapter XVIII, Part I, par. 9).  Likewise, his astute perception of the economic incentives (particularly in the south) for slavery and the growing conflict between European and African Americans as more former slaves achieved their freedom, reflected his European-bred impressions of the African continent:

the barbarous Africans have been brought into contact with civilization amid bondage, and have become acquainted with free political institutions in slavery. Up to the present time Africa has been closed against the arts and sciences of the whites; but the inventions of Europe will perhaps penetrate into those regions, now that they are introduced by Africans themselves. (Vol 1, Chapter XVIII, Part I, par. 15)

Tocqueville rightly anticipated the continuing impact of these historical experiences on the future.  Indigenous communities still experience struggle despite their tribal sovereign status, as illustrated by their much higher rates of COVID.  African Americans have faced – and continue to do so – sought to achieve social and political equality, as well as economic opportunity.  However, his ethnocentric perceptions of other cultures muddied the strength of his analysis of their oppressed conditions.

From their different vantage points in time, both Saito and Tocqueville recognize the stubborn legacy of exclusion.  The case studies that Saito examines in this study reflect the challenges that society experiences in trying to submerge its uncomfortable past through race-neutral policies.  Tocqueville questioned whether a future could exist in which full equality would be restored (Vol 1, Chapter XVIII, Part 3). Education, acknowledgment, and inclusion allow an opportunity to reconcile with the past and avoid perpetuating historical legacies in contemporary social, economic and political spheres.  Even as we acknowledge injustice within society, we can remain unaware of how our own views may still be shaped by psychological and social forces such as implicit bias.  As shared by attorney Bryan Stevenson in this recent episode of On Being, our moral imagination can help motivate us to learn more about those whose lives have followed different paths and gain perspective on their experiences.  That imagination, along with our own bravery, can allow us to contribute to the positive transformation of relationships within our society. We cannot undo the past, but we can work to change the patterns that have excluded members from political rights, as well as social and economic opportunities, within our system.


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