Tools of the Oppressor

On November 13th, Charles Mills, a prominent political philosopher, visited Davidson College and delivered a lecture entitled “Racial Justice.” Mills’ lecture focused on dealing with racial justice within a liberal framework. The premise of this lecture was to debate if racism can ever be eradicated within a historically racist system.

Mills deconstructed racial justice to include two subgroups: g-justice and t-justice. G-justice represents justice for a groups and t-justice represents theories of justice. Mills then presented two options: either a modification of t-justice to include g-justice or a “complete rejection” of t-justice as justice at all. Mills continued to explain that he proposes the former, modifying the existing framework of Rawlsianism to include structures that would result in g-justice. This requires “corrective justice” through ending racial exploitation, racial disrespect, and second class citizenship of the non-white races.

While I found Mills’ lecture fascinating, it was Mills’ reasoning for why he chose the first option, adaptation, that I found most intriguing. One student asked Mills why he chose to adapt an existing framework instead of creating his own framework, prompting Mills to explain that it is easier for other to understand and accept something that is familiar than something entirely new created by “a guy with an accent that they had never heard of before.” This argument reminded me of something I focussed on in Unit 1 of the Humanities program, the tendency of people proposing shifts in conceptual schemas to use the “tools of the oppressor,” or existing theories to justify their new ideas. This tool was used by Dr King in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, as he alluded to past philosophers like St Augustine in order to justify his own theory of corrective justice through the justification of breaking “unjust laws.” Both Mills and King argued in favor of adjusting existing systems instead of a complete upheaval and creation of something new. In situations where the ideas being presented can be viewed as “extreme” or “irrational,” it may be easier to follow King and Mills in simply adapting the status quo to fit their own philosophies of justice. The inherent desire of all humans to be “right” causes resistance to new ideas. If a bit of similarity remains between the previous conceptual schema and the schema proposed, the new schema becomes easier to accept. As Mills said that he seeks general acceptance of the modified Rawlsian liberalism, the best way to achieve this was to take what people already understand and modify it to accommodate the changes needed to achieve racial justice.

While I found Mills’ lecture fascinating, it was Mills’ reasoning for why he chose the first option, adaptation, that I found most intriguing. One student asked Mills why he chose to adapt an existing framework instead of creating his own framework, prompting Mills to explain that it is easier for other to understand and accept something that is familiar than something entirely new created by “a guy with an accent that they had never heard of before.” This argument reminded me of something I focussed on in Unit 1 of the Humanities program, the tendency of people proposing shifts in conceptual schemas to use the “tools of the oppressor,” or existing theories to justify their new ideas. This tool was used by Dr King in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, as he alluded to past philosophers like St Augustine in order to justify his own theory of corrective justice through the justification of breaking “unjust laws.” Both Mills and King argued in favor of adjusting existing systems instead of a complete upheaval and creation of something new. In situations where the ideas being presented can be viewed as “extreme” or “irrational,” it may be easier to follow King and Mills in simply adapting the status quo to fit their own philosophies of justice. The inherent desire of all humans to be “right” causes resistance to new ideas. If a bit of similarity remains between the previous conceptual schema and the schema proposed, the new schema becomes easier to accept. As Mills said that he seeks general acceptance of the modified Rawlsian liberalism, the best way to achieve this was to take what people already understand and modify it to accommodate the changes needed to achieve racial justice.


Bibliography

King, Martin Luther. Letter from a Birmingham Jail. New York: NY, Writer’s House, 1963. Quoted in Rider, Jonathan. Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation. New York: Bloomsbury Press,

Mills, Charles. “Racial Justice.” Paper presented at Davidson College, Davidson, NC, November 13th, 2018.

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