A Justice Site
Responsibility: Links to Essays
California State University, Dominguez Hills
Created: July 8, 2001
Latest update: July 8, 2001
- "I am responsible only for myself." by Angela Boyd
- "We are all responsible each for the other." Patricia Acone responds.
- Our Brother's Keeper by Malika Shakoor.
- Seattle Adopts Kyoto Protocol External site. Seattle takes responsibility for our environment. Where does that lead us in this discussion?
- Responsibility in an Adversarial Environment A story of complicity through silence. by jeanne.
"I am responsible only for myself."
On Sunday, July 8, 2001, Angela Boyd wrote:
"You said something in class that has stuck with me every since. You mentioned that white people should take responsibility for their ancestors behavior toward black people. I am having a hard time with the word "responsibilty". I have always been taught that I should take responsibility for my own behavior, not someone else's. I do agree that white people should acknowledge and be empathetic toward the treatment of black people, but not take responsibility for someone else's behavior. It is important to look back in time at how and why slavery and discrimination has become so strong in our society. It is the only way we are going to learn from past mistakes and learn how to eliminate discrimination. I do not take responsibility for white people's treatment of black people just because I am white. I have taken several classes, read several books, and listened to first hand accounts of slavery and white people's behavior but that does not mean I need to apologize for white people's behavior. I don't think that accomplishes anything and it probably will not make up for the past. The only thing I can do is listen and hear black people and their experiences with slavery and discrimination and be sensitive to their experiences.
Discrimination is the devil now and the only way to eliminate that is to treat every person with dignity and respect no matter what their color and this is what I take responsibility for. I acknowledge what happened, see the repercussions, and try to learn from the past so the past doesn't repeat itself through me. I think this is really important and should be the lesson for everyone."
On Sunday, July 8, 2001, jeanne responded:Well-reasoned comment, Angela. A good example of the kind of thinking we encourage when we engage in these discussions of social justice. And you make a good point that you should be held responsible for your own actions, not those of others.
You also made a good point in focussing on the meaning of "responsibility." Although I do not recall the particular class in which I made the statement that you recall as "white people should take responsibility for their ancestors' behavior toward black people," I think that further clarification of the terms "responsibility," "privilege," "perpetrator," "intent," and "institutional racism" should clarify this important issue.
Joe Feagin, recent President of the American Sociology Association, has written extensively on institutional racism. Institutional racism is racism that arises from the rules and normative structure of social interaction in personal relationships and in institutions, rather than from any discriminatory or racist intent of an individual perpetrator. In other words, some acts of discrimination and racism occur because someone, operating on racist or discriminatory assumptions and beliefs, intends to exclude or harm a specific group or person. But other acts of discrimination and racism occur simply because "that's the way we do things," or because "we're just following the rules."
Covaleskie refers to power in Foucauldian terms. Disciplinary power is power that derives from the enforcement of the "rules," or the "norms" of behavior. Sovereign power represents the direct line of authority in which a figure head or person takes responsibility for decisions and actions. Disciplinary power represents such authority masked through agents and rules. In disciplinary power the individual enforcing decisions has no responsibility for the decision. Disciplinary power is depersonalized, so that there is no person to hold responsible. It seems objective, but in fact, is not. Disciplinary power is based on all the assumptions incorporated within sovereign power, for disciplinary power has limited discretion, enforced through agents and agencies not themselves empowered to make the sovereign decisions.
As Covaleskie puts it: "When sovereign power operates, we know that we have been acted upon, in what ways, and by whom. The complement to this is the understanding that most of oneís life is beyond the control of the sovereign." On the other hand, disciplinary power operates everywhere and at all times: "[W]hile sovereign power affects only a small portion of an individualís life, disciplinary power affects virtually all aspects of living, subjecting everyone to the possibility of surveillance at all times." Normative expectations and rules operate all through our lives. And as Covaleskie points out: "But power that is everywhere is in a very real sense nowhere, and, more to the point, becomes equivalent to a force of nature, which is the appearance disciplinary power assumes once it installs itself in the relations with which we negotiate the world."
Minow speaks of this power as the unstated assumptiions of privilege. Minow elaborates on the ways in which such unstated assumptions introduce discrimination into our system of law.
Now for an explanation of our responsibility for the actions of those who went before us:When past actions, such as colonialism and/or slavery, exploited some and privileged others, the exploitations and privileges became part of our system of law through the unstated assumptions of privilege. The law was created by the privileged, and so reflects their perspective to the exclusion of the perspective of those colonized, enslaved, or exploited. To the extent that we continue to take advantage of the unstated assumptions of privilege on which our current system is based, we continue to bear responsibility for the effects those unstated assumptions have on people harmed by them.
"We are all responsible each for the other."
On Monday, July 9, 2001, Patricia Acone wrote:In reference to Angela Boyd's comment on responsibility, basically, isn't it everyone's responsibility to determine that history does not repeat itself, i.e. holcaust; slavery; native american slaughter? The list, unfortunately, is endless. Therein lies all of our collective responsibility no matter what our color, yes? Or have I made it too simplistic. I don't mean to.
Angela Boyd's well-articulated questions raise issues many people would like to express and do not have the courage.
love and peace, Pat
On Monday, July 9, 2001, jeanne responded:I agree, Pat. Many people raise the questions, and we need to make them part of our discussion on social justice. And many of us were taught that we must not "visit the sins of the Fathers upon the children." So in what sense are we "responsible?"
Two ideas come immediately to mind. First, the responsibility for not being complicit with structural violence. When we see that the rules or normative expectations have the effect of harm on an Other, silence makes us complicit. It seems to me that we need in some way to to stand apart from the normative acceptance of the harm being done that is "no one's fault; that's just the way it is." If I see the harm being done, for I have listened to the Other in good faith, then I think that doing nothing, remaining silent, involves me in complicity with the structural or actual violence.
Second, we are responsible for the continuing harm wrought by the past actions of others, if in fact we see the harm, through listening in good faith, and yet continue to enjoy the privileges which accrue to us because of that continuing harm. Here, I am referring to the the fact that unstated assumptions have led us to build laws and normative patterns that reflect the original discrimination or racism, and by denying that the harm of those unstated assumptions continues into the present, we become complicit.
In both instances, awareness and listening to validity claims in good faith are the requisite responses to ending our complicity, and, hence, our individual responsibility. Power relations may well dictate how we avoid complicity, but only the awareness that comes of good faith listening will protect us ifrom the denial of any complicity.
More to come . . . jeanne
"Our Brother's Keeper"
On Saturday, July 21, 2001, Malika Shakoor wrote:Hello Jeanne, I agree with Pat that we are "all responsible for one another". Ralph Ellison wrote in Invisible Man that, "Even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play." Martin Luther King, Jr. in a sermon given at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery Alabama, said, "History has thrust upon me a responsibility from which I cannot turn away. I have no choice." James Baldwin, in No Name in the Street, 1972, wrote, "We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, if only because we are the only sentient force which can change it." Thurgood Marshall is quoted as saying, "The responsibility for enforcement of the civil provisions of the civil rights statutes rest solely with the individual."
(Jeanne, I know there are editing problems but I don't know how to underline or italicize the title while sending an e-mail.)
All people must realize that the responsibility or the lack thereof is like throwing a pebble in a pond. The ripples (repercussions)are far-reaching and all will be held accountable. all quotes appear in MY SOUL LOOKS BACK, 'LEST I FORGET, edited by Dorothy Winbush Riley.
Peace and Blessings, Malika
On Wednesday, July 25, 2001, jeanne responded:Malika,
Don't worry about underlining, etc. I can do that easily as I put up the e-mail.
I like the book you took these quotes from. I don't have it, but sounds like I should. And thank you for identifying your sources. Good practice.
There's a PSN post that just went up this evening: Seattle Adopts Kyoto Protocol One of the global conflicts we're about to face is that of preserving the earth's environment. This posting on PSN will go up later tonight, July 25, 2001, and is important to our discussions of responsibility to the earth AND to ourselves.
love and peace, jeanne