Democracy and Distrust: A conversation on race, inequality, and civic cooperation

Democracy-DistrustNYU Gallatin student Sara Nuta reviews the event, “Democracy and Distrust: A conversation on race, inequality, and civic cooperation,” hosted by the New York Council for the Humanities, as part of its Democracy in Dialogue series, on May 3rd at Federal Hall National Memorial.

Michael Washburn, director of programs at the New York Council for the Humanities, introduced the panel and set the stage for the Democracy in Dialogue initiative. He explained that in order to flourish in a democratic society, there needs to be more than just the formal mechanisms of local governance. “Civic engagement goes beyond simply casting a vote every couple of years,” he added.

Due to recent social, racial and political acrimony, trust has been lost on both the interpersonal and institutional level. Washburn explained that as the belief that society will operate and protect equitably has waned, the U.S. has become increasingly polarized–both culturally and politically. As people lose faith in equal protection and begin to “settle into cynicism,” faith is also lost in the great promises of American democracy.

As panel members began the conversation with their opening statements, Christopher Lebron, an Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Philosophy at Yale University, discussed how, from a young age, white Americans have been taught to trust the police and to view them as friends. But recently white people have learned that the police are not always trustworthy. Black folks, on the other hand, have been told to be patient to trust that white power-holders will do what is right by their interests. Yet, black folks are not widely trusted by the public. Lebron explained that white people distrust African Americans too much and wondered whether African Americans should be more skeptical of civic engagement in American politics in light of the historically untrustworthiness of the police as an institution.

Michael Lynch, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut and Director of the Humanities Institute, followed by distinguishing between two competing visions of politics. He stated that, on the one hand, politics are simply “a war by other means” or just a way of getting things done. However, the other vision is that of a democracy or a vision where politics are most effective when played out in a space of reason. This vision is currently threatened, Lynch argued, because participation in a space of reason only works when the space is inclusive.

Deva Woodly, the Assistant Professor of Politics at the New School, went on to discuss the political connection between polarization, effect, and structural relationships. She explained how America is racially, economically, and politically divided, but more importantly, America is polarized by effect – or by how people feel about each other. Woodly added that issues cannot be remedied without mutual trust. The only way to start to improve the effect people have on each other is to have conversations, over time, in civic spaces.

Shani Jamila, the moderator and Managing Director of the Human Rights Project, succinctly summed up the theme of the dialogue by stating that, “Trust is a public good that is harmed by polarization and improved by inclusivity.”

The three panel members agreed that in order to create public trust, we must reform education, improve media representations, and encourage public discourse.  

The panel then discussed the societal relationship with public trust in the age of the internet. Although there is more access to evidence and information, some people will simply not be swayed. This is because a story, or a narrative, is often attached to incidents of police brutality. Deva Woodly explained that structural relations – people’s way of being in the world and ethos of individualism – often force the identification of an individual hero and an individual villain out of every story rather than promote focus on the cumulative context.

The hero/villain construction is a dangerous one because it causes the public to ignore reason and evidence. The need to pin responsibility and blame on an individual, rather than holistically comprehending the context of the situation, ruptures civic cooperation and trust towards one another.

In order to regain trust in institutions, trust needs to be regained in one another.  And the way to begin to trust one another is to create public discourse and encourage conversation in inclusive civic spaces, such as the Democracy and Distrust event.