When it entered office, the Biden-Harris administration promised to “lower the temperature” of America’s divisive conflicts over race, identity, and recognition. While Biden’s campaign appealed to moderates, however, his policies and appointments so far show him embracing a progressive “anti-racist” agenda fundamentally at odds with his image as a liberal centrist: Equality is dead, long live “equity.” The stage is set for another round of clashes between the radicals and reformists, the race-conscious and colorblind, that have been a familiar feature of American racial discourse at least since the 1960s. If we wish to avoid replaying this predictable and irresoluble conflict (though it is by no means clear that we do), we should turn back to a philosopher whose insights penetrated to its source.
Sixty years ago, the émigré political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that American anti-racism is by its very nature beholden to a kind of totalitarian temptation. In an instantly notorious 1959 essay, “Reflections on Little Rock,” Arendt defended a tragic outlook on America’s race problem, and on the movement against Jim Crow, that has since faded from public memory as the ’60s ethos has been sacralized. She knew that slavery had left a stain on the American tradition, and she detested racist bigotry. Yet she insisted that American civil rights talk was dangerously incoherent, and warned that its contradictions—if unthinkingly enshrined in law and liberal opinion—could only be worked out on the corpse of the American republic, to the grave peril of American Jews. In suggesting that our chosen cure for Jim Crow was worse than the disease, she did not deny the urgent need for a cure or the horrors of the disease; she only regretted that a more permanent and effectual remedy had not been found for a patient well worth saving.
Just as Arendt envisioned, the ideology that calls itself anti-racist has steadily expanded to demand the leveling of inequity in ever more and further flung domains—however ill-suited to analysis in racial categories—while doing depressingly little to correct concrete injustices or materially assist the disadvantaged. It has also formed an alarming alliance with corporate business interests, especially in the technology sector, that stand to benefit from the flattening of hierarchical or exclusive social institutions (such as labor unions) and the elimination of laws designed to protect them. Yet this is not, as many liberals would like to believe, merely the radical perversion of an earlier virtuous doctrine, the corruption of civil rights by “identity politics.” Nor is this malaise imported from abroad, via Frankfurt and Paris, as conservatives tell the story. The truth is more difficult to accept: Anti-racists of the woke left are consummating a dangerous potential that Arendt recognized was always latent in the rhetoric of civil rights and the American conception of equality, but is only now being fully realized.
Arendt’s essay was born in controversy from which it has never escaped. Commissioned by the editors of Commentary in October 1957, as the 101st Airborne Division was integrating Little Rock Central High, the product Arendt eventually delivered made them balk. After months of negotiations came to nothing but further indecision, and rumors began swirling in New York intellectual circles, she angrily withdrew the piece and briefly considered filing it away permanently. But when the fight over Little Rock’s public schools turned into a protracted legal battle, and civil rights in education became a liberal cause célèbre, she finally relented to a petition from Irving Howe’s Dissent. “Recent developments,” she wrote, “have convinced me that the routine repetition of liberal clichés may be even more dangerous than I thought a year ago.”
The response was immediate and irate. To begin with, the editors of Dissent printed a disclaimer above the article explaining that they had chosen to air it in public solely on free-speech grounds and not on the merits of Arendt’s views, which they considered “entirely mistaken.” One of two respondents whose critical replies followed below asked whether it was all “a horrible joke.” The socialist philosopher Sidney Hook, in a breathless letter, deemed Arendt’s views so “extreme” as to “seem incredible to those who have a sincere desire to win the struggle against segregation.” Nor have the intervening years assuaged American consciences: Even Arendt’s champions in academia and the center-left intelligentsia (where she has long enjoyed celebrity status) are hardly more sympathetic today. Yale’s Seyla Benhabib, in an otherwise admiring 1996 study, articulated the prevailing attitude toward “Reflections on Little Rock” when she pronounced it a “painfully self-contradictory” failure.
It was not merely that Arendt had dared to question President Eisenhower’s desegregation policy in what was, after all, a socialist magazine. What touched a nerve was her argument that the effort to overturn Jim Crow by eliminating social prejudice—or “discrimination,” as it was then coming to be called—was gravely misconceived. Arendt did not defend legally enforced segregation; far from it, she openly lamented that Southerners’ contemptuous treatment of their Black neighbors and fellow citizens had ushered the country into a potentially fatal constitutional crisis. But she was unabashed in her refusal to use the word “discrimination” as a pejorative. For her audience on the American left, this was a bridge too far.
Yet the argument was deeply grounded in Arendt’s previous work, especially the threefold phenomenological division of human life she had developed in her books The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958). This tripartite scheme is fundamental to almost all of Arendt’s work, and—as the bewildered responses to “Reflections on Little Rock” demonstrate—her essay cannot be understood apart from it. Human affairs, according to Arendt, take place in three distinct but not wholly independent spheres: the public, the private, and the social. Private life consists in those exclusive attachments that form between individuals as unique persons, such as love, friendship, and family. Public life is the realm of political equality. Here, the only valid distinction between persons is the citizenship that confers the power to rule and be ruled, or vote and be eligible for office.
Social life, a thoroughly modern phenomenon in Arendt’s view, is an ambiguous hybrid of public and private. Society (in the familiar sense of “civil society”) is the realm of productive labor and commerce, to be sure, but it also has a more expansive meaning. Whenever we congregate together outside the home, Arendt says, to pursue our livelihood or enjoy the company of others or do anything together other than engage in public affairs—whenever we sort ourselves and self-segregate according to our likes and interests, or our affinities—then we are acting in the social sphere. Society is the sum of all nonpolitical and nondomestic communities, the place where free association and differentiation trump the political rule of equality. In short, it is the realm of discrimination: “What equality is to the body politic—its innermost principle—discrimination is to society.”
Every one of Arendt’s provocative claims about the situation in Little Rock and the rhetoric of civil rights followed from these premises. Because particular rights and duties are inherent to each of the categories, one cannot eliminate any of the three realms without changing the meaning of the human condition. Arendt’s objection to federally enforced desegregation, however well intentioned, was that it did not respect the rights of each sphere either in themselves or in proper order, so that in some areas the government’s authority was overextended and in other areas it did not reach anywhere near far enough. It is easy to mistake this line of thinking for a conservative or classical liberal argument against “state overreach” in violation of “individual liberties” and the “social contract.” But Arendt was neither a conservative nor a liberal, and her defense of the rights of the social sphere does not rest on any deference to inviolable natural liberties or the sacrosanct free market. Rather, “Reflections on Little Rock” was preeminently the work of a Jewish survivalist.
In short, Arendt takes Marx’s argument in “On the Jewish Question” (1844) and turns it on its head. In that swift polemic, Marx argued that the continued existence of Jews in modern liberal states constituted the most damning evidence of their failure to overcome social inequalities. Liberalism distinguishes between state and civil society, public and private, then proclaims each citizen free and equal in the former while allowing every distinction and difference—paradigmatically, religious difference—to stand in the latter. The only solution, Marx believed, was to extend what had been achieved by revolution in the political realm to the social realm as well: not liberal emancipation, but human emancipation—that is, socialism. Conclusion: “The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.”
Arendt, ever one to respond as a Jew when attacked as a Jew, inverted Marx’s argument by showing how and why the independence of civil society offers indispensable protections for a minority that is genuinely and irrevocably alienated from modern life. But she feared that superficial anti-racist discourse and unreflective civil rights talk were threatening to overturn the very political tradition that had protected American Jews in the past. She did not deny the need for immediate measures to ensure Black Americans their equal rights, yet she pled for moderation, self-limitation, and awareness of the fragility of the political settlement that could be upset in the process.
What was the price of imprudence that Arendt feared to pay? In Origins, she drew two important connections between rising social equality during Europe’s long 19th century and the emergence of totalitarian government in the 20th. The first pertained to the Jewish question directly: The logic of the French revolutionary government’s historic decision in 1791 to grant emancipation to France’s Jews (a policy Napoleon soon spread across Europe) was distilled in Clermont-Tonnerre’s famous declaration before the National Assembly: “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.” Following political emancipation, any residual conflict between Jews and wider French society was conceived as a social problem, to be overcome through acculturation and education out of “backwardness.” But in practice, emancipation only redoubled the pressure on French Jews to assimilate out of their Jewishness.
Whereas before emancipation, differences in social status drew a boundary between Jews and non-Jews that some “exceptional” individuals might be allowed to cross, this distinction was lost with the expectation that social equality would shortly follow political equality. Yet the Jewish religion’s set-apartness, what Arendt called its “principle of separation,” stubbornly remained. Now a Jew had to prove “that although he was a Jew, yet he was not a Jew”; he had to choose between becoming a subhuman parvenu or a superhuman pariah. The “perversion of equality from a political into a social concept,” Arendt claimed, actually intensified and aggravated those differences that obstinately defied leveling and became “all the more conspicuous” as a result. When political antisemitism later returned with a vengeance, the European masses saw Jews as outright enemies to be exterminated rather than occasionally irksome Others. Yet most Jews, to Arendt’s immense regret, continued to live in a “fool’s paradise,” under the impression that their civil rights would protect them. “It has been one of the most unfortunate facts in the history of the Jewish people,” Arendt reflected, “that only its enemies, and almost never its friends, understood that the Jewish question was a political one.”
But the European rabble would never have embraced antisemitism as a political cause, nor could it have seized political power, if it had not first been transformed into the “masses” of mass society. This was the second and even more important consequence of social equality for Arendt. Starting in the late Middle Ages, Europe’s feudal system gradually yielded to capitalist industrialization, and local systems of customary justice gave way to national bureaucratic administration. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, all that remained was “a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual [was] held in check only through membership in a class.” Class bound together otherwise isolated and unattached individuals in parties of common interest, and parties bound them to the state. But after World War I, this bourgeois-dominated class system abruptly collapsed under the weight of widespread statelessness, economic depression, and rapidly multiplying socialist movements. Now the masses truly earned their name. Postwar liberal regimes tried to channel mass energies into democratic nationalism, but conditions favorable to pluralism had already deteriorated: “Democratic freedoms may be based on the equality of all citizens before the law,” Arendt wrote. “Yet they acquire their meaning and function organically only where the citizens belong to and are represented by groups or form a social and political hierarchy.” For Europe, it was too late.
What did this have to do with America in 1959? Arendt feared that the Eisenhower administration’s desegregation policy was so far-reaching in its implications that it threatened to bring about the sorts of leveling, atomization, and massification that always precede a totalitarian fall. She urged political remedies: “While discrimination and segregation are the rule in the whole country, they are enforced by legislation only in the southern states. Hence, whoever wishes to change the situation in the South can hardly avoid abolishing the marriage laws and intervening to effect free exercise of the franchise.” But this is precisely what the Eisenhower administration was not doing in Little Rock. The integration of municipal public schools did not restore the political rights of the state’s disenfranchised citizens, nor the rights of privacy they had lost as a consequence of disenfranchisement. Not only did the prescription offered in Little Rock fail to treat the disease by leaving in place the unconstitutional laws that denied full citizenship to Black Americans, its lack of any limiting principle also threatened the rest of the country with deleterious side effects.
“It can happen here” is a defense mechanism and a cliché. But Arendt did not rest her case on overwrought analogies to Weimar. She refused to flatter Americans by playing down the potential for tyranny in their midst. Instead, she agreed with Tocqueville that America’s missionary zeal for the democratic gospel—a double faith in legal and social equality, equal rights and equal conditions—had always been at risk of becoming despotic by trespassing into spheres of legitimate differentiation and exclusion, such as religion and the family. In practice, Americans generally managed to safeguard those domains from egalitarian incursion by holding the boundless logic of the market and individual self-determination in check, while also providing the economic equality necessary for republican government. But Arendt perceived that the offensive persistence of (wholly illegitimate) racial inequality in America, in open defiance of the republican constitution, now threatened to provoke an overreaction in which all such distinctions would be erased.
What made federal policy in Little Rock especially perilous was that there are rights at stake, when it comes to education, in all three Arendtian spheres. There is, first of all, the private right of parents to raise their children according to their own beliefs and wishes. And there is also a public right, belonging to the state, to prepare children for future citizenship. Yet Arendt maintains that this second right is not absolute. If it were, on what grounds would private schools have any right to exist? Or, for that matter, booster clubs and PTAs? The state’s authority over schools, she argued, extends “only [to] the content of the child’s education, not the context of association and social life which invariably develops out of his attendance at school.” Just as workers enjoy the right of free choice between various occupations and employers, so too parents cannot be justly denied the right of free choice between schools, which is simultaneously “the private right over their children and the social right to free association.” Long before progressively expansive interpretations of Brown v. Board and the 1964 Civil Rights Act by courts and federal agencies made school busing an anti-racist mandate—long before Ibram X. Kendi pronounced “leveling group differences” an “antiracist idea”—Arendt could foresee a day when the right of free association would be radically restricted in the name of equality overrunning its proper sphere.
The idea that one can change the world by educating the children in the spirit of the future has been one of the hallmarks of political utopias since antiquity. The trouble with this idea has always been the same: it can succeed only if the children are really separated from their parents and brought up in state institutions or are indoctrinated in school so that they will turn against their own parents. This is what happens in tyrannies.
For Arendt, American public schools’ precarious position in the social realm—satisfying to neither parents nor the state—was characteristic of social institutions in general. The public and the private are always threatening to swallow society from opposite ends, but society cannot serve its function of promoting pre-political community and checking atomization unless it remains perpetually in between. As a “hybrid” sphere, society is distinguished by paradox rather than formal definition; to deny one element of the antinomy in favor of the other will throw it dangerously out of balance. In essence, Arendt believed that the attempt to give social prejudice state sanction (segregation) and the attempt to eliminate society altogether (anti-discrimination) are equally tyrannical: “The moment social discrimination is legally enforced, it becomes persecution, and of this crime many Southern states have been guilty. The moment social discrimination is legally abolished, the freedom of society is violated.”
What did this mean for desegregation in the American South? If “segregation is discrimination enforced by law,” then it followed for Arendt that:
Desegregation can do no more than abolish the laws enforcing discrimination; it cannot abolish discrimination and force equality upon society, but it can, and indeed must, enforce equality within the body politic. ... The question is not how to abolish discrimination, but how to keep it confined within the social sphere, where it is legitimate, and prevents its trespassing on the political and personal sphere, where it is destructive.
In the short term, Arendt feared for the future of the Jewish-only resort or hotel. It stood for a class of purely social and openly discriminatory institutions whose legitimacy she considered it absurd to even question. “There cannot,” she wrote, “be a ‘right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement,’ because many of these are in the realm of the social where the right to free association, and therefore to discrimination, has greater validity than the principle of equality.” Arendt may have had better judgment about the limits of modern egalitarian ideals, but it was her opponents who won the day in America and extended the logic of anti-discrimination—by force of law—to every conceivable domain. Who can forget how The Wing, a women-only coworking space, was put under investigation by the New York City Human Rights Commission and effectively forced to admit men after only two years in existence? Or how future New York Times publisher Arthur G. Sulzberger became an unlikely civil rights hero when he used his stint as an intern at the Providence Journal to challenge the Narragansett Lions Club, a community service organization, for not admitting women?
Of course, Arendt realized that most organizations do not fit so neatly into either side of the social-political divide. Buses, railroad stations, even private hotels and restaurants in heavily trafficked business districts she considered de facto public services, since “everyone needs [them] in order to pursue his business and lead his life.” In addition to the immediate abolition of legal supports for segregation, here she called on religious institutions—“the only public force that can fight social prejudice,” since they speak directly to the person in interiore homine—to agitate for conversion of souls. But she refused to grant what is now gospel on the woke left and quietly conceded across the political spectrum: that every organization is inevitably a public one and ought to be treated exclusively as such. To accept this would be to accept the loss of the social as a third realm of modern life, and with it any capacity of the political sphere to accommodate difference without sacrificing the principle of equality. Modern life without the social is flattened, homogenous, uniform—as well as extraordinarily coercive and combustible. Far better for the safety of the Jewish people, Arendt thought, to accept the social realm as something human.
That is Arendt’s warning, but she did not counsel despair of racial reconciliation. The problem with “equity,” which is nothing but the mutual perversion of the social and political spheres, is really that it is not anti-racist enough. In lifting up some, it brings others down; it proposes no positive vision; it cannot forge any lasting bonds of solidarity. Arendt responded by calling Americans back to the ideal of the republic, in which all are made equal not by being leveled to the lowest common denominator in society, but by being elevated—along with their differences—to the noblest and the best politically. That requires reclaiming public institutions as public and insisting upon a political life that is political—in short, the renewal of the res publica as a genuinely common possession worthy of our unanimous esteem.
Connor Grubaugh is reading for a DPhil in Politics at Oriel College, Oxford, England.