How can the humanities help us understand America’s reckoning with racial injustice?
In her new Forbes column, Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright, president of the Institute for Humane Studies, interviews Linfield College professor Nick Buccola about how the work of author James Baldwin, particularly Baldwin’s framing of human dignity, provides insight into the weeks-long protests after George Floyd’s murder.
Dr. Chamlee-Wright writes:
“I spoke with Buccola about Baldwin’s work and its enduring relevance. Baldwin’s insights, he explained, help us understand that George Floyd’s murder and the response to it are rooted in ‘structures of power [that] communicate to some human beings that their lives do not matter as much.’ That denial of human dignity, Buccola observes—that breach of what he describes as ‘The Liberal Promise’ to recognize and uphold the equal moral standing of every human being—is at the root of what we are experiencing now.”
Professor Buccola is the author of The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Jr., and the Debate Over Race in America, about the 1965 Cambridge Union debate between the two American writers.
“What I try to do in the book,” Professor Buccola tells Dr. Chamlee-Wright, “is to think through how these two men thought about race and civil rights in the decades prior to their clash at Cambridge and, of course, on the famous night itself. By thinking with them, in slow motion, we are able to gain a deeper understanding of the moral and political chasm between them and between so many Americans today.”
Professor Buccola, who also writes and teaches about Frederick Douglass, explains that he tells his students our first duty is “to ask ourselves whether our social, economic, and political institutions are respecting the freedom and dignity of each human being to the fullest extent possible.”
We cannot have a successful free society without equal recognition of human dignity. Dr. Chamlee-Wright writes:
“If we are to keep the Liberal Promise—if we are to recognize and uphold the equal moral standing of every human being—we must resist, mightily, the tempting notion that our worth, our dignity, is tied to the power we hold over others.