Public Policy, Racial Justice, and Liberatory Thought: By what criteria can we call public policy properly ‘anti-racist’?


Since 1950, when the current Nationalist administration began implementing the law, some one hundred and forty African men and women have been banished. Most of them once were tribal chiefs, village headmen, or simply men with leadership qualities—in short, influential men whom the Government would wish to neutralize. What have they done? Where they have been active they have protested or opposed Government policy or a Government-appointed official. Where they have been inactive, it has been a case of representing a threat that must be removed. In recent years the few remaining tribal areas have reacted against Government policies imposed without consideration of, or consultation with, the people affected.

– Ernest Cole, House of Bondage (1967)



Recently, organizers and activists coordinated a 50th anniversary commemoration of the civil rights march between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, originally held in March 1965. That protest, coordinated by the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and led by key figures, including the Rev. Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., played a prominent role in promoting the social movement for federal civil rights for African Americans in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision roughly a decade earlier in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), had paved the way by desegregating public services and accommodations, thereby setting aside that body’s Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) decision, which had embraced so-called “separate but equal” services for blacks and whites. Despite the emancipatory impetus that informed the freeing of African-American slaves during the Civil War, the Jim Crow era, 1896-1954, represented a brutal period that consolidated white-supremacy legally in the South. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Jim Crow era instantiated, especially in the South, widespread cultural regard for whites as morally superior and, concomitantly, political rule by and for whites at the expense of persons and groups deemed racially inferior. In the lead up to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, and thereafter in efforts to secure its realization in practice, liberatory motives drove activists and organizers intent on eliminating the legal basis for continuing racial segregation.

For the civil rights movement, as for most progressive social movements, liberatory thought served (and serves) as a vanguard of moral and political change. Despite western intellectual and public conventions that tend to frame problems dichotomously as either moral (e.g., respect, dignity, recognition) and/or political (e.g., justice, rights, etc.), conceptions of liberation, emancipation, abolition, and other similar frames of thought serve in practice as a necessary complement to ethical and political reasoning. Without such frameworks to guide reasoning concerning liberation, moral and political norms can and often do remain entrenched, or may only change in minor degrees. Why does this matter?

Racial justice movements may emerge out of notions of anti-racist liberation, but may then turn too quickly to other matters that displace their original inclination: emancipation.[1] Those seeking racial justice may aim politically to redress injustices committed by social institutions and to ameliorate unethical racist biases. Even if certain changes or strategies do not result in far-reaching emancipation in practice, little progressive change, if any, can begin without liberation as a foundational framework. Anti-racist/anti-racism commitments informed by liberatory priorities and interests may kick-start demand for change, but a difficulty emerges if that catalyst serves only as an initial spark. In short, it is a problem when anti-racism movements diminish or relinquish liberatory commitments in favor of other strategies to pursue racial justice.[2] Meanwhile, liberatory thought that remains an active component of anti-racism work also offers a ballast, modifying moral and political reasoning by sometimes subordinating questions of ethics and justice to the plight of the suffering, and at other times vice-versa.

Given this reality, it behooves those interested in racial justice—culturally, politically or economically—to compare changes in public policy with conceptions of anti-racist liberation. Otherwise, partial, episodic advances can, to belabor a spatial metaphor, lurch forward and slide backward in fits and starts, failing to secure lasting change.  A movement for racial justice could, for instance, make the kind of crucial progress observed in the U.S. federal civil rights movements that began in the 19th century; these fostered key changes in the 20th century, and continue today, despite attempts to curtail voting rights, limit affirmative action, and an ongoing national governmental unwillingness to offer African Americans post-slavery reparations.

Liberatory thought helps to illustrate key distinctions among the more familiar motives of gaining shares of moral regard and political rule, and the ever-present, but often under-theorized objectives of advocating for political rule by a formerly subjugated group. Consider comparative questions like these:

  • How would you respond to the argument that only women should make laws regarding women?
  • How would you respond to the contention that only women should make laws regarding men?
  • What would convince you to advocate for political rule primarily by women?     In the context of a patriarchal society, questions such as these may help to elucidate underlying biases about women and their adequacy for political rule.[3]  For, as theorists such as Catharine MacKinnon have suggested, when one believes women incapable and/or unworthy of fair political rule, one likely holds an irrational bias concerning women as inferior. Can women, for some reason, not rule fairly? Likewise, what assumptions or rationale underpins the view that men can rule fairly? Liberatory anti-sexism, then, does not merely give rise to shares of moral regard and political rule, although both matter a great deal. Sharing portions of the respect men get on patriarchal terms by rewarding women to act more like men and opening some limited participation in governance to women can count as a marginal improvement in the terms of justice, but those actions cannot count as properly informed by liberatory priorities and objectives.

Following a similar line of reasoning, consider the implications for racial justice when joined contextually to notions of anti-racist liberation. What must members of the dominant social group, European-descended whites, believe about themselves to retain arbitrary political rule at the expense of persons of color? What must such whites accept as true, even against countervailing evidence, about such individuals to think them capable only of a share of public rule, and incapable or unworthy of majority representation in political, economic, and social institutions? Perhaps most troubling, what do persons of color come to believe about themselves when they internalize (under cruel cultural and institutional pressures) racist oppression and cultural hegemony tropes?[4]

When informed by liberatory thought, individuals and groups engaged in social movements advocate for wholesale change: ethical respect and due moral regard, institutional shifts that broaden access to shares of political rule, and for the feasibility of governance by those formerly oppressed, marginalized, targeted, and otherwise deemed unworthy or incapable of fair and decent conduct as the primary architects of politics.

If this line of reasoning holds, it follows that liberatory thought critiques and challenges moral and political reasoning in some necessary way; otherwise, these wind up anemic as vehicles to redress oppression. In short, policy advocates interested in racial justice should ask, by what criteria can we call public policy ‘anti-racist’?

In what follows, I discuss public policy in the context of two concerns: anti-racism and liberation. I contend that conventional moral and political reasoning is inadequate alone to serve as a foundation for anti-racist public policy, at least without serious attention to liberatory theory. That is, without explicit liberatory influences, anti-racism efforts fail, even when predicated on the most compelling moral theories, those that improve widespread respect and ethical regard inclusive of racial classification, or the most strongly justified conceptions of political governance, theories that equitably distribute shares of resources and rights to claim redress and compensation for abuses. Thereafter, I postulate a set of criteria for evaluating whether a given public policy can count as anti-racist in character.


Liberatory anti-racism: the terms of properly liberatory anti-racist criteria

To count something, such as a theory or narrative or law or practice, as properly anti-racist requires, first, accepting a diagnostic model of racism and racist oppression as viable, relevant, and substantive. That is, the analyst must adopt an understanding of how to problematize racialized biases that have entrenched, historical influence on dominant moral norms and political institutions. One conceptualization may emphasize racism as cultural hegemony, while another highlights the construct as equity of political representation, while yet another view may require attention to cultural hegemony and political and economic distribution of resources and opportunities. I leave it an open question whether anti-racism projects require a sole, specific, or ultimate theory of racist oppression versus the workable option of selecting from among various formulations, depending on their comparative relevance to different facets of racism.[5]

Whereas a model of oppression helps activists diagnose the problems to resolve and the negative conditions to confront, a theory of liberation provides the complementary positive priorities and objectives linked to ways to address the concerns identified.[6] Such a project requires accepting one or a few forms of liberatory philosophy/theory as resources that can guide both the relevant diagnoses of oppression and proposals for intervention. To make the case for the relevance of such criteria to anti-racist public policy, I argue, following Dussel, that liberation depends on a specific priority and a dual set of objectives.[7]

First, liberatory thought is grounded in a respect for alterity.[8] This refers to the need to demonstrate default esteem for one another as persons, whether you or I fully understand our respective differences. We may appear as mysteries to one another and yet still owe one another the benefit of the doubt about the complexities of our respective lives. In other words, I may not fully understand you and your way of life, just as you may not know details about me that I consider crucial to how I live my life, and yet if either of us possesses the power to diminish the suffering of the other, this criterion suggests that we must act to do so. In terms of political justice, this standard suggests that a society’s institutions must at least refuse to harm the “other,” and perhaps even seek to ensure his or her liberation. Both parties do not need to share the same concept of moral dignity or citizenship to justify respect for alterity.  Indeed, respect for alterity establishes the possibility of ethical and judicial appeal.[9]

Second, liberation seeks two basic objectives: a) challenging any dominant regime’s claim to legitimate rule and b) seeking to place that government (or regime) in the service of ending or mitigating suffering.[10] The priority and objectives of liberation function as particularly rigorous, “alertive” referents, or “rebukes,” that call into question whether a society’s dominant moral theories and practices and political institutions can answer the appeals of those suffering and/or enduring indignities at the hand of that society.


The feasibility of anti-racism public policy

If contemporary public policy results from a democratically-regulated, procedural mode of fallible governance, and if it may be said to offer practical potential benefits for anti-racist liberation (at least compared with all out civil war or violent revolution), then it appears appropriate to postulate criteria that can assist policy advocates in evaluating whether a given program serves anti-racist movements in the liberatory sense. To that end, it is useful to ask what anti-racist public policy would accomplish. I provide a broad, initial sketch of the concerns that liberationists might use as general guidelines. Let me first state two important assumptions that, regrettably, I cannot fully explain or defend here, but should at least highlight.

First, it will not do to work within a narrow frame of policy that might serve either to conserve or eliminate race concepts and discussions. Anti-racism policy will have to operate on a broader scale than two seemingly divergent ideological positions—one that requires or fosters a preference for signing on as race eliminativists, those who wish to reject the political relevance of discourses on race and/or reliance on false conceptions of it, or as race conservationists who wish to preserve discourses of race and/or race concepts in one form or another.[11] Despite the contention by some that bolstering or minimizing race discourse will result in a more straightforward path to racial justice, anti-racist liberation operates on a more complex level of engagement with historical and contemporary facets of politics, culture, and economics.[12]

Second, a fallible, pragmatic set of criteria may address a wide range of cases only when carefully tested, revised, and re-tested in practice. A liberatory approach to anti-racist public policy may not reach certain complicated, outlier cases; but can nonetheless affect a decisive shift in mean/average scenarios. That fact may allow social institutions and organizations to address atypical instances more effectively. Proponents of certain branches of postmodern critical race theory and philosophers of race may prefer that before action ensues (i.e., before proposing, vetting, and implementing policy changes), advocates establish greater certainty that anti-racist policies will not reify racism in some form. Burdened by the deeply entrenched paradoxes of institutionalized prejudice and bigotry as a historical construct—that is, by paradoxes in which the problems of racism have systematic dominance compared to the cluster of incomplete, fringe solutions—few models of anti-racist change can begin free of faults and complications. Instead, such policies will require revision and modification as incomplete, ongoing, and evolving projects. The imperfection of liberatory strategies in no way eliminates the feasibility of emancipatory efforts.


Criteria for liberatory anti-racist public policy

Given the terms and assumptions outlined above, the following serve as a prototypical draft of criteria—a starting point from which to design more specific benchmarks. That is, I do not suggest these necessarily apply identically to all cases. They may, however, serve as a basis to craft variants aimed at the redress of discrimination in housing or the elimination of racist hiring practices and admissions to post-secondary education, or the concomitant effects of both racial and gender discrimination. Viewed in this way, a specific public policy can properly count as anti-racist to the extent that it meets the following conditions:


  1. Surrenders or transfers tangible facets of political rule (e.g., economic resources, positions of authority, political representation) specifically to members of historically disenfranchised groups.
  2. Places the primary responsibility for change not on those already disadvantaged, but instead on political institutions and agencies that influence moral norms and the expression of those beliefs in cultural practices.
  3. Cultivates a rebalance of credibility among historically segregated groups, diminishing the arbitrarily over-valued opinions and perspectives of a historically ruling racial group and elevating the influence, opinions, and viewpoints of previously racially subordinated groups;
  4. Incorporates a diagnostic model based on a theory of racist oppression, ideally one that explains racism in confluence with discrimination in various forms, such as sexism, heterosexism, cisgenderism, ableism, nationality, etc.
  5. Satisfies or rejects actions that reify race as a false hypothesis—a concept that frequently resists rejection in light of countervailing evidence. Anti-racist policies treat race as a social epistemology, and address it primarily as a product of social institutions and patterns of cultural norms, while rejecting the construct as a genetic, biological, and/or genealogical fact.
  6. Diminishes the use of race concepts, except when necessary for diagnosing and dismantling racist institutional patterns of practice.
  7. Assumes the credibility of testimony given by those historically disadvantaged by racism, thereby elevating the priority of such testimony as a primary data set.
  8. Subjects assessment of outcomes and results to evaluation primarily by those the policy intends to serve.
  9. Makes feasible forms of social relations that empower individuals and groups historically disempowered for arbitrary reasons.



A reader may wonder whether these criteria count as too demanding or so stringent as to appear unworkable. I counter that these standards may only appear excessively demanding to those who enjoy a certain arbitrary benefit from the racist status quo. A liberatory assumption inclines those who accept it to view these criteria as possible, especially when considered against the continuation of racial oppression.

Owing to the extreme complexity of patterned oppression, one would expect groups to revise and modify these liberatory measures retrospectively in order both to omit detrimental criteria and to create improved versions. To subject proposed or current public policy to anti-racist criteria almost certainly requires a trial-and-error approach, not unlike the review and revision of laws through appellate proceedings in public courts. Analysts likely can only determine the efficacy of the criteria after the fact, and then do better with each successive round of revisions. After all, neither humanistic nor empirical research in the sciences have yet to provide a method for the eventual elimination of oppression.

To date, initiatives to attain racial justice have called for a change in shares of political rule, but cannot admit to the feasibility of wholesale transfer of formal governance and informal, non-governmental social power to those formerly subjugated as racially inferior.  Anti-racist criteria for public policy cannot emerge solely from moral theory or conceptions of political justice, but from those two fields modified in tandem by liberatory thought—all three serving as complementary components of reasoning for social life. Liberatory anti-racist changes precede and make feasible moral treatment of persons and politically just institutions. If public policy can advance anti-racist work at all—and this remains an open question—then some criteria or model of evaluation must illuminate how. I have offered an option. If policy-makers and advocates of policy change do not adopt anti-racist liberation as a proper foundation for shaping public policy against collusion with racism, what other strategy shall social movements adopt instead?

“But the whites give with one hand and take with the other. Since landholding is forbidden to Africans, it is clear that the whites consider even the black homelands still to be theirs, and it follows that they want their own black man keeping an eye on things.” – Ernest Cole, House of Bondage (1967)


[1] Throughout, I use the terms “anti-racism” and “anti-racist” to refer to both the patterned, institutional and cultural facets of racism (as a reference to social, political, and economic systems) as well as racist beliefs and biases held by individuals (as a reference to psychological dispositions). Anti-racism projects and anti-racist projects inevitably deal with both sets of concerns, and the semantic differentiation helps distinguish different manifestations or iterations of the larger problem.

[2] Consider the contention by Charles Mills (1997) who theorized the liberal “social contract” ultimately as a “racial contract” vested with white supremacy. For groups historically subordinated on the basis of race, it may count as an improvement in social justice to gain greater shares of access to a democracy’s overall liberal social contract, but it would not count as a liberatory, emancipatory form of change in which the formerly ruled enter the society’s political imaginary and seats of authority as designers and architects of governance. That is, as moral and political subjects who may govern better (more fairly)—superior in quality to—than those who have historically held power.

[3] Questions prompted by several contemporary feminists, such as MacKinnon (1989) and Zack (2005).

[4] See Hallie (1981) on “institutional cruelty.”

[5] For some generalized theories of oppression, consult Frye (1983), Hallie (1981), Cudd (2006), and Young and Allen (2011). For more specific theories of racist oppression, ethnocentrism, and cultural hegemony, consult Delgado and Stefancic (2012), Omi and Winant (1994), Hill Collins (1990), Mohanty (2003), Smith (1999), and West (1982).

[6] I argue more extensively for this model in Matheis (2015).

[7] Dussel (1985).

[8] Ibid. § –, §, § –, §, §, §, §, §, §, §, §

[9] Or, as Inazu (2009) argues, legitimate political governance may depend a great deal on forgiving. Specifically, the possibility that we can forgive one another for inevitable errors in judgment about how to act ethically.

[10] Dussel (1985: §

[11] Mallon (2006: 526).

[12] Zack (2002: 80-81) discusses the “use/mention” distinction as a frame for understanding different applications of race concepts. Race concepts can count as both unreal in the biological and genetic sense that activists and scholars ought not to use, and at the same time as real, functional terms in social epistemologies that we can mention in order to critique historically patterned racism.

CM 2Christian Matheis recently completed a Ph.D. in Ethics and Political Philosophy from The Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought at Virginia Tech. He holds a B.S. in psychology and an M.A. in Applied Ethics from Oregon State University. He teaches in the departments of Philosophy and Political Science at Virginia Tech, and Philosophy and Religious Studies at Radford University. Christian specializes in moral and political philosophy, and philosophy of liberation with concentrations in feminism, race, and global justice. His recent research focuses on philosophical conceptions of solidarity in liberatory movements, problems of recognition and identity politics in models of social justice, moral criteria for regulating how state administrative agencies treat refugees, critiques of immigration and border policies, and the aesthetics of race. Christian was named the 2013 Outstanding Doctoral Student in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and in 2015 he was inducted as a member of The Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society.

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