A Civity Social Contract
It is time to be honest with ourselves about the social contract of the United States, the core of our shared understanding about who We the People are and how we are going to be with each other.
Most of us learn the basics of this social contract in elementary school. We are stirred by its lofty ideals that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We feel protected by its guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly along with the “right to be secure in [our] persons, houses, papers, and effects.” We are stirred by its affirmation of the nation we belong to as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
The promise of this social contract is powerful, and it has inspired countless people to pledge allegiance to our nation. The problem with this social contract is that it did not historically and does not today embrace everyone. Instead of this idealized social contract, observes philosopher Charles Mills, we adhere to a Racial Contract. From the beginning, this Racial Contract limited our social contract’s privileges, rights, and protections to just white people – and in fact gave white people permission to oppress Black people and other people of color through exploitation, marginalization, and overt violence. The social contract that we learned about in school, in other words, was “Whites Only.” The Racial Contract explains the tragic deaths earlier this year of George Floyd, of Ahmaud Arbery, of Breonna Taylor, and of James Scurlock. It also explains why these deaths aren’t the first – aren’t even that unusual. As Barry Thomas said recently on News in Context, injustices based on race are “more American than apple pie.” The Racial Contract also explains why people of color are disproportionately exposed to and dying from COVID-19. It explains the lockdown protests that emerged around the same time that this disproportionality became clear. It explains the mostly white crowds who assert their freedom from measures intended to protect the community as a whole. The Racial Contract accepts that Black people’s lives are not worth as much as White people’s lives. Mills describes an “epistemology of ignorance” that enables white people to believe in the justice of the social contract despite its benefits being denied to people of color. White Ignorance, according to Mills, blocks awareness of the history that underlies current racial violence and injustice.The Racial Contract remains in effect today because knowledge of the long history of advantage provided to white people and disadvantage visited on Black people and other people of color has been carefully excised from our social understanding. The Racial Contract, in other words, depends on many of us choosing not to see. But the events of the past few months have opened our eyes. More and more people are realizing that the Racial Contract – which is baked into our institutions, our policies, and the very DNA of our social and economic structures – is tearing us apart. Awareness of the Racial Contract reveals the duplicity of the social contract. And so we are called to take the anti-racist step of rejecting the Racial Contract along with the injustice and inequity it breeds. We are called to forge a new social contract that imagines a new way of being with each other. This new social contract, which acknowledges the belongingness of everyone, brings all of us into relationship as fellow members of a larger community. It rests on a foundation of every person in this nation being seen, being valued, being felt viscerally to be one of US. It looks to the difference of “others” as part of our strength and resilience, as an indispensable part of the whole. To create this new social contract, we need to build a new relational infrastructure that supports our social interactions, our economy, and our politics. That relational infrastructure is civity. A Civity Social Contract begins by repudiating the “us versus them” exclusions that currently lie at our social core – fundamental exclusions, such as race, that are fueled by power. Difference never justifies exclusion. A Civity Social Contract grows and flourishes with an “us” created out of relational interactions of respect – “I see you” – and empathy – “I acknowledge the infinity of your story.” The difference of the “other” is the difference that makes each of us and all of us human. A Civity Social Contract is the deep foundation for creating together, as Langston Hughes wrote and as the Scene on Radio podcast of the same name reveals, “The Land That Never Has Been Yet.” Difference is our strength and the source of our resilience. We the People have the capacity to change how we are with each other and to create culture, policies, and institutions aligned toward a vision of belonging, solidarity, and justice for everyone. Together, we can create a social contract that arises from and embraces ALL of us.