Over the next months, Items will publish essays based on research presented at a spring workshop on the theme “Democratic Participation: A Broken Promise?” cosponsored by the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program’s Participation group and the German-based Democratic Anxieties. Here, Larry Bartels, cochair of the AOD Participation group, draws on recent work on the extent to which established democracies are disproportionately responsive to the preferences of their wealthiest citizens. While this is not news for observers of the United States, Bartels finds very similar patterns across what are often assumed to be the more egalitarian democracies of Europe.
Prisons and Other Maladies of the Racist State: Reading Blood in my Eye in the Era of Mass Incarcerationby Dan Berger
Our “Reading Racial Conflict” series continues with a reflection on the evolution of mass incarceration policies. Dan Berger engages the present through George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye. Published posthumously in 1972 after Jackson’s death in a prison revolt he led, the book engages the intersection of race, imprisonment, and capitalism as it appeared in an earlier polarized period in the United States. Berger suggests Jackson’s work may be newly relevant in a political moment in which the slow reversal of mass incarceration strategies may itself be reversed in the current administration.
Antonio La Viña continues the “Just Environments” series with an analysis of climate justice challenges and opportunities, particularly from the perspective of vulnerable countries, in light of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The framing of issues of mitigation and adaptation to climate change in terms of justice—assistance, liability, and accountability—is now part of the global debate. Though the absence of the United States from global climate processes is less than ideal, La Viña suggests that this opening can provide opportunities to address climate justice and for other countries to emerge as global leaders.
Ho-fung Hung makes the case for the continued relevance of comparative-historical sociology to our “Interdisciplinarity Now” theme. In ways related Steinmetz’s earlier contribution to the series, Hung illustrates the multiple ways in which the combination of historical work with a macrosociological framework yields deep insights into long-term processes that generate inequality and the responses to it. He also argues that this long-term and large-scale perspective is critical in the formation of policies and the strategies of social movements that pursue progressive social change.
Nikhil Anand’s contribution to the “Just Environments” series examines the making of urban inequality, focusing on water infrastructure as a key site for banal yet fundamentally political decision-making that neglects or harms poor citizens. In both Flint and Mumbai, environmental injustice is generated through bureaucratic routines that rarely take into account the humans they affect. Challenging these injustices, Anand argues, requires engaging in the "boring" technopolitics of infrastructure.
Julian Agyeman’s contribution to the “Just Environments” series calls for the planning, design, and maintenance of culturally inclusive spaces, highlighting the ways in which the built environment can facilitate spatial justice. In doing so, he argues for the need to focus on interculturalism—that is, cross-cultural overlap, interaction, and negotiation—as a means of transforming cities into more just and inclusive ones.
Alexa Dietrich co-launches the “Just Environments” series by reflecting on the environmental challenges faced by transnational communities—in this case, families that live on opposite sides of the US-Mexico border, whose lives are separated by stringent immigration policies. In highlighting the connections between immigration and the environment, Dietrich argues that a more humane approach to legal residency is critical to bolstering local resilience to climate change on both sides of the border.
Isha Ray’s contribution, the first of several essays in our “Just Environments” series, examines gender equality through the lens of access to basic sanitation. Moving beyond what the United Nations and others have proposed, Ray argues that in-home toilets are inadequate because they fail to account for those without homes, or those who are not home all day. Rather, if we are to make sanitation truly accessible, we must explicitly design and construct infrastructure that meets the needs of the most marginalized—including the low-income woman whose dignity and mobility rests on the presence of clean, safe facilities outside of the home.
Leah Wright Rigueur, as part of our "Reading Racial Conflict" series, critically engages with the career and the writings of Edward Brooke in a reflection on the arguments for and limits of capitalism to uplift African Americans out of poverty. She also deploys Brooke, the first popularly elected black senator in US history who served in the 1960s and 1970s, as a window onto how Barack Obama connects racial inequalities to access to the market. Brooke’s The Challenge of Change: Crisis in Our Two-Party System makes the case for a “progressive conservatism” that sheds light on how parts of the black community today embrace what Rigueur regards as the contemporary neoliberal moment.
Rachel Sherman provides a unique contribution to our What is Inequality? theme by focusing on the very top of the income bracket. Based on research among New Yorkers in the “1 percent,” Sherman uncovers the ways they understand and legitimize their wealth, in part through distinguishing their situation from other people of means who may not be “deserving.” Being legitimately “entitled” to affluence, according to the affluent, is based on a set of personal qualities with little reference to broader structural dimensions of inequality.