Reading Guide For Shelby

"Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto"

Philosophy and Public Affairs vol. 35 no. 2, (2007) pp. 126-160


In this article noted African American philosopher Tommie Shelby considers the question of how the condition of life for persons of color in poor urban areas bears on their social and political obligations. The 'deviance' in the title refers to deviance from the civic obligations that all persons in a society typically are thought to share. Shelby's article brings together considerations about political legitimacy, distributive justice, and the lingering effects of racism in a way that challenges the reader to think about the linkages between them.


I. Justice and the Basic Structure
• Application of Rawls's theory of justice to the problem of racial injustice
• Definition of 'institutional racism'
II. Deviance as a Response to the Ghetto Plight
• Definition of 'Ghettos'
• 'Gangsters' and 'Hustlers' as moral types
• The consequences of institutional racism on ghettos
III. Is Deviance Reasonable?
• Three possible assessments of the basic institutional structure of the U.S.
• The standard of tolerable injustice
• Civic obligations of the ghetto poor
IV. Oppression and the Duty of Justice
• Natural duty and the ghetto poor
V. From Spontaneous Defiance to Political Resistance
• "Spontaneous rebellion" and self-respect
• Two ways in which a society can be unjust
• Requirements of effective political resistance
VI. Conclusion

Study Questions

1. In part I Shelby gives a brief explanation of Rawls’ theory. In connection with his elaboration of Rawls, Shelby introduces his conception of “racial justice”. Explain this conception, and its relationship to institutional racism.

2. Shelby illustrates his conceptions of racial equality and equality of opportunity using the example of education. Explain this illustration in detail.

3. What are the main characteristics of ghettos? How does Shelby characterize typical residents of ghettos? Under what conditions do such persons choose crime? Why is this significant, in Shelby’s view?

4. Explain in detail the “deviant” ethics of the “gangster” and the “hustler”. What impact do such persons have on other ghetto residents, as Shelby sees it? Given your own experiences and knowledge, how accurate, in your view, is Shelby’s description of ghetto life thus far?

5. Shelby states “the impact of institutional racism is deepest in dark ghettos”, and cites the examples of employment, housing, and the criminal justice system as support for this position. Summarize each of these three examples and critically assess the degree of support they give for his position.

6. What is the difference between civic obligations and natural duties?

7. Though he accepts Rawls’s framework for justice in broad outline, Shelby criticizes Rawls for not articulating a “standard of tolerable injustice”. What role would such a standard serve? What standard does Shelby suggest?

8. Why does Shelby think it would be a mistake to see certain types of criminal or other deviant activity by ghetto residents as a failure of civic obligation? How does Shelby respond to the objection that such activity does constitute a failure of reciprocity if ghetto residents do not make use of what opportunities they do have?

9. Shelby argues that even if society is unjust in their case, ghetto residents are still obligated by certain natural duties. What are some of the duties he lists? What role, in particular, is played by the duty of justice and the duty of self-respect?

10. What are the two ways a regime can be unjust? Why does Shelby find the distinction between them “too stark for practical purposes”?

11. Explain the relationship Shelby sketches between the duty of justice and solidarity. How does Shelby make use of these values in his final critique of the ethics of the gangster and the hustler?

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