Book Note: Erin Pineda, Seeing Like an Activist

by Chris Bertram on June 22, 2022

I’ve just finished Erin Pineda’s Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford University Press, 2021), and it is a very welcome addition to the literature on both civil disobedience and the history of the US civil rights movement that anyone interested in either topic should read. Pineda is keen to push back against a particular liberal constitutionalist theory of civil disobedience, associated with Bedau and Rawls that purports to draw on the US civil rights movement but which, according to her, ends up both falsifying the history and provides succour to a narrative about civil rights that is used to discipline subsequent movements (such as Black Lives Matter) as failing to live up to the standards set by the activists of the 1960s. That narrative and theory also supports what we might call a form of soft white supremacy, according to which a nearly-just republic composed largely of white citizens was already in place and the task of civil disobedience was to communicate the anomalous exclusion of black Americans from the polity, so that white citizens, apprised of this injustice and stricken by conscience, would act to rectify things.

This standard liberal narrative around civil disobedience has fidelity to law and an acknowledgement of the basic justice and legitimacy of the established order at its heart. The task of civil disobedients on this view is to act non-coercively and non-violently but to break the law (a bit) only to raise the awareness of citizens considered as fellows who are thought of not as themselves implicated in the injustice but as basically good people who would act if only they knew. The civil disobedient on this view submits willingly, even eagerly, to punishment in order to testify to injustice whilst also accepting the shared framework of law. The tacit framework here is also a nationalist one (or at least a statist one) of shared co-operation among fellows who want to establish a just order on national territory together.

This picture, Pineda demonstrates, is just historically wrong and naive. Black civil disobedients did not see their position in a national frame and as an unfortunate national anomaly but rather saw their struggle as part of a wider global fight for racial justice that encompassed Indian independence, Ghanian struggles against colonialism and the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Far from going to prison as an act of communication to white liberals, activists saw it as part of a refusal to compromise with a racist state, as an act of defiant self-actualization, and as a tactic for draining the resources of the oppressor. And far from seeing northern whites as being generally on the side of justice, they saw them as implicated in racial oppression, indifferent to the poverty and discrimination of the black citizens around them and too willing to see the South as somewhere exceptional that was nothing to do with them.

I only felt (mildly) frustrated by material that the book did not cover but which another book might have and which the author may yet address in subsequent work. The first of these is that the focus on the civil rights movement and the struggle for black equality obscures from view other aspects of the US as a white settler state such as the domination of indigenous peoples and their struggles and of the racially exclusionary laws against Chinese and other immigrants, also designed to bolster white supremacy. Second, I found myself wanting more comparative material about disobedience and non-violent resistance but drawing on other countries and traditions: some of that his here in the links drawn to anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles, but I also found myself thinking about France and its history of resistance internally but also the far-from-nonviolent story of resistance to its colonialism, particularly in Algeria (to be fair, Fanon gets a mention). And third, I found myself hoping that Pineda might engage with Erica Chernoweth’s work somewhere, and that didn’t come.

But these are minor things: the book gets ***** from me!

(Small note: the image on the cover, Jack Whitten’s Birmingham 1964, is a really arresting piece of visual art. I believe it is in the Brooklyn Museum, and I would love to see the original.)

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Michael Kates 06.22.22 at 3:54 pm

Very informative discussion, but there’s seems to be a typo/missing word in the following sentence: “Far from going to prison as an act to communicate white liberals…”

2

Chris Bertram 06.22.22 at 9:46 pm

@Michael, thanks, fixed (along with a few other typos).

3

LFC 06.22.22 at 11:27 pm

according to which a nearly-just republic composed largely of white citizens was already in place and the task of civil disobedience was to communicate the anomalous exclusion of black Americans from the polity

While Pineda’s criticisms of Rawls’s views on civil disobedience may be, in general, well taken, he said publicly (in 1973) that he did not think the contemporary U.S. was a “nearly just” or just society. (source: Forrester, In the Shadow of Justice, p. 126 and p. 322, note 127)

4

John Quiggin 06.23.22 at 3:47 am

As I recall things, Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence was widely seen as the model for non-violent civil disobedience in the US. Can you say a bit more about how Pineda treats this model?

5

John Quiggin 06.23.22 at 4:00 am

The case for opposing political violence (including war and revolution) doesn’t depend on a view of your antagonists as basically good or well-disposed. It’s enough to observe that violence almost never produces good outcomes. Self-defence is an exception, but one that needs to be construed very narrowly.

6

Chris Bertram 06.23.22 at 5:50 am

@John Yes, she has a lot of discussion of Gandhi and this history of black activists in the US wrestling with his example. Gandhi, of course, doesn’t presuppose the legitimacy of his opponent in the way in which the liberal practice of civil disobedience does. On the case for non-violence, I don’t think Pineda necessarily disagrees with you but she makes the historical case both that attachment to it was often pragmatic and that the boundaries between violent and non-violent action are often hard to demarcate. Civil rights activist may have been committed to non-violence, for example, but their brutalization by the cops often provoked violent reactions from sympathetic bystanders.

@LFC Yes, but I guess there’s room to make a distinction between that sort of statement by Rawls and what is presupposed by the practice of civil disobedience that he promotes, a practice that is also elaborated in the work of other theorists such as Bedau who he incorporates.

7

Matt 06.23.22 at 9:09 am

I guess there’s room to make a distinction between that sort of statement by Rawls and what is presupposed by the practice of civil disobedience that he promotes,

Of course, the “practice of civil disobedience that he promotes” in TJ is one for a “nearly just state”, but as he noted that the US wasn’t “nearly just” (quite close to when TJ was published, importantly enough) it seems pretty straight-forward that he wasn’t “promoting” it, in that form, for the US at that time. Supposing otherwise seems to me to be part of the very annoying tendency to try to read Rawls as more conservative than he was. This tendency isn’t well supported, and almost always depends on misreadings (many wilful, I’d say) and projection. I’d be glad not to see it given more support here. No doubt Rawls, like alll of us, could have been clearer, but this doesn’t excuse misrepresenting the view.

8

M Caswell 06.23.22 at 12:53 pm

This analysis seems totally compatible with Rawls’: he shows civil disobedience is justifiable even if you think the regime is legitimate. Not sure there’s a disagreement here, let alone a falsification.

9

Chris Bertram 06.23.22 at 1:09 pm

I agree that nobody should read Rawls as being more conservative or more radical than he was. Those who want to make the case that Rawls advocated more radical forms of resistance suitable to the illegitimate state they claim he held the US to be are welcome to present the textual evidence. Bedau, whose approach Rawls largely adopted, can certainly be convicted of the presupposition in question.

10

J-D 06.24.22 at 12:55 am

It’s enough to observe that violence almost never produces good outcomes.

It’s common enough for violence to produce outcomes that are good for the people who make the decision to employ violence. History is full of examples of rulers and leaders who got what they wanted by violence. The outcomes were generally not good by a more inclusive accounting, but the terrible toll of death and destruction is typically borne by other people, not by the people who made the choice of violence. Having violence inflicted on you is almost always a bad outcome, but the outcome of being the one who inflicts violence may often be bad but are also often good, at least as judged from that self-interested perspective.

This is also true of revolutionary leaders. There are many examples in history of unsuccessful violent uprisings, but there are also many examples of successful ones, where the rebels got what they wanted by violence, even if the people who paid the cost of it would have had another view of whether it was a good outcome.

11

John Quiggin 06.24.22 at 2:01 am

J-D @10. “It’s common enough for violence to produce outcomes that are good for the people who make the decision to employ violence. ”

More common than outcomes that are good for the world as a whole, but still the exception rather than the rule, at least in modern times.

Among the people who made the decisions to go to war in 1914, it’s hard to see any who prospered as a result, even on the Entente side. All the empires they ruled were destroyed or fatally weakened.

Even limiting yourself to successful revolutions, the mortality rate among rebels is pretty high. A large proportion typical end up on the losing side of the subsequent power struggles.

12

Chris Bertram 06.24.22 at 6:32 am

@John I think it is clear that what you say is right in the sense that violent anti-colonial struggles in, for example, Ireland, Algeria, Vietnam, all led to independence but with a lot of dead people in subsequent violence. What I’m not confident about is whether there was a non-violent path to independence available in those and other cases.

13

Faustusnotes 06.24.22 at 10:30 am

It’s possible that Gandhi’s non violence would have been treated differently by the British if he had not been preceded by 100 years of violent resistance. Also India was a special case in terms of both its physical value and the contingent situation of the British. Non violence was treated very differently among more disposable colonial possessions at different times (Eg vs indigenous peoples in undeveloped lands) or more valuable areas closer to the imperial core (see Eg Northern Ireland).

Discussions of whether violence achieved the goals of colonial resistance movements and were ultimately justified proceed very differently depending on whether one accepts the truth that colonial regimes were in general as despicable as the Nazis, or whether they are viewed as legitimate governments who were a bit rough on their citizens. Most white academics view them as the latter, and think what followed violent resistance was no better. That view is generally wrong.

14

J-D 06.24.22 at 1:56 pm

J-D @10. “It’s common enough for violence to produce outcomes that are good for the people who make the decision to employ violence. ”

More common than outcomes that are good for the world as a whole, but still the exception rather than the rule, at least in modern times.

If we could make a list of all the people who have made decisions to employ political violence, what fraction of them would have produced results they wanted? I have no idea. I doubt the feasibility of making such a list or calculating such a fraction. It’s like asking what fraction of armed robbers make a success out of armed robbery. All I’d be confident of saying is that some armed robbers get what they want and some don’t, and I’d say the same of the users of political violence.

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