Vanderbilt Law Review


Regina Austin

First Page



As a person who pays only passing attention to formal black electoral politics, let alone the Voting Rights Act and the Supreme Court's attempts to decimate it, it is a privilege and a daunting challenge to respond to Professor Karlan's Article, Loss and Redemption: Voting Rights at the Turn of a Century. At the outset, I felt inadequate to the task. My research has largely focused on informal black socioeconomic development and discourse, most of which occurs far from the spotlight of the political mainstream., The only formal politics with which I am concerned occurs primarily at the local, grass- roots level.

Nonetheless, I do not for a minute think that blacks should forego any opportunity to hold government and industry, at every level, accountable and responsible for the abysmal quality of life experienced by many black people, particularly the very young. I also realize that mainstream electoral politics is one avenue through which accountability can be achieved. Yet, any financial assistance government and business provide beleaguered blacks should be funneled through organizations and associations that the blacks them- selves control. This will reduce the likelihood that scarce resources will be siphoned off by elite functionaries who have no real contribution to make. Indeed, lasting gains in the well-being of the least well- off blacks are only possible if the gains are made permanent through the establishment of institutions and organizations that they control and that outlive the genuine concern any social problem generates. That explains in part why I focus on the law as it relates to black, small-scale or micro-institution building. For example, I have written about the black informal economy and informal economic discourse. But Professor Karlan's insightful work forced me to consider the relationship between black socioeconomic advancement and the achievement of blacks' political agenda. Or, to put it another way, to consider the significance of the entire black public sphere to majoritarian democratic politics in America.

The term "black public sphere" has been variously defined. As I use the term, it encompasses both politics and economics. Hence, it consists of all the markets and audiences that consume the fruits of black creativity, productivity, and sensitivity to the material and moral order of things in America. The most salient feature of the black public sphere is that it "puts engagement, competition and ex- change in the place of resistance, and uses performativity to capture audiences, Black and White, for things fashioned through Black experience."

It is in the black public sphere that black public opinion and a black political agenda are formed. It is in the black public sphere that a conception of the black "good life" is formulated and debated. It is through the black public sphere that this notion of a black good life is disseminated to other marginalized peoples (including other racial and ethnic minorities, working class white women, lesbians and gays, and counterculture youth) who have public spheres of their own. In this way, the black notion of the good life enters into a broader conception of what a good life would be for everyone. I realize that references to the "black public sphere" and "the black good life" may cause doubts and unease in a number of readers. For some, the terms ring of separatism and divisiveness. That is not my intent. An irrational nationalism would be antithetical to the development of markets and audiences in which blacks play a predominant or significant, but not exclusive, role. Other readers may doubt the capacity of blacks' notion of the good life to address the universal human condition. I urge them to consider the impact that the black civil rights movement has had on liberation struggles in the United States and abroad.

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