Shelby's Dark Ghettos fills "normative gap" in discussions of urban poverty

December 8, 2016
tommie shelb's new book dark ghettos

In a country of obvious wealth—and one that purports to embrace the ideal of equality of opportunity for all of its citizens—why do American ghettos persist? Many theories have been advanced over the years to explain the persistence of American ghettos and various measures proposed and, occasionally, undertaken to address the problem of concentrated urban poverty. But for Tommie Shelby, Caldwell Titcomb Professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy at Harvard University, the social scientific discourse about the ghetto has been marked by a curious omission.

According to Shelby, “all too often, those in the social sciences and policy community assume that the questions of ghetto poverty and the appropriate responses to it can be settled merely by possession of the correct empirical facts.” As a result, the scholarly discourse on the subject has produced a highly technocratic approach towards the problems of the urban poor. In Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform (Harvard, 2016), Shelby argues forcefully that how we think about the ghetto poor and what interventions we deem appropriate more often turn on questions of political morality and values. “With notable exceptions,” Shelby writes, “policy discussions of ghetto poverty don’t explicitly state, let alone defend, the values upon which they rest.” Shelby’s book aims to address this “normative gap.”

Significantly, Dark Ghettos contributes to an ongoing philosophical debate over ideal vs. nonideal theory. But rather than seeing ideal theory as worthless, obfuscating, or unnecessary, as some have, Shelby regards ideal theory and nonideal theory as complementary. Both are essential for systematic theorizing about injustice, a point Shelby demonstrates repeatedly over the course of the book, not primarily by metaphilosophical rumination but by careful examination of a particular case of injustice: the persistence of ghetto neighborhoods in America. Along the way, Shelby also brings out the significance of the political morality of resistance for both nonideal theory and practical reform efforts.

Shelby’s book is already receiving a lot of attention, with positive reviews in the New York Times Book Review and interviews with Shelby at The Atlantic and The Leonard Lopate Show. You may also read an interview with Shelby at the Harvard Gazette.