January 20, 2012


King Week keynote: Repairing the social contract

Melissa Harris-Perry, keynote speaker for Emory's King Week celebration, is "obsessed with Thomas Jefferson."

The Tulane University political science professor, who spoke Jan. 17 in Cannon Chapel on "King's Legacy and the New Civil Rights Frontiers," grew up in the shadow of Monticello, Jefferson's Virginia home.

"I am completely enthused by the idea that someone as flawed as Jefferson did not write [inequality] into the Declaration of Independence, into the social contract. Instead he looks out the window over Monticello Mountain into a world where nothing is less self-evident than the endowed equality of all persons.

"In the Declaration of Independence, he writes ‘All people [men] are created equal'... His political imagination was greater than his political reality."

This declaration within the Declaration is "our social contract. Racism and poverty undermine our basic social contract," she said.

"[Martin Luther] King, when he makes the claim in the ‘Dream' speech, that there is a check that has been written to the American people that has come back ‘insufficient funds,' ‘unpaid,' this is the check; this is the check-writer. This is the social contract."

The U.S. Constitution, she noted, is a political document, in which compromises were made when it was created. "Whatever you think about the Constitution, it is at its core a document of inequality. If that's our only founding document, then we are a slave-holding society where women cannot vote. We enshrine inequality in the Constitution but because the Declaration of Independence exists first, it provides us with this potential to imagine a social contract that is far more free and far more fair." 

She walked the audience through three contemporary policy elements that "I think King would want, the three elements of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that threaten to undermine our basic social contract." These included health disparities, incarceration and property rights.

Health care reform, as an example, became the terrain for racial and immigration anxieties, "by setting up who is allowed to be inside this contract and who is not. It is framed around the racial anxieties of who is in and who is out.

"The meaningful discussion about race and health care is about the fact that from infancy to old age, you are more likely to die, to be sick, least likely to have health insurance, least likely to be able to access reasonable pain medication; there is no encounter between the medical community and the black body which is on equal footing."

To repair the social contract, Harris-Perry held up King as a model. "Part of the genius of Martin Luther King was that he was a collaborator. A lot of what King did was to inspire, support and translate existing movements. We remember him as a solitary figure but he was fundamentally collaborative. He was a servant leader. He took blame and shared credit.

"As we think about how we will rebuild our current social [contract], it has to be in these terms."

One way to do that is by talking to each other, she said, "even though we often don't have the language [or] the same terms to have this conversation in."

"To live in a democracy is having a voice and having the right to govern and the recognition that everybody gets to talk all the time, even people we find appalling, people we find abhorrent, people we find freakish.  Everybody is in, all the time."

The legacy of King, according to Harris-Perry, is "disruption of the status quo provides opportunities for change... He promises us that ‘almost always the creative, dedicated minority has made the world better.'

"The social contract is in tatters. It's time for us to figure out how we become that creative, dedicated minority that can help to make the world better."

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