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Awakening to Race

Individualism and Social Consciousness in America

Awakening to Race

Individualism and Social Consciousness in America

The election of America’s first black president has led many to believe that race is no longer a real obstacle to success and that remaining racial inequality stems largely from the failure of minority groups to take personal responsibility for seeking out opportunities. Often this argument is made in the name of the long tradition of self-reliance and American individualism. In Awakening to Race, Jack Turner upends this view, arguing that it expresses not a deep commitment to the values of individualism, but a narrow understanding of them.
Drawing on the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, Turner offers an original reconstruction of democratic individualism in American thought. All these thinkers, he shows, held that personal responsibility entails a refusal to be complicit in injustice and a duty to combat the conditions and structures that support it. At a time when individualism is invoked as a reason for inaction, Turner makes the individualist tradition the basis of a bold and impassioned case for race consciousness—consciousness of the ways that race continues to constrain opportunity in America. Turner’s “new individualism” becomes the grounds for concerted public action against racial injustice.

216 pages | 15 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Black Studies

Philosophy: American Philosophy

Political Science: Race and Politics


Jack Turner has written a bold and provocative book. In his deft hands, appeals to personal responsibility become the basis for a robust democratic individualism attuned to the ugliness of racism, rather than a conservative justification that leaves racial inequalities in place. Awakening to Race is American political thought at its best.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Princeton University

Does individualism have anything to offer the struggle for racial justice? Awakening to Race offers a resounding yes! Jack Turner’s book punctures the myths of American individualism that have helped to sustain racial hierarchies and advances fresh interpretations of self-reliance and personal responsibility stripped of their dishonesty. His writing embodies the spirit of the democratic citizen he finds in the work of Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, Ellison, and Baldwin: rigorous in its questioning of present conditions, compassionate, and intensely engaged.

Lawrie Balfour, University of Virginia

In Awakening to Race, Jack Turner carves up American thought with a clean, theoretical scalpel, shredding the dangerous myths of individualism and self-reliance through which so many Americans still think about race. We desperately need these reminders of how many of our greatest writers, from Douglass to Baldwin, have prepared us for our enduring racial agony, if only we could wake up from our mythic slumber. An extraordinarily smart and timely book.

David W. Blight, Yale University, author of American Oracle

Jack Turner has canvassed a remarkable range of sources to develop a profoundly revisionist take on individualism, a theme absolutely central to the nation’s founding and which has ongoing—in fact heightened—relevance in the ‘postracial’ age-of-Obama United States. Turner both makes a convincing case that individualism as a central American value needs to be recaptured from the right and demonstrates that the rich tradition of American political thought does indeed provide us with the necessary conceptual resources for doing so.

Charles Mills, Northwestern University

“Exercised by claims that race no longer matters as a bar to full participation in US society, Jack Turner writes a lively scholarly polemic seeking to move beyond ‘simplistic debates pitting advocates of self-reliance and personal responsibility against analysts of historical inheritance, structural constraint, and inequality of opportunity.’”


"Turner’s work is thoughtful, bold, and a refreshing framework in which to rethink American political thought surrounding issues of race."

Teachers College Record

"Don’t let the size of this slim volume fool you: Awakening to Race is chock-full of fresh insights and original arguments regarding individualism and race in the American democratic tradition. Individualism in America often takes atomistic forms that are antithetical to a rich sense of the social constitution of the self. For that reason, individualism often is viewed as antithetical to a critical consciousness of how race and white racism operate. In Awakening to Race, Jack Turner boldly takes the bull of American individualism by its horns. He argues that the rhetoric of individualism can be used against, rather than in service of, an allegedly colorblind society in which independent, post-racial individuals pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The result of Turner’s skillful intervention into American political philosophy is to take back individualism from conservative forces and refashion it into a progressive tool for racial justice movements. . . . My only criticism of this book is that it ended."

Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society: A Journal of American Philosophy

"There is much to admire in Awakening to Race. The writing is lucid and lively; the erudition is impressive yet unobtrusive; the readings of particular texts are densely packed with insights; and the overall argument is intelligently crafted. By directing renewed attention to these and other worthy constituents of the democratic individualist tradition, the book could accomplish a notable good work in persuading progressive advocates of justice across color lines that they need not reject the nation’s individualist heritage. . . . [Turner] performs a valuable service in commending to our attention the authors of his democratic individualist tradition, from whom we all—whites and blacks, racial liberals and racial conservatives—might gain renewed inspiration."

American Political Thought

"Turner is the consummate scholar. The corpuses of Emerson, Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Ellison, and Baldwin are generously interpreted and then deployed to great effect for the purpose of reconstructing the American individualist doctrine. . . . Turner's ability to wrangle the works of these unsystematic, and sometimes philosophically nearly inscrutable, thinkers for the purpose of this reconstruction is itself a great feat. What strikes one as even more impressive is that he is able to find common conceptual ground between prewar white intellectuals and post–World War I black artists and activists for the purposes of doing what none of them did in any discrete sense: provide a theory of responsibility for racial inequality."

Political Theory

"Much of the force of Turner’s argument comes from his ability to deploy his chosen authors to expose the hypocrisy of prevailing fictions around American individualism. . . . On one level, this makes Turner’s study especially revelatory for audiences steeped in the rhetorical tradition of atomistic American individualism and ‘'the bootstraps philosophy’' that simply cannot be sustained against the authors and evidence marshaled in Awakening to Race. Furthermore, the book’s lucidity makes its argumentative power available to undergraduate audiences and general readers unfamiliar with individualism in black. . . . An admirable achievement."

Contemporary Political Theory

"A judicious intellectual history."

Perspectives on Politics

Table of Contents

List of Figures 

Chapter 1. Awakening to Race
    Racial Injustice and Individualist Ideals 
    The Problem of Acknowledgment 
    Democratic Individualism 
    From Emerson to Baldwin 
    A Usable Past? 
    Talking to Strangers 
Chapter 2. Self-Reliance and Social Responsibility 
    Atomistic Individualism 
    The Idea of Complicity 
    Self-Reliance and Complicity 
    Action and Citizenship 
    Self-Reliance and Justice 
    Democratic Individualist Responsibility 

Chapter 3. Self-Help and Social Structure 
    Social Structure 
    Liberal Democracy, Properly Understood 

Chapter 4. Race and Democratic Individuality 
    Democratic Individuality in Black 
    Diagnosing White Supremacy 
    Reconstructing Vision 
    Love, Fraternity, Gender, and Democracy 
    Awakening to Power 

Chapter 5. Democratic Reconstitution 
    Creative Individuality, Radical Responsibility 
    The White Innocence of American Liberalism 
    Democratic Reconstitution 
    Speech and Self-Understanding 
    Democratic Individualism Revisited 

Chapter 6. A New Individualism 
    Rhetorical Jujitsu 
    All That Beauty 

Works Cited 

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