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Concepts of Note: What is Herrenvolk democracy?

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[[ The purpose of Concepts of Note entries is to provide summaries and reflections on important concepts in political theory, social science, and the humanities ]]

Herrenvolk democracy” is a crucial concept for understanding the potential racial dimension of democratic belonging and exclusion within a political body, as well as the inequalities of power, rights, and resources that follow. Coined by Pierre van den Berghe, a Herrenvolk democracy is a political order that is “democratic for the master race but tyrannical for subordinate groups” (p.18). There is equality, but only within the dominant racial group. Most importantly, the sociopolitical equality enjoyed within the dominant racial group is premised upon rather than in contradiction with the inequality that sustains the order as a whole. The idea that this should be considered a “real” form of democracy at all may sound strange or appear hypocritical on its face, especially to contemporary citizens of liberal democracies. The fierce international criticisms and boycotts of the apartheid regime in South Africa (where whites ruled, and people of color were disenfranchised, segregated, and stripped of citizenship) during the second half of the 20th century exemplifies this sense of its illegitimacy. Yet, the apparent contradiction of Herrenvolk democracy is something that was fought for and achieved, rather than being transhistorically obvious to all.

Consider the formally racialized character of democracy in the United States from its inception to at least the 1960s. Those who could successfully claim to possess “whiteness” (as judged by those others who already possessed it) were able to access a slate of benefits (unevenly, along gender and class lines especially) including voting rights, higher wages and two-tiered wage scales, minimal expectations of courtesy and status in the public sphere, more lenient court sentencing, exclusive access to some jobs, privileged access to public services, informal “first hired last fired” employment insurance, privileged potential access to housing, loans, and capital, a sense of superiority over all non-whites, and (most importantly before the Civil War) the right to avoid enslavement. Those who were judged to be not-white were denied or given restricted access to these economic, political, cultural, and psychological “wages” that came with whiteness (Du Bois; also Roediger). While certainly also being inflected by gendered and class divisions, the “color line” between the “white world” and the “dark world” that WEB Du Bois describes was the foundational principle of inclusion in or exclusion from the power, resources, and privileges of the democratic order, however else they may be inequitably distributed. As Joel Olson argues, whiteness was the essential characteristic defining full American citizenship as such.

In order to lay claim to what Judith Shklar refers to as American citizenship’s provision of “standing”, the necessity of being able to prove one’s possession of whiteness was ever-present and operative through widely inculcated discrimination norms and practices among whites, threat of state persecution through law, lynching, mob violence, and a generalized extralegal enforcement of racialized terror. Continue reading

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