We Gon' Be Alright

by Jeff Chang

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his collection of essays entitled We Gon' Be Alright:Notes on Race and Resegregation, author Jeff Chang diagnoses what he takes to be the current moral, political, cultural, and spiritual condition of America. He argues that the country as a whole is caught up in a self-perpetuating cycle of fear and hatred leading to crisis, and from crisis to backlash, complacency, and heightened polarization. Chang's diagnosis is supplemented by a prescription, which draws inspiration from African American writer James Baldwin and others, including critical theorists of race as well as activists, leaders, and victims of violence.

Chang's overall diagnosis is informed by the crucial insight that silence and neglect, no less than speech or attention, are themselves modes of exercising power. Thus, he claims that

Institutional neglect of racism and injustice is the exercise of power, the kind of power that refuses to notice and refuses to speak.

Here, "power" functions in an insidious way to blind those who are exercising it to the implications of their own actions. To not speak up is as much a way of reinforcing privilege (and denying it to others) as is speaking up. What this means in terms of moral reform is that individual and collective self-examination needs to take place so that people can recognize what they are not noticing and not acknowledging. This is not innocent passivity, in Chang's account, but rather a means of protecting one's own power at the direct expense of others.

Chang uses many examples of what it is that people overlook in thinking about the conditions of their own power and privilege. For example, he notes that

Where you live plays a significant role in the quality of food and the quality of education available to you, your ability to get a job, buy a home, and build wealth, the kind of health care you receive and how long you live, and whether you will have anything to pass on to the next generation.

In Chang's analysis, no social fact is neutral; geographical situatedness is, in fact, inextricably tethered to political and socioeconomic well-being. We see here the extent to which Chang's reflections are informed by ideas about intersectionality; his readers are thus encouraged to think about social vectors as mutually imbricated, rather than in isolation from one another. This rule holds at the level of theory and of lived experience in Chang's work.

In terms of lived experience, Chang wants to flesh out the abstraction of "inequality" to show how it impacts people's ordinary lives. He argues that

An inequitable culture is one in which people do not have the same power to create, access, or circulate their practices, works, ideas and stories. It is one in which people cannot represent themselves equally. To say that American culture in inequitable is to say that it moves us away from seeing each other in our full humanity. It is to say that the culture does not paint a more just society.

What is notable about this passage is the seamless way in Chang connects the lived experience of inequality, grounded in practices such as storytelling, with the normative, ethical underpinnings of inequality. Inequality, in his formulation, is grounded in neglect of the humanity of others. Here, as in Chang's diagnosis of the pathologies of power, the crucial challenge is to notice others and to acknowledge them in their full humanity. For Chang, this is connected to the need to love.

In the prescriptive part of his analysis, Chang endorses the ethic of love that undergirded the civil rights movement. Here, the work of Baldwin...

(This entire section contains 929 words.)

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and of Gandhi becomes especially important. Chang argues that rather than judging others who have experienced a downturn in their fortunes, we should reach out to them:

A turn in fortune should move us toward empathy and solidarity.

The ethos of empathy and solidarity is not only a moral necessity, it is also a means of promoting the common good.

Chang offers a vision for the future that stresses dynamic change and communal well-being, as distinguished from commercial profit:

The real benefit of a vital, equitable culture lies well beyond the money there is to be made. It offers us a sense of individual worth, bolsters our collective adaptability, and forms a foundation for social progress. In that sense, cultural diversity is just like biodiversity—at its best, it functions like a creative ecosystem. The final product of culture is not a commodity, it is society.

What Chang means by "society" seems to be a community of moral and emotional concern, rather than an economic unit. "Society" in his formulation is also a creative entity. We see the extent to which Chang draws on multiple sources of social thought that similarly emphasize the notion of society as a moral and emotional community, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, much later, Martin Luther King Jr.

It is likely the case that Chang's diagnosis will be readily recognizable to anyone who follows the narratives generated by the mainstream media. He sees the country as moving toward resegregation, as evidenced by polarization. His proposed solutions constitute his more important contribution. Overall, his analysis of ways in which the country can heal from the wounds of institutionalized racism is grounded in a particular understanding of the relationship between power, justice, peace, and love. To his mind, the exposure of the ways in which those who exercise power blind themselves to the harm they do needs to be accompanied by an attempt to extend love and justice toward everyone (including oppressors) for the benefit of all.