Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy



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Scrapping the Melting Pot: Locke rejected the paradigm of the “melting pot” as a definitive vision of America. For Locke, the vortex of American democracy was race. Race is myth, a product of social forces, at variance with the ideals of democracy: “Consciousness of kind,” Locke wrote, “is a force” that can dysfunctionally lead to “unhealthy and rather unjust distinctions in human society.” It is “the blight of modern society.”772 And yet obliteration of all such distinctions is equally odious, which is why Locke criticized the idea of America as a “melting pot.” In a speech on “The Negro Renaissance,” held in Chicago at the Women’s City Club and reported in the Chicago Defender, Alain Locke publicly declared that “America must scrap the idea of the melting pot democracy, and instead encourage the development of that group’s [African American] culture.”773 Locke equally rejected the “mosaic” nature of Horace Kallen’s cultural pluralism. Locke’s own version may be characterized as midway between the American melting pot and the Canadian mosaic.

For Locke, democracy was a much broader concept than its narrow political definition. Locke conceived of democracy in several dimensions, against which he measured America’s fidelity to its democratic ideal. Although Locke was not systematic in his thinking, for analytical purposes it may be useful to attempt a systematic description of his view on democracy. It should be noted that Locke’s dimensional model of democracy is not only typological, but evolutionary as well. In a survey of his writings, one may begin to typologize or systematize Locke’s thinking on democracy. These are some of the various dimensions of democracy that Locke spoke and wrote about:


(1) Local democracy

(2) Moral democracy

(3) Political democracy

(4) Economic democracy

(5) Cultural democracy

(6) Racial democracy

(7) Social democracy

(8) Spiritual democracy

(9) World democracy
The inevitable criticism will be that this presentation is too programmatic, that it attempts to synthesize Locke’s philosophy of democracy in such a way as to make it appear systematic, when in fact it was not. This criticism has merit. However, based on a coherence theory of truth, a careful reading of both his published and unpublished works reveals clear patterns in Locke’s thought. Ordering his dimensional treatment of democracy in this way is simply a logical extension of what really must have existed in Locke’s thought. Indeed, there may be a correspondence between these dimensions of democracy and Locke’s typology of values. Here is a possible correlation:
(1) Local democracy

Hedonic or organic values

(2) Moral democracy

Moral, Ethical and Social values

(3) Political democracy

Logical or cognitive values

(4) Economic democracy

= Utility and economic values

(5) Cultural democracy

= Aesthetic values

(6) Racial democracy

(7) Social democracy

(8) Spiritual democracy

= Religious values

(9) World democracy
Locke’s theory of democracy was both historical and phenomenological. It was anchored in history, grounded in philosophy, and validated by personal experience. Locke’s travels to the South in 1912 with Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), and his teaching trips throughout the South in 1925–1926 as a Bahá’í spokesman, impressed upon him the evils of Jim Crow America and the real prospects of racial justice, healing and harmony offered in the Bahá’í experience. His analysis of the race question was nothing new. But his presentation of the race answer was. His theory stretches back to Athens, arcs through history, and telescopes into the future. His point of departure was, of course, the historical development or evolution of democracy. In his farewell address at Talladega College (1941), Locke presented an evolutionary view of democracy in five phases. He began by saying that most Americans have a limited and unreflective concept of democracy, something that is all-too-easily taken for granted:

And now, I should like to talk about something that we all take for granted—these are things we know least about. The words most frequently used are words understood least[.]—Democracy is one of those words. Thinking Negroes, of course, know much about what democracy is not, and have a more workable conception of what democracy truly means than those who have just enough to be content with or those to whom it is just a commonplace concept and way of life. Democracy, of course, is one of the basic human ideals, but as an ideal of human association it is something quite superior to any outward institution or any particular society; therefore, not only is government too narrow to express democracy, but government from time to time must grow to realize democracy.774


Not only is government too narrow a concept of democracy, but democracy started out historically as a narrow concept as well. Its ideals were confined to a select few, and took not only centuries, but millennia to enlarge. Its application is still uneven, even if universal in its modern ideological formulations.

Local Democracy: Since there is no one who exemplifies Plato’s ideal of the philosopher-king, and because politicians are not philosophers generally (Woodrow Wilson was the only U.S. president with a Ph.D.), it is up to philosophers to work out a coherent philosophy of democracy. Such a philosophy may never succeed in influencing politicians directly, but the pragmatist philosophers still find ways to influence public opinion, especially when philosophers of the stature of pragmatist Cornel West can publish bestsellers.

Locke’s own theory was not only coherent; it was comprehensive. Articulated historically, his theory comprehends the rise of Western civilization, encompassing Christianity in the process, as will be seen in Locke’s third stage of democracy. The historical origins of democracy hark back to Athens, as one would expect. And while it is a breakthrough concept of the profoundest historical moment, Locke emphasizes its limitations:


It may be a little daring in the time we have at our disposal, but let us put on seven-league boots and trace democracy—one of the great social concepts. Both in concept and in practice democracy began in Greece—in the Greek city[-]state. In its day it was a great achievement, but in that day democracy was a concept of local citizenship. Our nearest approach to it is the kind of fellowship we find in [p. 1] college fraternities and sororities in which the bonds are of “like-mindedness” excluding others. The rim of the Greek concept of democracy was the barbarian: it was then merely the principle of fraternity within a narrow, limited circle. There was a dignity accorded to each member on the basis of membership in the group. It excluded foreigners, slaves and women. This concept carried over into the Roman empire.775
In staging the evolution of democracy in this way, Locke insinuates an incipient teleology with respect to democracy. As a necessary preparation for its ultimate destiny as the ideal form of government for the entire world, democracy needed to be expanded. Its basis had to widen. And for that to happen, its principles needed to be universalized, by giving them a moral compass and wider scope. The next great stage in the evolution of democracy, accordingly, was Christianity.

Moral Democracy: Christianity, in Locke’s estimate of it, provided the ideal basis for a moral democracy. Ideally universal, and socially so in its pristine beginnings, over time Christianity became circumscribed, as Locke, true to his critical temper, points out:
Christianity was responsible for the introduction of the next great revision in the concept of democracy. We owe to Christianity one of the great basic ideals of democracy—the ideal of the moral equality of human beings. The Christian ideal of democracy was in its initial stages more democratic than it subsequently became. It always held on to the essential ideal of moral equality of man within the limits of organized Christianity—anybody else was a potential member only as he became converted. Christianity was thus a crusading ideal in bringing humanity into wider association. But the Christian church was a political institution and in making compromises often failed in bringing about real human equality.776
Principles are powerful. But they can all too easily be compromised. And if they are ever lived up to, they may be short-lived. Early American history illustrates this very point. Elsewhere, Locke shows that Christian America could not, at first, tolerate non-conformists, even if those nonconformists were fellow Christians:
Our American tradition of democracy, let us remember, began merely as a passionate rationalization of religious non-conformism, the conscientious demand of a convinced minority about freedom of worship and the moral liberty of conscience. And at that time, it had not even matured to the adult principle of abstract freedom of conscience as the religious intolerances of colonial settlers proved; migrating non-conformists themselves, they still could not stand the presence of non-conformity in their midst.777
It was really due to the immaturity (relative to modern concepts) of the Christian community that its moral democracy was later compromised by fractious denominations, creating a “house divided.” From the city-state to the nation-state, secular developments again seized the initiative and led the way. The separation of church and state was a necessary development in the evolution of democracy. The American system, it is true, would be based on the Judeo-Christian ethic, and on a diffuse notion of Providence as well, but not on Christianity itself. While the ethics were viable, the Christian institutions were not. New institutions had to be brought into being. These new institutions were based on the Constitution, not on Christianity.

Political Democracy: The popular understanding of democracy is the received, traditional notion of a political form of government that is the most effective conduit of representation and collective self-government. This political view of democracy is essentially correct, but represents an historical development of democracy, in Locke’s view of it. To define democracy completely and utterly in terms of its political manifestation is too narrow, too provincial, and ultimately unreflective. In explaining political democracy within its evolutionary paradigm, Locke explains the profound influence of the French Revolution on the establishment of American democracy by the Founding Fathers. In one speech, Locke states:
Then later came that political and secular strand of colonial experience, which out of the fight against tyranny and taxation grew into the issue of political freedom and the liberty of self-government. But even then, when these developments had been fought for and won, and were being institutionalized, it took another strain of radical thinking imported from Revolutionary France to consolidate this into a formally democratic doctrine, the fundamental historical creed of American democracy that we know so well and rightly treasure so highly.778
In his “Creative Democracy” speech, Locke is consistent in maintaining that political democracy is yet another stage in the evolution of democracy, albeit a pivotal development that coincides with—and in many ways defines—the establishment of America as we know it today. Neither Greece nor Christianity were decisive at this stage in the evolution of democracy. It was the political philosophy of the French that most impressed Thomas Jefferson, and profoundly influenced the development of democracy in America:
The third great step in democracy came from [P]rotestant lands and people who evolved the ideal of political equality: (1) equality before the law; (2) political citizenship. This political democracy pivoted on individualism, and the freedom of the individual in terms of what we know as the fundamental rights of man. It found its best expression in the historic formula of “Liberty, equality and fraternity.”779
That Constitution of the United States of America is a “living” document susceptible of revision allows for the discovery of its undemocratic elements and provides for its remedy of these inherent defects. Locke sees this process of amending the Constitution as “progressive” but not perfective. He appreciated the Bill of Rights and subsequent Amendments as milestones in the evolution of American democracy. But the political system—not to mention the social manifestations of democracy—were still far from perfect:
In terms of this ideology our country’s government was founded. But for generations after many of the fundamentals of our democracy were pious objectives, not fully expressed in practice. In the perspective of democracy’s long evolution, we must regard our country’s history as a progressive process of democratization, not yet fully achieved, but certainly progressing importantly in terms of the [T]hirteenth, [F]ourteenth and F]ifteenth [A]mendments, and the amendment extending the right of franchise to women. It is still imperfect.780
It is all to easy too assume, just because the United States is constituted as a political democracy, that America is truly democratic. Political democracy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a fully democratic society. Locke pressed this point on a number of occasions: “[I]f we are going to have effective democracy in America we must have the democratic spirit as well as the democratic tradition, we must have more social democracy and more economic democracy in order to have or keep political democracy.”781 This statement reveals the cornerstone of Locke’s philosophy of democracy: that democratic ideals must be complemented by democratic attitudes. In other words, the democratic spirit is what really animates a democracy, not simply its institutions and legal safeguards. Consistent with this analysis is Locke’s stagewise progression from political to economic democracy, in which human values (on which political democracy is ostensibly based) can and must be linked to economic values.

Economic Democracy: While his theory of democracy encompasses a wide range of dimensions, first and foremost in Locke’s mind were issues of race and class. Indeed, they tied into each other. You could almost “bank” on race, as it were, in that “white privilege,” by and large, entailed a minority underclass. Although Locke was no economist, he clearly understood that reality. It was totally obvious in the ghettoes. Economic reform was a necessary development of democracy:
The fourth crucial stage in the enlargement of democracy began, I think, with the income tax amendment. Woodrow Wilson tried to put into operation an extension of democracy which may well have been seriously hindered by World War number one. The income tax [A]mendment was an initial step in social [economic] democracy as distinguished from the purely political,—a step toward economic equality through the partial appropriation of surplus wealth for the benefit of the commonwealth.

In this country for many generations we thought we had economic equality. What we really had was a frontier expansion which developed such surpluses and offered such practical equality of opportunity as to give us the illusion of economic equality. We later learned that we did not have economic democracy, and that in order to have this, we must have guaranteed to all citizens certain minimal standards of living and the right to earn a living. Faced with the crisis of unemployment, the New Deal has been confronted with the problem of inaugurating some of these beginnings of economic democracy and of constitutionally implementing a larger measure of social justice. The whole program of what is now called [S]ocial [S]ecurity is directed toward such objectives.782


Race and class being his primary concerns, Locke did not try to improve upon political democracy as such. He endorsed political democracy, for it is the sine qua non of a democratic society and the foundation of all subsequent democratic developments. Locke took political democracy as a point of departure for his discussion of the other dimensions or extensions of democracy. This rhetorical strategy served to inspire confidence in his audiences that his message was not politically subversive. Rather, it was quintessentially “American” and, more importantly, was aimed at resolving some of the major contradictions in the practice of democracy.

Locke spoke of “the two basic economic roots of war—unequal access to markets and sources of raw materials and widespread differentials of living standards and economic security.”783 Locke taught that political freedom ought to lead to economic equality. What Locke means by economic democracy is an “equitable distribution of wealth.”784 Redistribution of surplus wealth is part and parcel of that process. But what about the connection between economic democracy and race? In the conclusion of an unpublished essay, “Peace Between Black and White in the United States,” Locke wrote:


We used to say that Christianity and democracy were both at stake in the equitable solution of the race question. They were; but they were abstract ideals that did not bleed when injured. Now we think with more realistic logic, perhaps, that economic justice cannot stand on one foot; and economic reconstruction is the dominant demand of the present-day American scene.785
But just as political democracy is a necessary but not a sufficient requirement for a fully democratic society, so also is economic democracy. But even if, in theory, equality of opportunity existed and economic equality could be achieved, intercommunal conflict would not be resolved. America, although prosperous by virtue of its free market economy, still had to deal with the “original sin” of slavery and its social, educational, and economic consequences.

Cultural Democracy: Locke’s next form of democracy is clear enough, although his name for it (“cultural democracy”) is not so much “cultural” as it is “communal.” Locke sums up the problem he is addressing as follows: “Less acute than race prejudice, but by no means unrelated to it, is the social bias and discrimination underlying the problem of cultural minorities. […] Cultural bias, like that directed against the Mexican, Orientals, the Jew, the American Indian, often intensifies into racial prejudice.”786 As an antidote to this social ill, Locke advocates cultural pluralism, and rejects “Americanization,” whether forced or coerced by social pressures. Think of “culture” in this context as analogous to the idea of a “corporate culture.” As Locke explains:
A fifth phase of democracy, even if the preceding four are realized, still remains to be achieved in order to have a fully balanced society. The present crisis forces us to realize that without this also democracy may go into total eclipse. This fifth phase is the struggle for cultural democracy, and rests on the concept of the right of difference,—that is, the guarantee of the rights of minorities. Again in the colonial days, we achieved the basic ideals of this crucial aspect of democracy, but scarcely realized them in fact. Today we have the same problems of the freedom of speech, worship and conscience, but in a complex modern situation these things are even more difficult to work out.

One of our greatest problems then today is a real democratic reciprocity for minorities of all sorts, both as over against the so-called majority and among themselves. These contemporary problems of democracy can be vividly sensed if we realize that the race question is at the very heart of this struggle for cultural democracy. Its solution lies beyond even the realization of political and economic democracy, although of course that solution can only be reached when we no longer have extreme political inequality and extreme economic inequality.787


Given the latitude of meaning inherent in Locke’s use of the term “cultural,” perhaps it would not be tautologous or redundant to say that “cultural democracy” can effectively be served by culture. This is where the Harlem Renaissance fits in. During its heyday, and throughout the post-Renaissance period, Locke expressed the hope that “our writers and artists” would achieve a “victory” through “a psychological conquest of racism, prejudice and cultural intolerance.”788 His race loyalty was the gold vein in a rock of solidarity with the rest of humanity. Alain Locke was both a “race man” and an integrationist. So what is the role of culture in a “cultural democracy”?
This significant work should become one of the permanently representative American classics. […] [I]ts beauty and originality transcend, verbally and musically, most of the chants for democracy that the [international] crisis has inspired.789
Certainly Locke was correct in attacking the problem of racism at its very root—social consciousness. But his audience was rather circumscribed. The “Talented Tenth” of elite artists and writers probably reached far less than, say, a “targeted tenth” of the population. And that segment of the population was the proverbial “choir” to whom Locke preached. Nonetheless, while Locke’s efforts to use culture as a weapon against racism largely failed in the short run, it was a significant failure, and not a total one at that. If anything, it was a temporary failure, for now there is a renaissance of Locke studies, and his message is being heard again, in concert with those who are sustaining there concerted effort to eradicate racism in order to bring about a true democracy.

Racial Democracy: Cultural democracy really cannot be divorced from racial democracy. Americans needed to see the limitations of their popular concepts of democracy, and to expand their notions of it. In the Jim Crow era, America still turned a blind eye to its glaring contradiction as a professedly democratic nation, and public intellectuals perforce had to create an awareness that there was something very flawed about American democracy—not in principle, but in practice. In this respect, Alain Locke was a precursor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In concentrating “almost surgically on the social pathology and hygiene of race,” the good Dr. Locke dispensed “good medicine for the social mind and strong tonic for our social will.”790

“[T]he race question,” wrote Locke in 1949, “has become the number one problem of the world.”791 The next statement follows from the first: “Race,” Locke states, “really is a dominant issue of our thinking about democracy[.]”792 In his small book, World View on Race and Democracy: A Study Guide in Human Group Relations, Locke states this another way: “Of all the barriers limiting democracy, color is the greatest, whether viewed from a standpoint of national or world democracy.”793 Locke sees this as part of “total democracy.”794

Like Frederick Douglass, Locke was alive to this glaring contradiction but was careful in how he developed the contrast and presented the naked truth about the arrested development of democracy and its evils. At a popular level, an artist can be more effective than a politician, particularly because of the pathos the artist is able to generation in his or her audience. The pathos of the victims of democracy is recreated and vicariously experienced by the audience in drama, such a portrayal of democracy stands in stark contrast to the traditionally white Anglo-Saxon Protestant celebration of it. In the wake of the Red Summer of 1919, Locke, in his review of the play, And They Lynched Him on a Tree, refers to Walt Whitman’s valorisation of democracy, but treats his patriotic exuberant adulation of America as an arrested stage in the popular understanding of democracy. And so the play, And They Lynched Him on a Tree, speaks volumes about the need for a racial democracy:
In the days of its youth, democracy needed, no doubt, the lusty praise and encomiums of a Walt Whitman; and many of the contemporary works on this theme [democracy] have obviously the Whitman flavor. But democracy today needs sober criticism, even courageous chastising, and […] And They Lynched Him on a Tree gives our democracy in crisis just that much-needed heroic challenge and criticism. So doing, it universalizes its particular theme and expands a Negro tragedy into a purging and inspiring plea for justice and a fuller democracy. When, on occasion, art rises to this level, it fuses truth with beauty, and in addition to being a sword for the times it is likely to remain, as a thing of beauty, a joy forever.795

Prophetically, Locke forged a linkage between racism as an American problem and racism as a world problem, as he explicitly states: “race as a symbol of misunderstanding has become fully the great tragedy of our time, both nationally and internationally.”796 Race is the crux, the litmus test, the hinge on which the entire project of democracy hangs. In an unpublished report on racism, Locke writes:


The American race problem may eventually become just a phase and segment of the world relationship of races, and in slight degree it is already in process of becoming so. Historically, and in the general American thought of it, whether among the Negro minority or the white majority, it is thought of as peculiarly and exclusively a national problem. In some respects, its situations are relatively unique. […] So, as between the white and the black peoples, the American situation is the acid test of the whole problem; and will be crucial in its outcome for the rest of the world. This makes America, in the judgment of many, the world’s laboratory for the progressive solution of this great problem of social adjustment.797
Locke takes Christianity to task for what today is called self-segregation: “It is a sad irony,” Alain Locke wrote, “that the social institution most committed and potentially most capable of implementing social democracy should actually be the weakest and most inconsistent, organized religion.”798 Particularly egregious, in Locke’s view, is what today is termed “self-segregation”: “Of all the segregated bodies, the racially separate church is the saddest and most obviously self-contradicting. The separate Negro church, organized in self-defensive protest, is nonetheless just as anaomolous [sic], though perhaps, more pardonably so.”799 Locke’s remark presaged those of the Rev. Billy Graham and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom later observed that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America.

This social fact was not lost on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who stated that Sunday morning was the most racially segregated time in American life. This continues to be a problem to this day. Self-segregation has been raised to the context of a Christian issue in Niebuhr’s famous book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism. “But as Buell Gallagher points out in Color and Conscience,” Locke continues, “the separate church of any type stands self-contradicted; [,] from both the religious and the democratic points of view.” Locke here refers to the book, Color and Conscience: The Irrepressible Conflict (1946) by Buell Gordon Gallagher (1904–1979). Locke goes on to say: “However, as Gallagher remarks, it is only in the true democracy of the few pioneer interracial churches that the movement for a return to first principles is really vitally alive.”800 Such “pioneer” churches are, in the words of Gallagher as quoted by Locke, “not mere experiments,[;] they are a prophecy.”801

Endorsing Buell Gallagher’s clarion call to “bring the whole family of God within the circle of brotherhood,” Locke comments: “It is because religious liberals are beginning to think and act in such realistic but at the same time logical fashion that there is renewed hope for some early progress toward racial and social and cultural democracy.”802 Here, Locke is a participant observer. As a “universalist in religion”—as he describes himself in his psychograph—Locke was one of the religious liberals of whom he spoke.

As the acknowledged “Dean” or ideologue of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke may be considered a black nationalist. From his days at Oxford, Locke knew that his destiny was to be a “race man” and champion of his people. As an integrationist, however, Locke’s “race loyalty” was part of a more sweeping and transcendent vision of interracial unity. In an unpublished reflection on the Harlem experience, Locke states: “There is the so-called ‘New Negro movement,’ which deliberately aims at capitalizing race consciousness for group inspiration and cultural development. But it has no political or separatist motives, and is, in this one respect, different from the nationalisms of other suppressed minorities.”803 Now that the Harlem Renaissance is history, Locke’s thought on race relations takes on a renewed relevance. There is a linkage here between racial equality and cultural pluralism, on both a national level and on a world scale. Racial democracy can hardly be divorced from world democracy. Issues of race pervade Locke’s philosophical dimensions, creating an ideological fugue that unifies Locke’s ideological music. Indeed, it was Locke who internationalized the issue racial justice, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for racial democracy.


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