American Individualism and Structural Injustice: Tocqueville, Gender, and Race

Introduction 

Historically renowned individuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois believe that individualist ideology has a direct effect on social and economic democratization. In current research, economists and political scientists have discovered that individualistic individuals are less likely to back up programs that advocate for the equality of minorities and the impoverished. White Americans assume that self-discipline and strong willpower correspond to success and therefore they disapprove of policies that work to provide assistance to historically oppressed individuals. Alexis de Tocqueville’s arguments protrude as the focus of the article, and the author sets out to analyze his claims. One of Tocqueville’s main arguments is that American individualists are ignorant to the ways social structures constricts opportunities for the oppressed. As introduced by Jose Lopez and John Scott, social structure has two dimensions, institutional structure and relational structure. Tocqueville confirms that American individualists are insensitive to both.

Tocqueville on American Individualism 

Turner dives deeper into Tocqueville’s arguments and identifies his description of individualism as a method of public disengagement. In other words, since the government is preserving the property of individualists and allows them to be happy, the individualist is willing to abandon the larger society and places them on their own to tend to their own needs. Tocqueville asserts that this thought process of individualism stems from false judgments. He categorizes an individualist as someone who has extreme self-confidence but narrow sociological awareness. Turner acknowledges Tocqueville’s use of individualism to describe the aspects of personal self-conception and social interpretation that, in turn, generate public disengagement. The increase in democracy leads to a decrease in the social hierarchy and an increase in economic self-sufficiency. By isolating oneself from society, individuals feel that they possess no obligation to anyone and that they do not need anything from anyone else. Isolating oneself from humanity also consists of regarding oneself as free from social debts and Tocqueville recognizes this allure. 

Individualism and Gender Domination

Tocqueville distinguishes that the sexual division of labor is both a relational and institutional social structure. The sexual division of labor is a relational social structure because of the clear separation between a husband’s job as a breadwinner and the women’s, consisting of household work. Correspondingly, it is also an institutional social structure because of the widespread comprehensiveness of the expectations of the man and woman of the household. Turner expands on Tocqueville’s points and declares that individualistic self-conception and social interpretation hinder men from being grateful for the sacrifices women make to contribute to men’s freedom, independence, and happiness. Tocqueville categorizes two ways that women promote overall greatness, those being that women craft the mores that restrain democracy’s excesses and that women manage the home economy. He concludes by exposing individualistic views flaw in their self-conceptions because men forget that women are the ones who made them independent, in particular his mother, and that his wife allows him to live self-sufficiently. 

Individualism and White Supremacy

Tocqueville’s opinion of white supremacy reveals individualist’s reliance on racist social structures to further social positions and increase self-esteem. As described in the previous section, white supremacy also has both relational and institutional aspects attached to it. Tocqueville argues that individualism was more common at the end of the democratic revolution than ever before because new independence came with power that citizens had never felt before. There is a natural prejudice, Tocqueville argues, that continues our racism, even after everyone is deemed equals. White Americans possess a sense of entitlement and are not fond of individuals who were once slaves enjoying the same freedoms that they do, because it intercepts white’s authority and power. Tocqueville defines American’s idea of dignity as personal freedom and independence and recognizes how slavery sought to diminish all dignity a human held.

Conclusion: Tocqueville’s Mirror

Turner clarifies the importance of Tocqueville’s opinions and his work of Democracy in America because it clearly defines the relationship between American individualism and social injustices. Individualists deny the importance and existence of social structure and see themselves as the controllers of their own fate. In this way, individualists attribute to social injustice because their ideals contest that the goals attained in life are due to hard-work and how bad an individual wants something, when this is clearly not the case. Democracy helps to show a clear association of how individualist ideology, masculinist prejudice, and anti-black racism are rooted in American political values. 

2 Comments

  1. I connected this article directly to a conversation held in my SOC 100 class last year and the discussion in this SOC 301 class. To begin, my professor from SOC 100 prompted the class to consider the topic of affirmative action. The minority students that would benefit from this policy advocated for the reintegration of it, while white students had a completely opposite response. We are socialized our entire life to believe that individual merit and hard-work leads to success, but this does not take into account the racism built into societal structures. The majority of white students in my class disapproved of affirmative action on the basis of their individualism. They regarded affirmative action policies as reverse racism, by allowing unqualified minorities to receive a position that a white individual was better equipped for. This concept of affirmative action was disproved of by Professor Alan Rudy in my SOC 301 class, as he explained through a diagram that the minorities chosen are just as equally qualified as whites, and that the policy sets out to encourage diversity, which should not pose as a threat to whites. A number of the white students in my class fell to the ideals of individualism and the article confirms that these individualistic individuals are less willing to support programs, such as affirmative action, that aid in providing some sense of equality to minorities that we have systematically placed at a disadvantage. In my personal opinion, reverse racism to whites does not exist. White skin reaps nothing but benefits and I believe we should be helping minorities flourish, because they are not offered the means to “pull their bootstraps up” in American society. Our discussion in SOC 301 furthered my conception of individualists and the class categorized them as success oriented, self-disciplined, motivated, hard-working, independent, self-made, reliant on public relations, entrepreneurial, possess a moral upstanding and we said that they plan for contingency. Contrary to individualist’s belief, success is not reliant on personal willpower, but rather, the wealth and skin color we are born into. Minorities are born into poverty and do not have access to money or proper education. Individual merit will not release them from poverty, because poverty is a never-ending cycle that is nearly impossible to escape from. Whites despise policies that favor minorities, such as affirmative action, although white skin color has facilitated and promoted our prosperity throughout life. We should be more willing to adopt policies that allow minorities to obtain success equivalent to whites after the hundreds of years of racism and unfairness. America, as a whole, needs to dispose of the individualist ideals that perceive success only as an outcome of personal endeavors, and see it instead as a concept that contains structural obstacles that only allow the white and rich to pass. By basing success on an individual’s hard-work, this permits us to blame the poor and be oblivious to the structural injustices that attribute to the cycle of poverty. Individualism enables the finger to be pointed at minorities, although their inability to reach success is not their fault.

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  2. The blog here is very good and, though it’s a little weird to connect the article to the class discussion in the course where it was assigned, the personal essay is ok, too. Be very careful not to write as if all whites are successful because of their whiteness or that all historically oppressed minorities grow up in poverty. While there remains white privilege among low income whites – relative to low income blacks – that privilege does not mean they can compete with middle and upper income whites or upper income and well educated Blacks. Class and gender always cut across race as much as race cuts across class and gender.

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