Purpose & Scope

In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that “the function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.”  For Du Bois, the problem of the 20th century was “the problem of the color-line.” It is knowledge of the color-line, and action against it, that formed his life’s work, both in the university and in the world.

We launch the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin to understand and transform the divides and dispossessions, the “color-lines”, of the 21st century. At a time of unprecedented income inequality in the United States, we join the growing call for rigorous analysis of the processes through which such inequality has been produced, that recognizes the corrosive effects of the warehousing of wealth and power on civic life, and that seeks to undo such inequality through new frameworks of redistribution and democratic politics.

The following are key elements of the scope of the Institute:

In the United States, we pay close attention to current patterns of income and wealth inequality and the various proposals to enact economic justice. We argue that such issues are entangled with the unfinished work of racial justice.  In particular, a critical understanding of racial exclusion allows us to understand how liberal democracy is constituted through inequality. Not reducible to economic disadvantage, and yet embedded in the global economy, the color-lines of the 21st century demand analysis of interconnected processes such as predatory financialization, mass incarceration, political disenfranchisement, and spatial redlining.

We think across North and South, noting that the rearrangement of the global economy and global governance requires new lines of inquiry about human development and social redistribution. Instead of the U.S. as the pivot of our work, we pay attention to how in the populous democracies of the world (for example, India, Brazil, and South Africa), where poverty and segregation persist, social mobilizations and political dissent have prompted incomplete but promising programs of inclusive growth and social protection that are taking center stage in global debates.  It is from this vantage point that we return to the North Atlantic and its current moment of austerity and attenuated welfare systems to contemplate the politics of redistribution possible at a time of crisis. For us, academic inquiry can play a crucial role at such conjunctures, expanding the scope of debate beyond politically expedient solutions to consider progressive utopias and radical alternatives.

We start with the work of subordinated peoples and marginalized communities in foregrounding and contesting entrenched exclusions in an era of economic prosperity and liberal democracy.  We believe that such movements create political openings for social change, that they craft the conceptual vocabularies for social justice, and that they produce a worldliness that connects North and South. In particular, they inspire us to think of democracy in expansive terms, as much more than electoral democracy, as the right to the city, as basic minimum income, as civil and financial disobedience, as black futures, and above all as what philosopher Achille Mbembe delineates as “democracy as a community of life.” We aim to mobilize the capacity of the research university to serve as an ally for these efforts to create globally interconnected democratic futures.

Keeping in simultaneous view the tenacity of inequality and potentiality of democracy, we are keenly aware of our location in Los Angeles.  We conceptualize this location as global LA, a city shaped by global wealth and power as well as by transnational geographies of community organizing. In particular, Los Angeles allows us to study the relationship between wealth and urban change, including through a focus on structures and processes such as gentrification, philanthrocapitalism, and the privatization of public policy reform.

Equally our location is in the public university, which we view as a vitally important institution for the remaking of American democracy and the unmaking of precarity.  The public university has an intimate relationship with the “real life” of which Du Bois wrote, and we believe that this intimacy generates a responsibility for public affairs and an impulse to educate a next generation for whom citizenry is not an enclave of privilege but rather shared and collective existence amidst difference. The University of California is an especially propitious home for our institute. Like liberal democracy, the public university at once bears the promise of inclusion and manifests the persistence of exclusion.  Inspired by a new generation of student mobilizations, we hope to transform the university.

East Liberty Busway Station by Eden McNutt