Inaugurations are symbolic events, this year’s most of all. The pomp and circumstance was wholly symbolic because there was no transition of power, and the president and vice president had taken the official oath of office the previous day. The inauguration also neatly symbolized the layers of America’s racial history, as the country’s first black president was re-inaugurated on Martin Luther King Day, 150 years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Infused with powerful and fraught symbols at every turn, January 21, 2013, was more a poetic text than a government event.
It would be easy to dismiss the president’s inaugural address as wholly symbolic as well, as just seductive rhetoric that lacks substance. Political oratory is a poor substitute for public policy, but symbolism is not entirely divorced from political outcomes. There was one moment in particular in President Obama’s speech that deserves to be considered as a substantive contribution to our democracy, even if no direct policy changes emerge from it:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.
When the president name-checked the watershed moments of the women’s rights, civil rights and LGBT equality movements, he offered a powerful moment of official recognition. And recognition matters, even if there is no explicit policy agenda immediately attached to it. I am not implying that the Obama administration lacks a policy agenda to advance the social, legal and economic equality of those groups. And I am not suggesting that this speech is sufficient to realize that end, or that these rhetorical flourishes liberate the Obama administration from political accountability to these constituencies.
Still, we can judge the value of this statement as a symbol separate and apart from any subsequent policy outcomes. It matters, in and of itself, because recognition is intrinsically valuable in a democracy. As I argue in my latest book, Sister Citizen, mutual affirming recognition is the practice that allows citizens to operate as equals.
Typically, we think about justice in terms of distribution: how many economic resources, educational opportunities or political pathways, for example, are available to various groups and individuals. This is a reasonable but limited way to think about fairness. Citizens want more than a fair distribution of resources; they also desire—and are willing to sacrifice for—accurate, meaningful and mutual recognition of their humanity and uniqueness.
I cringe at metaphors implying the similarity of the state and the family, but recognition is usefully framed in a familial context. Children experience connection to and fairness within the family in terms of opportunities for recognition, even if all children are given the same material resources. Fair parents observe, engage and recognize all their children just as surely as they feed, shelter and educate them. Members of a national body share a similar desire to be seen and recognized by the state. A system is not fair if citizens do not enjoy equal opportunities for public recognition.