Book Review: Michael Merry – Equality, Citizenship, and Segregation

Equality Citizenship and SegregationI have recently read Michael Merry‘s new book entitled Equality, Citizenship, and Segregation (2013). Merry is professor of philosophy of education at the University of Amsterdam and has published several books on education, citizenship, and cultural identity. In this post, I will write a review of his latest establishment.

Merry believes, and I think rightfully so, that integration policies for stigmatized groups do not always lead to the desired results: providing these groups with the opportunities to build meaningful civic virtues and to gain self-respect. He argues against the myth that integration is the best possible means through which we can encourage social groups to participate meaningfully within society. Merry contends that segregation may actually be a better alternative to integration.

First, I will set the context in which he investigates this thesis. Then I will critically reflect on Merry’s arguments, showing its flaws and virtues.

Setting the context

The notion of segregation and separation often brings up such negative associations as racial discrimination, restriction of economic opportunities, and social alienation of cultural or ethnic groups. Integration on the other hand, has often been praised as the means by which different social groups in a liberal democratic society can come together under mutual understanding and respect, which effectively leads to greater equality and meaningful citizenship. Integrationism, the deep belief that integration always promotes equality and citizenship, is exactly what Michael Merry has skillfully criticized in Equality, Citizenship, and Segregation (2013). Merry provides a critique of integrationism from the perspectives of a political theorist and educational philosopher while resorting to pragmatic case studies. He writes that the period he focuses on is the “here and now” (p. 13), and that stigmatized minorities are those “to and for whom” (p. 15) his argument for Voluntary Separation applies. He critiques the current consensus that separation necessarily causes inequalities, and he critiques the current integrationist strategy of liberal democracies in dealing with stigmatized minority groups. The book comes at a time when many states are multi-cultural, and when states are highly struggling with what Merry calls “the problem of pluralism” (p. 62). In a section on religion for example, he sketches the multi-cultural background of the Netherlands which has a “population of 16.7 million inhabitants, of whom 1.6 million (9.3 percent) are Western immigrants and 1.9 million (11.6 percent) are non-Western immigrants” (p. 95). The context in which integrationism takes place is the “unprecedented levels of non-Western immigration, high unemployment, a swelling elderly population, and ever-present xenophobic sentiments” (p. 93). Merry’s thesis is extremely relevant with this background in mind. He reminds us in a time when xenophobic sentiments have infused political debates on integration, that in order to achieve better democracies we should not forget the importance of particularities that make social groups different. He attempts to provide us with an answer how states can reconcile the various beliefs and values among society’s members so that society does not fall apart into splintered cultural groups that bear enmity towards one another. A “politics of integration” (p. 93) seems to be a common response to the problem of pluralism in Europe. However, according to Merry, we should not lose sights of the aim of liberal democracies which is to ensure greater equality and meaningful citizenship. He tells us that we should therefore judge integrationist policies for the extent to which they have realized these aims. Merry argues that Voluntary Separation, in contrast to integration, sometimes gives stigmatized groups the opportunities to build meaningful civic virtues and to gain much self-respect which are impossible when these groups are stigmatized by a majority in an integrationist setting. He believes that from this sense of self-respect, stigmatized people can build bridges with majority non-stigmatized groups. According to Merry we would do more harm than good when we would pressure integrationist policies unto the marginalized in the particular cases when integration ignores the interests of the stigmatized groups. In such cases, Voluntary Separation is a viable alternative to integration.

In order to frame his thesis, Merry primarily focuses on the principles of equality and citizenship as there is a strong correlation between these principles and integration. Both these principles are, by many, considered to be the aims of integrationist policies. For this reason, I will separate Merry’s thesis into two separate arguments: (1) the argument of Voluntary Separation for equality; and (2) the argument of Voluntary Separation for meaningful citizenship. Since schools have historically been seen as the most effective means by which the political aims of integration can be enacted, I will mainly place Merry’s thesis in the educational context as he himself has done.

Merry’s thesis

Firstly, it is important to note what Merry means when he refers to the words ‘separation’ or ‘segregation’, and ‘stigma’. Segregation is the separation of groups on “some characteristic, such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, gender, religion, employment status, or language” (p. 2). Stigma’s can be attached to such characteristics, and suggest “strong disapproval of some unspecified person or the group(s) they belong to by most members of the relevant majority group(s)” (p. 1). According to Merry, integration rests on the principle of equality and the principle of citizenship, which is believed by many to be effectively in contrast with the notion of segregation.

Voluntary Separation for equality
The principle of equality stems from the philosophical idea that every person deserves equal rights and fair opportunities. The common view of integrationists is that segregation undermines equality while integration restructures group relations in such a way that inter-group anxieties and hostilities are relaxed so that members of different social groups can cooperate as equals. One core purpose of equality, according to Merry, is to “secure liberty for all on terms of equal recognition and treatment” (p. 55). The equal recognition aspect refers to the state’s treatment of its citizens as moral equals. It “corresponds with an equality of self-respect” (p. 55). According to Merry, self-respect is indispensable for the promotion of equality. Self-respect is a value, closely related with personal dignity, which can be promoted when we are allowed the liberties to pursue our own ends. It is a sense of self-importance, and it is based on intrinsic worth. (p. 69) Merry questions the notion that integration always ultimately fosters greater self-respect. Self-respect, according to Merry, is dependent on many different factors such as “peer relations, parental intimacy, neighborhood safety, and community support” (p. 70). These factors are not always available in integrated settings, especially when the majority determines the terms of equality and stigmatizes minorities. Equality requires recognition from an equal member, and sometimes the stigmatized can only find recognition from particular social networks. Members of these networks can “nourish and sustain a sense of belonging and attachment” (p. 71). The opportunity aspect refers to the equal opportunities that citizens should have. According to Merry, equal opportunities require a distribution of resources that facilitates the disadvantaged to pursue a life that they find worthwhile. (pp. 55-56) Most people believe that the social inequalities require a political elite who can distribute opportunities fairly among all citizens. Schools are important targets for integrationists as they are institutions where all children spend much of their lifetime. They believe that in an integrated setting, children from different cultures can experience intercultural interaction so that they build mutual understanding and respect. This would hence make power-sharing possible. In order to promote equality and fair opportunities in the educational sphere, states provide public education to which all children of any background have access. Many believe that it will enhance all pupils’ flourishing so that all children can one day reap the opportunities of their naturally enhanced abilities and interests. Integrationists assume that only integrated schools, as a type of educational institute, are capable of achieving equality – meaning that they are capable of supplying social and cultural capital to enable its members to live in a multicultural society (pp. 58-59). However, even though there is broad consensus that education should serve the promotion of equality, the interpretation of what educational policies are best is still much debated (p. 59). Moreover, integrated public schools can also be places of intolerance, bullying, and inter-ethnic tension. In contrast to what integrationists believe, Merry insists that a voluntarily separated school is able to provide the right environment that fosters both self-respect and fair opportunities. In an example of voluntarily separated religious schools, Merry maintains that an Islamic child can feel much more appreciated and understood in an Islamic school, because they share Islamic cultural values with their teachers and peers. The Islamic school can therefore “include a caring ethos, cultural recognition, and positive role modeling” (p. 114) for the Islamic child, which the child may be unable to receive in an integrated school. Attending Islamic schools provides the Islamic child “equal recognition and treatment as well as enhanced self-respect” (p. 115) so that they become emancipated and eventually demonstrate civic participation. However, according to Merry, the aim of Voluntary Separation should still be “to control and determine, within limitations set by the state (e.g., teacher certification, graduation requirements), the staff, values, curricula, and instructional design of the school with a view to promoting equality” (p. 72).

Next I will discuss Merry’s argument that Voluntary Separation can foster meaningful citizenship for stigmatized groups.

Voluntary Separation for citizenship
With ‘integration for citizenship’, Merry refers to the “promise of more democratic access” (p. 25) of persons who are marginalized through stigma and social exclusion. Most political theorists endorse the Aristotelian view that the citizen “should be moulded to suit the form of government under which he lives” (p. 60). The challenge of citizenship is to reconcile a variety of practices and beliefs among society’s members in order to maintain a stable society. Merry calls this the problem of pluralism. (p. 62) Value pluralism may clash with fundamental principles of a liberal democracy. How should one for example deal with honor killings or usury which may or may not be accepted in different cultural groups? Merry maintains that in order to deal with value pluralism, a society should encourage toleration and mutual respect through the cultivation of civic virtue and civic engagement (p. 61). He believes that civic virtues strengthen the communal good. It is rooted in an individual’s character, but takes into consideration the interests of other members in society. Melissa Williams describes citizenship as “shared fate” (p. 30) and that it requires the following civic virtues:

The capacity for enlarged thought; the imaginative capacity to see oneself as bound up with others through relations of interdependence as well as through shared history and institutions; and the capacity to reshape the shared practices and institutions of one’s environment through direct participation. (p. 30)

In the educational sphere, students are expected to have some knowledge of political rights and political history. It is assumed that once they have such knowledge, they become more aware of the obligations that they hold towards other citizens or even towards common humanity. (p. 64) With regards to the problem of pluralism, education for citizenship should be attentive of shared values. A shared notion of citizenship promotes more “equality of recognition, status, and treatment” (p. 64). The people’s equal footing makes it also possible that disagreements can be discussed and agreements can be reached in the public sphere. Whereas the integrationists believe that shared fate is promoted through the integration of minorities, Merry asserts that civic virtues are oftentimes facilitated in environments where social trust is strongest. These environments are often environments with “local and fairly homogeneous networks” (p. 73). Such networks emerge spontaneously when members of a particular background naturally feel attracted to each other due to their particular cultural needs. According to Merry, the spatial concentration of particular stigmatized groups facilitates greater trust among the members, which gives rise to better social cooperation and more civic participation. (p. 76) In an example of Voluntary Separation in the educational sphere, Merry writes that African centred education can give black children epistemological benefits, because they are enabled to study “within a meaningful and relevant cultural framework” (p. 129). He believes that some black children “will not possess the tools for questioning their cultural bearings without first being led to a world view that focuses on individuals of African descent” (p. 129). African centred education encourages emancipation and empowerment of black people through discovery of the authentic self and, without which black children are unable to understand the political climate and civic virtues. It can moreover bring about group solidarity which is necessary for a group to “operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralistic society” (p. 130). The group can then build bridges with other social groups from a renewed status of empowerment, effectively resulting in greater civic participation. African centred education does not necessarily mean that its proponents reject knowledge offered by non-African centred perspectives. It can be inclusive of the best and most valuable knowledge that mainstream culture has to offer. (pp. 130-131)

Now that Merry’s general defense of Voluntary Separation has been discussed, I will turn to some personal thoughts on Merry’s thesis.

Thoughts on Merry’s thesis

Merry has persistently criticized the myth of integrationism, “the belief that integration will serve as a proxy for justice” (p. 163). Interestingly, his critique comes at a time when the values of integration in the multi-cultural context are barely questioned. For this reason, the book is a welcome surprise and may help to open up the debate on the values of integration. The insistence of integrating different cultural groups may indeed exact a very high price. Purposeful positive discrimination of minorities for the sake of integration, like for example well-intentioned diversity hiring in corporations or colleges, is actually contra to the principle of equal opportunities based on personal skills. The question that Merry really asks in this book is: does integration always encourage the principles of equality and meaningful citizenship? He answers the question with a stern no. If not, then we should allow Voluntary Separation on the condition that it cultivates these principles. This clearly shows that Merry is a consequentialist who first and foremost favours any policy that is compatible with and contributing to equality and civic participation. One may ask to what extent the Voluntary Separation that he advocates is actually voluntary if it is only allowed as long as it fosters equality and meaningful citizenship. Merry has rightfully acknowledged that “[M]any will stumble on this choice of words [Voluntary Separation]” (p. 1). However, whereas Merry believes that many will stumble on this choice of words due to their assumption that separation is necessarily non-compatible with ideals of equality and meaningful citizenship, one could also stumble on the use of the word ‘voluntary’. Voluntaryists or libertarian anarchists associate the word ‘voluntary’ with liberty and the absence of state compulsion (Mack, 1978, p. 300). However, this notion of voluntaryism is not what Merry has in mind when he advocates Voluntary Separation. In contrast to advocating an absence of state compulsion, Merry favours state intervention as long as it promotes the principles of equality and meaningful citizenship. When reading the book, one may rightfully raise the following question: what is the role of liberty in Merry’s Voluntary Separation thesis? Merry shortly refers to liberty when he writes that “[E]quality without liberty is little more than uniformity. Nor is citizenship without liberty much more than rhetoric” (Merry, 2013, pp. 5-6). Even though he has attached importance to liberty, and has called it a third principle of a liberal democracy (p. 5), it seems that Merry should have elaborated more on his choice to leave out liberty in his discussions on integration. Liberty and equality are sometimes irreconcilable – at least to some extent. For instance, the redistribution of resources to encourage equality can only happen when the state, to some extent, restricts the tax payers’ liberty to spend their money as they please. If, on the other hand, there is ultimate and unconstrained liberty to do whatever we please we may end up with no liberty at all as chaos would rule. Hence, there must be some delicate balance between equality and liberty. Unfortunately, Merry has not discussed this balance in detail. It is for these reasons – Merry’s consequentialism and a disregard of liberty in his thesis – that the natural rightist voluntaryist political philosopher may find this book lacking in providing a principled defense of separation. In addition, Merry has presumed throughout the book that equality and meaningful citizenship are important core principles of a liberal democracy and that they should always be promoted. However, without an extensive provision of validations why equality and citizenship are so important, the book can only possibly appeal to those who are already convinced of the ultimate good of democracy, equality, and citizenship.

Merry furthermore agrees with Aristotle that citizens should be moulded in such a way that they suit the form of government they live in, but he does not attempt to validate this claim. The danger of this view, I believe, is that citizens become regarded as the means to preserve a particular form of government as if the preservation of a particular government is the purpose of citizenship. However, even though many people believe that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried from time to time” (Churchill, 1947), it would be pretentious to believe that forms of government or societal organizations do not evolve or that we already have found the right form of government – namely democracy. One way to achieve changes to our societal organizations is by revolting against the current societal organization and by speaking out against it. It requires emancipative powers like courage and self-respect, and a sociological imagination. Merry has maintained that Voluntary Separation can promote emancipation and self-respect. However to what extent can we be truly emancipated if we do not have the liberty to associate voluntarily with the form of government we live in? It seems to me that Merry’s thesis for Voluntary Separation leaves little room for genuine opposition to current forms of government if one is not allowed to separate from society on claims other than equality and citizenship. While Merry’s notion of Voluntary Separation is a broadening of the imagination of what is politically and sociologically possible, it still does not fully embrace the possibilities of genuine revolutions for the stigmatized. What if particular stigmatized social groups do not find that the equality that society at large strives for is fair, and what if these groups favour inequality and a purely meritocratic society? What if their values are so radically different from the values of the majority that the two groups become irreconcilable? What if some stigmatized groups believe that there are no civic duties, except the duty to be responsible for your own actions and to respect the libertarian non-aggression principle? Indeed, Merry would deny their refuge to ‘genuine’ Voluntary Separation as their demands are in contrast with the principles of current western liberal democracies.

A great feature of the book is that Merry applies the Voluntary Separation thesis in the educational sphere, which makes the book not only suitable for discussions on general political philosophy, but also for discussions in the philosophy of education. One could however argue that Merry, to some extent, has disregarded the politics of power in the educational sphere. He writes that Voluntary Separation should happen only in contexts where the state can regulate teacher certifications and graduation requirements among other things (Merry, 2013, p. 72). Merry assumes that the state can enhance a certain educational quality – both in the integrationist and in the Voluntary Separatist settings – which ensures that students develop self-respect and civic virtues. This however, raises the following question: to what extent should the state play a role in civic education, and does our current public education really encourage self-respect? According to John Taylor Gatto, it is in the interest of the state to “dumb people down, to demoralize them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don’t conform” (Gatto, 2009, p. xx). A citizenry that asks too many questions is a threat to the state. The educational philosopher Paolo Freire refers to the educational methodology of demoralization as the “banking concept of education” (Freire, 1970, p. 72). Under the banking concept, students are regarded as banking accounts which merely receives, files, and stores the deposits. Students are projected to be absolutely ignorant, which by itself is a characteristic of oppression. When children leave schools they will lack any sociological imagination, any self-respect, and they cannot critically assess the status quo. On one hand, Merry believes that self-respect should always be encouraged as it is the basis for equality, but on the other hand he seems to have naively accepted the state’s role in setting requirements on what to learn, which is what he effectively argues for when he advocates that the state should regulate teacher certifications and graduation requirements. If we realize that the state has vested interests in regulating education and in the dumbing down of the citizenry, is it then not a contradiction to believe that the state can foster self-respect and emancipation through education?

Finally, I would like to conclude with what I believe is the greatest contribution of Merry’s thesis. Merry’s greatest contribution is his insistence that equality and citizenship are determined by many factors, which are not taken into consideration by integrationists. Such factors are equal recognition in peer-to-peer relationships, community support, a caring ethos, and shared cultural values. When these are non-existent in an integrationist setting, it is important that we allow people to separate themselves into an environment where such important factors are available. Frédéric Bastiat has said of the good economist that he can take into account both that which is seen, and that which is not seen (Bastiat, 1850, p. 3). This certainly also counts for the good social philosopher. What is for example seen by integrationists is that the black-white test score gap is largest in states with high levels of segregation from which they assume that segregation is therefore necessarily negatively affecting blacks. The good social philosopher is able to probe beneath this hastened articulation of reality in order to find that this insinuation of a causal relationship between segregation and test score achievement is based on highly contested data. In this respect, Merry deserves praise for having attempted to look beyond integrationism in order to find other factors related to separation and emancipation of people.


Bastiat, F. (1850). That which is seen, and that which is not seen. Retrieved from

Churchill, W.L.S. (1947). The Official Report, House of Commons (5th Series), vol. 444, 11 November 1947.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (M.B. Ramos, Trans.). New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

Gatto, J.T. (2009). Weapons of Mass Instruction. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.

Mack, E. (1978). Voluntaryism: The Political Thought of Auberon Herbert. Journal of Libertarian Studies, 2, 4, pp. 299-309.

Merry, M.S. (2013). Equality, Citizenship, and Segregation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


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