State of the Debate: Indelible Colors


K. Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutmann, Color Conscious: The Political
Morality of Race
(Princeton University Press, 1996).

Races have godlike power in history. Like gods, there is
good reason to doubt that they exist, but the belief that they
do exist has enormous consequences. Of course, races are also
unlike gods in a particular way. Since the middle of the nineteenth
century, the claim that races exist has purported to be scientific.
That is, from physical attributes (skin color, nose shape, hair
texture), moral and intellectual essences are derived. Not all
the pseudoscientists go all the way to the end of the line at
Nuremberg. Some get off with Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray,
affecting compassion for the differently abled, and wrapping their
charges in statistical hocus-pocus so intricate that it took a
technical book to refute it (Inequality by Design: Cracking
the Bell Curve Myth)
, by a group of sociologists at the University
of California at Berkeley, that, unfortunately, went unreviewed
in any of the national publications that put The Bell Curve
on the national intellectual agenda in 1994.

But whatever variety of chromatic or somatic absolutism is on
offer, in practice all claims of the separability of pure racial
types presuppose judgments of value. Unlike the classification
of species, racial classification is almost always invidious.
It presumes that people are fundamentally better and worse, not
just different. Racial attributions are not innocent: They are
generated to justify social arrangements. Historically, the label
"white" has been a badge of superiority.

K. Anthony Appiah, the far-ranging professor of Afro-American
studies and philosophy at Harvard, has argued before, with great
effect, that claims of racial essence are pseudoscientific. In
his 1992 book In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy
of Culture
, Appiah convincingly cited genetic evidence to
the effect that members of a "race" (and he used scare
quotes to indicate just how fabricated he thought the concept
was) differ more on various characteristics within a single "race"
than between "races." In his contribution to Color
Conscious: The Political Morality of Race
, an essay called
"Race, Culture, Identity," Appiah continues his project
of debunking the hardness and fastness of the category that is
perhaps the most destructive in human history. The tricontinental
philosopher brings to this task a valuable combination of tools,
including the implements of analytic philosophy and a familiarity
with historical and anthropological literatures from all over.

Appiah notes that justifiable suspicions of racist pseudobiology
gave rise to the multiculturalist movement. Races, or race-like
formations, are now to be understood as cultures, not biological
givens. The multiculturalist gambit is to try to extract human
differences from their bitter historical shells. In this way—so
it is argued—we can have difference without making unwarranted
claims of superiority. (As I write, the school board of Oakland,
California, has declared Black English to be a language deserving
of pedagogical and financial recognition, and while the resulting
media storm has pressed it to retreat somewhat, the sort of thinking
embedded in its declaration finds resonance in urban school systems
elsewhere.) But this sort of thinking, Appiah writes, amounts
to "the substitution of cultures for races." "Cultural
essences" replace "racial essences."

Appiah argues persuasively that this move is intellectually weak.
First, American cultures (African-American, Asian-American, Italian-American)
are not cultures in any traditional sense. They are not uniform
within racial "communities." They mix and borrow with
relative ease. Second, the many differences in belief, value,
and practice that exist in the United States of America do not
correspond systematically to ethnic and racial categories. The
simple point is that "it is doubtful whether [African Americans,
Chinese Americans, or white Americans, for example] have common
cultures at all." They may share something in common, but
it is not the ensemble of values, beliefs, and practices that
are entailed by the concept of culture. Inter-group tensions do
not result from cultural misunderstandings but from unequal power.

What the shared "something" might be, Appiah calls identity.
Appiah defines identities as "essentially contrastive,"
relating "centrally to social and political power."
Identities, in other words, are ranks imposed from without—castes,
in other circumstances—but, in the contemporary meaning of the
term, they are also choices made from within. They are not only
attributions made by society but also active affirmations made
by the self. In particular, positive affirmations of identity
serve (at least up to a point) to repair stigmas. They start from
the deprivations imposed by power and, as in a judo move, turn
them upside down.

Starting in the late 1960s, for example, the "blackness"
equated with ugliness by the dominant culture has become beautiful.
Appiah wants this stage to be provisional—a way station to the
transcendence of identity, so that group identity does not squash
individual freedom. He knows that identities, including despised
identities, have a tendency to "go imperial," becoming
be-alls and end-alls, diminishing the complexity of human existence.
"The identities we need," he concludes, "will have
to recognize both the centrality of difference within human identity
and the fundamental moral unity of humanity."

So far, so good. But the result is somehow less compelling
than one would like to expect. Perhaps this is partly because
the plane of Appiah's reasoning is abstracted from the sociological
question of why identities feel so urgent nowadays, and from the
political question of what group identifications accomplish and
render difficult. Appiah notes in passing that the core of a shared
identity is "the sense of solidarity that comes from being
unlike others." But he fails to make enough of this motor
of identity. Why should so many people today be striving to shore
up such a fierce sense of group solidarity?

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The reasons, in my view, are twofold. The first, which Appiah
identifies, is reactive: The sense of positive otherness is a
recoil against discrimination. While arguably less effective than
a generation ago, discrimination of various sorts is perhaps felt
to be all the more heinous and intolerable today partly because
the civil rights movement and the great reform wave of the 1960s
promised to destroy it altogether. The second reason for such
fierce group solidarity is compensatory. In today's culture of
shattered families, Disney, McDonald's, and the mall, social being—the
sense of roots—has become unbearably light. American identity,
weak from the start, has lost the cohesion brought about by the
Cold War. The universalist identities of the left barely exist.
This is the setting in which group identities afford satisfaction—emotional
solidarities as well as the promise of political payoffs.

Appiah issues a healthy reminder about the danger to individual
life that is built into reactive identities: "Racial identity
can be the basis of resistance to racism; but even as we struggle
against racism—and though we have made great progress, we have
further still to go—let us not let our racial identities subject
us to new tyrannies." But he does not address the political
downside of racial (or other group) identification—the political
fragmentation that leaves the left desperately diffuse and demobilized
as the devitalized center heaves rightward.

In her eminently sensible contribution to Color Conscious,
"Responding to Racial Injustice," Princeton political
philosopher Amy Gutmann reiterates some of Appiah's arguments
and takes them into the realm of policy. Gutmann's argument here
takes the form of a critique of cavalier color-blindness. Color-blindness
is not just an ideal—it is also a disability, because as Gutmann
points out, white-black inequality cannot be reduced to economic
inequality. "Even if all the necessary class conscious policies
were in place, some color conscious policies might still be necessary
before the United States could become a fully just society."

Note: color conscious. Gutmann is at pains to argue (echoing
Appiah) that, while race is a fraudulent construct for most analytical
purposes—and for all just political purposes—color is a category
that is legitimately deployed, because it comes with a history
of privilege and dispossession. In a society systematically brutal
and unfair to people of African origin, to pretend that history
started again the day before yesterday is absurd. To say that
color consciousness is defensible in principle, of course, is
not to say that it is always right. Like color-blindness, color
consciousness can be abused. Still, Gutmann gives a largely persuasive
defense of affirmative action policies that take color into account.
She refutes the claim (forwarded by Dinesh D'Souza in Illiberal
and enshrined by the University of California Regents
in their attempt to destroy affirmative action in 1995) that class
consciousness amounts to a usable surrogate for color consciousness.
Both class consciousness and color consciousness are defensible,
but the former does not do the work of the latter.

Unfortunately, like virtually every other commentator on these
difficult matters, Gutmann fails to engage Stephen Carter's powerful
and constructive argument, in Reflections of an Affirmative-Action
, to the effect that the arguments for affirmative action
are stronger at the bottom of achievement pyramids (school admissions,
entry-level hiring) than at the higher reaches (university tenure,
the Supreme Court). Many forms of affirmative action can be defended
on grounds of fairness, though many cannot, but even the best
are most convincing when they do not invite the second-worst off
to pay the steepest price for improving the lot of the worst off.

Gutmann also argues for the legitimacy of precisely the sort of
race-based districts of the sort ruled unconstitutional by the
Supreme Court in its 1996 decision in Shaw v. Hunt. But
here, events may (though they may not) have superseded the apprehensions.

Despite alarms sounded beforehand in the African-American
community, the 1996 election results showed that black incumbents
redistricted out of black-majority districts were able to win
handily even after they were thrown into white-majority districts.
The important debate now is over the reasons. Are the victories
of African-American incumbents like Georgia's Cynthia McKinney
attributable mainly to the powers of incumbency, or do they indeed
demonstrate that color consciousness in the drawing of legislative
districts is no longer necessary for the purpose of seeing African
Americans represented in the national legislature? It's an empirical
question, and a hard one to answer. Still, it may turn out that,
in a bad political year, one of the best outcomes was the proof
that cross-racial coalitions might work.

Gutmann wisely points out that racial consciousness "has
the effect, often intended but even when not, of dividing human
beings against the cause of social justice." Color consciousness,
by contrast, is aware of the superficiality—"only skin-deep"—of
the difference. Therefore it opens the door to alliances. But,
it seems to me, the authors of the essays do not quite step through
that door. The not-quite-acknowledged fact in both of these admirable
statements of political philosophy is that the African-American
population numbers about 12 percent of the U.S. population. Blacks
and whites, when surveyed, systematically double the number—blacks,
I would guess, out of their experience in a segregated world,
whites, I think, more out of fear. But the fact remains that African
Americans constitute a minority, and no wishful thinking or census
projection changes this fact. Neither does adding up abstract
minorities automatically produce a victory for general justice.
This irrefutable but hard-to-face fact stands at the heart of
a political problem. An oppressed minority is still a minority.
It wins policies that work to its benefit when it persuades majorities.
This is not accomplished by an obsession with separate identities,
but rather with a sensibility that, while aware of the different
attachments that people bring to society, is equally aware of
their overlap and mutual need. This is the lesson of the civil
rights movement, which won the majority to the support of a minority.
It is likewise the lesson of America's most successful movements
of African Americans. As Appiah aptly observes, when the Dred
Scott decision of 1857 decreed that blacks were not citizens of
the United States, Frederick Douglass (who belongs in every American
canon) opposed it in the name of universal values: "As a
man, an American, a citizen, a colored man of both Anglo-Saxon
and African descent, I denounce this representation as a most
scandalous and devilish perversion of the Constitution."
We could use a lot more of Douglass's sort of inclusive language
in the political rhetoric of our own time.

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