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 Education 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 Baby, 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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