The Concept of Race Must Ultimately Be Destroyed

Can we ever have race without having racism? I don’t believe so, but for some reason there seems to be an emerging consensus among people on the left, not just that getting rid of race is impossible, but that it is actually undesirable.

Perhaps that’s the wrong way of stating it. But it does concern me that the concept of post-racialism comes under such heavy fire from the left. Countless commentaries and academic articles and blog posts and thinkpieces heap scorn on the idea. Joel Anderson of The American Prospect says even using the term is harmful, and Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post called for it to be banished.   

I agree with nearly every argument these writers make. Most of them are concerned with puncturing spurious attempts by conservatives to declare race no longer relevant, and rebutting the inevitable magazine cover-stories that ask “Is America Finally Postracial?” every time there is some small black political advancement. Because race is indeed extremely important, and the idea that it no longer has any social consequences is laughable on its face, this position is completely correct. It would be very dangerous to pretend race doesn’t exist, when it is such a crucial fact of American life and such a main determinant of one’s life chances.

But the anti-postracialism argument sometimes goes further than asserting that race matters. Occassionally, it crosses over into asserting that race ought to matter, that racial classifications are themselves unobjectionable or even good. It denies not just that a postracial society exists or is feasible, but that it should even be aimed for. Here’s an example of this strain of thinking, called “We’ll Never Be A Post-Racial Society—And That Is A Good Thing.” It concludes:

We have embodied race as individuals and as a collective. This need not be a negative thing. If we can take our embodiment as an opportunity to learn, think, grow, and engage, then we’ll recognize that a post racial society is, in fact, an affront to our cultural intelligence.

To be fair to the author, she is not necessarily arguing that racial classifications are what she desires, but rather that we must give up and embrace them because we will never not have them. I understand why those who believe, as I am inclined to myself, that race is at the heart of the American story are cynical about the possibilities of ridding ourselves of it. But it very much concerns me that we would consequently declare race a positive good rather than a necessary evil, and a postracial society actually undesirable.

Race was born of hierarchy and its primary function as a classification is to create oppressive social distinctions. The way we assign people races makes very little sense. A person with one black grandparent can be black, a light-skinned black person can be treated as white by black people and black by white people (or white by white people and black by black people!) It’s a disaster of a category, the definitions of which are constantly shifting and nearly impossible to pin down. That’s because it is a social construction, and a messy one, unmoored from any actual essential characteristics and created entirely by perception. A South Asian standing next to a light-skinned black man could be treated as black while the black man is treated as white. And biracial people have one hell of a time trying to navigate our complex web of prejudices. It’s all a monumental tragic human folly.

Because of the way race divides us while creating nothing good, I believe we should strive for a world not just in which racial distinctions don’t make a difference, but in which we don’t make those distinctions at all (except perhaps to recall when they mattered). That seems just inherently desirable to me, since I do not know why we would think about these differences except to divide ourselves from one another. Yet the view that I find self-evidently true seems to be waning on the left, which is coming to embrace the view that our racial identities matter. (As I say, the word “matter” is where a lot of progressive slippage occurs; we go from an is to an ought: they do matter, so they should matter.)

That seems a mistake to me, Note that if we both believe race is a necessary permanent concept and we want racial equality, we have to believe that race can exist without racism. I find this paradoxical, because race is useful as a category only if that category has some inherent social consequence, and racism involves seeing a person’s race as having inherent social consequence.

But what are those qualities of racial identity that have consequence? They are entirely bound up with the differences in status of people of different races. All of the cultural and linguistic and social ties we could think of are not at all coterminous with race, except insofar as they relate to the shared racial experience of oppression. We could say that there is something it means to be Asian in America. But that is not because Asians in America share a culture; they are from many different cultures with countless languages and histories and cultures. No, the experience of being Asian in America, the experience that unifies people under that flag, is the experience of being treated as Asian in America. Similarly, the experience shared by all black people is not some essentialistic nonsense about shared musical traditions, but is entirely that all black people have experienced the moment of realizing that they were blackMeaning not that they realized they existed on some cosmic telepathic plane with other black people, but that they shared the collective set of experiences that come with being defined as black in American society. “People value their racial identities,” I am told in response. Yes, but why? Because of having gone through something together, something unfair that should never have been imposed on them.

What does a black man from Ghana have in common with a black man from Arkansas other than that both do not want to get pulled over by an American cop? If we exclude the shared context of oppression, why should these two be classified together for any purpose? There’s skin tone, but that’s of no import. There is some kind of shared genetic lineage, but this smacks of the very kind of biological essentialism we surely want to rid ourselves of. There was a report today about how waves of new black immigrants to America are reshaping the conventional understanding of what constitutes the “black” demographic, complicating our generalizations. To me, the question is: once we eliminate the shared experience of discrimination that ties the fates of immigrant blacks to U.S.-born blacks, why would we classify these two sets of people as one? I simply don’t see any reason beyond the context of hierarchy why Nigerian Muslims, Mississippi Baptists, and Jamaican Rastafarians would be under an umbrella together.

Because of this, I believe that race is ultimately an inherently hierarchical category. Except for the function of arbitrarily lumping people together for the purpose of one trying to oppress another, it has no purpose that I can think of. All of its purposes are equally well served by other, better categories (nation, ethnic origin, region, culture, etc.) Of course, we can imbue it with meaning intentionally, it can become an imagined community like a nation. But the question is: if we picture the world we are trying to build, do racial nations seem a good basis for it? My firm belief is that they don’t, that this is anti-humanist and will lead to inevitable hierarchies and conflicts. Because the leftist dream is for a world without hierarchy and conflict, we must therefore aim for the elimination of race. That is not to say we will achieve it. It is not to even comment on its feasability. But it is to say that there is a distinction between the naive statement that America is postracial and the aspirational statement that America ought to be, and it is also to say that the only such thing as “racial justice” is making sure we have no races.

One other thing to bear in mind is that when we reinforce racial categories, we inevitably do it for white people as well as black. There is simply no way to reinforce racial difference for only one group. So white people are encouraged to feel a strong white identity. A lot of progressives probably actually agree this should be done, since it’s an important part of privilege analysis. White people must be encourages to see themselves as white, because only in this way will they become aware of how their whiteness affects their lives and confers unearned advantages on them. On this analysis, the problem is precisely that white people think of themselves as neutral instead of white. I agree with this, I think it’s very important for white people to recognize themselves this way, and that faux-colorblindness is a delusion that has racist consequences. But I can’t think of anything all white people have in common other than white privilege. Is there any such thing as “white culture”? One that’s the same from Argentina to Slovenia? Do we want there to be? White privilege must be destroyed, but once it is gone, what is the sense of shared identity that white people are unified by? I can only think of this going extremely badly, and resulting in the kind of white nationalism that dreams of blood purity and misinterptets Wagner.

There are plenty of other ways to classify human beings usefully. Culture should not disappear, nor should a vague sense of national difference or pride in one’s background. But race is an arbitrary construct. It will inevitably lead to the flattening of important differences. I can’t see how, so long as we see black people as a unified whole, we will be able to see Africa as a set of vastly different countries and peoples instead of an amorphous dark blob. I can’t see how, so long as race is seen as a lumping that has meaning, we will not end up blurring all Asian people together offensively. Race means that people who have no connection to a culture whatsoever are nevertheless classed with it in the perception of strangers. I think of Ralph Ellison, who was constantly struggling against the fact that people read his literature through the prism of his race, precisely because they tied culture and race together. He was furious at being put in an inescapable category. (Note that this does not refer to negative associations with the category, meaning it would still be true once we viewed all races equally.) Ellison was expected to be more influenced by the blues than Shakespeare, precisely because of this nonsense about how race and culture interlock. And every time Ellison did want to include themes related to black life, those themes became the entire lens through people viewed the work. When racial identity is seen as the crucial fact of life, it devours everything and keeps an individual from being seen in their full rich uniqueness. The point must be ultimately to destroy this thin, superficial category in order to illuminate the vast intricate matrix of human difference.

It could be replied that this is what “intersectionality” analysis is for. This framework aims to deal with the tangled network of identities that each person finds themselves inhabiting, not taking people by their race or gender or sexuality alone but seeing how these things intersect. I think this kind of analysis has been crucial in enriching our ways of understanding how human beings feel about themselves. But I think there are a number of problems: first, that the common left versions of this analysis still end up in practice emphasizing a small number of categories that predominate, with race looming large, and second, that they end up legitimizing race as a category like any other, when race differs in that it has no non-oppressive function. Race is distinct from, say, religion or nation, because there is non-oppression-based content to those identities. Religious groups are unified by a set of practices, nations are unified by shared senses of culture. Muslims all have certain core beliefs, English people all live under a Queen. But race is not the same: what does a Japanese person have in common with a Chinese person that they do not have in common with a Pakistani person, a trait that means East Asians should be classified together for a meaningful purpose?

Arguments in favor of maintaining the concept of race do not exist only on the left. They are very strong on the right; in fact, up until quite recently, they seem to have entirely been the provenance of the right. The current American situation, in which rightists are insisting that they don’t see race, and liberals are emphasizing the importance of racial identity, appears to be a complete flip of the usual script. As I understand it, the leftist view has historically been that all human beings are one another’s sisters and brothers, and that racial distinctions divide us and poison our ability to work together toward the collective good. The rightist view is that racial categories make sense or are “natural,” and racial identities should be maintained. Many who used to call themselves white supremacists now call themselves “racial realists.” (Somewhat alarmingly, I can imagine this same term being deployed by the progressives who insist they are being “realistic” about the prospects for postracialism.)

The biological determinist arguments resurface on the right over and over, from phrenology to The Bell Curve to the recent book by New York Times science journalist Nicholas Wade. They believe we are different, and that this matters. The usual progressive response to this is to say that race is a social construction, that biology has nothing to do with it. (Though many of these same progressives, as I say, seem willing to live with the social construction, meaning that the disagreement may be trivial.) But I think arguing that biology has nothing to do with it misses the point to begin with. What’s more important is that it doesn’t matter, since nobody on either side has put forth a reason why race, as currently defined (either “biologically” by the right or socially by the left), is a desirable category to have.

The argument, then, (at least the one that I make) is not that we will never find common biological characteristics that allow us to categorize human beings in rough accordance with the common social understandings of race. It is that whatever those characteristics may be, they have no significance. It is race as a useful category for telling us anything that is socially-constructed. We want to get rid of the category of race, because as an identifier, it can only serve pernicious functions. To give a parallel example: we could categorize all people who have outie bellybuttons together. And there would be a biological “basis” for doing so. The difference between outies and innies is not socially constructed; there are outies and there are innies. It’s using those categories as a way to classify human beings that is socially constructed. So, Nicholas Wade and the racial genetics crowd are constantly throwing out a bunch of evidence that there are biological commonalities to racial groups that disprove the idea that race is a social construction. Now, let’s just leave aside for a moment the fact that a vast panoply of geneticists have found this conclusion anywhere from dubious to outright dishonest. There’s a separate point to be made, which is that the evidence they offer, even if presumed to be true, does not support the ultimate conclusion (that race is therefore not a social construction). You could prove that there were massive genetic differences and it wouldn’t change the point, which is entirely about giving meaning to these differences. You could prove that white people were sent here from another planet (that presumably was sick of them), and it wouldn’t change the fact that race is a social construction. Because the construction part is entirely about assigning social meaning to differences, not about whether you can identify differences. You can make “race” a category, but why would you? It tells you as much as innies and outies, that is to say, nothing at all.

I am not actually the only one starry-eyed enough to think about getting rid of race. Kwame Appiah has a nice essay affirming the principle. Appiah is no naive fantasist; he acknowledges, just as I do, that the dream is likely to be long deferred. But it’s a dream not to be given up on. You might not expect to reach the Promised Land, but you keep marching towards it. Appiah quotes W.E.B. DuBois, the most perceptive and far-sighted thinker on race of all time, who said “the duty of the Americans of Negro descent, as a body, to maintain their race identity until . . . the ideal of human brotherhood has become a practical possibility.” DuBois got the balance exactly correct. Of course racial identity should be presently maintained; it cannot be wished away. But note the “until.” Until the ideal has become a possibility. That doesn’t suggest we’ll be post-racial in 2020 or even 3020. But it does mean we never give up on humanism, on the idea of erasing these terrible barriers that have been put between us, which prevent us from the recognition and celebration of both our individual selves and our universal humanity.