Are We Ready to Abandon Racial Solidarity?
from a debate with Robert Woodson, Shelby Steele, Kmele Foster, and Reihan Salam
Last month, a momentous event took place at the Manhattan Institute: a debate on “The Ethics of Black Identity” with me and Bob Woodson on one side, Shelby Steele and Kmele Foster on the other, and MI President Reihan Salam moderating. At issue was the question of whether the persistence of black identity remains necessary in solving the problems facing black communities today. Bob and I took the affirmative position while Kmele and Shelby took the negative. Reihan had quite a job on his hands, as all four of us debaters are, shall we say, opinionated.
The following excerpt from that debate engages one of the discussion’s through-lines. Collective action served black Americans well in the past. Without racial solidarity founded in institutions like black churches and black community organizations, it’s doubtful that the Civil Rights Movement could have achieved all that it did. Black people, even those who were relatively well-off, were willing to sacrifice money, time, and their very bodies to secure basic rights not only for themselves but for their people.
But has racial solidarity served its purpose? I’ve often argued on behalf of “transracial humanism,” the setting aside of identity categories like race in favor of species-level identification. We’re all human beings, and we should all have the opportunity to lay claim to the fruits of human achievement, whatever their origin. Tolstoy is mine as much as Charles Mingus is mine. Yet I cannot simply define away my blackness. It’s at the core of my self-understanding. To deny it would be to deny myself. And as Bob points out, there are strategic political advantages to calls for racial solidarity, especially when they’ve been nearly monopolized by the Left. (Let me say once more with feeling: My blackness is not in conflict with my conservatism.)
Shelby and Kmele are much more skeptical of the uses of black identity in the present. I believe, with them, that transracial humanism is the way of the future. The question is whether that future has yet arrived.
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REIHAN SALAM: I want to underscore something here. I'm struck by the fact that, among the four of you, there's actually a fair bit of agreement about what we see as an attractive moral outcome over the very long term. I think that all of you agree that being seen as an individual has value. But one thing I detected both in Glenn and Bob's remarks is this idea that there's certain kinds of sacrifices that are appropriate to make in the name of solidarity.
That is, one version of your sensibility, Kmele—and this will be ungenerous, but I'm curious to hear your reaction but also Glenn's—is that essentially what you're saying is that we live in a much freer society now. We live in a society in which one can have more agency and freedom of action, and that it is a moral imperative, to claim that and to claim that individualism, to de-race oneself.
But another view is that poses a kind of collective action problem in which you have people who have the ability to capitalize on those opportunities through the kind of attenuation of those rigid racial ties. And then what you see is the defection of people like you from this larger collective, the public good of acting on behalf of a racial group that has been stigmatized and excluded. I wonder if that makes sense to you, what your reaction to that is. And I also want to hear from Glenn, if that sounds roughly right to him, that part of what we're saying is that, yes, it's a good and healthy aspiration to be free of those group obligations, but those group obligations really bite right now. And that there is a responsibility for those who have—
ROBERT WOODSON: Can I ask, how do they bite?
REIHAN SALAM: Well, I just wanna throw out the idea to ...
ROBERT WOODSON: No, but I mean that's, it seems to me, a key point. Bite. Do you mean racism? That people are still being victimized by racism? I'm just trying to really get a sense of ...
REIHAN SALAM: I'm trying to kind of advance what I take to be part of Glenn's view, so maybe he would be ...
GLENN LOURY: Well, the collective action problem, just very straightforwardly. You have goals toward which you would like to mobilize people to achieve those goals. Each one individually might not have the interest to make the sacrifices if they only thought of it in their own terms. But if they see themselves as part of a collective—and I gave the example of nationalism. You have a country, you have people asked to sacrifice, to pay taxes, to fight and die, if it comes to that. And underneath that is a sense of identity. It's a sense of, in this case, Americanness to which they feel a certain degree of obligation and responsibility.
SHELBY STEELE: What do you do when racism is gone?
What I'm saying is the black church—I give that as a concrete example—is an institution. It has a history, it has a narrative, it has a sense of self-understanding, and it gives meaning to people's lives.
SHELBY STEELE: It'll never be the same, Glenn. Freedom. We're in freedom now. The black church was formed when we were in naked oppression. Today we're in freedom. Racism is not there. You can worship any way you want. We're so free, we don't know what to do with it.
No, we're in agreement about that. We're in agreement about that, Shelby.
SHELBY STEELE: I'm a jazz fan. I love the music. Follow it way too much. Because it's, to me, a rare, magnificent creation that does come out of the black experience. But that experience doesn't exist anymore. Racism is simply not a problem. It doesn't deserve a cultural response.
ROBERT WOODSON: Shelby, what I find disturbing is that the Left, the elite Left, are using race to the disadvantage of poor people, and they are dying as a consequence of their misuse of it. But if you're not going to confront that reality with some idealized version of post-racism and just say, well, it doesn't exist anymore, so we'll just act like it doesn't exist. We've got to take action, I think, in those places to confront those who are misusing race. And the way we do it is to gather groups who are suffering the problems, like the mothers who lost children to homicide, to stand up to the Black Left and say, we are against defund the police. And so it is important to have those suffering the problem as the symbols of that pushback.
SHELBY STEELE: Why would you exclude whites from the latter approach?
ROBERT WOODSON: Because it doesn't have the same power. In other words, when someone derives their moral authority by saying they represent you, when you stand up yourself and say “they don't represent me,” that undermines the moral authority. But if I go in and say, “Oh, I have to have a white person on my arm to walk in to claim it.” No. I mean, it's a strategic move, Shelby. It's not an ideological bias. It's a strategic move.
SHELBY STEELE: You're saying you have to have a black person, only black people on your arm?
No, no, no. What he's saying is they don't speak for black people. The message that we want to give is those blacks who have appropriated race on behalf of race-card-playing nonsense don't speak for black people.
ROBERT WOODSON: Exactly.
So in order to say that, there are two things you could do. One of them is, I'm black and they don't speak for me. The other is blackness is a fiction, nobody speaks for black people. We opted for the former move.
KMELE FOSTER: That's the decision that's being made. I just think that it's impossible to—well, no, it's not impossible. It's imperative that we take a look at what the costs might be. And to the extent we are refurbishing sustaining notions of racial difference, a notion of there even being any authority whatsoever or respectability and asserting that you are speaking on behalf of a particular group of people, that there is a particular opinion that is held by all people that look a particular way. That is something that we ought to be wary of.
And I would go a step further. You're absolutely right, Bob. It is imperative that you are pushing back against dangerous currents in our culture and that you're confronting people who insist on framing things with respect to race in order to derive some sort of cultural or political power. At this point, we can't even talk about student loans without invoking race and talking about it, because it's a powerful tool. That said, the best way to actually undermine that is to acknowledge that this tactic is being deployed and, two, not to give even the appearance that this is a respectable way to conduct business, to focus, I think, very narrowly and specifically on the defects of the policies that are being proposed and to provide affirmative solutions, like better alternative approaches.
I think you've mentioned a few times, Glenn, the black church and other valuable institutions that exist that have some sort of a racial context. I'm not interested in obliterating the black church. I'm not interested in telling people that they shouldn't think about their church as a black church. But I do think a lot about a young pastor who's planting a church today, a brand new church, who insists on it being kind of affirmatively, unapologetically black. A lot of things go along with that. And that is something that happens today. Most of those people are buying into a set of ideological priors that are wildly inconsistent, I think, with progress, and certainly wildly inconsistent with an individualist perspective of how to think about free people operating in a free society.
There's a real sense in which our embrace of this concept, whatever the advantages we imagine we're deriving from it, are an obstacle to some of the broader philosophical projects that we might want to engage in. And I think, at a minimum, it's worth contemplating. We had the March on Washington, we had King give his “I Have a Dream” speech, and it was and is beautiful and powerful. But at the same time, it's imperative to note that, no, they're not white girls and black girls. They're just girls. That's a step in a particular direction. There's a particular line that's being drawn in the sand there.
That is a whitewashing of history. Look, the AME Church—
KMELE FOSTER: I'm not asking us to change our perspective on what happened historically. I'm talking about the way forward.
ROBERT WOODSON: You know, the reason, that we are a counterculture is because of our inability to communicate important values and convince people that those values are important. That is what the Left does. And I think Ralph Nader is a perfect example of how you market ideas and principles. When he comes before the Congress to convince the Congress that we need to regulate automobiles, he comes with the weeping parents of a 16-year-old who was lost in a Pinto, a wrinkled fender of a Pinto with blood on it, and then he says, “This is the consequence of that policy. Now, let me tell you what changes have to be made.” By contrast, conservatives will come with four white guys with blue suits, with ties, with charts, with data. Who wins that fight?
And so I think it's important that you have to have the right symbols. I choose to take the people suffering the problem, who lost children. And when they say that we must stop talking about white people for a year and address the enemy within, that has much more power than if I were to come with some interracial group armed with some niceties of post-racialism.
I just wanna get a word in here, because so much is flying by. I think you guys are overreacting. I think you're basically right. And I think the long run that you envision and I envision are very similar long runs. It's just that I think that the abolitionist move, the principled rejection of the category, race, on behalf of an ideal is, as Bob has said, strategically surrendering too much.
And I also think it's a little bit ahistorical. The African Methodist Episcopal Church—I'm talking about Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, these guys at the end of the eighteenth century in Philadelphia where slavery was still running strong, founded an institution that is now a global institution of black people striving to do exactly with their freedom what Shelby would have 'em do: determine their own fate, take responsibility for their lives and for the raising of their children, and so forth and so on, nested within a certain narrative, a certain sense of “our history.”
Now, I have many ancestors. And some of them are European. 23andMe tells me some of my ancestors are European. But the account I give of from whence I have come is deeply nested within this African American history. And all I'm saying is it's not yet time to throw that over, even as we understand the deeper philosophical truth of transracial humanism as the goal toward which we should all be striving.
SHELBY STEELE: You're fighting a straw man. We would never throw it over. How could you? Why would you want to? I've been studying black American culture all my life. I love it. It is ... there's gotta be a word stronger than “identification.” It has made me who I am. I'm grateful for it. And yet, the world works by evolution. It evolves. It transforms. We won our long fight against racism. For example, in 1964, when the Civil Rights Bill was passed—what is that, 60, 70 years ago—we won. It wasn't manifested in reality yet entirely, but increasingly we have just become more and more and more and more free.
And at this point, it seems to me, we are balking in the face of freedom. We are intimidated by what it asks of us. And some of that is that we're gonna be sort of ripped away from that narrative that you mentioned. We're gonna have to invent ourselves as free men and women, and we're gonna have to change what it means to be black. It doesn't just mean responding to racism and hatred. It did at one time. But today we black people, our biggest problem is modernity. The modern world. We're unprepared to live in it, to thrive in it. That's our problem. And maybe there's a little racism in there somewhere, but the real problem is, in California last year, black kids who graduated from high school read at an eighth grade level. That's the problem.