Discover more from Glenn Loury
Between Race Abolition and Racial Essentialism
with Yascha Mounk
I’m sometimes asked why, if an undue emphasis on race has become such a problem, I don’t spend more time trying to get rid of the idea of race entirely. Race is a social construct. Humans made it. It therefore stands to reason that we can unmake it. There are some people who are trying to do just that. I have much respect for those, like Kmele Foster, who stick by their philosophical guns, reject race as a limiting artificial construct, and do their best to fashion a sense of identity that does not rely upon it. Racelessness, as a proposition about individual identity, may well be where we’re headed in the future, and we need forward-thinking people who can start modeling what that future will look like.
But for now, we live in a society where race, socially constructed though it may be, is a reality. It’s not a reality like the laws of physics are a reality, but ignoring its existence is about as feasible as ignoring gravity—it’s going to assert itself whether you believe in it or not. The question is how we deal with living in a society where race threatens to become the primary mode of identification, where racial essentialism is the de jure mode of social policy. As Yascha Mounk says in this clip from our recent conversation, we need a middle ground where we can identify with the racial or ethnic community from which we emerged without socially confining ourselves to that group. We need to make the boundaries between groups more porous, not reify them by writing them into the law and our institutional standards.
As I’ve said before, we don’t need to get rid of blackness, and we shouldn’t necessarily want to. We just need to learn to wear our racial and ethnic identification more lightly. It’s a fact that I’m black. But it’s not the only fact. And depending on the situation, it may not even be a particularly important fact. The more situations we have where that’s the case, the better off we’ll be.
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GLENN LOURY: Recently, I participated in a debate amongst African American intellectuals, where on one side were the race abolitionists—this was Kmele Foster and Shelby Steele—who were saying, let's get out of the business of routinely referring to ourselves in terms of these discredited categories of race.
And on the other side were myself and Robert Woodson, who runs a research and policy activist center in Washington DC, arguing, well, yes, at the highest level of intellectual abstraction, these are categories that we could well do without. But as a practical matter, in terms of mobilization, we want to do something about the black family. We want to fight against violence in the community. We want to hold up ideals of intellectual achievement and excellence as being consistent with our identity. We feel a loyalty and attachment. We have a historical narrative about our people. These things are all artifacts of history and culture, which we eschew to our disadvantage. This is the language we speak, This is the way we move one another, et cetera.
What's wrong with that?
YASCHA MOUNK: So I'm not a race abolitionist for the reasons that you point out. There's this fact that this artificial category of race has structured American society in particular for a very long time. And so that creates a puzzle. How do you deal with that? On the one side of this are people like Karen and Barbara Fields, in their beautiful book Racecraft, which I don't ultimately agree with, but which I think is deeply insightful who say, “Look, this category is just so damaging, how it structures. society, that if we uncritically use this term of race, we're actually going to recreate all of these forms of racism that inhere in it. And so therefore true liberation would be to dismantle the category.”
And then there's other people who, at the extreme, say, look, because this is what has structured American society in key ways, we need to encourage people to see themselves, insofar as possible, within that category, that the most important thing to teach a six or seven year old is to think of themselves as racial beings. That is what organizations like Embrace Race say.
I think there's a huge field in the middle where you can say, look, I'm a Jew. I'm not religious. My family hasn't been religious for a number of generations. But the experience of genocide and murder and discrimination that my family has gone through gives me some amount of genuine Jewish experience. And I don't think it makes sense to give it up. In a similar way, some … like Tommie Shelby has a great philosophically liberal account for forms of black solidarity that are based in the historical experience of slavery and Jim Crow and discrimination that doesn't ...
Excuse me, Yascha. This is Tommie Shelby, the philosopher at Harvard. Many books, among which is We Who Are Dark that makes arguments along the lines you're discussing.
Yeah, exactly. And so I think that there's a huge middle field here. And the question is where within that middle field should we fall? Now, what I worry about is that gravitating towards the importance of the subnational groups like race and gender and sexual orientation comes relatively naturally to it. America is still a very segregated place. People still have a lot of friends from within the same ethnic groups. This is not about to disappear. The question is, how should institutions like our universities, like our schools deal with that? And I think what they should do is to be sure that they create enough areas for encounter, enough occasions for people to meet each other, that we also build those connections beyond those groups. And especially when it comes to politics, the question is, do we want to adopt policies in which what a group gets is explicitly dependent on the ethnic group of which they're part? Which I think is often going to lead to zero-sum competition between different ethnic blocs.
But historically in America, whites have won! And there's no particular reason to think that they wouldn't win it again. Or do we create more universalist policies in which we deemphasize those forms of ethnic importance in the context of public policy, in the context of who gets what, in order to actually be able to sustain a more solidaristic politics.
The most convincing part of social psychology research for the last 75 years has been the research on intergroup contact. And what it shows is that people from groups that have, historically, had deep prejudices against each other can come to have a more positive view through interaction. But that interaction has to have particular conditions attached to it. In the situation in which that interaction takes place, you need to be equals. Not perhaps in society as a whole, that may not be achievable in that context. But in the situation where you're interacting, you should be equals. Secondly, you have to have a common goal. You have to be fighting for the same thing in that situation. And thirdly, the authorities should be telling you that you're expected to get along.
A university campus where, on your first day, you're put into different affinity groups and there's an anonymous hotline to report microaggressions violates this in every possible respect. A university which mixes and matches people who share rooms in the first year in random ways or with an eye to making people who are different from each other have that experience together or a sports team in elementary school or middle school or in high school where you are on the team together and you're fighting to win the match fulfills those kinds of conditions.
That doesn't mean you pretend race doesn't exist. In fact, it creates a condition in which one player on the baseball team can then say to the other player, “Hey, I've had this experience with police violence. I face these kinds of struggles,” and create understanding and empathy for those kinds of downstream effects from historical racism in the United States.
It occurs to me that it's also dynamic. It creates possibilities for new forms of identity and cross-cutting connections.