Losing Our Race
with John McWhorter and Greg Thomas
What would it mean to “deracialize”? For African Americans, “race” often serves as a kind of shorthand that indicates the deep and diverse traditions, practices, attitudes, and cultural styles particular to the descendants of black slaves brought to this country in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. While the biological conception of race may well be worth jettisoning, can we do so without discarding our rich inheritance as black people along with it?
John and I both agree that, in the long term, our present conception of racial identity needs to change. The question is whether it will naturally collapse under the weight of an increasingly heterogenous society in which, over time, racial self-identification will make less and less pragmatic sense or whether it must be ushered out by a concerted effort. In this week’s conversation and in his essay “Deracialization Now,” our guest Greg Thomas advocates for the latter. He thinks we must begin the work of deracialization now in a conscious and intentional way. I’m not so sure, though, because I’m not even sure what I would be asked to give up. Can we—I mean black Americans—pass on our cultural inheritance without a conception of race? I’m curious to know what you think.
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JOHN MCWHORTER: I have biracial daughters. They are seven and ten. Of late, I'm hearing from gentle, concerned people, both white and black, that I need to pay more attention to developing their racial identity. Because they are half-white and they are half-black, and they're being raised in a kind of mongrelized upper-middle-class white world, where frankly, at their ages, color doesn't matter at all. There are some people who are worried that maybe I need to take the girls to Jack and Jill, something like that. They need to have a black identity.
GLENN LOURY: I know just the person, John. My daughter Lisa is a big Jack and Jill operative. So if you need to get hooked up ...
JOHN MCWHORTER: Really?
GLENN LOURY: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
JOHN MCWHORTER: I'm not remotely close to the idea.
GLENN LOURY: I've been to so many beautillions, I couldn't even begin to count.
JOHN MCWHORTER: It's a wonderful tradition, but everybody is thinking, “Well, they have to realize how people are gonna see them.” And you can imagine what “them” look like. They're these little pecan-colored people. But you know, we have to acknowledge that they're gonna be seen as black American people and discriminated against. And so, what a lot of people would say to you is that we can't think about this too hard because the cultural analysis is nice, but my daughters are somehow misbegotten or they're in danger if they don't identify strongly enough with the culture. Where do we put that?
GREG THOMAS: That's a great example. My daughter happens to be in her mid-20s, and she went through different developmental challenges based on this. But let's just focus on your seven and ten-year-old. In 1973 at Harvard, there was a conference on Alain Locke. Ralph Ellison, Harold Cruse, Albert Murray, and another gentleman who's a historian, I can't remember his name. But he's one of the founders of Black Studies at Harvard. And one of the things that Ellison said on that occasion is, “Look, you white students need to realize you're part black, and you black students need to realize you're part white.” In a very just straight up, down-to-earth way. And that's cultural, because there's all these cross-influences.
But you are talking about literally, biologically, they are mixed. And what I would say is teach them that they're “Omni-American.” Omni-American is an identity—it's the title of Albert Murray's first book—that recognizes our differences but also what we hold in common. So an Omni-American identity says that we can have these ethnic differentiations, these idiomatic variations, these different histories. What you talk about often is the black church, Glenn. I grew up in the black church, too. These are institutional carryovers of our history that certain values are a part of, and all of that stuff. So that's fine.
It's not an either-or proposition. One of the things about jazz—and this is through drama and comedy, where they talk about “yes and”—it ain't either-or. It's “yes and.” You can have both a black American ethnic and cultural identity and a heritage that you identify with and take value from, and you can have a larger American identity as well as a larger global identity, which is more cosmopolitan. Again, when you look through the lens of culture, these are not conflictual things. But getting folks to go from race to culture is not that easy.
GLENN LOURY: No, I don't understand. There's something I'm missing. Then why the deracialization? Let's just say we got a lot of things going on at the same time. Why do I have to “de-” anything? Hold on. Let me finish this. So the great philosopher Leo Strauss, in a lecture at Hillel at the University of Chicago in 1963, asked the question, “Why do we remain Jews?” And he gives an answer. One answer is they won't let us not be Jews. That is, you try to convert, they still dig you out and they burn you in the oven.
But the other answer was to do anything else would be to dishonor our fathers. We're hewing to a tradition. So I want to take your in-a-hurry passion about deracialization, which I don't see the imperative for, and apply it to the Jews. Why should they remain Jews? Why wouldn't the same argument apply to any—and I don't just mean the Jews. Why wouldn't it apply to the Armenians? Why wouldn't it apply to the Irish in Northern Ireland? Why doesn't everybody who's got a group, who's got an identity, who calls themself a thing, get over it? Why is it that the blacks have to be the subject? America's got a problem for sure. Slavery and the Civil War and all of that are a problem. Blacks are gonna solve the problem by forgetting who their fathers were?
GREG THOMAS: I think you're doing the same conflation, Glenn. You're doing the same conflation. I mean, heritage is not the same thing as race. Now look, I understand ...
GLENN LOURY: But answer my question. If it applies to blacks, it applies across the board. But you're busy telling blacks to stop being black.
GREG THOMAS: No ...
GLENN LOURY: I'm sorry. I'm being pejorative. I'm intentionally being provocative. I apologize. I know that's not what you're saying. Everybody, I know it's not what he's saying.
GREG THOMAS: It's cool. I like antagonist to cooperation, man. It's cool.
GLENN LOURY: Yeah, that's what you called it. Antagonistic. [laughs]
GREG THOMAS: So listen, okay. First of all, you're talking about a Jewish heritage. You're talking about a two thousand-year-old [sic] heritage. It was only with the advent of race, racialization, and a racial worldview that Adolph Hitler and the Nazis used the same type of white supremacist ideology but applied it to a German mode and applied it to the Jews, where they became a race.
Race has only been around as a concept for about 400 years or so. Matter of fact, it's less. So when I say deracialization, I'm not saying deculturalization. I'm not saying de-ancestry, de-heritage. I'm not saying any of those things. I'm saying that holding onto this concept of race, the process of racialization, a way of seeing the world through the lens of race has been destructive, remains destructive. And if we to use what they say in phenomenology, what Husserl [says], if you bracket race from those things, at least temporarily, and look at them differently, that you can still maintain all the good stuff that you talk about from the culture and the heritages and the ancestry and not forget without holding onto the racial concept.
[The Journal of Free Black Thought] chose the title “Deracialization Now.” Yes, there's an urgency. But I started by saying we have to scaffold it. We're gonna have to do this in stages. That's the reality. So my question is, what would it take for us to begin scaffolding, to move in the direction of that transracial humanism that I think both of you agree is a direction that we should be moving in?
You got a little triggered with Greg there, Glenn. I said out loud while making breakfast, "Let him finish, Glenn!" You do have a habit sometimes of interrupting and not letting people talk when you get a little triggered. Your viewpoint was valid and interesting, but so was Greg's, and I got what he was saying.
I'm just finishing up Shelby Steele's The Content of our Character, which I got for Christmas, and I put it on my wish list when John spoke a few months ago about how much it had influenced him. It's a wonderful book, and as insightful and relevant today as it was thirty years ago. He analyzes and dissects race-based thinking - for blacks especially, but for whites too - and makes a great case against 'identity politics' decades before the term came into use - and demonstrates there's still nothing new under the sun.
'Race' as we know it is just categories of people who evolved differently depending on where their ancestors went after they left Africa. So argue that 'race' is a human construct, and to a large extent, it is, but there are also real differences which *should* be only mildly interesting, instead of giant political points.
Greg made good points regarding the over-exaggerated victimization emphasis on the left and that was exactly what I was reading this morning before I got out of bed. Steele identifies the power dynamics in difference politics and how they play out in whites and blacks, if in slightly different ways, with their chronic anxieties (white guilt, black inferiority). Oppression and slavery and its legacy are part of the 'black experience/culture' and certainly its history, as is the role of white people who've benefited from that ugly piece of history today. But he argues, "I think universities should emphasize commonality as a higher value than "diversity" and "pluralism" - buzzwords for the politics of difference. Difference that does not rest on a clearly delineated foundation of commonality is not only inaccessible to those who are not part of the ethnic or racial group, but also antagonistic to them. Difference can enrich only the common ground."
Jonathan Haidt (I was sleeping with him just before Christmas, LOL) noted in The Righteous Mind that emphasizing differences divides us further, it doesn't unite us. The divisive identity politics of the left and right bear this out - the MAGAs and the woke don't look all that different when you observe how they emphasize differences to claim and seize power (with neither side willing to accept the responsibility that goes with real power). So yeah, I'm with Greg on this one - deracialize. It doesn't mean you have to give up 'black identity' but using 'race'/colour, whichever you are, to one-up 'the enemy' encourages 'othering' thinking and gets in the way of progress. I'm with Steele - difference MUST be rooted in common ground. I may be white and you may be black, but we're both human beings who share 99% DNA and we ALL descended from monkeys who came down from the trees. We have a fuckuva lot more in common than we don't, and I'd like to see the left recognize that, instead of 'othering' each other.
JOHN MCWHORTER: "I have biracial daughters. They are seven and ten. Of late, I'm hearing from gentle, concerned people, both white and black, that I need to pay more attention to developing their racial identity. Because they are half-white and they are half-black, and they're being raised in a kind of mongrelized upper-middle-class white world, where frankly, at their ages, color doesn't matter at all. There are some people who are worried that maybe I need to take the girls to Jack and Jill, something like that. They need to have a black identity. "
John, most Hispanics are at least part-black to various extents. Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic are essentially "mulatto" nations. I'm sure many of them look like your daughters but they don't identify with blacks. Why? We can say the same about Arabs, especially North Africans. They reject any "black" identity. Where are the evil, racist "whites" who supposedly police the "one drop rule" and keep the dreaded "Negro blood" out of the "pure white race"? Or is it really the American black and mulatto elite intelligentsia who do that? When multiracial people petitioned Congress for a "Multiracial" census option for the year 2000, their foremost opponent was the NAACP, not the KKK. We have all seen some South Asians so dark in color that the average American "mulatto" looks Nordic by comparison. Compare Vijay Singh with Tiger Woods. Who's darker and "blacker"? So I don't buy this nonsense that multiracial kids (the part-black ones who don't have the Hispanic or Arab "escape hatch") must identify with blacks in order to "save" themselves from - what exactly? I think you all know this for a fact. The great majority of "whites" will be far more respectful of mixed-race identities than blacks will.