On the Abolition of Race
with John McWhorter
In the following excerpt from a recent Q&A, John McWhorter and I address Kmele Foster’s controversial idea of race abolition. (We go into the idea in detail below.) As Foster notes, the concept of race can be and often is put to bad use, both by racists and people who regard themselves as anti-racists. A simple-minded and inflexible obsession with race can do incalculable damage if we allow it to rule over our society and determine our personal self-conception. So, I find the "race abolition" idea to be intriguing. But, still, I have my doubts about it.
Put simply, we ought not throw the baby out with the bathwater. For Black Americans there are benefits as well as costs to be found in affirming our racial identity. I worry that abolishing race, if this were even possible, would result in losing touch with a crucial part of my heritage, my family, and the institutions within which I developed. Those have something—a lot—to do with my race, and I’d be loath to abandon them.
Kmele’s provocative idea raises all sorts of interesting issues and problems, and John and I really dig into them below.
GLENN LOURY: Kevin Weiss asked, "What are your thoughts on Kmele Foster's racial abolitionism? It does not seem that you guys are onboard. Can you steel man racial abolitionism and then lay out your case against it? I have become increasingly convinced by Kmele's case." This is Kevin Weiss. And James Vilitus asks us a related question, “What prevents you from joining Kmele Foster in completely rejecting race?"
Just to clarify, what is meant by racial abolitionism is that Kmele Foster, a "Black man" in terms of what you'd think when you saw him, refuses to call himself a Black man or to think of himself as a “Black man" and abjures the very idea that we're gonna see each other in these racial terms. He's for abolishing the categories of race altogether. What do we think about that?
JOHN MCWHORTER: It makes me feel very small. And I've talked to Kmele about this. Formally, he's right. However, you have to choose what hill you're going to die on. If I were going to decide to let go of these antediluvian categorizations, I would be very smart, but it would so offend so many people that I couldn't make my voice heard about anything else. I only have the world that I live in to deal with, and I would like to be heard.
So you know, I learned early on that, although to me the existence of racism itself is so obvious that I don't want to waste time talking about it—I want to talk about how you can get past it—I learned that most of an audience about race issues, including whites, needs to hear that you know what racism is. And a corollary of that is that they won't hear me if I say, "I'm probably 50% white, and these are the categories that were imposed upon us by segregationists and by Jefferson Davis and by Thomas Jefferson and we must get past it, and look at our light-skinned children." I fully get it. But no, I'm also pragmatic. You have to choose your battles.
I find it interesting. Because of my academic work, most of my academic life takes place in Europe or with Europeans. And they see me as more American than as Black. I always find that interesting. It's like, hmm, America could be like that if you kind of fiddle with the dials and switches. But it isn't. Here I am in Germany and, yes, people know that I am Black, but to them, more specifically in terms of everything about me, what's different is that I'm from the United States. Even when I say that, there's a certain kind of Black person here who's howling, "He doesn't know what they really think of him. He's a nigger there, too." They're wrong. But those are the sorts of feelings that we're dealing with.
So when I'm here, which is 99% of the time, I can't be that advanced. And I completely respect Kmele in doing what he's doing, but if I walk around doing the Ward Connerly and saying, "Well, technically I'm just me. I'm not Black," I lose so many people that it wouldn't be worth my saying much of anything at all. And no, that's not about money and speaking fees and things like that. It's just that I wouldn't be heard. I would like to be heard, because I think somebody needs to say the sorts of things that I say.
So Kmele is too smart for me and too brave. But then again, I would say—and I assume, Kmele, you may be watching me say this—you may be willing to not be heard by more people than I am. I can't die on that hill. That is my answer to that question.
Okay, let me respond. I'm going to respond in a similar spirit. It's not so much a pragmatic judgment, though, that I would issue here. I think we need to understand conceptually what we're dealing with when we're talking about race. I agree with Kmele's instinct, which is, "Come on, we're deep down just human beings here. The genetic difference between African-descended and European-descended populations is very, very, very small. Why should I understand myself, in the twenty-first century, in terms of a historical narrative that emphasizes only a part of my racial ancestry, since African Americans are descended from European as well as from from African ancestors? Don't I just contribute to the entire irrational fixation on race by embracing the category for my own self description or allowing others to interact with me in that way?"
I mean, I see the instinct. It's a little bit like the argument that I associate with Barbara Fields and Karen Fields and their nice book called Racecraft, where they say, there's no such thing as witches, right? I mean, we know that that's a fantasy. Then we don't burn people at the stake for being witches. There are no witches. We understand that. We understand that that's a delusion. Isn't race the same thing? There are no races in any deep biological sense, and yet we reify these categories.
So I think that's true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough when talking about race. Because I want to think in the first instance about race as a language of social signification, with the marks on people's bodies. The marks are of no intrinsic significance, but within a society over some period of time, people will come to imbue them with significance.
Now, that becomes a reality in and of itself. A sole actor declaring that they will no longer speak the English language with the vocabulary to which we have become accustomed but will invent their Esperanto because they want to be free of the overhang of the historical practices—no one will understand what they're saying. You will miss a reality to the extent that you unilaterally opt out of a ubiquitous, nearly universal social convention. You can't undo the convention simply by a unilateral act.
Now, if it's a question about how an individual wants to live, that's one thing. “I choose not to think of myself as a Black person.” You gave the example of, if you interact with colleagues in Europe, they see you primarily as an American, not as a Black. But there is also a question of how you see yourself. The people who object to you saying that—saying that, well, they still see you as a nigger—are, I think, pointing the arrow in the wrong direction. Those people still see themselves as "niggers." That is, they're still thinking about themselves as being Black in a white world. That doesn't have to be the way that the other person is thinking about it. But if you think about yourself in that way, and it gets reflected in your behavior, that becomes relevant to other people. Now the Black person with the chip on their shoulder becomes a type. It becomes a Black person who can't forget that they're Black. But that means that other people can't forget that the person is black either.
So anyway, unilateral opting out of universal social conventions is a quixotic move a person may take for their personal satisfaction. As a politics, as a strategy, I don't see it going very far.
But I have another concern about eschewing racial identity, and this derives from my respect for the tradition of solidaristic self-help and uplift within Black private spaces. Family, historically Black colleges, fraternal and sororal institutions, churches, things of this kind. These are "Black spaces," not exclusively, not in terms of any statutory requirement, but as a historical inheritance. People's fealty and connection to one another based upon their racial identity is a real thing. It's what allowed the civil rights movement to happen. It happened as an outgrowth, as Aldon Morris explains—I think quite brilliantly in his The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement treatise—out of communalistic, racially defined networks of affiliation.
When I invoke our ancestors as a source of inspiration to my children, and I invoke my Black ancestors in order to inspire my children to make the most of their enormous opportunities on behalf of a project that began long before they or even I was born, I'm doing something that's not strange to human culture. I'm doing something that's very natural to human culture. And the racial aspect of that for African Americans is a real thing.
What will it be in a hundred years? What will it be in 200 years? That's a different question. Maybe there will be much less fit with respect to raciality in a hundred or 200 years. Maybe African Americans come to look much more like an ethnic group, like Irish Americans or Italian Americans, who do have some ethnic specificity to their self understanding. But there's a lot of intermarriage, and it's worn relatively lightly, both by the insiders to the group and by those outside the group. I learn that he's Irish, it doesn't exactly change my view of him in any profound way, et cetera.
So I'm objecting here to Kmele's noble but I think to some degree quixotic—God bless him—stance at two levels. One is we can't undo the convention simply by declaring it's all over. The convention persists with real consequences. We live in a "raced" society where racial identity, racial perception, and so forth is a reality that colors many aspects of our social interaction. And that's simply a fait accompli, it's a given. It's a fact about the world.
But the other thing is that from an agency point of view, there is some value in blackness, or there can be some value in acknowledgement and an embrace of one's blackness. And the question becomes, how heavily do I wear it? I would argue that I shouldn't allow it to supersede other obligations. For example, my obligations as a citizen of the country of which I am a citizen or my obligations as a human being to be in interaction with other human beings, respectful of their infinite dignity and all of that kind of flowery language. But that's how I'd respond.
A little quick other thing is—this is a genuine question—I wonder how Kmele would feel. I have full respect for the position. If it were more common for the Black identity to be held, not necessarily lightly, but more positively than it is … Because the problem is that for so very many people, including the ones who would be angriest at Kmele for saying that, the Black identity is held as primarily not being white and being oppressed by white people. That's blackness, that's the quintessence of it. That's not only CRT, there's a different version of that that you find just among Black people beyond academia. Although boy, is it concentrated. It tilts educated, the idea that the essence of what blackness is not being white and dealing with the oppression of the white man.
That identity I think is unhealthy, because I don't think it corresponds with the nature of current reality the way it did until roughly 1966. But I wonder if Kmele would feel the same way if we were a little more Irish in that regard. As you know, it's kind of a club, but it's not thought of as this cross to bear, as this hostile, ever-complicated business that involves suspending disbelief and exaggerating. Because I can understand how a person might want to get away from that aspect of what the Black identity is. It's depressing and it's not real. I wonder if we were in a different sort of place, such as where probably Black identity is going to be more in about 50 years, whether Kmele would feel that way. I don't know. We should ask him, actually.
Yeah. Let's do one of these days.